The champagne materializes right on time, a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Brut, and the gentleman ferrying it even compliments your lovely home. The video call with fellow collectors is waiting, and the CEO of your favorite watch brand pops up on the screen, too. He's cleared his busy schedule to sip some bubbly with you and present a collection of watches no one has even seen yet. Having seen the watches, you’ll be able to reserve the chance to purchase the ones you like.
This is the life of a luxury watch client, and it’s why the hottest watches in the world are as good as gone before you even know about them.
In this particular case, Panerai collectors have gathered digitally from all over the world to join of the presentation. One square on the Zoom features a client with clear blue sky behind him: he's called in from a boat. The CEO, Jean-Marc Pontroué, is here to show off the new pieces, but also to answer whatever questions might come up. “Is there anything you want to know?” Any secret about Panerai?” he says. This is a joke but not entirely: one reason you might become such a loyal and important client is for the access to knowledge unavailable to the average consumer.
If you're an extra-special client, like George Dosal, you get the same presentation—in-person, at your local boutique. He started as a big fan of Panerai lover Sylvester Stallone—and then he got into the legendarily beefy, worn-by-the-Italian-Navy proportions. He owns enough of the brand’s watches that a carefully assorted box can’t contain the spillover that flows onto his desk—enough watches that his brand-of-choice is thrilled to offer him the ability to reserve any of its upcoming pieces.
This time of year, as the Watches & Wonders trade show rumbles on, there are plenty of folks just like Dosal, getting ready to buy watches that no one else has yet seen. Typically, this type of show-and-sell event would happen in person in Geneva. A client would be taken behind the curtain—often literally—to see unreleased pieces. These are typically special edition that never get a real formal announcement (usually bananas watches like Rolex’s Daytona with sapphires running around the bezel, for example). Behind the curtain is also the chance to buy them all. “[In terms of,] novelties being shown or spoken about to VIP in advance of launch: 100% common practice today,” says Sacha Davidoff, one half of Swiss watch retailer Roy & Sacha Davidoff S.A. and a frequent trade show attendee.
For watch brands, providing high-end clients with special treatment is an essential part of the business. Many of these brands aren’t selling watches as much as they are a relationship, and the privileges attendant to building one. Purchasing watches is one of the very few ways for clients to get the pieces with long waiting lists, or to get special access to unreleased pieces. Spreading around your shopping makes it tough to build that access. There’s good reason, too, for clients to praise their dealers, who often decide whose hands the best watches end up in. When I ask Dosal how he went from Panerai casual fan to superfan he says, “I’ll answer that in one word: Neila [Nobre, his contact with the brand.]” For clients of Dosal’s standing, these relationships can often be a primary factor in purchasing a watch. He loves the brand’s history seemingly as much as the person selling him that history. He tells me about two watches he’s misplaced over the years and says their loss hurts not because of “the dollar of what I spent on those watches,” he says. “[It hurts] that I had purchased them from Neila.”
But while this is all well and good for folks like Dosal who can lose two watches and only lament losing that token of a friendship, it can make life difficult for the average consumer. That the watch world gives special privileges to its most important clients and the feeling that the best pieces are inaccessible to most are directly related. This is all by design, of course. For clients and collectors, exclusivity and scarcity are primary factors in deciding a watch’s true value.
But there are good reasons beyond relationship maintenance for watch brands to engage in these practices. “VIP clients were always, albeit discreetly, getting direct access to special editions and novelties,” says Davidoff. “[Which] seems logical, as brands want to pre-sell as much as possible before launching their productions due to major wait times and costs of advancing gold for cases and things like that.” Essentially, brands aren’t just satisfying their best and most voracious customers—they’re setting up a weathervane. It’s not far-fetched to think what sells well with the biggest enthusiasts will appeal to the average customer, too. “It is definitely the most important time of the year because it's the hype of the start of the season,” Esteban Palacino, a Panerai boutique manager. “If we're not able to plant the seeds right now, it's going to be much tougher to do so throughout the year.”
The watch industry—like most companies dealing with luxury items—is built on this sort of constant gladhanding. In 2018, Audemars Piguet organized a private performance from John Mayer for the brand’s VVIP customers. Dosal tells me about a time he was flown to New York by Montblanc—not for watches but for the latest collection of fancy pens. Panerai goes a step further, including in every collection something it calls an Experience Watch. Buy one and you’re signed up for an activity organized by the brand. Dosal previously purchased a L’Astronomo that can with a trip to Switzerland, where he could tour the Panerai factory and meet the person who made his watch. (He’s rescheduling this jaunt for after COVID.)
Back on the Zoom, eager clients are asking questions and pondering purchases that will help set the course for the rest of Panerai’s year. This year at Watches & Wonders, one of Panerai’s most important releases is a watch, eLAB-ID, that is made almost completely out of recyclable material. The product won’t be ready to ship for a couple of years, but the brand is already taking reservations for it. Dosal, though, is drawn to the brand’s new collaboration with Prada, a sporty navy blue model. Hel has his eyes on a few other watches, too, but they won’t be out until next year. We still don’t have an idea of what they look like. Dosal knows, though, and he’s thinking about buying a few.
Originally Appeared on GQ