SDC Weekly 29; 2023 reflections, 2024 outlook, and a deep-dive into the Rolex ruling in France regarding online sales
The Prisoner's Dilemma, Apple and Swiss Watch Collabs, The Year "C*nt" went mainstream, and Why McDonnie's Coke tastes different.
Hello 👋 and welcome to the final SDC Weekly of 2023. You’ll find the older editions of the SDC Weekly here.
You’re probably still recovering from the celebrations over the past few days… I have been spending time with family, and the watch world seems dead for the most part. I had intended to keep posting on schedule, but perhaps next week’s SDC Weekly might be replaced with a long-form post, given the lack of current affairs to opine on … I haven’t reached any conclusions on that because we still have 7 days to go… so consider this a forewarning, and let’s leave it as a surprise. I thought the same about this week until I uncovered some fascinating material which allowed me to really dive deep into the Rolex ruling in France - I think you’ll enjoy that section!
By now you will have received all the usual year-end messages from businesses and brands… those were pretty generic for the most part. I will note that Silas Walton’s email (Founder of A Collected Man) echoed my sentiments from last week - that “genuine provenance and rarity, increasingly command[ing] a premium even [in this market]”. Another amusing one was Ming' Watches’ email, in which they pat themselves on the back for reducing waiting times, and then tease about further improvements saying “perhaps even a couple of releases with watches in stock.” 😂 Maybe they have finally saved enough working capital to run a proper watch business, or perhaps they realise that in this weaker market, they will never sell out like they did before, so they have to adapt with the times. Fair play, hope they figure it out.
I’d like to share some of my own reflections too, so let’s dig in!
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When it comes to unpleasant life experiences, it is always wise to learn lessons vicariously but in many instances, lessons can be difficult to communicate and, in some cases, seem counterintuitive or even unbelievable. With that in mind, I’d like to share my great epiphany in 2023: anything is possible.
Let me explain.
Many of you may not recall the days when I had my first blog where I would post occasionally… this was where my writing endeavours all began. At some point during COVID I got wind of Substack, and created this page. I never posted here actively, but merely reposted the material I had already shared on my own blog. I later tried to import old articles, and although it was automated, Substack served more as an archive. My old blog had under 1000 subscribers, and ever since moving to Substack, this mythical 1000-subscriber mark was always a benchmark for me. Then I realised the flaw in my logic… Moving to Substack ought to be benchmarked against starting from scratch!
“It takes 10 years to build an overnight success”
With that in mind, having only started seriously ‘Substacking’ on 13 June 2023, the 8x subscriber growth in the last 6 months is something I don’t take for granted, and am really proud of… particularly given it is all “organic” in the sense that I have never run ads anywhere. So thank you for sharing, engaging and continuing to read it all. Here’s how it looks on the dashboard:
This might seem rather underwhelming to most... With under 50k views, this blog is not even 0.5% of Hodinkee’s 3 million+ monthly visits… but I feel proud of the growth over the past 6 months. I’m a random bloke with a laptop, and the truth is, as any writer will tell you; it is extremely motivating to know there are people who are enjoy reading their work.
I am sharing this to add context as I thank you, my subscribers, for using your limited time to read my writing. I would especially like to thank the 10% of readers who have opted to pay for a subscription. There’s no greater vote of confidence in a competitive market!
In 2023, these were probably the ‘biggest’ stories in the watch world in 2023:
Christie’s pulled some wild moves at their auction, and The 1916 Company to create another industry heavyweight.
OnlyWatch got postponed, and possibly cancelled.
Akrivia & Louis Vuitton kicked off a new model for independent watchmaking collaborations.
Omega and Phillips were embroiled in $3 million super fake watch auction. (This was pre-SDC Weekly!)
One exciting common thread with all these stories (except perhaps the Rolex/Bucherer deal) is this: They only became major stories due to the power of social media! Without the collective uproar and engagement from the socially active collector community, these stories would have been forgotten in the daily or weekly news cycle. This fills me with hope for this newsletter, and other independent writers like myself who try to add perspectives to the conversation which never hit mainstream outlets.
