The world of fine watches in Singapore is expanding

Singapore is booming as a market for Swiss watches, and their homegrown watch brands are also booming.

Fifty years ago, according to His profile is on the World Bank websiteThe country suffered from severe unemployment and poor infrastructure, but decades of inward investment helped develop a high-income economy. Many of its 5.5 million residents buy high-end watches.

Between January and May, Swiss watch exports to Singapore rose to 676.4 million Swiss francs, up 8.6 percent from the same period last year, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. The results extended its ranking as the sixth largest market in the world, ahead of Germany, France and the United Arab Emirates.

In January, LVMH Watch Week, an annual brand show from the French luxury giant, came to Singapore for its fourth edition. The second edition of Spring Sprang Sprung, the small brand exhibition that debuted last year, is scheduled to be held from October 20 to 22.

All this activity means that “more people are more watch-conscious and collecting watches,” said David Sze, 34, founder of Humism, a local watch brand.

Both big brands and local makers agree that Singaporeans prefer big names. Rolex accounted for 42 percent of all 2021 sales in the city, while Omega had 12 percent and Patek Philippe, 7 percent, according to Fleur Roberts, head of luxury goods research at Euromonitor.

Many single brand boutiques and multi-brand stores such as Sincere Fine Watches and The Hour Glass are concentrated in the high-density shopping areas along Orchard Road and in the Marina Bay Sands resort complex.

Panerai, a brand owned by Richemont and based in Florence, Italy, has stores in both regions. The store in the ION Orchard shopping center is particularly crowded, said Jean-Marc Pontroy, CEO of Panerai. “We have about 40 people who come in every day, sit down and try on the watches,” he said, noting that it is twice as many shoppers per day as other Panerai stores around the world. “For a monocle watch brand, it’s a pretty good number.”

No one can give a firm figure on the number of watch stores in Singapore, but they spread out from the center to areas such as Resorts World Sentosa, an island off the south coast of Singapore that has an outlet of the Swiss Watch Gallery, chain multi-brand stores, and other shopping malls in residential areas.

Some of Singapore’s interest in major brands was generated by local watch clubs, such as the Singapore Watch Club, which had special edition watches designed by companies such as Cartier, Hublot, and Ulysse Nardin. The club has over 50,000 followers on Instagram, and regularly schedules events around town.

The RedBar Group, which describes itself as the world’s largest community of collectors and watch enthusiasts, also has a chapter in Singapore with more than 150 members and more than 1,200 followers on Instagram.

One RedBar member, Evan Chua, 46, founded watch company Vario in 2016. He joined the club to “connect with other watch enthusiasts,” he says from his downtown home office, where he designed six collections, including a limited edition 40mm double-time reversible Swiss quartz watch (priced at $421).

He said, “We have events at the watch brand store, or there are some get-togethers where everyone brings a few of their watches and we sit at a long table and we’ll talk about watches and look at each other’s watches.”

“It’s good for me,” he added, “as I see first-hand what the local market likes,” recalling one session last fall where participants shared a Tissot PRX, a new Cartier tank, a 24-karat gold Grand Seiko, and some watches from Mitch Mason, a small brand based in Singapore.

Local watch makers agree that foreign buyers, primarily from the United States and Europe, are their main targets. Leon Leung, 38, owner of watch and accessory maker Boulder Supply, said foreign buyers make up 80 percent of his clientele.

Many Singaporeans who support homegrown brands are “people who are just starting to, you know, learn about collecting watches,” said Sugiharto Kusumadi, 46, founder of the multi-brand store chain Red Army Watches.

Mr. Kusumadi also co-founded the Spring Sprang Sprung watch show, which featured 13 domestic watch brands among 24 exhibitors and attracted more than 1,300 visitors, he said in a text message. He added that he hopes to double the number of local exhibitors this year.

Some entrepreneurs who have built homegrown watch brands say they have faced steep learning curves.

Benjamin Chi, 37, said he had no business experience in 2012 when he started his first brand, Maison Celadon, selling watches made in China and “learning the ropes while I was making a lot of mistakes and losing a lot of money,” he says.

He now owns four watch brands, including Benjamin Chee Haute Horlogerie, which has collaborated with watchmakers including Andersen Genève on timepieces such as the 37.7mm platinum World Time counter with the map of Singapore on the dial.

The watch, which retails for CHF58,800, or $65,740, is designed to attract buyers in Singapore who are watch enthusiasts and connoisseurs, according to Pierre Alexandre Eichlemann, president and CEO of Andersen Genève.

There are risks among local watch brands, too. Cody Chua, 31, who founded the Coup De Coeur brand in 2015, chose a barrel-shaped case for the unisex 44mm stainless steel Élan model because “the round shape is so popular,” he says.

Most of the local entrepreneurs sketch their ideas or use computers, and then the plans go to manufacturers in countries like China. Completed hours are often stored and distributed from home offices.

Ray B, 45, who had no watchmaking experience when he founded watchmaker Gane in 2020, said operating from Singapore can make it difficult to source a quality product because “you don’t have a personal network”.

But his engineering background helped, he said: “I had a lot of experience with sourcing and discussions about specifications, engineering drawings, and machine capabilities. It helps in my discussion of what design is viable and what is not,” and when negotiating prices.

There are some efforts underway to improve watchmaking skills in Singapore.

Gijs Terhorst, an instructor at the Patek Philippe Institute, which offers a two-year program in Singapore, said via email that he has trained 11 watchmakers since 2017, five of whom were Singaporeans.

Red Army Watches said it offers 24 lessons a year at its store in the Suntec City shopping center “so people can, you know, try it out,” Mr. Kusumade said, and “get a taste of watchmaking before they take a more serious path. Because it’s not cheap to go to Switzerland, and you end up spending close to $50,000 for the whole course.”

The one-day program, called The Watch Academy, can be reserved on the retailer’s website for $412.52 per person. New collectors often want to tinker with their watches, said Mr. Kusumadi, but they “don’t know how to open the case, how to remove the hands.” The course provides basic instructions on disassembling and reassembling used watches and tools.

Mr Chi said he has been developing a training program for his fine watchmaking brands since 2021, and now has five students between the ages of 18 and 35 who were born or live in Singapore and are now learning enamelwork and other techniques from watchmakers in Switzerland, China and elsewhere.

He is also building a new home studio in La Zagaleta, Spain, near Marbella. Vario’s Chua said his five-year plan includes “more work in crafts.” Mr. B said he wanted to try a diving watch or a chronograph. In a later email, he wrote that he now had preliminary designs for A chronograph with a diameter of 38 mm that he plans to unveil next year.