According to The RealReal's 2021 resale report, customers are spending $1,600 (£1,207) more than last year on secondhand luxury watches. Meanwhile, on online consignment retailer Fashionphile, searches for the term “watch” have increased by 73% since 2020. According to McKinsey, a U.S.-based consulting firm, the pre-owned luxury watch market was worth $18 billion (£13.5 billion) in 2018; it is poised to grow to $30 billion (£22 billion) by 2025.
While there are more people than ever interested in owning a watch, luxury brands — which include the big four: Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Richard Mille — continue to produce limited inventory every year to ensure exclusivity and quality. Elizabeth Layne, chief marketing officer at Rebag, says that due to manufacturing closures amid the pandemic, as well as supply chain issues, watchmakers and brands produced even fewer products last year. According to her, there’s also a growing trend of generational watchmakers and artisans going out of business as a result of the pandemic's economic impact: “All of that has increased the demand and prices of secondhand luxury watches.”
But scarcity isn’t the only factor driving the watch gold rush. “I think that both social media content, as well as editorial content focusing on watches have broader factors that make it a lot more approachable,” says Layne. See, for instance, blogs like Dimepiece, which features luxury watch content that caters to women, a demographic that’s been long overlooked by the male-dominated industry. While Dimepiece was founded in March 2020, its creator Brynn Wallner first thought of the site while she worked as a multimedia producer at Sotheby’s in 2019: “The watches department reached out to me and they were like, ‘Hey, we want some cool content,” Wallner says about how she got into watches. “It was like a culmination of almost high art, but with a wearability and kind of everyday components that really appealed to me.” Since then, Dimepiece has grown over 17,000 followers on Instagram, made up largely of women interested in the luxury watch market.
“I just noticed the way that the consumer was spoken to. And there are certain trends where it's like, ‘The man should buy this watch and go climb Mount Everest.’ And for the female watches, it was like, ‘Here is this dainty watch,’” says Wallner. “We [women] want to spend money on nice things and we already do that with bags and shoes, so why don't we add watches to that?” she says. It’s a question that many are asking right now: According to Fashionphile, searches for “women’s watches” are up 92% since 2020.
The younger generation is expressing interest in the market as well. Luxury watch-related content generated over 173 million views on TikTok, according to the app. With that in mind, popular creators like @nicovanderhorst, @topbrandwatches, @watchoutforalex, and @watch.eric are giving followers a front-row seat to the world of luxury watches, from videos about buying a watch for the first time to behind-the-scenes glimpses of a career in the watch world.
Layne attributes the popularity of luxury resale sites as another reason for the secondhand watch boom: “While some items definitely are still quite expensive on the secondary market, with resale, there are more entry points.” While brands like Cartier and Rolex typically retain their retail value even when sold secondhand, other designer names are available on the resale market for much less. For example, the popular Heure watch by Hermès is available new for $3,000 (£2,263), while Rebag offers secondhand options for 50% less. What’s more, whereas before, potential customers would have to walk into a store with little knowledge of the different models and prices, they can now go online to find all the information they need to make an informed decision, all before the first appointment.
Then there is the general growth in the secondhand luxury market. Since the pandemic took hold, consumers have begun investing in long-lasting, quality items, with luxury sales set to beat pre-COVID numbers this year. On Rebag, most watches sell within a few days; a Rolex Batman (worth £15k) watch sold in minutes.
“I think there's a broader consumer base that now looks at watches as an investing category,” says Layne. “Customers and watch sellers are really doing their research, so they're looking to see the potential value that they could get.” Layne says that demand for Rolex — the site’s top-selling watch brand — has helped it retain an average 82% resale value, with some models having a retention rate above up to 158%.
Others are looking to watches for their sentimental value. In 2021, the global fashion search engine Lyst has reported a 42% increase in searches for “couple,” “engagement,” and “wedding” watches, with the Rolex Pre-owned 40mm Submariner being one of the most coveted styles. Much like engagement and wedding rings, high-end luxury watches are seen as a piece that could be passed down.
As demand continues to grow, Layne doesn’t see this trend stopping: “We don't think that that watch bubble is going to burst soon.”
Maybe it’s "time" to jump on the trend.