John Simonian, or “Uncle John” as he is affectionately known to his friends, is a legend in the US watch industry. Bigger than life, always the sharpest man in the room in terms of style and insight, and a master raconteur, he could have easily been a successful character actor in Hollywood, where he lives and works. The founder of retail empire Westime, he has, for several decades, been the West Coast stalwart of high Swiss watchmaking, connecting the values of haute-de-gamme horology with the sports car and suntanned crowd of Malibu, and all up and down the western seaboard and beyond. Along the way, he’s opened monobrand boutiques in Las Vegas and now has his eyes set on Miami as the perfect venue to connect the South American and European tourist market with his brands, Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet and Hublot.

At the beginning of the new millennium, he took a gamble on an obscure new watch brand created by a maverick design genius, named Richard Mille. As Simonian recalls, the emotional climate in the United States was depressed following the tragic events of 9/11, and he was in no mood to meet a new brand. But he took the meeting with Mille, and when he met the man and set eyes on the watch — Richard’s original RM 001, the first timepiece to fully invoke references from the worlds of aviation and F1 racing, a machine born out of Mille’s fiery ambition to never compromise on performance — suddenly Simonian saw the path to his future. Today, he spends the majority of his time and valuable energy bringing the religion of Richard Mille to the audiences in the farthest reaches of the United States and the Caribbean, one by one converting hearts and minds to the seductive message of Mille, including individuals like Sylvester Stallone and Jay-Z. It was Revolution’s pleasure to raise a few beers with our favorite Uncle and learn from the wisdom he dispensed to us in the form of his signature cinemascope Technicolor tales.

The watch industry is stuck, having overproduced a massive amount of watches, how did we get here?

A friend of mine said, ‘The Swiss, they have an on button but no off button.’ When things were good, they kept raising and raising the production. Now, at one point this was working — let’s take the example of any brand that was doing very well with the Chinese or the Russian market. They increased production facilities and went ahead, and they opened shops in these places with the perception that people will rush in and double or triple their sales. But the reality is that they had increased their sales 10-15 percent and now they’re stuck. Why? Because if a brand opened 30, 40, 50 stores in China, they had to create inventory for these stores, they had to stock the showcases and the windows. Let’s say, in Asia, each store took so many million in inventory, which creates a huge growth in Swiss exports. And now that those markets have cooled off significantly, it’s a problem.

In the process of expansion, the brands cut out a lot of retailers to get a bigger margin at their own boutiques; now they are stuck with massive fixed costs, would you say that’s come around and bit them in the ass?

Well, a lot of manufactures think that signing a lease, decorating a store, is enough to sell watches. They don’t understand that after a certain price level, that’s not going to work. Yes, sure you can sell a $500 watch or even $1,500 watch this way. But after a certain price, you need expertise, you need the retailer’s expertise. I’m not saying they can’t learn this, but it takes time. Now, certain brands you could say are retailers by nature. They’ll survive. Certain watch brands also sell jewelry and they’ll survive. They are doing OK in their own stores. But selling high-end watches is a profession that I take very seriously. It is an expertise that takes years of training, years of studying, genuine passion, genuine skill and some God-given talent to achieve. Nobody is going to buy a $100,000, $200,000, $300,000 watch from a brand’s boutique.

Interesting. What gives the retailer an edge over a brand when selling a high-dollar watch?

At a certain price point, you need someone to stand behind the watch. Say you buy a quarter-million-dollar watch and something goes wrong, and you bought it from a sales clerk in a brand store, who might not be there the next day, you feel a bit worried. You need a multi-brand retailer or a retailer with a monobrand store that has worked hard to establish a reputation for trust. You want to buy that watch from someone who is empowered to make decisions to satisfy you as a customer. Whereas a brand president is not always able to answer the needs of every customer in every store in his territory. My son (Greg Simonian) is on call 24/7 to satisfy the customers and their needs. Even though we have very capable staff, as owners of the business, we can make million-dollar decisions in two seconds. If a customer is really not happy — and it’s justified so that he doesn’t lose confidence in that brand — to refund the customer a half-million dollars can be done in two seconds. Because I’m interested to build the future of each of my brands.

You’ve done an amazing job as Richard Mille’s distributor in the Americas and Caribbean: what’s the secret to your success?

Yes, Richard Mille is succeeding and maybe I need to tap myself on the back a little, because for 15 years together with Richard, we’ve been building the American market. We’ve been able to do this because of the very close relationship we share. I talk to Richard every week, we have zero issues with each other, we are 100 percent in sync with our marketing strategy. He is the father of 21st-century watches; he is making history. It’s my job to communicate that and I think I’ve done that job pretty decently.

How did you meet?

