Arjen van de Vall remembers the first watch he really liked.
“My dad had a Baume & Mercier wristwatch, which he wore all the time,” he tells me over lunch in Tower Bridge. “I remember it well.”
Like all good origin stories, the tale goes full circle: a career in digital retail beckoned, first for Amazon and then a longer, globe-trotting stint with Japanese giant Rakuten. Headhunters looking for the new boss of Watchfinder & Co, the second hand, luxury watch marketplace, were looking for someone with a digital retail background, an understanding of the analytics of e-commerce, and an appreciation for the precision engineering of the watch industry. The Dutchman made perfect sense.
“I like the engineering of online retail – you’re always in dialogue with the customer over what they like and don’t like, and you have to respond to that,” he tells me, with the confidence of a man who has given Watchfinder an international push. Despite the obvious economic headwinds, business has been good.
The marketplace’s existence is, in itself, interesting. Large parts of the luxury market have been less than welcoming to online, pre-owned platforms. A rival CEO was once forced to hold meetings at the industry’s largest conference off-site, because he was not granted a pass. Watchfinder is different: it’s owned by Richemont, the luxury conglomerate behind Dunhill, Cartier and a raft of other high-end maisons. Van de Vall thinks Richemont appreciate the journey of a luxury consumer; he, as a man who bought his first luxury watch pre-owned, is a perfect example.
As relations have improved between the maisons and brands like Watchfinder, they’ve found themselves collaborating on one issue that unites them all: counterfeit and stolen watches.
“It’s an epidemic really,” van de Vall tells me. A watch is stolen every 30 minutes across the UK, according to new research by Watchfinder. “People don’t carry cash anymore,” he adds, matter of factly – the implication of what people do carry that could still net a thief a pretty penny is obvious. That in turn hits watch sales – “I know people who just won’t wear nice watches out anymore at night” – and it’s a particular object of attention for a marketplace like Watchfinder.
The good news is that, as usual, technology may have an answer. Each watch has a unique series of fingerprints, from the serial number on the internal machinery to a pattern written into the face of the watch. The industry has got on board with Enquirus, a watch registry service, which allows second-hand marketplaces to check any watch that arrives at their door against a list of stolen timepieces. Where there’s a match, the police are informed, but more importantly the tool cuts down one avenue for watch thieves to shift their illicit goods. There’s a supply and demand issue – the more difficult it is to sell a stolen watch, the more the price comes down, and the less incentive there is for people to steal them in the first place. Van de Vall hopes the entire industry starts pushing Enquirus to customers.
But if Enquirus is a front in the war against watch theft, van de Vall has another batallion protecting against counterfeit watches.
“We’ve got a team of experts who look at each watch that comes in,” he tells me, in order to crack down on counterfeit watches – another epidemic the industry is having to deal with.
“We check serial numbers, mechanisms, everything. But it comes down to gut feel – if our guys aren’t happy with it, if something doesn’t feel right, we don’t put it on the platform.” That expertise may soon be added to with technology, too: the firm is looking at using blockchain technology to provide total transparency from manufacturing through purchase through repairs and any sell-on.
The likable van de Vall certainly doesn’t have the airs and graces of your usual luxury CEO, and perhaps that gives him – and Watchfinder – the ability to deal with the grim realities of theft and fraud.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate a nice piece of kit. His IWC timepiece today is a perfect fusion of form and function and leaves this naked-wristed reporter most jealous indeed.