In fact, many might recall the deafening silence from mainstream watch media on the fake Omega scandal; silence which was only broken by people like myself who had a modest platform to post something about it. MSM followed suit, but perhaps would never have bothered without pressure created due to your readership of content like mine. Incidentally, that’s also why I think this stuff is worth paying for, and therein lies the epiphany that anything is possible.
I sometimes use my writing as a way of venting frustrations, but also as a way of engaging with people who are equally tired of seeing the bullsh*t coverage by mainstream watch media. When I enabled paid subscriptions, I never appreciated just how many people found value in such content, because I was doing it mostly for myself and I enjoyed doing it. I still do, but the notion of doing this for a willing and paying audience was nothing but a pipe dream until this year. “Who am I to charge for writing? …I didn’t study to be a writer, so why should anyone take my writing seriously?” - impostor syndrome continues to ring true, even now.
Despite that, after realising time is our most valuable resource, I concluded a modest fee was not an unreasonable ask at all. It should not matter that I do not need the money, or that I have a day job. Time spent, is a valuable thing, especially if people stick around to read it all.
Like many reading this, I too had difficulty justifying payment for writing of all things. After all, Apple TV+ costs £9/month. Netflix is £15/month. Amazon Prime is £99/year. So when I question an SDC subscription being £6/month or £55/year, it can seem like a ‘bad deal’. I get that, but the truth is, such a perspective is inherently flawed.
The benefit of subscribing to this blog, is completely different to the aforementioned comparisons to entertainment or convenience. Reading this blog offers the reader insights and perspectives on the watch world, and enables readers to proactively evolve their thinking as watch collectors. It helps readers see through the fog of marketing we face every day in the collecting community.
The budget you are utilising to support this blog is not an entertainment budget, it is a watch collecting and personal improvement budget. You may buy a couple of leather watch straps for several hundred bucks each year, but you don’t compare that to being worth 2-3 years of Amazon Prime, do you? Of course not… nor should you!
I see a subscription to this blog as being in the same category as watch straps or buying someone a drink at a watch gathering. Would you rather have one new leather strap next year, or forego that and get honest coverage of the shenanigans you see in the watch world… ones which you know all the mainstream media will never cover objectively and openly? That’s the point: you can’t expect “honest independent journalism” and then refuse to pay for it even when it costs less than a single watch strap.
Perhaps the above sounded ranty or entitled - hopefully it goes without saying, that was never the intent. I am fully aware that only a small percentage of readers will ever pay for a subscription, and that’s fine with me. I value all readers and I have zero sense of entitlement. For now, I will still continue to share posts with free subscribers after some delay, simply as a show of gratitude to those who support with a paid subscription. For 2024, I shall be trying to figure out other ways to provide some value for free subscribers while providing more value for those who decide to jump over the paywall… If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
What next for 2024?
I covered the Rolex novelties last week, and I won’t bother going into the guessing game with other brands… instead, I’d like to look at a more macro-take given the weaker watch market and dwindling economic indicators. The megatrend of 2024 will be one of experiences not products. COVID caused a necessary shift towards product spending, as experiential spending was basically impossible. The last two years have seen that cycle flipped on its head.
Aside from genocide and rising costs of living… 2023 was also the year of Taylor Swift, especially December, which is when she peaked. Within a few weeks we saw her win Time Person of the Year, snap up an entire episode of The Daily, and dropped The Eras Tour movie on streaming services. The Eras Tour (and perhaps Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour) embody a broader trend: the resurgence of the “Experience Economy.” The pursuit of experiences such as music concerts, exploded in 2023 - exceeding record highs from 2022 after pent-up COVID demand. Here are some examples:
Then there is this (perhaps biased) report from StubHub which found:
“…over half of Gen Z (60%) said they would skip major life events (like the birth of a family member, a planned vacation, a friend’s wedding or a sibling’s graduation) to be front row to see their favorite artist perform live.”
Here’s a report from Experian, which found 63% of Gen Z (Ages 18-26) and 59% of Millennials (Ages 27-42) who would “prefer to spend money on life experiences (like traveling, concerts, etc.) now rather than saving for retirement.”
