Looking wealthy has never been cheaper. Even if you can't afford the proverbial mansion and yacht—or Ferraris or Hermes bags for that matter—there are now countless businesses that will rent them to you for a fraction of the purchase price.
Now a new category has joined the rental-rich trend: luxury watches.
A start-up company called Eleven James has launched a timepiece timeshare that allows customers to get a new luxury watch every couple of months for an annual fee. The watches range in value from $7,000 to $50,000 or more, and include top names like Rolex, Audemars, Cartier and Patek Philippe.
Randy Brandoff, Eleven James' founder and a former executive at fractional-jet giant NetJets, said that today's wealthy want to be smarter about their spending. They prefer to rent rather than own when possible.
"The vast majority of our target consumers have leased a car rather than buying it, rented a vacation home or enjoyed other prized possessions without purchasing them," he said. Watches, Brandoff said "are the next vanguard" in the luxury rental/timeshare world.
Eleven James has several different customer plans, depending on the value and number of watches a customer wants every year.
Its "Aficionado" plan offers watches valued at between $7,000 and $15,000, and clients pay $2,700 for three two-month long watch rotations per year, or $4,850 for six two-month long rotations per year. In other words, customers can either choose to have a different watch all of the time or some of the time.
The other plans work in similar fashion, but offer members the chance to have access to more valuable timepieces. The "Connoisseur" plan includes watches priced between $15,000 and $30,000, and costs $4,950 for three watch rotations a year or $8,950 for six watch rotations a year. The "Virtuoso" plan includes watches in the $30,000 to $50,000 range, and costs $9,700 for three watch rotations or $17,250 for six rotations per year.
Paying $9,700 to wear watches you have to give back sounds insane, of course. But Brandoff said that many of his customers want to try out different watches before they sink even more money into a purchase. Other customers, he said, have already spent fortunes on their watch collections and don't want to buy more—but they like the variety of wearing other watches.
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"Most watch lovers follow the same pattern," he said. "The first six months after they buy a watch, they love it. The second six months, they don't love it as much. And by the third six months, it gets put on the pile and replaced by one or numerous others."
He said that "at any level of wealth, when you have six- or seven-figures worth of a certain asset that generally depreciates, it's going to give you pause to buy more."
To add to Eleven James' allure, Brandoff has also built a series of events and parties for clients. The company holds regular parties, for instance, so customers can come and exchange their watches. Customers who just want to do their exchanges by mail can use FedEx.
He said the company's goal is to have 1,000 members within the next year and "we're well on our way."
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Asked if his clients also include wannabes and pretenders who just want to look like they're rich, Brandoff he said, "I would say all of our members can afford the watch and already own them, but they want the variety at a fraction of the price."
Of course, the watch companies may not be happy about Eleven James, since it turns possible buyers into renters. None have commented so far about the company.
But Brandoff said that once the company has 1,000 clients—and detailed data on their watch preferences—it could become attractive partners for the watch companies. For now, Eleven James buys the watches itself.
"But we get pretty good terms, because of our volume," Brandoff said.
—By CNBC's Robert Frank.