Rolex e-tailer Paul Altieri on his digital alter ego and the growth in pre-owned watch sales
The demand for Daytonas, Submariners, and other iconic Rolex timepieces has made the venerable Swiss brand the most counterfeited watchmaker in the world. With so many high-quality fakes circulating, the retail landscape for shoppers has become perilous, says Paul Altieri, founder and CEO of pre-owned Rolex e-tailer Bob’s Watches. “Ten years ago, I could spot a fake Rolex from across a living room,” he says. “Today, China’s making $300 to $500 copies that are so good, it can take us an hour to find out that they’re fake.”
Altieri, a longtime Rolex collector who formerly worked in real estate, bought vintage timepieces in the 1990s and early 2000s on eBay and Craigslist, the main marketplaces of the day, but found himself “wishing for a way for people to buy and sell Rolex watches in an open, safe network,” he says.
He ultimately answered his own call by debuting the Rolex Exchange in 2010 (the company became Bob’s Watches after a later acquisition). The site guarantees every watch on its platform is composed of 100 percent Rolex-made parts and backs its guarantee with a certificate. The Newport Beach, Calif.–based company struck a chord with consumers immediately, taking in $2 million in revenue the first year. Nine years later, it’s one of the biggest pre-owned Rolex sellers globally; the business posted
$47 million in revenue in 2018. Not bad for a website named Bob.
How did you get into Rolexes initially?
I’ve always loved Rolex watches, even when I was a kid. I was a golf caddy at 14 or 15 years old, and a lot of golfers at the club wore Rolex watches. I always said, Someday if I can buy a Rolex, I will.
What made you think that a platform like Rolex Exchange/Bob’s Watches could fly?
The pre-owned and vintage market for Rolex was huge already, but how could you feel like you were buying the real thing on sites like eBay? I thought, We should create a safe and secure platform for collectors and consumers; we should show the “buy” and “sell” price for each watch. I started with two employees and didn’t take any [venture capital] money, had no lines of credit, and no shareholders. We were able to grow patiently.
What makes Bob’s different from the other pre-owned luxury watch e-commerce sites?
We are totally transparent about how much a watch buys and sells for. We also guarantee that a watch is 100 percent authentic. Because what we found was that, yes, people want a good price—of course they do. But first and foremost, they want a Rolex that’s 100 percent Rolex. They don’t want one with a diamond bezel made in Texas and a dial from China.
How do you authenticate your timepieces?
We found a vendor, a company called Watch CSA, to do the authenticating. We have no interest in them financially. We partner with them and pay for their service. This level of authentication is important because Rolex is all about quality and craftsmanship. The crystal on Rolex watches is about $200, cost. The aftermarket ones from Japan or China are very good quality, but aren’t the same quality as Rolex. People want the genuine Rolex crystal, hands, and bracelet. Customers are hyper-focused on this.
What are the most popular Rolex models on the site right now?
We sell a lot of Submariners, Daytonas, GMTs—mostly sport models. The only thing that’s gotten a little soft is ladies’ watches, I think because more women are wearing the men’s styles. People usually come to the site having done their homework about the watches and us.
You have an office with a showroom in Newport Beach—what’s it like?
We were in Huntington Beach for years, but we outgrew it and moved into a 10,000-square-foot stand-alone building. We have a showroom that’s by-appointment, but people do walk in on occasion. Since we’re near John Wayne Airport, people will fly in to shop sometimes.
The website introduced watch auctions last year. What was the impetus for those?
We developed our own technology to sell watches through an auction format. The prices on some vintage Rolex watches have gone up so fast, and sometimes that means not everyone has access to them. With the auction format, we can announce that, say, four watches will go up for auction Monday. It gives everyone a chance to bid and makes buying a Rolex a little more egalitarian.
(Top: Justin Morton)