“The one thing needed to change an industry is usually someone from outside the industry,” says Hamilton Powell, CEO of Crown & Caliber, an online retailer that specializes in certified pre-owned luxury watches. He’s speaking from experience. Powell came to the watch industry by way of finance; he ran a private equity firm before founding Crown & Caliber in 2013. The company is based in Atlanta, boasts 46 full-time employees, including a team of watchmakers, and has more than 300,000 active users. While still in the financial world, Powell heard horror stories of friends trying to sell expensive watches in pawnshops and online—so he decided to do some research. “I found there’s an estimated $100 billion in Rolexes, Breitlings, and Omegas in people’s closets, in the U.S. alone,” says the retailer, who arrived at that figure by scrutinizing sales data from the last few decades. Ultimately, he decided to “professionalize” the secondary watch market by creating an online buy-and-sell marketplace for high-end timepieces. “I said to myself, ‘This is a huge opportunity.’ ”
What made you think this was a business that could work?
I had a friend who was trying to sell his Patek Philippe watch—he listed it on eBay and got all these scam emails. He spent a Saturday afternoon driving around and getting lowball offers from retailers. He eventually caved and got $5,200 for his Patek Philippe Gondolo, which was then put on sale for $12,500 in the same store. I started researching and found that there is $7 billion in luxury watches sold every year in the U.S. I thought, There has to be a better way to sell your pre-owned watch.
Describe how Crown & Caliber works.
We help people sell their watches, and we help people buy certified pre-owned watches. For sellers, we take their watch in and tell them what we can sell it for. Then we’ll clean and service that watch, which actually adds to its value. We now have 300,000 active subscribers and 400,000 buyers, and a huge social following. It works because we can put a watch in front of more people than an individual can—driving the price higher than an individual can. We offer a one-year warranty on every watch, and we have Swiss-trained watchmakers on staff to service a watch if repairs are needed.
Ultimately, to do our job better for our consignors and to better service our buyers, it just makes sense to have a bigger audience, and we get that online. It’s an audience that foot traffic isn’t capable of generating. One email reaches 300,000 people.
How do you convey to your customers that it’s safe to send $10,000 watches through the mail?
If you’re selling a watch with Crown & Caliber, we send you prepaid packaging that’s 100 percent insured and call FedEx to pick it up. The watch is fully insured, and it’s on us if something happens to it. We make it so it’s not scary.
What are some of your most requested brands?
Rolex, Breitling, Omega, Patek Philippe, Panerai, IWC. What’s trending in the new market is what’s trending in the pre-owned market. What we’re seeing now is that the new-watch market is really struggling. When the new-car industry is struggling, the pre-owned car industry actually does really well. And we’re seeing that with our industry, too.
Do you ever get any side-eye from the Swiss watchmakers?
The conversations we’ve had with the brands have always been positive. What we’re doing is maintaining their brand integrity in the secondary marketplace. As opposed to those watches being sold on a street corner, we’re offering them refurbished and with warranties.
Describe your most fanatical customer.
We get the first-time watch buyer and the guy who wants to trade up from a TAG Heuer to a Rolex and the collectors. Yesterday we did business with a client who in the last three months has bought 37 watches from us. Since we serve the seller and buyer, many of our customers will do both. They buy a watch, get tired of it, sell it later, or upgrade to a better one. We keep that customer in the family.
Photograph by Harold Daniels