Now, this is a wristwatch.
Made by F.P. Journe, a Swiss company you’ve probably never heard of, it’s an ornate gadget featuring a gauge that indicates when it needs winding, and a rotating bauble called a tourbillon that’s designed to compensate for the effect of gravity on the watch’s mechanical parts.
Yes, it’s a beauty. And it will set you back $2.9 million, or about $2,899,950 more than someone might spend at Walmart for a watch that’s every bit as accurate.
But the people who shop at European Watch Company on Newbury Street in Boston already know the time of day. Typically, they’re affluent connoisseurs after something more ― an artistic treasure, a marvel of mechanical engineering, an investment that never loses its value. Maybe all three.
Albert Ganjei gets it. The lifelong “watchaholic” founded European Watch Company in 1993 in hopes of profiting from his hobby. “My wife and I were living paycheck to paycheck,” said Ganjei, a native of Iran who worked for nearly two decades developing engineering software. “At the peak I was making $80,000, $90,000.”
Supported by his wife, Caroline’s, earnings as an IBM Corp. executive, Ganjei started out offering relatively cheap watches with an average price tag of $300. Today, EWC sells about 400 watches a month at an average value of $40,000. Many sell for far more.
The pandemic hasn’t hurt business one bit. Reginald Brack, an independent watch industry consultant, said that costly timepieces have sold well despite the COVID crisis, partly because so many other luxuries were out of reach during the lockdowns — fine dining, for instance, or foreign travel. But even when the pandemic was at its worst, you could always order a $100,000 watch online.
And that’s worked out fine for EWC. The company took in $87 million last year, said Ganjei, nearly double its 2020 revenues of $47 million. He claims it’s the the “largest merchant on Newbury Street, by far.”
Virtually everything at EWC is pre-owned. During a recent visit, about 140 vintage Rolexes were on hand, as well as dozens of watches from other elite firms, such as Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Vacheron Constantin. The great majority of sales involve trade-ins. A customer might swap five $10,000 Rolexes plus $50,000 in cash for a single $100,000 Patek Philippe, an even more exalted brand famed for making virtually every part of its watches by hand.
Relatively commonplace timepieces priced in the tens of thousands of dollars reside in drawers inside tall chests, while several large safes protect the high-end merchandise ― watches that cost six figures and up. Shelves in a storage room are lined with elegant boxes from the original manufacturers. Another row of shelves contains nothing but watchbands in polished metal or fine leather. Ganjei holds up a Patek Philippe watchband in baby alligator leather, hand-stitched. Price: more than $400, watch not included.
Why fork over so much for a watch? It’s not quite as nutty as it seems. Compare it with the nonfungible token, or NFT, craze, where investors pay millions to claim ownership of a digital image that anybody can look at online for free. By contrast, high-end watches are tangible, touchable, real.
Each is made by hand by a master watchmaker, not cranked out of an automated factory. And a mechanical watch will never become obsolete. Kept wound up and properly maintained, it will remain accurate long beyond its owner’s lifetime.
Besides, watches grow in value like few other items. “Many people are realizing now that watches are an alternative asset class,” said Brack. “Like art, like wine, like cars. Many people are treating watches as investment vehicles.”
Ganjei’s staff of 23 includes three professional photographers whose only job is to take pictures of watches for display on the EWC website and iPhone app. There’s also a crew that painstakingly cleans and refurbishes old watches, including a master watchmaker who dismantles them — some with over 400 tiny parts — for cleaning and repairs.
But there’s no showroom here. Nearly all business takes place in a spacious room where 10 watch traders make transactions by phone and e-mail. And when customers do drop by, they’re rarely A-list celebrities trailing an entourage of flunkies, like former Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett in the movie “Uncut Gems.”
“They’re actually extremely normal,” said Ganjei’s son Joshua, EWC’s general sales manager and head curator. “They look very nondescript. They drive normal cars. They’re generally very nice.”
Maybe that’s because they made their money through unglamorous pursuits. “They’re in manufacturing or real estate,” said Joshua. “Some surgeons. A lot of people play in public markets. Investment managers.” Joshua sums them up as “the usual suspects.”
As for the sales staff, Ganjei said, only one, a former employee of Boston jeweler Shreve, Crump & Low, is a veteran merchant of luxury goods. “Everyone else is a watchaholic,” he said, amateurs with a love for all things horological. One is a former attorney; another was an EWC customer for 10 years before signing on with the company.
Then there’s Robert Reustle, who made his living as a trumpet player and music teacher until six years ago, when Ganjei took him on. For years, Reustle loved high-end watches from afar. “I had cursory knowledge. I knew stats, I knew specs,” he said. “I wasn’t in that strata of society where I could buy these things.”
But when EWC advertised for a salesperson, Reustle showed up. He met not only with Albert Ganjei, but every member of the sales team, to ensure they would work well together. “The other stuff,” Reustle says he was told, “you can learn.”
“He took a chance on me,” Reustle said of Ganjei, “and I will be forever grateful.”
Not all of EWC’s customers are wealthy, Reustle noted. “There are people who have been tremendously successful in life and can wire you buckets of cash, but then I also work with people who’ve been saving for a long time, and this is a milestone.”
Still, the company’s bread and butter business comes from people with plenty of bread. Stanley Rosenzweig of Brookline, for instance, who began collecting watches as a teenager and today serves as executive chairman of Nashville-based SVP Worldwide, which makes Singer sewing machines. Rosenzweig can pursue his passion on a grand scale. He’s got about 20 watches in his collection, and they don’t just collect dust. “If I don’t wear them, what’s the point?” he said.
Rosenzweig’s been buying watches at EWC since the store opened. “They are the best at what they do,” he said.
Customers like him can pay upfront, but Ganjei doesn’t expect it. He routinely ships costly watches to regular customers on their request, telling them to pay by check or wire transfer if they decide to keep them.
“Immediate trust brings a lot more lifetime clients for me than trying to get copies of a driver’s license,” he said. “We try to make it as easy as possible.”
But he occasionally gets clipped. One time a regular e-mailed him, asking for a $120,000 watch. Ganjei sent it along, only to learn that the customer’s e-mail account had been seized by an identity thief. Ganjei marked it down as lost money and valuable experience. But he keeps an eye on eBay and other online watch markets, hoping his stolen property will eventually turn up.
While Ganjei has plenty of customers who will pay six figures for a watch, lately EWC has been attracting collectors with even deeper pockets. His son Joshua now specializes in timepieces worth at least $400,000, and often quite a lot more. In the past six months, EWC has sold five watches priced at over a million, all of them F.P. Journes or Patek Philippes. And, of course, Joshua is hunting down a buyer for that $2.9 million F.P. Journe. It’s what makes the job exciting.
“Selling watches up to $150,000 is becoming boring to him,” his father said.