Buying time: How watches are finding new homes online

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Last July, Ben Clymer sold 100 watches for just shy of $1 million in under 10 minutes. The time­pieces—a version of Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms diver’s watch—were scooped up by collectors, and a few speculators, all fervently refreshing a web page at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday to drop $9,900 on a limited-­edition watch. Those in the know need fast fingers to score such a rarity from Clymer’s company, Hodinkee, and its collaborations with some of the world’s top watch brands, including TAG Heuer, Vacheron Constantin, and Omega, among others. 

But Hodinkee isn’t a jewelry store, nor is it the type of watch retailer you’re used to. It’s the flag bearer for a revival of interest in mechanical watches—new and old—and has spawned a small but vibrant ecosystem of businesses bringing vintage watches to new buyers.

The New York City–based company began life as a Tumblr blog in 2009 while Clymer was working as a consultant at UBS. “It was after the financial crisis, and I was effectively told to look busy in my cubicle,” says Clymer. And so he began filling those idle hours by writing about watches, starting with an Omega Speedmaster chronograph gifted to him by his maternal grandfather. (The name of his blog—and later, company—comes from the Czech word for wristwatch: hodinky.) The blog soon caught on and won over watch enthusiasts including, notably, musician John Mayer, who would go on to write for the site, become an angel investor, and appear in videos showing off his collection of heavy-hitter timepieces.

WAT.05.20 Hodinkee Watches
Clockwise: Omega Speedmaster Hodinkee Limited Edition, inspired by Clymer’s grandfather’s watch, $6,500. Swatch Sistem51 x Hodinkee Generation 1986, $170. Fifty Fathoms Blancpain for Hodinkee diving watch, $9,900. TAG Heuer Carrera Skipper for Hodinkee, $5,900.
Courtesy of Hodinkee

Eleven years later, Hodinkee is more than one man’s musings. It’s the world’s foremost news source for all things watches and watch culture, with 13 editors between its North American and Japanese websites publishing articles, reviews, videos, and podcasts on all things horological. 

It’s a tastemaker—invariably increasing the value of vintage watches it blesses and creating, or at least codifying, a new breed of vintage watch collector, one who might rock a 1940s Longines with a pair of Nikes. That influence extends to bringing forgotten brands back to the fore. “[Ben] single-handedly ignited interest in Universal Genève watches, effectively a defunct brand,” says Florida-based vintage watch dealer Eric Wind. “The strength in prices for those watches can really be credited to him.”

Hodinkee is a magazine publisher as well: Its biannual coffee-table tome is just as likely to feature a story on vintage Alfa Romeo sports cars as it is one about Patek Philippe perpetual calendars. 

Hodinkee is a tastemaker, creating, or at least codifying, a new breed of vintage watch collector; one who might rock a 1940s Longines with a pair of Nikes.

But it’s making its biggest splash as a retailer, selling new and vintage watches, watch straps, ­accessories, and the ­various trappings that might appeal to a well-heeled collector, such as Leica cameras and $1,600 cigarette lighters by S.T. Dupont.

That retail operation began with Clymer and early employees packing watch straps in Clymer’s West Village apartment. It is now headed up by chief commercial officer Russell Kelly, whom Clymer lured away from his position as U.S. brand manager of Rolex sister brand Tudor. (“You don’t just leave Rolex,” one industry insider tells Fortune, speaking to the significance of that hire.) In 2019, the company’s revenue increased by 85% to north of $20 million, and the number of brands it sells has grown from 10 to 18, adding huge names like Omega, Blancpain, Breitling, and soon Apple Watch.

The limited editions, released a handful of times a year, are what really set Hodinkee apart from the average watch retailer. The company’s in-house design team works with the brands to create unique timepieces or reissue beloved watches from their archives. “We have data on what our readers and customers have in their collections,” says Clymer. “We know the kinds of things they’re into.” One example: A re-creation of a yachting chronograph from the archives of TAG Heuer, known as the “Skipper,” currently resells for more than double its original retail price of $5,990.

