- The luxury watch market has seen soaring secondary market prices, boosted by new demand from younger generations.
- Francois-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet, said the collectors are here to stay.
- In response to claims of artificially tight supple, Bennahmias said, "We're not playing the market. We're not doing anything to make the price go one way or the other."
The luxury watch market is well-positioned to avoid a crash as tight supply and a new generation of young collectors drive demand, according to the CEO of Audemars Piguet.
Luxury watch prices on the secondary market fell 8% last year, with some top models falling more than 20% from their peak, according to WatchCharts. Experts have been warning that the watch bubble could burst, along with crypto, NFTs and other trendy post-pandemic booms. Yet in the past two months, prices have begun to stabilize on the back of what some see as lasting, strong demand.
"I don't see prices going much lower," said Francois-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet — one of the so-called Big Three of the luxury watch world along with Rolex and Patek Philippe. "People still want to reward themselves, and when they want to reward themselves, they will look at the most respected companies, in watches, jewelry, fashion, you name it."
Bennahmias said the luxury watch market is benefitting from a vast and structural shift to younger buyers. During the pandemic, a flood of millennials and Gen Z consumers poured into the collectible watch world, educating themselves online and coveting rare watches worn by sports stars and celebrities on social media.
With the top watchmakers built on the promise of limited production, supply can't keep pace with demand.
"The quantities from the watch companies didn't evolve," Bennahmias said. "And the demand became crazy, because we saw the arrival of young people that just were more and more interested in watches. And some people with money who were not even looking at watches before found out that building a watch collection could be something interesting."
Bennahmias said unlike the fickle meme-stock investors of 2021, today's young watch collectors are here to stay. The average age of an Audemars customer is now 10 or 12 years younger, he said, than in the company's recent history. Despite living most of their life online and immersed in digital products, Gen Z and millennials have developed a particular attraction to highly crafted, mechanical watches.
"When the Apple Watch came out in 2014, everyone was telling us that we will actually die," Bennahmias said. "They said no young person would ever wear a watch again, if they did it would be a smartwatch. The funny thing is, we thought that young people couldn't appreciate exclusivity, craftsmanship, watchmaking. They did."
Bennahmias said younger generations are becoming some of the brand's top ambassadors.
"They are the ones preaching the choir with social media and everything. They are our best advertising campaign, and they are bringing their parents actually to the brand," he said.
The big challenge for watchmakers is the secondary market, where pre-owned watches can sell on any of the dozens of online watch sites.
With demand for watches outpacing supply of new inventory, prices for pre-owned watches have skyrocketed, along with online sites like Chrono24, Watchfinder and Watchbox that buy and sell pre-owned watches. Preowned watch sales reached $22 billion in sales in 2021, accounting for nearly one-third of the overall $75 billion luxury watch market, according to a recent report from Boston Consulting Group.
Prices for pre-owned versions of some of the top "trophy" models — like the Patek Philippe Nautilus, the Rolex Daytona and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak — can run two or three times their retail price. A pre-owned Audemars Piguet Royal Oak "Jumbo" that retails new for $35,000 is currently listed on Chrono24 for $115,000. Some have listed for over $130,000.
The mark-ups have sparked widespread frustration among collectors, who claim watchmakers are deliberately limiting production to boost prices and resale values — making their watches more attractive as investments. Bennahmias said many of the price corrections are "healthy" and that the watchmakers prefer customers who are true, long-term watch-lovers rather than speculators trying to pump up prices.
"I want this to be very clear for everyone," Bennahmias said. "We're not playing the market. We're not doing anything to make the price go one way or the other. We make a certain amount of watches that we think could be accepted by the world. We say this is the right number, then the market is free and will do whatever they want."
Audemars Piguet produced only 50,000 watches last year and is expected to produce about 51,000 this year, Bennahmias said. The brand, founded in 1875 and still family-owned, has long championed quality, craftsmanship and exclusivity over revenue growth.
Audemars Piguet is continuing to expand its production and facilities in Switzerland. But Bennahmias said that even if the company wanted to meet demand, which would be well over 80,000 watches a year, the company wouldn't be able to find and train watchmakers fast enough.
"The board of directors, meaning the family members, have never ever asked me in my 11 years for any growth in percentage terms, ever," Bennahmias said. "They have never said 'Francois, we want 10% or 15% or more.' No. They say, 'Francois, we still want to be around 200 years from now.' That's a completely different vision on how to build the success of a brand."
Bennahmias admits the company has "made mistakes" when it comes to handling customers who arrive at their stores only to be told there are no watches available or that the wait time, if they're lucky enough to get on the list, is up to two years. He said sales staff are now better trained to explain the limited production, the low numbers of each model produced and how many are delivered to each country.
He also said he wants 30% of all watches to go to buyers who have never owned an Audemars Piguet, to keep bringing in new customers.
"We are learning every single day, and it's not always perfect," he said. "What we found out through the course of the last three, four years, is that we need to educate people more."
Audemars is now celebrating the 30th anniversary of its popular Royal Oak Offshore model, a larger version of its signature Royal Oak. When the Offshore was first launched, however, the model was widely scorned, according to Bennahmias.
"People trashed it," he said. "When the watch came out people looked at it and said, 'You guys are crazy.' And we were not so confident in launching it. Slowly but surely it took off, to the point where it was a huge success."
Bennahmias, who will be leaving his role as CEO at the end of this year, declined to identify his potential successor or his next position.
He more than tripled Audemar Piguet's sales during his tenure to over $2 billion and is well known in the watch world for his close ties to Jay-Z and other hip hop stars, as well as Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and artists.
Some have speculated his next job is as likely to be in sports or music as it is luxury or watches.
"I think I've done what I was supposed to do with Audemars Piguet," he said. "I've got so many other things I want to do with my life. I've got many different passions. Music is one. Sports is another one. And luxury obviously, and I want to do other things. I'm not done yet."