Shaking up Asia’s luxury watch market

HONG KONG: Austen Chu bought his first Royal Oak at 18 and soon parlayed snapshots of his wrist bling into a massive following on Instagram. That got him in with the storied Swiss watch brand Audemars Piguet, with whom he collaborated on a titanium perpetual-calendar special edition, exclusively for the Chinese market, in early 2020.

Now 26, Chu is turning from collector to CEO and co-founder as the head of a pre-owned online watch trading platform aiming to shake up the industry in Asia.

He’s raised US$8mil (RM35mil) in funding for his platform called Wristcheck, which has opened a retail location in a prime spot at Hong Kong’s Landmark shopping mall near Louis Vuitton and Tiffany.

Financiers include Gobi Partners, which manages the Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund and AEF Greater Bay Area Fund. Also involved is K3 Ventures, the family office headed by Kuok Meng Xiong, the grandson of Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok.

Wearing sneakers, dressed in black and sporting a Royal Oak 50th Anniversary selfwinding tourbillon on his wrist, Chu said the website has about US$80mil (RM355mil) worth of luxury watch inventory for sale.

“In Asia, there hasn’t really been a platform that has ever emerged that has been trusted by the masses,” Chu said in an interview in Switzerland, where he was visiting Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias.

With the business based in Hong Kong and its sites set on young, wealthy clients, Wristcheck wants to bring Asian buyers and sellers online to a business that has traditionally been done face-to-face. He’s also going up against well-established industry players including trading platforms like eBay and Chrono24 as well as resellers such as WatchBox that have also expanded into Asia.

Watchfinder, the pre-owned dealer owned by luxury conglomerate Richemont, opened a boutique in Hong Kong in 2019. Arjen van de Vall, the platform’s CEO, said the company’s sales growth in Hong Kong had been “surreal” until the secondary market for luxury watches took a downturn last April.

“Hong Kong is known as an incredible investor-collector market, not only because there is a lot of wealth, but also that there’s a real watch passionate community,” the CEO said.

The island is the centre of watch trading and watch culture in Asia, but it’s remained a mostly analogue rather than digital market, with most transactions taking place in bricks and mortar locations. Chu was born there and was raised in Shanghai.

“Our strategy initially is to be based in Hong Kong, doubling down on Hong Kong, but growing in greater China and also in South-East Asia,” he said.

“People view Hong Kong too often as the gateway into China. But actually it’s also the gateway into South-East Asia.”

Being located in Hong Kong should allow the platform to source supply from local dealers who have been trading watches face-to-face for generations, Chu said. He also wants Wristcheck to expose sellers from Europe and the United States to the massive collecting market in Asia.

The site is aiming for transactions totalling about US$70mil (RM310mil) this year, with the company charging fees of about 12% on each deal. Chu wants Wristcheck to focus especially on young watch enthusiasts.

“For us, 43% of our paying customers are under the age of 30,” he said. “So that is extreme.”

Wristcheck plans to use the money raised to fund its expansion into China and South-East Asia and also to develop its mobile app. — Bloomberg

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