Travel is also surging, despite airfares rising faster than inflation. The International Air Transport Association declared earlier this year that they now expect airlines to reach $9.8 billion in net income this year - more than double the amount initially forecast. Global tourism will hit 95% of pre-pandemic levels in 2023, up from 63% in 2022.
This isn’t a travel blog, so why the f*ck am I talking about this?
This stuff applies to the watch industry when you consider disposable income. Aside from the extremely wealthy few, even ‘generally affluent’ people can’t afford to go on many lavish holidays whilst also spending money on multiple luxury watches. Private school fees are high, and money may be abundantly available, but it is certainly not unlimited. This leads to tradeoffs. Perhaps you might find customers forgoing a Patek and going to see what all the fuss is about in the Maldives (I highly recommend checking out Soneva, if you do!).
I see this as an opportunity for brands who, thus far, have chosen to keep raising their retail prices. Perhaps there is room for some creative accounting, and using marketing budgets to offset the pain for customers. Instead of sending generic holiday cards and making pointless customised chocolates or extravagant booze - think bigger, and try to offer true value.
Imagine you were thinking of buying a Vacheron 4500v Overseas. As I explained last week, this is now retailing for £24,100 while the grey market price is around £21,000. Now… imagine you were invited to visit the Vacheron Constantin Factory. A flight to Geneva costs ~£300 return, hotel perhaps ~£1000 for a couple of days, and let’s add ~£250 per day for food, and ~£450 for cabs and other random expenses. That’s ~£2,000, which Vacheron could spend, giving you a factory tour which costs them nearly nothing (aside from the £2000), but has potentially much more value to a collector - everyone wins, right? VC sell their (now) overpriced watch, you as a collector don’t feel like a mug for paying the full price instead of buying it grey - and the brand is feeding into consumers’ desire for experiences whilst also continuing to sell their products.
Right now, this sort of “experience service” is reserved for big spenders and VVIPs - the irony of this, is these are the customers who can afford to go on these trips without brands comping them, and the perceived value of the trip to people that wealthy is arguably a lot less. Regular people who don’t spend millions on watches are the very people who are now going to spend less - this is an example of how brands can lure them back. It need not always be international trips - it could be local events too, for example arranging a boutique event where watchmakers or designers come over to meet collectors, potentially allowing for some consumer research and so on. Some creativity in this regard could go a long way. Let me explain why this matters…
Enduring business models
WSJ publishes a series for wealthy or wannabe wealthy people called Off Duty which contains pure comedy like this article about a buyer of a brand new apartment who spent $500k to destroy the new luxurious kitchen and install another more ostentatious one… and here’s another article which frames a $2,000 leather duffel bag as a “lifelong investment!”
That might resonate with you, or if you’re like me, you find this all rather hilarious. That said, goods and services which cater to the wealthy exist because… they are excellent businesses… just ask the world’s richest man! These purchases of luxury goods or services may be driven by a genuine perception of value for money, but as we like to discuss here, it can often be for psychological reasons - i.e. to signal wealth or status to others, or to alter our self-perception too. As watch collectors, this is something we contend with all the time, and the best brands in the world have mastered the art of selling non-essentials to people. Luxury watches reside firmly in this category too.
Now, looking at any competitive landscape, when we see a successful business model enduring for a while, it must exist for a reason. When we find ourselves unable to figure out what that reason is, the problem is usually one’s own lack of intelligence or understanding - it is probably not true that the business model makes no sense.
In order to make sense of a successful brand like Rolex, you can look to sources such as Brandan Cunningham - here’s some blurb from his website:
During World War 2, a new front opened in the battle between the Axis and Allied powers: propaganda. Little-known archival records reveal that in the postwar period, British veterans of covert warfare used marketing to lay the foundation for one of history’s most valuable brands: Rolex. This is their story.
