THE BIG INTERVIEW: William & Son, the connoisseur’s watch shop

William Asprey, owner of William & Sons.William Asprey, owner of William & Sons.

William Asprey launched William & Son, his own luxury London emporium, in 1999. As a seventh generation of the Asprey family, serving the needs of the world’s most discerning customers is in his blood. What these customers value above all are discretion, exclusivity and a clear understanding of their needs. The watch brands offered at the Mayfair boutique reflect this, and are a personal passion for Mr Asprey, as WatchPro discovered on recent visit to his store.

William & Son has a particular and definitively British take on the finest things in life, its website says by way of introduction to its business. The Mayfair boutique feels like it has been around for centuries. In fact, the business was actually founded in 1999 by William Asprey, a seventh generation member of the Asprey family, and only moved to its current location on Bruton Street in 2015.

The business creates and curates collections of the finest jewellery and timepieces, leather goods and silver and glassware as well as kit and tackle for elegant penmanship and gamesmanship. For more serious sport, William & Son also offers bespoke, handcrafted shotguns and its own line of perfectly cut but suitably sturdy country clothing.

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Watches take pride of place on the ground floor at William & Son, reflecting William Asprey's passion for collectable timepieces.

Watches take pride of place on the ground floor at William & Son, reflecting William Asprey’s passion for collectable timepieces.

“We are a luxury goods store. We can’t be pigeonholed because we do so many different products. We are a gun maker, we are goldsmiths and we have a Royal Warrant for those. We are watch dealers; we have the games, the homeware, really anything and everything that you could want or need. We cover a very wide range of products. Plus, we have the design aspect, which gives us the ability to create unique things for people, which is what I feel real luxury is. It is about using your imagination to buy a really personal present for somebody you really care about, which reflects your emotion, your thought and your care for selecting a particular gift for them. It is not about the value of that item, it is all about the thought and the message it is giving to that recipient. There aren’t many other places that do that. Some say: what you see is what you get, and if you ask for a different colour they tell them it isn’t available for six months. Here, we always try to accommodate our clients as best we can,” Mr Asprey describes in conversation with WatchPro.

William and Lucy Asprey with daughters attending the William & Son flagship store launch in 2015.  (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett / Getty Images for William & Son)

William and Lucy Asprey with daughters attending the William & Son flagship store launch in 2015. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett / Getty Images for William & Son)

The retail brand is unashamedly British in its outlook and service, but buys the very best products from around the world, including a range of watches, many from small independent Swiss watchmakers that few other stores would dare to stock. The company, with its Royal Warrant enhancing its international reputation, is less a destination for mainstream watch collectors, and more a Mecca for watch connoisseurs who put a higher price on time than almost anything else.

“When we started we went with a few of the obvious suspects. We had Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet; the sort of brands that I had worked with historically who gave us great support in the early days. But business plans change and they wanted me to do different things that did not fit with what we wanted to do,” recalls Mr Asprey.

Now the line up of watch brands comprises classical artisan brands including Laurent Ferrier, F.P. Journe, Moritz Grossmann, H. Moser & Cie, Romain Gauthier, De Bethune, Ferdinand Berthoud, and Ludovic Ballouard.

The company’s most mainstream brands are Frederique Constant, Graham and Girrard Perregaux. Prices start at £840 for a stainless steel entry level Frederique Constant and reach over £160,000 for a Ferdinand Berthoud Chronometre FB1 in rose gold.

Mr Asprey wants its customers to know that it can rise to challenges that other boutiques cannot, which goes some way to explaining why so many tiny Swiss independent watchmakers are on display.

These are watches that connoisseurs scour the world to find, and William & Son has them under one roof. That said, the portfolio has been created with more than a little gut feel, according to the proprietor.

“It is what interests me and [store manager] Roy Conner, who I have known since I was about 16 years old. He is a walking encyclopaedia on watches, and it is something that we both enjoy. Roy does more of the research than I do on new and upcoming brands. We watch them for a bit and see how they are progressing and getting on, and then we go and see them,” he describes.

“Between us we have a lot of experience of watches and we have a good feeling for what is going to work. When you speak to the individuals either making the watches or owners of the company, you have to get that enthusiasm from them,” he adds.

There is considerably more business intelligence to these decisions than Mr Asprey at first admits. In the rarefied world of Mayfair watch boutiques, William & Son has chosen exclusivity over higher volume luxury for a good reason.

