How indie watch brands are attracting Greater China’s HNW collectors

    Indie watchmakers gain traction with watch collectors in Greater China region despite competition from mainstream brands.
    The H. Moser x MB&F Streamliner Pandamonium. Photo: H. Moser & Cie.
    Shilpa DhamijaAuthor
      Published   in Retail

    Although he only started collecting luxury watches around five years ago, Shanghai-based Grey Ge has amassed an impressive collection of timepieces priced $50,000-plus from independent brands, such as De Bethune, MB&F, Urwerk, F.P. Journe, and H. Moser & Cie.

    Some of these watches have a minimum two-year waiting period, but for Ge, they are worth the wait, and the price tag.

    “They look avant-garde and are produced in limited numbers, making them truly exclusive,” Ge tells Jing Daily.

    The 27-year-old financial analyst’s first luxury watch was an unusual pick. Rather than opting for a “grail” watch from popular brands like Rolex, Audemars Piguet, or Patek Philippe, Ge opted for a black ceramic classic fusion watch from Hublot.

    As Ge quips, he went with the Hublot “because it looked a bit like the Audemars Piguet black ceramic watch that I couldn’t get my hands on,” recalling his eagerness to buy a luxury watch with his college internship earnings.

    Ge says the inaccessibility of so-called grail watches propelled him to choose timepieces that he enjoyed wearing, building his confidence to compile a collection uninfluenced by the predominant grail culture.

    “I started choosing watches that spoke to me as a person, which is why I found myself attracted to unique independent brands,” says Ge.

    This way of thinking is not limited to new Gen Z buyers; even experienced grail watch collectors are cultivating an interest in independent brands.

    The HM3 Megawind by MB&F. Photo: MB&F
    The HM3 Megawind by MB&F. Photo: MB&F

    Jackie Ho, founder of popular Hong Kong-based watch lovers club Watchhoandco, began collecting watches about a decade ago, starting with Panerai and Patek Philippe pieces, then moving on to rare vintage Rolexes.

    But Ho lost interest in vintage watches because of the complexities involved in authenticating them.

    “Indie brands don’t have the issue of authentication like vintage watches do because they are produced in limited numbers and have a provenance system in place,” says Ho, adding that independent brands offer “exclusivity and unique designs for watch enthusiasts who are looking to evolve their watch collections.”

    Another notable perk of buying independent watches, according to Ho, is that the brands are more open to interacting with buyers, thus they build stronger ties.

    “I can communicate with not just the retailer, but also the watchmakers easily via DM on social media, or email, or a call even before I buy the watch,” says Ho.

    Today, Ho’s indie collection includes watches from brands Daniel Roth, De Bethune, and FP Journe, along with Atelier Wen.

    Strategic importance#

    Edouard Meylan, CEO of Schaffhausen-based H Moser & Cie., believes that the Greater China region – known for its preference for mainstream brands – is evolving, with collectors looking to diversify their watch collections beyond mainstream brands, thus opening up new growth opportunities for independent brands.

    Though the US contributes more sales to H Moser & Cie. than Greater China, “in the next five years, Greater China will be our most important strategic market, globally,” Meylan tells Jing Daily.

    “We will invest more in Greater China than anywhere else in the world because it is a relatively new market for us, and we need to become more visible,” he adds.

    In a Morgan Stanley report on the state of the Swiss watch industry released last month, H. Moser and Cie. was one of only three independent brands that ranked among the top 50 watch brands in the world in terms of sales. H. Moser & Cie. ranked 38th, with sales exceeding $100 million in 2023. According to Meylan, the brand’s Streamliner series, priced between $22,000 and $121,000, has been its most popular line in Greater China.

    Moser launched its first-ever global flagship boutique in Hong Kong in December 2022. It was followed by another boutique in Shanghai. A new Beijing boutique set to launch next month will replace the local point of sale “because of higher demand,” says Meylan. Last year, H. Moser & Cie. produced around 3,000 watches, and will increase capacity this year to just under 4,000 pieces.

    The Swiss brand has also partnered with an F1 team that will next month race the Chinese Grand Prix’s Shanghai circuit, and it will launch a special edition watch during “H Moser & Cie.’s biggest event ever,” Meylan says.

    Battle for market share#

    Although demand for independent watches is evolving in Greater China, many independent brands are finding it difficult to cater to collectors there, because of its “dominant mono-boutique culture,” says Maximilian Büsser, founder of Geneva-based MB&F.

    Most mainstream luxury watch brands have opened mono-branded boutiques in mainland China, which not every independent brand can afford to operate because of the limited number of watches they produce.

    “As for multi-brand retailers,” Büsser says, “they are not interested in selling independent brands because, unlike mainstream brands, we can’t give them a large number of watches to sell every month.”

    One of the world’s leading independent watch brands, Geneva’s F.P. Journe was also one of the first independent brands to launch a mono-boutique in mainland China, opening its doors 13 years ago in Beijing. In 2017, however, the boutique was shuttered “because of the high taxes [on watches] in the mainland and because the business model did not suit us,” founder François-Paul Journe tells Jing Daily. F.P. Journe produces just 1,000 watches per year,

    Some independent luxury watch brands that have found mainland China unsuitable for their business have reached watch collectors in Greater China by way of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. MB&F, for example, opened a M.A.D.Gallery in Taipei in 2014, while F.P. Journe has operated a boutique in Hong Kong since 2006.

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