What we find, is this brand has created their brand power over decades, while continuing to keep up with shorter cycles and trends. Rolex undoubtedly benefited from the hype cycle in 2021, but what most fail to understand is that for brands like Rolex or Patek, what they sell is more than just a watch: it is a symbol. Even if you don’t want the watch to ‘say anything’ about you, the wearer - it will still speak. The same is not true for nearly every other watch brand, except when you are among watch collectors. Wearing a Journe or Voutilainen has virtually no meaning to anyone unless you’re at Dubai Watch Week or some other watch gathering.
The same principle applies to other brands albeit at a different level. Omega has brand value - the James Bond and Moon Landing associations imbue their watches with recognition and status, but the watches are hardly aspirational symbols of success to the extent Rolex and Patek watches are. JLC has brand value - commonly referred to as the watchmakers’ watchmaker, but how many people care about this pedigree, let alone attach any significant value to it?
Yet, despite this difference, brands like Omega (JLC, VC and many others) think they can simply adopt the same tactics as Rolex or Patek when it comes to pricing or allocation strategies. This is stupid. It is an approach which fails to recognise how human beings will always irrationally value symbolic tokens which can signal status.
If all these brands continue to ignore the task of building brand value but continue to adopt pricing strategies which are predicated on false brand value, it leads to a pernicious cycle of decline. This is the opposite of a business model which has any chance of enduring, and is the reason why 2024 will be a critical year for non-aspirational brands - this includes mainstream mass-produced brands like Omega or JLC, as well as independents like Moser or Ming.
I describe it as ‘critical’ because as people deliberate about trading-off disposable income for watches, the technical specifications of watches versus their overall value propositions will be firmly in the limelight. The ownership experience and after-sales aspects of buying these watches will become deciding factors for potential clients (this contributes to the ‘value proposition’). If a customer is not getting any serious status-boost or ‘brand value’ benefit, then what else could they be getting?
Perhaps a membership to the Moser Club, which includes an invitation to Watches and Wonders as a guest of the brand? Perhaps an Omega owners club which includes an invitation to the Goodwood Festival of Speed? I’m talking about low-cost marketing for a brand which injects ‘status’ into the ownership experience without having to technically improve the watches via costly R&D, and without having to organically build genuine brand value which takes years or decades. Yes, long-term growth of brand value should be a long-term KPI, but in the shorter term, brands need to sell watches to pay their bills and continue to exist.
As a customer and collector, you will find yourself facing such trade-offs too. Should you stick to steel Rolex or Patek watches which are as good as ‘cash’, or give in to your pure collector tendencies and buy whatever you like even if you stand to take a 20-60% haircut as you walk out of the store? You may choose to do this once or twice a year, but as I said before - when money supply is not infinite, you start having to prioritise. In such instances, brands need to earn the right to have your business, and you better make sure they do so.
Rolex France fined $100m for blocking online sales - A deep dive into the ruling
This story came in too late to fit into last week’s SDC - so you’re probably already familiar with it by now. If not, the short summary: Rolex was fined by France’s antitrust regulator for restricting competition by not allowing authorised retailers to sell Rolex watches online. You aren’t here for the short summary, so allow me to expand on it!
In a statement, the agency, Autorité de la Concurrence stated:
Regardless of whether one believes online sales to be a good or bad thing for the brand, some might argue Rolex should be the ones to decide how their products are sold. The regulator disagrees, but then you might assume Rolex would choose to stop supplying ADs who choose to sell online, right?
Turns out, that is exactly how this all began. The case was borne out of a complaint from former Rolex retailer Pellegrin & Fils, and backed by French industry group Union de la Bijouterie Horlogerie. Pellegrin and the union also complained that Rolex forced distributors to “fix” the price of its products. Here’s the relevant text from the full text 134-page decision (translation):
…a very high-end website intended to offer for sale to both watch products and jewelry and jewelry creations. They were convinced that the qualitative nature of the site would be such as to obtain the agreement of Rolex, in a context where internet sales seemed poised for strong development. I knew that a meeting with Rolex was to take place to present this project but I later learned that, rather than authorizing it, Rolex had preferred to terminate their authorized distributor contract towards the end of 2013.
