When Osvaldo Barbosa, an electrical contractor from Bridgewater, bought his first luxury watch he was so nervous about spending $2,500 that he considered returning it, only he was too embarrassed. “This is crazy,” he thought. “But my business had been going well, and it was something I could look at and say, ‘I’m getting someplace.’ ”
That watch led to another expensive watch, and another and another, and to a subscription to WatchTime magazine. “I have a nice car,” he said, “but when you get to that cookout you park it outside. The watch is always with you.” He paused for a moment of reflection. “Maybe I’m making it more than it is.”
If so, he’s not the only one. After hitting $4 billion in 2007 and then dropping to $2.6 million by 2009, US sales of watches that cost $1,000 and up are on the rebound. They reached $3 billion in 2011, according to the LGI Network, a division of the NPD Group market research firm.
In Boston, Shreve, Crump & Low has tripled its watch inventory as part its recent move to Newbury Street. It’s an almost $7 million collection made up of brands so pricey that some cost more than the average sedan.
Never mind that some people see such watches as examples of gross excess. Or that most Americans experience high-end watches only in glossy ads, where photos show men who look like Don Draper of “Mad Men” and the high-performance timepieces their work requires: deep-sea diving or piloting a biplane.
Despite the rocky economy, spending on luxury goods has been growing at a faster rate than overall retail spending, according to MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse. Plenty of people still want and can afford a timepiece that has less to do with telling time than making a statement.
“It’s the married man’s toy,” said Jack Huang, the owner of Douzo and Basho restaurants. “I realized I cannot look at another woman, and I cannot get the sports car I wanted because the wife gets upset.”
Prices for luxury watches start around $1,000 and go as high as six figures (there are million-dollar watches, but they are rare). A smart collector can buy watches that not only make good heirlooms but also, particularly with rare models, can make good investments, said Shreve vice president Michael Groffenberger.
The luxury watch business caters mainly to men, and recently, Gregory Brown, 38, an owner of Prod4ever, a digital think-tank in Boston, was at Shreve’s with a hankering for a sports watch. The sales team was dressed to a high gleam and smiling, and Brown, a man whose family has its own crest, was wearing what’s best described as “watch-enthusiast casual”: jeans, sneakers, button down shirt, and an $8,000 Reverso by the Swiss watchmaker Jaeger LeCoultre.
“I think I like this one best,” said Brown, as he appreciated a $10,700 IWC Spitfire pilot’s watch, prompting some good-natured ribbing from the Shreve’s team, who at this point in their long and profitable relationship with Brown are both salespeople and friends.
“Is the only IWC watch you have the Galapagos?” asked Groffenberger.
“Yes,” said Brown.
“Weak,” Groffenberger replied.
Brown left without making a purchase, but said he would be back. “It’s a conversation,” said Shreve’s watch buyer Christopher Hislop.
Many luxury watch devotees don’t confine themselves to one. Leonardo Solis, 43, of Needham, describes himself as a “watchaholic” who buys and trades in luxury watches at least twice a month at the European Watch Co., on Newbury Street.
“You get a watch, and the first thing that hits you is the aesthetics — it’s just like a date,” said Solis, who’s married and owns a Back Bay real estate company. “You love the way it looks and you might feel a sense of complete satisfaction, [but] then you start criticizing and overanalyzing and after a while you find defects. After a few hours with her, you start seeing things you didn’t see in the first few minutes.”
Ernie Boch Jr., the car magnate and chief executive of Norwood’s Boch Enterprises, has 40 watches in his collection and says he looks for a watch with “a story.” Indeed, his most recent purchase, a $9,000 Swiss-made Artya, has a face made of 65-million-year-old dinosaur dung. Another has a dial that contains actual moon dust, and a strap partly woven with fibers from an International Space Station suit. His “Insanity” watch, by Pierre Kunz, is so complicated that it requires a tutorial. “Unless you know the formula, you can’t tell the time,” said Boch, pleased.
Meanwhile, as nice looking as most high-end watches are, as many a female fashionista knows, sometimes one has to suffer for beauty. Or, as Rasheed Walton, of Foxborough and Fort Lauderdale, said of his 2.5 pound Breitling Bentley, “You definitely notice it on your wrist.” The $16,000 customized watch is slightly heavier than an 11-inch MacBook Air.“Every once in a while,” he acknowledged, “I have to take it off.”
But as the chief executive of Genius Advertising, Walton says he needs to look a certain way. “You can’t walk into someone’s business and tell them I can make your business more successful if you don’t look successful.”
But it’s not a look everyone likes. In fact, a high-end watch can send precisely the wrong message.
That was the case in Russia in April, when a scandal erupted over a picture of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill sitting at a glossy table wearing a $30,000 Breguet watch. When it drew criticism, the photo was altered to remove the watch — a move that sparked more controversy, because although the watch was gone, its reflection in the shiny table remained visible. (The church later restored the original photo showing it on his wrist.)
That same month, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was spotted slipping off his very expensive watch — a $70,000 Patek Philippe — before greeting supporters, a move that generated unflattering online comments and news stories about his alleged fear that that it would be stolen.
Closer to home, with a disappointing jobs report in May, the watches offend, too.
“If you have that level of wealth, you should start a scholarship fund,” said Matthew DiStasio, 49, a salesman at Bernie & Phyls in Saugus. “There are better things you could do with that money.”
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.