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RETAIL FOCUS: Swiss Gallery’s 5-star hospitality

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Opening in Mayfair’s famous Grosvenor House in the summer of 2019 looked like a golden opportunity for Swiss Gallery, the UK luxury watch and jewellery outpost of an Iraqi-owned operation. After a promising start, covid shut down the hotel for six months out of the past two years, but director Swiss Gallery Nadeem Sarwar is now seeing life and customers return as Rob Corder discovered on a recent visit to the boutique soon after it reopened in the spring.

Perceived wisdom states that housing a luxury jeweller inside a 5-star hotel is a loss-leader, at best, and ruinous, at worst.

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Not that this wisdom has always held true.

Cellini had a fabulous run in the famous Waldorf Astoria in New York before Chinese investors bought the old dame and closed it for renovation in 2017, forcing the jeweller to the stars to open a street-level store a few blocks up Park Avenue.

A new luxury watches and jewellery boutique in London’s Grosvenor House is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Cellini by making a success of retailing in another globally iconic hotel located on the world famous Park Lane.

Swiss Gallery is not actually brand new to the hotel.

It opened in the summer of 2019 and was just finding its feet with an exceptional Christmas season before the shutters came down for the boutique and its host hotel as the pandemic shuttered hospitality in March last year.

“We had a great first summer and we were having to stay open until after midnight at Christmas because we were seeing so many customers,” recalls Nadeem Sarwar, director of the Grosvenor House boutique when WATCHPRO dropped in for a visit soon after the hotel reopened following a third lock down that finished in May.

That’s the thing about hotel shops. When the place is packed with happy high net worth visitors, business can be brisk.

Between times it can be a graveyard.

Just ask Boodles, which ran a store in the exact same location as Swiss Gallery for almost two years but made a hasty (and expensive) exit when it failed to work.

2018 accounts for Boodles say they took an exceptional loss of £930,000 to write off the Grosvenor House Hotel venture.

It is worth noting that Boodles was focusing on its high end jewellery, and did not have Patek Philippe watches, for which it is an authorised dealer, in the store.

Swiss Gallery is also selling fine jewellery, but it has Girard-Perregaux and Ulysse-Nardin watches on top.

Swiss Gallery has displays for Greubel Forsey, Girard Perregaux and Ulysse Nardin.

Plus, Mr Sarwar is sourcing unique watches from highly sought-after pieces from the likes of Lang & Heyne, Greubel Forsey and other independents for clients he has been working with for many years.

Mr Sarwar is a secret weapon for Swiss Gallery thanks to his little black book of gazillionaires that he cultivated while working for almost a decade with Marcus Margules at his Bond Street showroom, Marcus.

When that store closed his services were sought by Art of Time, a watch gallery in Monte Carlo part owned by Chopard, which was looking to open in London.

That opening is on ice after the pandemic year and changes to tax rules after Brexit were deemed to make it unviable.

Around 90% of luxury watch sales on Bond Street are to tourists, Mr Sarwar estimates, and he assiduously built relationships with every visitor from the Middle East, the Americas and Asia that crossed the threshold of Marcus.

Those tourists will not be back this year, but there is life at Grosvenor House, in part due to Brits treating themselves to a luxury stay in London this summer.

There is also hope that the conference and awards season will burst back into life later this year. What better way to celebrate winning a prestigious gong than for the boss to treat themselves to a beautiful new watch?

Realistically, Swiss Gallery is planning for 2022 when the normal rhythm of the luxury hospitality industry returns: Middle Eastern visitors in the summer and more Americans in the run up to Christmas.

By then, Mr Sarwar is hoping to have a broader range of watch brands, and is hoping he can persuade LVMH, Swatch Group and Richemont to stock some of their most exclusive watches with Swiss Gallery.

“I have customers for Breguet, Omega, IWC, Jaeger, Hublot and Lange,” he says, “particularly high end limited editions.”

Eventually, of course, he would love Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, but he is realistic about his prospects in Mayfair.

Swiss Gallery’s parent company might have more luck. The business is based in Baghdad, where you might think there’d be a livelier market for AK47s than for 5711s.

Not so, it seems. Swiss Gallery has a stunning showroom in the 5-star Warwick Babylon Rotana Hotel and is about to open a second store in the Baghdad Mall, which would not look out of place in Dubai.

There are no Patek Philippe or Rolex authorised dealers in Iraq but, like every country, it does have a wealthy elite and an entrepreneurial spirit that thrives whenever the population embraces peace.

Swiss Gallery’s owner, Jassem Iskander, is just such an entrepreneur, and a member of the Iskander family that has interests ranging from jewellery manufacturing, gold trading and retail jewellers in Dubai to real estate and even hospitals in other Gulf countries and Lebanon.

As a wholesaler, it has a global network for its gold and jewellery.

Swiss Gallery in Baghdad stocks Jaeger-LeCoultre, Bulgari, IWC, Omega and Baume & Mercier, so it has connections with all three of the major luxury watch groups.

Mr Iskander has over 37 years’ experience in the jewellery and watch business and brings all that knowledge and expertise to Swiss Gallery: “hand-selecting each luxury timepiece with a meticulous eye for design and craftsmanship and building strong, lasting relationships with some of the world’s leading watch companies,” according to the company’s website.

If the past 15 months of the pandemic has taught us anything, luxury watch retail has become a little less about where you are and more about who you know.

That should help Mr Sarwar and Swiss Gallery’s London outpost get over the hump of this year and set itself up for success in 2022.

There is time, and a convincing case that more brands should consider working with the retailer and, in the meantime, relationships with Kering’s Ulysse Nardin, Greubel Forsey and Girard-Perregaux, plus exceptional independent watchmakers and wealthy global clients, should tide the business over.

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