Rolex’s main rationale for keeping sales offline is “justified by the need to combat counterfeiting and parallel trade”
I found this surprising, because it would make more sense if Rolex stated this anti-online sales policy was more about controlling customers’ purchase experiences, and ensuring the necessary pampering was taking place to protect their brand value and customer perception (and arguing it is completely impossible to deliver this with online purchases). Turns out, some retailers did say this:
Unsurprisingly, Bucherer weighed in as follows, in support of offline sales:
Some other interesting bits in the document such as:
They later go on:
“Furthermore, with regard to discounts, the company Pellegrin & Fils alleges in its referral that Rolex France verbally communicated to its distributors instructions on the amounts that could be granted to customers. In this regard, in its referral, it mentions a meeting held in May 2008 at the Sofitel Vieux Port in Marseille with the five distributors approved in Marseille, during which MA.., former general manager of Rolex France, would have given them “the instruction to limit the discounts applied as follows: 0% on professional steel watches; 10% on classic steel watches; 15% on two-tone watches; 20% on all gold watches.”
Later we find this table of “the fifteen best-selling references in France (and more precisely the fifteen “ Rolex Master Code ” or “ RMC ” including the bestselling dial and bracelet choices in France). These prices correspond to an annual average.”
In another table, “Rolex France has provided the evolution of the recommended retail prices including tax in euros for the period 2010-2020 for the 15 best-selling references in France (and more precisely the 15 “ Rolex Master Code ” or “ RMC ” including the dial choices and best-selling bracelet in France). This is the recommended retail catalog price and not an average.”
I must reiterate, there is so much detail in this document, I cannot possibly cover it all here. It goes into discounting policy, as well as stock allocation - seeking comments from all the authorised dealers and it also covers how the Rolex network went from 114 to 66 distributors in the space of 10 years. One final table:
There is also an interesting table which shows the relative share of Rolex sales as part of the turnover in each AD questioned for this investigation - worth having a look on pg 75 in the pdf.
This section was enlightening, because in addition to the average retail prices per segment, I found the segmentation discussion particularly insightful, especially if you consider the Rolex take:
“…the general director of Rolex France, believes that the only coherent segmentation would be a distinction between watches priced below 800/1,000 euros and those whose price is higher than this value. It also considers that the sub-segmentation envisaged within the “fine watchmaking” category is not relevant because the prices of watches from the targeted brands fall into several categories and is not representative of the entire market.”
This guy sounds like an utter moron, but there you have it. As you read further, the document sheds more light on this decision in the context of competition law.
As I read further, Rolex seems to have been arguing that it technically did not ban online sales, then then the investigation set out to demonstrate an agreement of wills to not sell online:
Turns out, Rolex scored an own goal which was revealed in documents seized at their premises:
Digging further into the restriction of competition aspect of this ruling:
But the existence of their new CPO program turned out to be their Achilles heel:
They then discuss the use of blockchain technology to allay the concerns about counterfeits, and reference examples of other brands doing this, and again refer to the CPO program as a counterpoint:
Hope you enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of the highlights from the full document. If you happen to peruse it yourself and find something I’ve missed, I’d be glad to hear from you. I’d also love to hear whether this was useful or interesting to you, or whether you’d rather read about something else!
📌 Links of interest
📧 Derek Thompson shared 9 breakthroughs that astonished him in 2023.
🐋 2023 was the year “cunt” went mainstream.
💻 Ben Thompson discussed why a true AI “assistant” could be Google’s real moonshot.
🔎 Perezcope unveils some skullduggery with Rolex Space Dwellers.
🗞️ Why do so many people believe cynicism is a sign of intelligence?
🧓 One of the world’s most prominent geroscientists, David Sinclair, published a new theory of ageing.
🤣 How different languages express laughter online… haha jaja www ktk rsrsrs awdjyt.
