Smaller Cases and Lots of Cartier: The Watches Selling Right Now, According to America’s Biggest Dealers

The luxury watch industry looks very different today than it did two years ago, but perhaps not in the way you might think. Sure, the secondary market has cooled, and some buyers and sellers are stuck with watches worth much less than what they paid for them in 2022.

But the primary market has yet to feel the chill. Still lacking in available inventory, many authorized Rolex and Patek Philippe dealers acknowledge that their main focus remains on giving clients an unforgettable experience.

More from Robb Report

“We don’t always have things for sale, but we have pieces on display — once somebody comes in, whether we have the watch they want or not, we still immerse them in the brand and the history,” says Josh Bonifas, owner of Fourtané in Carmel, Calif., as well as a new Rolex showroom in San Diego.

Bonifas is among a handful of high-end watch retailers who shared their insights about the market with Robb Report. Find their key takeaways below. In short: As the industry looks to next month’s Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva, optimism is high. The big distinction between 2024 and the high-flying days of the pandemic is that business today is, by all accounts, much more sustainable.

Against all odds, 2023 was a very good year.

Laurent Ferrier Classic Micro-Rotor Ice Blue
Laurent Ferrier Classic Micro-Rotor Ice Blue

Last year, consumers were bombarded with news about inflation, rising interest rates, tight labor markets, and geopolitical turbulence, leading many in the luxury industry to gird themselves for a down year.

In the end, however, many high-end watch retailers had a very different experience.

“For us, 2023 was our biggest year ever,” Nick Boulle, president of de Boulle Diamond & Jewelry, a Rolex and Patek Philippe authorized dealer in Dallas, tells Robb Report.

Roberto Chiappelloni, owner of Manfredi Jewels, with stores in Greenwich and New Canaan, Conn., echoes that sentiment: “2023 was still part of the honeymoon we enjoyed from Covid,” he says. “There was still a backlog of orders. We carry so many of the small independent brands that are not readily available and demand went through the roof.

Business on the West coast fared equally well. Bonifas says Fourtané had an “incredible year.”

“We haven’t seen any change in demand,” he says. “If anything, what I’ve seen is a continued growth of people who are new to all of our brands.”

Falling secondary market prices have inspired buyers to look for watches they really want to wear.

Voutilainen GMT 6
Voutilainen GMT 6

When the secondary market was at its peak in the first half of 2022, and prices for steel sport models from the Big Three brands (Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe) as well as pieces by F.P. Journe and Richard Mille hovered at or near five times retail value, buyers were single-minded in their fixation on these models.

With a correction having restored prices to much more reasonable (if still above retail) levels, buyers have felt more inclined to pursue watches that better reflect their authentic interests.

“There’s been a big flood of pre-owned watches coming back to market, suppressing price points,” Chiappelloni says. “It’s not that I like it better this way. Of course, we like the exuberance, even if it’s a silly exuberance. But it’s nice that we see clients comparing and contrasting different watches.

“Even though you came in for a Breguet, let me show you a Kari Voutilainen or a Grönefeld,” he adds. “Whereas the last three years, it was very specific: ‘I can only buy a François-Paul Journe or a Richard Mille because it’s going to be worth three times what I paid for it.”

Even Rolex specialists like Fourtané report that clients are diversifying their interests. “We’re seeing a nice evolution of our clientele base where people are being really authentic to what they like,” he says. “Part of that would be looking at other models that maybe weren’t on their radar. And so we do a lot of work, especially because certain things aren’t available, to introduce new products.”

Girard-Perregaux 1966
Girard-Perregaux 1966

Nick Boulle says the shift has contributed to a much more “sustainable” watch business overall. “During the pandemic, there was a feeling of musical chairs where people were fighting over each other [for the same watches],” he says. “Whereas now, it feels more thoughtful and people are trying to round out their collections with different pieces, maybe a dress watch or a something for a more formal occasion with diamonds.”