WAT.05.20.Crown-Caliber-Watch-Shop
Inside the Crown & Caliber’s watch shop, where employees inspect and refurbish preowned timepieces.
Courtesy of Jonathan McWhorter/Crown & Caliber

After testing the waters with a number of pop-up shops, the company is set to open its first brick-and-mortar store later this year, in premises left vacant by the Supreme streetwear brand in New York’s SoHo. Don’t expect the white gloves and starched collars you’ll find in the boutiques of Madison Avenue. The space has been specced with slouchy leather couches, a podcast studio, and a watchmaker’s bench. “We wanted to give it a clubhouse feel,” says Kelly.

One of the more innovative businesses to emerge from the wave of attention Hodinkee brought to vintage watches is Manhattan-based Analog/Shift, founded by longtime watch enthusiast James Lamdin in 2012. In contrast to the buyer-beware shopping experience at a pawnshop or diamond district storefront, Lamdin’s approach is one of transparency and education. Every nick and scratch, every blemish of its pieces is photographed in high contrast—“often to our detriment,” says Lamdin. And accompanying each beautifully shot timepiece is a short story, practically an essay, explaining what the watch is, and why it’s cool. “I really enjoy storytelling,” says Lamdin. “I want to share our knowledge with our customers and anyone who comes across our site or Instagram.”

Instagram, which launched the year after Hodinkee, has had a massive impact on the world of watch collecting and his business in particular, says Lamdin: “Before Instagram and Hodinkee, watch collectors on the Internet were nerds on forums. Instagram made it cool for people to share their collections.” Analog/Shift uses Instagram as both a marketing tool and as a way to observe what the larger community of collectors is buying.

Buying watches on the Internet is one part of the equation—but what about selling them? A collector could turn to eBay or a watch forum, but they’re not without risks. And you know you’re probably not going to get the best deal at your local watch dealer or pawnbroker. 

WAT.05.20.ROLEX_GMT-MASTER
A Rolex GMT Master, circa 1968, from Analog/Shift’s inventory.
Courtesy of Analog/Shift

Georgia-native Hamilton Powell thought there was a better way. Using his experience in private equity, Powell created Crown & Caliber: an online marketplace that uses data analysis of the watch market so collectors can buy and sell their watches at a fair price.

Someone looking to sell a neglected watch, or looking to fund their next watch purchase, can go to Crown & Caliber’s website, enter details on the piece and receive an instant offer for the watch based on market trends. The seller then sends the watch in a prepaid shipping box to the company’s Atlanta headquarters, where it’s verified by a team of experts, serviced and cleaned if necessary, and offered up for sale with a one-year warranty backed by the company. Retailers like Neiman Marcus, and even watch brand Breitling, use Crown & Caliber to facilitate their trade-in programs.

“Every year $5 billion worth of watches are sold in the U.S., and we estimate $100 billion worth are on people’s wrists or sitting in drawers and closets,” says Powell, “We’ve done more than 70,000 transactions and have been growing 60% every year. We think there’s a huge unaddressed market.”

Technology has always disrupted the way we keep time. Sundials replaced standing stones. The wristwatch replaced the pocket watch. But in an age when few of us need to wear a mechanical watch, it’s the community of enthusiasts on the Internet that is keeping them alive.

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How to buy a watch online

Buy the seller

It has become commonplace for unscrupulous dealers to misrepresent the watches they are selling, especially online. Buy from one who points out a watch’s flaws and will take the purchase back if you’re not satisfied.

Buy the best quality

You’ll pay a premium for the best vintage watches—but they’ll also hold their value. There’s a false economy ]in trying to save a few thousand dollars buying a beat-up version.

Buy something you like

Watch collecting is about having fun and expressing your own personal taste. Don’t buy something purely as an investment. Despite record auction prices in recent years, the watch market can be fickle. It’s better to have something you’ll enjoy on your wrist when the market takes a dip.

A version of this article appears in the May 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Buying time.”

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—WATCH: The greatest designs of modern times

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