“It gives you an economic edge and it also makes your dealings much simpler because you are not competing with a boutique in Bond Street or somebody else nearby because there isn’t anybody else selling these watches. Customers can either come to us or Switzerland or wherever else they have boutiques. It is nice to know that you have something from a team that makes only 40-50 watches per year. In the case of a F.P. Journe, around 700 watches per year. There is more exclusivity,” Mr Asprey says. “I think people who are interested in watches love to come in here because they see things that they will not see anywhere else in the world, not under one roof. That gives us a very strong position,” he adds.

The discreet exterior of William & Son.

The discreet exterior of William & Son on Bruton Street, Mayfair.

As WatchPro has been reporting on an almost daily basis for the past year, the post-Brexit devaluation of the pound created an immediate price advantage for British retailers selling to visitors from overseas. That price advantage is not so significant now that most watchmakers have increased UK prices, but tourists are continuing to flock to Britain this year because all the other holiday costs are cheaper.

Moreover, these visitors are coming with the express intention to shop; and the more they shop, the more they save compared to spending in their home countries.

Does this sort of discount encourage even the world’s uber-rich to spend more? You bet, says Mr Asprey. “We have certainly been affected. You will understand that watch collectors – they know the watch they want, and they will look around the world for where they can find it at the best price. The weak pound is marvelous,” he explains.

“Brexit has had a big impact on watch sales. It was an interesting opportunity. We were able contact our clients and point out that the exchange rate change creates a major saving for them. We would talk about the watch they have always wanted to buy, and encourage them to buy it now because they will save 20% without making any effort. It is a great way of engaging with our clients. We would not want them to miss this opportunity,” Mr Asprey continues.

A combination of circumstances, personal passion and business sense has led William & Son to specialise in hard to find watches, but Mr Asprey expresses no snobbery towards the likes of Rolex, Patek Philippe, Richemont, Swatch and LVMH. “We need the big groups that are making lots of watches, making lots of parts, selling them,” he says. “The ETA Group that supplies movements to hundreds of thousands of watchmakers, it would be a great shame if they stopped doing that just because the owners felt that some of the smaller companies would go out of business and they would reap the benefit,” he adds.

He does, however, gripe about the way watches are revealed so many months ahead of them being available to sell. “You are shown all the new product at Basel. Ask when it is going to be available and they say it is in three months, but that turns out to be next year. In the meantime new products are launched, so the first launch is obsolete,” he describes. “If you are going to launch a watch, then launch it, deliver it, sell it, because everybody wants the latest stuff.”

William & Son is a champion of independent watchmakers, and knows many of the owners personally. This gives the business a unique insight into the economics of the artisan end of the market in Switzerland, which is often reported to be on the brink of collapse.

Mr Asprey disagrees. Despite declining sales of Swiss watches over the past few years, he believes smaller family-owned businesses have proved to be more resilient than larger companies. “I think very often, because they are so small and specialised, that they are not affected. Life might become a little more difficult but, when you are producing so few watches, there is no reason why you would not be able to sell them. A lot of them do their own watches, and maybe do a bit of finishing work for somebody else. It is a close community. So, it never helps when money is tight, but they are in such a niche area that on the whole they find a way through,” he explains.

“It is more the mid-range brands that I think suffer more because they are the watches priced at £2500-7000. That is quite a competitive space. It is also a market where the types of people that aspire to spend that amount on a watch are easily spooked into not buying it. The guys who will go out and buy a Hublot, a Patek, a mid-range Graham as a gift for their sons, that may go. But they will still buy the more important piece for themselves, knowing that they can always get their money back from it if they need to,” he adds.

It is clear in the course of our conversation that Mr Asprey is a glass half full type of entrepreneur, but he is never complacent and does not assume that success in the past guarantees success in the future. “At the start of each day, we open the doors and hope that people come in. We hope for a big summer, a big Christmas, a big Easter, a big Ramadan, a big anything,” he jokes.

And his top picks for 2017? “F.P. Journe and Laurent Ferrier are extremely strong. The new Girard Perregaux Laureato is a lovely watch. A lot of people have queried it looking like a Royal Oak, but it is £11,000, that is a big difference. Girrard Perregaux has listened to what retailers have said to them about pricing, and that is great. We are expecting great things there. Moritz Grossman has brought out a lovely range of ladies watches, which is a new thing for them that hopefully will generate interest. Charles Oudin for the ladies with lovely bright colours. It is all looking good,” he concludes.

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