At Ben Bridge Jeweler, a Berkshire Hathaway-owned retailer with 35 stores across the western United States and in Alaska and Hawaii, chief executive Lisa Bridge has witnessed the same phenomenon.

“People are collecting for joy, not necessarily for hype — they want a piece that shows their personality,” she says. “Rather than having a checklist, people are expressing their individuality through their timepieces.”

Smaller sizing, gold and two-tone cases, bold dial colors, shaped watches and dress styles are the aesthetic trends du jour.

Chopard, Patek Philippe, and Rolex Two-Tone Watches
Chopard, Patek Philippe, and Rolex Two-Tone Watches

How does “collecting for joy” translate at the counter? The short answer is: Not in steel sports watches.

At Fourtané, demand for gold watches “is unprecedented,” Bonifas says. “We cannot get enough.”

At de Boulle, strap watches are on the rise. “For a while, everybody had this fixation with an integrated bracelet,” Boulle says. “I’m sitting here wearing a Tudor with a cloth strap, and maybe that goes back to people enjoying different flavors. It’s supposed to be a collection, not just one style.”

Ben Bridge has noted an increase in demand for two-tone stainless steel and gold wristwatches, as well as much more flexibility around sizing.

“I’m reaching for a 28 mm Rolex that my grandparents gave me for graduation in 2004 and it all of a sudden feels good to wear that size again,” Bridge says, referring to the vogue for smaller case sizes that has emerged since the pandemic. “We also have people going back to their favorite watches they’ve had in their collection and bringing things out that haven’t been worn in a while, or are being styled in new ways.”

Patek Philippe Ellipse
Patek Philippe Ellipse

Brian Govberg of the 1916 Company — owners of WatchBox, Govberg Jewelers, Radcliffe Jewelers, and Hyde Park Jewelers — says shaped cases are having a moment. “You’ll have the popularity of the Cartier Crash or the Pebble but those watches aren’t really available,” he says. “We’re definitely seeing a resurgence and appreciation for the Patek Philippe Ellipse and tonneau shaped cases. I wear an Ellipse regularly. On the wrist, it’s magnificent.”

David Hurley, deputy CEO of the Watches of Switzerland Group and president of Watches of Switzerland Group, North America, says one of the biggest aesthetic trends is an appreciation, among both men and women, for vibrant dial colors. “On the men’s side, it’s grown over the last few years — almost 16% of our assortment is colors outside that traditional black, blue, silver, gray,” he says.

Grand Seiko Heritage 40 mm
Grand Seiko Heritage 40 mm

“I’ll give you an example,” Hurley adds. “We did a couple of limited editions with Grand Seiko this year. One of them is kind of a lavender or purple dial that wouldn’t have been a traditional men’s color for a timepiece, but it was hugely successful.”

Cartier is on fire.

Cartier Tank Cintrée watches
Cartier Tank Cintrée

The brand that has benefitted most from the recent shift in style preferences has undoubtedly been Cartier, which ticks almost all of the trending boxes: dressier, shaped styles; smaller cases; and plenty of options in gold.

“I’m not saying it’s a renaissance because they’ve always been there — they’re such a classic — but the interest in Cartier now is incredible, from Tanks to the special pieces like the Cintrées,” Bonifas says. “And of course, the Crash has now become the hype watch. But with all this momentum, of course it’s very difficult to get a Cintrée or a Crash, so buyers are discovering things like the Tank Louis.”

The outlook for 2024 is full steam ahead.

“I’m a realist,” says Bonifas. “You hear all the negative talk about the economy and this and that, but it hasn’t tempered interest in watches.”

Govberg predicts that 2024 will be similar to 2023. “I think there’ll be a lot of energy after Watches and Wonders,” he says. “All collectors, no matter the year or what’s going on, they cycle. But there’s a constant influx of new people coming into the brands and into the hobby and as a result, we’re starting relationships with them. And demand really does outweigh supply.”

Best of Robb Report

Sign up for Robb Report's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Click here to read the full article.