LONDON — When it comes to the pre-owned watch market, online is where brands are thrashing it out. According to a joint report by the Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company, digitalization is continuing to drive growth in the sector, which is forecast to reach about $30 billion in annual sales by 2025 from $18 billion in annual sales in 2019.
But Richard Mille, the independent brand that is one of the Big Four brands dominating the watch universe today, is placing its pre-owned bets elsewhere: on the traditional world of retail.
Last year Westime, a U.S. regional watch chain, began running the only Richard Mille pre-owned sales operation in the country from its three stores in California. In late 2020, Ninety Mount Street opened in London, the brand’s only pre-owned boutique in Europe and the Middle East, while the Singapore operation opened in 2020 and Japan, in 2015.
The London store, commonly called “Ninety,” occupies the Mayfair site of the original Richard Mille flagship, which moved to Bond Street. Ninety has pieces like the 2011 model RM 035 Ultimate (price on application), one of only 35 watches with a case made from carbon Thin Ply Technology, a shock-resistant industrial material. And there are rare RM 002 models, discontinued watches that date from 2001, the year Richard Mille was founded.
The company says both buyers and sellers like the immediacy of a retail outlet. “People have quick expectations,” said Tilly Harrison, Ninety’s director, adding that most collectors ready to sell “want to do it there and then.”
A watchmaker is on site in London to inspect movements, so prospective sellers can get immediate quotes and be paid on the same day. “You can walk in and walk out with money in your bank account,” Ms. Harrison said.
And the sale setting certainly is more appealing, she said, than the gas station transactions or sales completed in cars that some customers have described to her. “Why does it have to be in an environment like that?” she said. “You’re still buying a luxury piece and it should be in a luxury environment. You should have the peace of mind that the watch has been serviced correctly and been in the right hands.”
The watches offered at Ninety as well as the other pre-owned sites are fully restored and come with a two-year warranty. In London, prices start from around 110,000 pounds ($149,760) for a RM 005 series, the house’s first automatic model with a semi-instantaneous date change, introduced in 2004, and which evolved into the RM 010 (from £130,000).
Those prices are eye-watering, but compare them with Richard Mille’s average price of about 200,000 Swiss francs ($218,310) for new pieces. Besides — like Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, its fellow Big Four brands — Richard Mille watches are increasingly hard to find. The house said it made 5,100 watches last year, an increase from the 4,900 it produced in 2019, but far less than the six-figure production of larger Swiss brands.
And auctions, which many prospective buyers turn to when new watches are elusive, are not much help when it comes to Richard Mille. At the Only Watch charity auction in Geneva in November, the automatic RM 67-02 prototype, designed in collaboration with the racecar driver Charles Leclerc, sold for 2.1 million Swiss francs, more than six times its high estimate.
None of the other Big Four watchmakers have official pre-owned watch programs. Rolex authorized retailers do sell pre-owned Rolexes, but it is not a company program. Audemars Piguet likewise is not playing in the space, while an email from Patek Philippe said it was “not active in the pre-owned and vintage watches business, this is not our métier.”
Achim Berg, global leader of McKinsey’s apparel, fashion and luxury group, said full-service retail stores were best reserved for top-end brands. “It totally makes sense to have a physical space so that people in that price point can go and see the watches,” he said. “It will excite people just to go there. It’s a bit like going to a wine shop if you’re a wine freak and seeing all the old vintages.”
At Ninety in London, the bright, airy interior and lounge-like seating — not to mention a small selection of vintage high jewelry from the likes of Cartier and Chopard for sale (“I love watches, but love jewelry more,” Ms. Harrison said) — is intended to encourage people to linger.
“I want customers to feel like they can always come back and maybe ask the questions that they feel that they can’t ask in the Bond Street boutique. Or meet Tom and see what he’s working on,” she said, referring to Thomas Mason, Ninety’s watchmaker who has been with Richard Mille for 11 years.
Mr. Mason said, “I like every watch that leaves here to be as close as possible to as it was when it was new. And certainly mechanically perfect. I’m quite emotional about it.”
For Richard Mille, Ninety and its global counterparts are about doing the right thing. “A lot of brands just wash their hands of the piece once it’s left their retail store,” Ms. Harrison said. “But as an independent brand, we should take responsibility.
“We produce such a limited number of watches, there is no excuse for us not to try and help clients that either didn’t get the limited pieces when they were in the boutique — or clients who joined too late to invest in the more historical pieces, like the RM 002 or 003,” she added. “It’s about making the journey for the client as easy as possible.”