American Watch Guild Makes Time for Excellence

In the early 1930s, a time when consumer confidence in jewelry retailers was at its lowest point, former jeweler Robert Shipley crisscrossed America to create a national guild of professionally trained, ethical jewelers-the American Gem Society-whom consumers could trust and rely on when buying fine jewelry.

Now, the new American Watch Guild (AWG) is trying to do the same for jewelers who sell fine watches.

AWG’s goal is to bring together those authorized retailers, service providers, and manufacturers of fine timepieces “whose commitment to excellence [in sales and service] sets them apart in the fine watch industry” and to encourage consumers to do business with them.

Today’s errors. Both consumers and the watch industry need such a group, says AWG chairman Ralph Destino, former chairman of Cartier Inc. and current chairman of the Gemological Institute of America. “Today, there are many errors being committed in selling watches, and not just in discount pricing,” he notes. These include the gray market (sales by unauthorized dealers), transshipping (sales by authorized dealers to unauthorized vendors), counterfeiting, and the proliferation of Internet vendors who sell genuine watch brands without authorization.

“To protect its integrity against unauthorized and even illegal watch sellers, the industry must do a number of things, and [creating] the American Watch Guild is one of them,” Destino says. “We formed it for exactly the same reason Shipley did in forming AGS.”

The model for the AWG, as it was for AGS, is the medieval guilds of Europe. They were formed to promote professionalism within various crafts and to assure customers they were dealing with professionals and buying high-quality products. “We call it a ‘guild’ for a reason,” notes Destino, adding that the organization “fulfills the grandest sense of the Old World guilds.” AWG member David Kaster, owner of Seidlers Jewelers in Boston, agrees. Being an AWG member “lets the public see you are associated with other jewelers who sell quality [products] and care about fine watches,” he says.

Membership. AWG’s stated purpose is to be a “guild of fine watch professionals devoted to advancing the prestige of the industry [and] maintaining the high standards of product and service for which they are known in their communities.” Members must be authorized agents of the watch brands they sell, “maintain a channel for ethical distribution that respects the integrity of the watch” (no transshipping or gray market dealing), use trained watch sales associates, and provide authorized service for the maintenance and servicing of watches.

Currently, AWG has about 155 members (96 retailers and 59 watch companies) and two advisory boards, one representing leaders in the watch industry and the other comprising some of this country’s leading jewelers and watch retailers. The organization expects to choose a president before year’s end.

The goal for the next few years is to sign up 500 members coast to coast, but there is no limit on membership, says Destino. “We want all jewelers to aspire to be members, [as well as] any manufacturer who pledges allegiance to the principles of the Guild.” The group also will work to make the watch-buying public familiar with AWG, its eagle-and-watch logo, and its members.

Word of mouth. But don’t expect a massive public relations campaign. Both AWG membership and public awareness will grow primarily by word of mouth. “Slow and steady growth,” says Destino. The AWG board members will be “cheerleaders for the Guild,” as he puts it, and he expects stores to promote themselves as AWG members.

Members get AWG decals and plaques to identify themselves as members; “How to Buy a Watch” brochures for customers; a new directory of watch, clock, and watchband manufacturers and parts suppliers (being published this year); and an information hotline.

The AWG also is making itself known to the public through events such as the “Concours d’Elegance,” a free exhibition of some of the world’s finest timepieces, held in July at Sotheby’s in New York City. It was open to both retailers and the public, and special invitations were sent to some 400 collectors of fine timepieces. Internationally renowned actor Eli Wallach, a collector of watches and clocks, was guest of honor at its opening night reception.

The exhibition also presented some original ways to display watches: A juried competition was held among participating brands for the best window presentation. “Jewelers need to put more focus on tasteful and clever watch displays,” says AWG executive director Bertram Kalisher. The display contest offered a number of eye-catching and innovative ideas in the following categories: gold and diamond watches (won by Chopard), luxury fashion (Bertolucci), complications (Paul Picot), sports (Breitling), and design and innovation (Xemex, which also took the award for best display overall).

The AWG is also raising its profile through charitable activities. Since October 1999, events such as the Sotheby’s exhibit have raised more than $45,000 (from watch companies’ participation fees) for research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The guild also makes an annual donation of $1,000 to the scholarship fund of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. For more information about AWG, contact the American Watch Guild, 257 Adams Lane, Hewlett, NY 11557; (516) 295-2516.