When I met Richard, he had sold 17 watches. I bought his 18th watch. He had heard of me, and he came to see me in October 2001. He had sold a few watches at that time, some through Watches of Switzerland in London, and through Chronopassion in Paris. So Richard called me. I remember at that time it was just after September 11th and the whole country was still in shock, so it took me a while to call him back. So we met and he showed me the watch. I was in a bad mood after September 11th; I just wasn’t in the mood to talk to new brands. But I’ll never forget that moment, because my jaw dropped. Immediately. At that time, he wanted two retailers in the country. He wanted me on the West Coast and someone else on the East Coast. But he couldn’t find anyone in the east that he agreed with, and I became the exclusive retailer for the brand in the US. A few months later, he saw the job I was doing with his brand, and I also became the distributor for North America. In 2005, I became the distributor for North and South America and the Caribbean.

And how did your relationship strengthen over the years?

Throughout our partnership, I discovered what kind of a man Richard is and I have only grown in admiration for him. We do business on a handshake. He is a man of his word. And he’s a brother to me. We have three facets to our business: the multi-brand retail, the monobrand boutiques and the Richard Mille distribution. I spend the majority of my time focused on the Richard Mille distribution to bring us to the next level.

How did you sell the first Richard Milles? They were super expensive, no?

At that time, the Breguet tourbillon was USD80,000 and we introduced the RM002 to the United States at USD132,000. At first, everybody said, ‘You’re crazy, it’s not worth that much for a tourbillon. It will never sell.’ It was tough in the beginning to sell it. But we did. I remember the first one I sold was a 002 in rose gold, which we sold to a regular customer who buys lots of watches from us. He hesitated for a while, but he trusted us and so he went ahead and bought it, even though it was a totally new brand. People forget that was the price when we started, and though it was a lot at the time, in the end it was a great investment, because today for USD132,000 you can barely buy the chronograph (RM11).

So, in relative terms, the watches were cheap compared to today?

In 2005, we sold the RM005 for USD32,000 dollars — today at auction that watch is USD40,000 to USD60,000. It’s like a Rolex you bought for USD2,000 25 years ago, and today you’re getting USD4,000 for it. It’s not like you made money on your watch, it’s just that the new Rolex is USD5,000 and people are happy to pay that. But it is a great demonstration of the power of a brand. And it is also a demonstration of how well your watch ages.

Good point — even though they were super modern, Richard Mille’s watches have aged beautifully and his early models are still stunning, would you agree?

Absolutely! You look at a 002, 005 or 010 today and those watches are all still beautiful and people still want them. That’s an example of how intelligent Richard is as a designer and how he’s, very importantly, creating consistency in his design evolution. From across the room, if you’re wearing any of his watches — in particular, the tonneau-shaped models — everyone knows you’re wearing a Richard Mille. You belong to a certain club.

We hear you were the one that put a Richard Mille on Stallone’s wrist in The Expendables 3 — is this true?

Sly is a regular at our Beverly Hills store, he came in once and he was looking at the Richard Milles. He was filming The Expendables and he really liked the watch, so we helped put it on his wrist. The red strap he wears the watch on in the movie was my idea. And the condition was that there would be no Richard Mille watch on the other actors in the movie. He wanted it to be his signature look.

Did you sell Jay-Z his Nadal tourbillon RM027?

Jay-Z has been a customer of ours since the early days. Yes. He bought his RM027 Rafael Nadal from us.

How important is it for the brand to have that kind of visibility?

Speaking of placement in entertainment: do you know the hit HBO show Ballers? Well, Season 2 is on right now and at some point Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) will be wearing a Richard Mille, as well as Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington.

Did Ed Sheeran get his watches from you?

Ed Sheeran is also a client. He bought a few Richard Milles from us. He has a couple on order because he likes a certain number and he loves the watches.

How much of your job is getting the watch on the right wrists?

Our job, the job of the Richard Mille marketing team, is to be there for the brand. We have our contacts such as celebrity stylists. And when they are styling a star who likes a certain watch, that’s good for the visibility of the brand, if it’s the right person.

Would you say wearing a Richard Mille makes you part of this club of cool, successful people?

It definitely is a club. There’s this excellent article in your magazine, The Rake, which says that Richard Mille is the secret masonic handshake of the billionaire, and that is a very accurate statement.

How do you choose the brands you want to work with?

I don’t do business with brands, I do business with people. And I consider Richard as more than a partner and more than a friend — a blood relative. He’s my brother. And I’m happy to say I’ve shared a similar relationship with François-Henry Bennahmias since day one. And since we started working with Audemars Piguet, we’ve been the top account every single year for them in the US. Maybe we fell to number 2 just one time when François was the president of AP in America, but the consistent success we’ve had is the result of the trust and incredible partnership we’ve been privileged to share with him. We’ve always played the game with him, we saw eye to eye on the marketing strategy, we put our money where our mouth is and we opened two boutiques with him — one in Vegas and one in Los Angeles, and we’re opening a third one in Miami. Our Vegas store consistently ranks as one of the top performers in the world.