I started a thread last week to say: Rolex will increases prices in the UK by ~2-4% on 1 January 2024… for example, the Submariner Date is going from £8,650 to £9,000; Platinum Day-Date from £53,300 to £54,400. If you had plans to delay collection, might be worth reconsidering! Given this newsletter had just gone out that morning, this news would be a week old by the time you saw it - figured I would get it out there sooner. I am re-sharing it again in case you missed the thread. To add to this, Patek is also raising prices by 6.3% in February, and cutting their ADs profit margins by ~5%. Talk about cheeky abuse of brand power!
In other news, Masimo, a health devices company won a patent legal battle with Apple who was then forced to halt sales of two Apple Watch models. Despite this setback, Apple continues its patent spree for other watch-related health tech:
A system for tracking “biomechanical triggers” for improved responsiveness to “grade estimation.” This takes in data from a wearable device tracking things like cadence data, speed data and elevation data, to determine the grade that the user is traveling on;
Tech to track the “vertical oscillation” of a user, or the amount that a person’s torso moves vertically with each step. This uses machine learning that relies on sensor data tracking “acceleration and rotation rate” of a user;
Methods for “sleep state tracking” using motion tracking with a wearable device. This system determines if a user is in a “rest state” or “activity state” over multiple periods of time using movement data;
A “stride length estimation and calibration” system, which tracks a user’s cadence and speed data to determine how long a user’s steps are;
And a “cardiac monitoring and management” system, to determine a user’s “cardiac burden.” This collects and stores cardiac measurements over time to track how hard your heart is working during a given period, as well as to determine if the wearer is having a cardiac event.
According to Romeo Alvarez, director and research analyst at William O’Neil, Apple’s smartwatch revenue has grown from $9 billion five years ago to $17 billion this year, and that is only 4% of Apple’s annual revenue2. The entire Swiss watch industry exported ~ $28bn in 20223. Apple will likely surpass this in the next year or two. Let that sink in for a second. Here’s an old post of mine in the subject:
Given the founder and CEO of Masimo (billionaire, Joe Kiani) has spent $60 million fighting Apple, this isn’t a task for the feint-hearted (or poor)… so this got me wondering whether there would be any likelihood of collaboration between Apple and the Swiss watch industry, since Apple will have locked down all the good patents, and the Swiss watch industry will be struggling to offer any decent incremental value in the coming years.
Imagine buying an AP with an interchangeable case back ring (or similar), which contains all the tech that can capture data and communicate with your smartphone - but which also allows for anti-obsolescence by being interchangeable. Every year or two, you can simply send it in to upgrade one part with the latest version containing the most recent tech, and this seamlessly integrates with your smartphone. People will then be able to enjoy the health benefits of a ‘smartwatch’ - while also wearing a luxury mechanical watch which doesn’t look like a smart watch. Honestly, I’d buy it. I can’t stand the idea of double-wristing a mechanical watch and an Apple watch - but if my mechanical watch could get an incognito upgrade to feed data to my smartphone, I would definitely enjoy that. Of course, this outcome can be achieved in other ways (Whoop etc) - but the idea of brand-approved integration into a luxury watch seemed intriguing, and a far better idea than a quartz smartwatch from a luxury brand.
Anyway, let me take this opportunity to wish you all a joyful holiday season — and a happy new year! If you still owe someone a Christmas gift and they are into watches, may I suggest an SDC subscription?
Hey, it was worth a try :)
Until next time!
🔮Bonus link: Why Coke tastes different at McDonald’s
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It’s a big if. Adult adoption laws in Switzerland, where they live, are strict and have complex requirements. Adoption aside, Puech’s plan faces legal obstacles from his own charity, the Isocrates Foundation, with which he has an inheritance contract. If Puech, who is not known to have children, were to suddenly adopt an heir, at least 50% of his Hermès shares would go to a son instead of the foundation, which called the potential move “void and unfounded.” As for why… many speculate that the unusual succession plan could have something to do with a long corporate feud between Hermès and LVMH. According to Bloomberg, Puech became a family outcast for his role in the fight, which led to his leaving the board of Hermès and supposedly falling out with the rest of the fam.
This is not a public number, because Apple reports the watches under ‘wearables’ and does not break it down further.
And remember, this was a ‘record’ year, likely not to be repeated anytime soon.