One of the great joys of Watches & Wonders, particularly to reporters like me, is that you get to hear a great deal of gossip and rumours.
Some turn out not to be true, like a whisper that Audemars Piguet’s own boutiques are selling watches at “market prices” — the prices that Royal Oaks are selling for on the secondary market — rather than recommended retail prices.
AP shut that down cold. “This is a complete rumour: we don’t sell new watches at market value in any of our stores,” a spokesperson at AP told WATCHPRO.
A much bigger story doing the rounds at Watches & Wonders looks to be more than mere speculation, which is that Rolex is looking at a way to help its authorised dealer network offer certified pre-owned watches through their stores.
Rumour has it the initiative even has a code name: Project Timeless.
I asked a number of Rolex ADs whether they knew more.
Most said there had been conversations, but nothing concrete, and it appeared Rolex was more in listening mode than telling its retail partners exactly what is coming.
I asked Rolex whether there is a plan, and was told it would not comment on commercial matters.
Less than a flat denial, as in the case of AP, but far short of confirming the pre-owned project is in any way real or ready for roll out.
We can only speculate, therefore, on what may be coming.
Rolex service centers
First thing to say is that Rolex and its network of authorised dealers have been investing in much greater capacity for servicing and refurbishing watches.
Rolex is expanding and hiring additional watchmakers and other workers for its Kings Hill service hub in Kent.
In addition — and in some ways more significantly — authorised dealers have been encouraged to open their own accredited Rolex service centers with fully trained watchmakers, certified by Rolex, on staff.
These accredited workshops also have access to Rolex parts.
This should, in theory, make watch servicing and repairs quicker, and it also paves the way for Rolex and its network to offer a premium service for certified pre-owned (CPO) watches.
Watches can be bought as trade-ins at Rolex shop in shops or franchise boutiques.
They can be serviced and refurbished on-site or at Rolex’s service centre, and put back on sale.
This is already possible and already happening.
What Rolex could do differently moving forwards is to provide recommended prices for the most common newer pieces being traded-in.
They could authenticate and certify second hand watches that have been through either its own or authorised dealers’ accredited workshops.
Importantly, they could offer a Rolex warranty on the second hand watch, potentially increasing its value, and making this official trading circle competitive with the pre-owned specialists like Watchfinder, Watchmaster and CHRONEXT.
Certified pre-owned watches could be sold with the same care and attention to service that new Rolexes require and they could be displayed in Rolex cabinets and windows (better than being empty).
Authorized dealers have taken trade-ins for years, but mostly as a means of selling a new watch. It was normally felt there was enough profit in pre-owned to focus too much energy on it.
This approach has seen ADs selling Rolex watches at retail prices, only to see them resold with specialist secondary market dealers at massive mark-ups.
Circling the wagons around both new and pre-owned watches, and keeping them within the Rolex authorised dealer ecosystem, means those ADs can profit several times over from buying and selling the same watch.
Even if margins are lower on pre-owned, the volume of transactions could greatly increase.
I suspect Rolex customers will like this as well, just as Mercedes or BMW customers usually stick with authorised showrooms to trade-in, trade-up or simply buy second hand cars.
These official car showrooms are almost all franchise operations, but consumers feel they are dealing directly with the manufacturers for all their needs: buying, selling, servicing, repairs and warranties.
The car comparison is a good one when you think about where this might end up for Rolex and its dealers.
The aim, if the rumor is true, is to offer the same quality of service and the same product excellence, whether a customer wants to buy new or second hand — just like Mercedes does.
The plan is fairly easy to imagine, but will be incredibly complex to roll-out (just ask AP, which has been trying for years to create a CPO programme).
As a prize, though, it looks worth the effort.
Pre-owned Rolex watches with Rolex warranties could and should be sold as equally desirable products in the same luxury way as new.