What makes you admire the men you collaborate with?

I think François and Richard are very intelligent in the way they’ve managed their growth. For Richard, let’s say there is a demand for 10-12 watches of a certain model. He will make three of them. He has always taken the strategy of slow growth, and it is important from a perspective of creating desire that the watch is not always readily available all the time. It’s also important not to overproduce from the perspective of quality control. Audemars Piguet, I think, is following the same route as well, taking a slow growth and focusing on improving their customer service. It’s smart play because it’s the best long-term strategy.

Give us an example of François Bennahmias’s intelligent leadership…

Another example of François’s intelligence is when he took the decision to reduce the price of his gold watches in 2013, when he felt they were priced too high. At first, everyone thought he was crazy, but if you look at the success of the brand today — in particular with gold watches, at a time when Swiss exports of gold watches have been particularly badly hit — he was extremely smart. Right now, the brand is stronger than ever. The sales of gold APs is stronger than ever. He took the right decision and the board of AP trusted him enough to follow him, most of the retailers followed him — some complained, but we didn’t — and that’s paid dividends for all of us even in a tough market. I’m guessing the brand is going to cut down their distribution, with a focus on more monobrand boutiques, and I guess we’re lucky we are on the right side of the game.

Describe your relationship with Hublot…

Ricardo Guadalupe is a good friend. And before Jean-Claude (Biver), I wasn’t a Hublot dealer. It’s funny, but I always say I am not a Hublot dealer, I’m a Big Bang dealer, meaning that I started in the era when Jean-Claude Biver took over the brand. Meaning that my bet was not on the watch, but on the people. I trusted Jean-Claude and I trusted Ricardo. It’s like my relationship with Richard or François; these are people that I admire and respect, so I’m happy to work with them and I think you can see from the success of their brands in America that the collaborations have been good ones.

What one brand do you not have that you would like to work with?

I have tremendous respect for Patek Philippe. I would love to collaborate with them. And it wouldn’t be to make more money, because, thank God, we don’t have to do this for the money anymore. After all these years, it would be a great badge of honor for my company to be able to work with Patek.

Why are certain brands heavily discounted on the secondary market?

Why are certain brands heavily discounted on the secondary market? Because they push the retailer to order a huge amount of product. The retailer is not going to eat all these watches, so in order to move the product, he’s going to dump the stuff he can’t sell. If a retailer sells a certain watch and he knows all he needs to do to get a second one is to make a phone call, he will sell it at any price. But if the retailer knows that in a certain year, he’s only going to get so many watches, he’s going to hold on until he puts it on the right wrist. That is good for the longevity of the brand. That is why Richard Mille is so much in demand, and for our retailers, it’s their most profitable brand.

Can you find a Richard Mille on the gray market?

I’m not saying you won’t find Richard Mille on the gray market. If you can find drugs, you can find anything on the gray market. But at what price? No one is going to sell you a Richard Mille for cheap. Some of them, they go over the retail price. There are guys that walk into our boutiques, buy the watches at retail price and then try to sell them above retail price, because there are not enough of them. It has happened in so many cases. The worst thing that could happen to a brand is to not be on the gray market. If you’re not on the gray market, that’s because nobody wants you.

How has the mentality of watch buyers changed today?

The mentality of buyers has changed very significantly. There is no more of pissing away money that you got with the newly rich. They had gained their wealth too fast and they were spending it too fast. But if you’ve had to sweat or bleed for your money, like most people do, you’re not going to spend it so easily.

Do you remember HD3? I think of it as kind of a cautionary tale, where they made tons of watches with BNB movements that didn’t work, and now people are stuck with them. Did you ever sell any of these?

Of course I remember HD3. But to be fair, I didn’t set the fire. I went to see BNB, and I went to see Hysek Snr. and had him make watches. Because I had run out of ideas, I had more customers than I had novelties. Once you sell the super-rich guys every Breguet, every Vacheron, every Audemars, you have nothing else to sell them. So I went to those brands that had a very different look and brought in those watches. And in those days you could sell at any price, they would buy at any price. They didn’t care. It was all about when they meet their friends, how to wow them. How does a billionaire wow another billionaire? He does it by getting what his friends can’t get. But then they wised up and realized they were spending money on watches that don’t hold their value. Now, the vintage guys have been very smart about connecting with this audience and selling them the same story. At the same time, if you go look at any auction and look at the results for Richard Mille watches, you realize they hold their value. And there’s not that many, which means people are holding on to them — they don’t want to sell them. People don’t want to sell their Patek watches either, but for the Patek watches, they put them in a box, in a safe; they never open the plastic seal and wait for them to appreciate — and they probably will. But guys with Richard Milles, they wear them — and they sometimes even abuse them, and they still look sexy.

Who is the Richard Mille customer?

When you come to the Le Mans Classic, you’ll see that every guy racing is a hundred millionaire, if not a billionaire. And they all love the association with Richard. They wear the watch because it excites them, but they also wear it because it’s a symbol that you’re part of the club.

Why are you going into Miami in such a big way?

Well, some of the retailers in Miami market passed on, or didn’t modernize, and right now, I think there is just one way for that market — which is up. Yes, the Russians have stopped coming to Miami, but that’s temporary. At some point, Russia and America will make peace again. So I think it’s a good time to get in for cheap, with an eye to the future. Plus, at this point, we need to diversify. How much more can we grow in Los Angeles?

How about New York?

Our first foot into New York is with the Richard Mille boutique, which will open in 2017. And after that you never know — opportunities might present themselves. Right now, the New York market is well served, but you never say never. Also we need to think about Las Vegas. We have two stores right now — Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille — and let’s see what the future brings us.

In 2011, you had a very well-known dispute with a major watch group — what happened in the end?

Certain brands or groups feel that if they leave the retailer, the retailer will die. And I think, together with my son and my team, we proved the contrary. In 2011, we parted ways with a certain group and lots of people in the industry gave us up for dead. And from that point, we grew from two stores to 12 stores, and at the end of this year, we will be at 15 stores. Financially, we are stronger than ever. In terms of turnover, we are at least triple — since 2011 — in our retail business.

Would you work with that group again?

You know, only idiots don’t change their minds. That’s a French expression. So under the right conditions, sure. But at the same time, even a jackass doesn’t fall into the same hole twice. But under the right conditions and with the right assurances, why not? We don’t hold grudges. Look, even in this group, we are talking about, I would say, 90 percent of the managers, who are my friends and I still like them. Like I said in the beginning, I don’t do business based on watches, but based on people.

As a distributor, do you recognize what inspires your retailers?

Money is the best aphrodisiac for my retailers. The more money I make for them, the more loyal they are to me. It helped me a lot to be both a retailer and a distributor in my career. Now I can foresee a need that my retailers will have and I cure that need before they ask. It’s like being a director, who was an actor before. You understand the language.

Ten years ago, you were a big champion of independent watchmaking. What’s your take on it now?

Regarding independent watchmaking, some of them will stay but most of them will go. You can be a great watchmaker but that doesn’t make you a businessman. Don’t think Franck Muller would have existed without Vartan Sirmakes.

Is Franck Muller what it used to be?

Is the brand what it used to be? It was a train that was going at 200mph and now it’s going at 120. It’s still very fast but it’s not 200. I don’t know their numbers but they are still making 50,000-60,000 watches a year. Franck Muller the brand is not going to disappear. It’s going to survive. I worry more about the smaller brands. Brands where the watches are great, but there is no business leadership and there is no marketing leadership. Making a good watch is not enough. You need a good marketer, a good distributor, a good retailer and good aftersales service. Today you sell a watch and it comes back to be serviced, and the customer is charged a stupid price to fix it or inconvenienced with a stupid delay to fix it. It is very bad publicity for the brand.

I know Richard Mille sometimes gets upset because he feels people follow his ideas, do you ever worry that you are selling both the Mille and Hublot sapphire watches?

The guy that is buying the sapphire Richard Mille was going to buy that watch anyway and the guy that buys the sapphire Hublot was going to buy that watch. Neither of them chose between the two. I sometimes tell Richard that when people follow you, it is the best compliment you can have. Look, in Hollywood, you make one zombie movie and then there are 10 zombie movies that follow. So what? The original is still the original. And it doesn’t mean the one that came after isn’t good.

Richard Milles have aged so well they can be considered classics. Do you think it’s about time he reissued some of his best-known watches, like the RM012?

Yes, I agree that many of Richard’s watches can be considered classics today. And as to your question about a reissue of the RM012: good idea and no comment. But you should call an authorized retailer and put a deposit down.

Many brands make limited editions for you, why is this important?

Why are limited editions important? Say, there are six guys sitting at a table. And they are all wearing tonneau-shaped Richard Milles. At least this way the first guy can say, ‘Mine is the Mexico edition,’ or the next guy can say, ‘Mine is the Le Mans Classic edition.’ That differentiates you from your friends, and it makes all of you feel special while still uniting you all as a club.

What’s your favorite watch?

The next watch I’m selling.

What’s the best watch in the world?

A sold watch.