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These Singapore disruptors are reinventing the way we look at watches

Three homegrown brands offer services for luxury watch rentals, watch straps and customisable watches to take home.

Try Before You Buy

Test drive a Rolex, Panerai or more before plonking down your cash

Buying a luxury watch is no different from buying any big ticket item: you shop around to compare prices, weigh your options, ask your friends for their opinions, all before finally pulling the trigger on the big day.

However, the reality is, a buyer often doesn’t have the luxury of time while it comes to making a decision on popular models like a Rolex Submariner or Rolex Daytona. More often than not, those get snapped up even before they are displayed in a showcase.

Thanks to Acquired Time, having that in-demand luxury watch on your wrist no longer needs to be a pipe dream or tireless chase.

The local startup offers various monthly subscription models and prices start from S$3.33 a day for a Tudor Black Bay and go up to S$11 for an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph.

Customers need to sign up for a minimum of six months, and they can choose to continue wearing the timepiece after 31 days or swap it for another in the same tier or a lower priced one. The service is similar to the one American startup Eleven James pioneered in 2013.

Acquired Time was established last year by a duo who were introduced by a mutual friend. One of them is investment analyst Roy Tong, while his partner declined to be named. They met when Mr Tong was looking to buy his first luxury watch and his co-founder, who was already an “avid collector and knowledgeable horologist”, recommended a few options.

Mr Tong, however, was frustrated as there was no way for him to “test-drive” a watch before committing and the pair saw a business opportunity in offering a leasing service where watch lovers can try before they buy.

Acquired Time currently offers a dozen timepieces from popular brands like IWC, Panerai and even Chanel for women to rent but its inventory could soon grow due to the overwhelming response the company has received.

Its white collar clientele can be split into two categories: those who can afford their own watches but want a bit of variety, and aspirational ones looking to get into luxury watches. The company initially started out with one-off rentals for either a weekend or a week, but switched to a monthly subscription model so it could offer lower rates. A Rolex rental previously cost S$38 a day but goes as low as S$7.50 a day with the current monthly subscription model.

(RELATED: These luxury watches are great for kickstarting your collection)

Mr Tong shares that the company is enjoying a 100 per cent utilisation rate now and has a waiting list, hence the need to increase its collection of watches. “I personally feel having a small waiting list of not more than a week is healthy (because) we wouldn’t want too many watches sitting there not generating cash flow as we are a business after all,” the 27-year-old adds.

Once Acquired Time establishes its foothold in Singapore, it has plans to set its sights on other markets including Hong Kong.

Mr Tong has also noticed other Singaporeans offering similar luxury timepiece rental services since the company’s inception though on a smaller scale. He is more than happy to welcome the new players though: “We believe if creating this business is going to result in healthy competition which gives Singaporeans’ an increased access to luxury watches and gives rise to more budding local horologists, then we would have achieved our goal of making a value-adding difference in Singaporeans’ lives.”

 


Dress Up Your Watch

A one-stop shop for straps will give your timepiece a different look every day

Any fashionista will tell you that shoes can make or break one’s outfit. In the world of watches, straps are the equivalent of footwear – slap on a different one and it feels almost like you have a new timepiece on your wrist.

Hence the desire to learn how to swap your strap is the first sign that you have been bitten by the horology bug and it’s common to find collectors rotating a few bands for their favourite timepiece either to match the dial or their clothes.

Bing Yeo himself noticed the trend when he started his online shop selling various fashion accessories in 2014. The watch straps which he carried outsold just about everything else, leading him to rebrand his e-commerce business to Nomad Watch Works last December.

It specialises in various types of timepiece accessories including storage boxes and pouches, and the mission is to make it a one-stop shop for the watch community.

The bulk of the items, however, are still straps of various sizes and materials. You’ll find everything from a James-Bond-style nato (fabric-style) for your vintage Rolex Submariner to colourful rubber bands for Apple smart watches and mesh bracelets to give sports models a dressier look.

“Collectors are very particular about how they dress their watches – the software must match the hardware – so our job is to advise them,” says Mr Yeo, who started his online business in his bedroom but has since expanded to a warehouse in Eunos. He even has a social media assistant managing his online presence.

“Factors like your lifestyle will determine what sort of straps work best for you: if you’re outdoors most of the time, we won’t recommend leather because of the tendency to perspire so we will suggest a fabric strap instead,” he says. “Also, if your watch is chunky, it will not look good with a thin strap.”

(RELATED: All you need to know about watch straps)

He adds: “Even for something as simple as a nato, they have different thicknesses and are made of various materials. We sell all kinds: from basic ones to those that are more unique, like a seat-belt version which we just introduced.”

Nomad Watch Works is also set to offer more premium straps which will be made in-house. “We have been experimenting for the past half year or so with our own handmade leather products,” shares Mr Yeo, who adds that a team of two will hand-make everything on a made-to-order basis.

The 29-year-old says his own interest in watches was sparked from reading online forums: “I’m fascinated by movements and the mechanism behind it, as well as the history. There is so much to learn and I enjoy talking to my customers about watches.”

There are plans to start a watch review blog soon and some of that has already started surfacing on Nomad Watch Works’ Facebook page. “We want to communicate with the community and at the same time, we also get to show how straps can give watches different looks,” quips Mr Yeo, who reveals that a physical retail store is also in the works later this year.

But his favourite part of the job is road-testing his products. In fairness, it’s all part of the customer service: “Leather ages over time and I often get customers asking me what it looks like after a while, so wearing it allows me to show them the effect.”


Quality, Bespoke Timepieces

Local siblings aim to make their startup the go-to brand for customised watches

Most watch collectors are happy to buy retail timepieces but not Nicholas and Jonathan Han. The siblings, who are also horology enthusiasts, started their own micro brand Schaffen Watches two years ago after Jonathan, 23, challenged himself to assemble his own timepiece from components sourced from Germany and eBay.

The project caught the eye of people around the brothers including their father who also requested one, as well as the Republic of Singapore Air Force which commissioned a personalised piece for a retiring colonel.

Sensing a demand for affordable bespoke watches – Schaffen’s prices start from about S$300 for a quartz model and S$600 for a mechanical – the siblings launched their micro brand after their pitch was accepted for an incubation programme at the Singapore Management University’s (SMU) Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

Nicholas, 23, who is in his final semester as an economics and business student at SMU even extended his studies by a year to focus on growing the brand; while Jonathan, a medical undergraduate, pursued a watchmaking course in the UK to equip himself with the technical know-how of the trade.

The quartz Signature series which Schaffen (German for ‘create’) launched with has been well-received and is available in two sizes – either 35mm or 40mm. Buyers can customise their own unique timepiece by picking a dial, markers, hands, strap and then personalising it with an inscription. It takes about a week to be produced and typically anyone who places his or her order will receive the timepiece in about a fortnight, after factoring in shipment time.

This year, a new mechanical collection called Reference 65 was introduced with two variations: a dress watch model A65 and a sportier incarnation S65. Customers were also given the option to design their own rotor which will be finished by local jewellers.

The Reference 65 is still in pre-order phase and the first batch is expected to be completed by June. Subsequently, it will take about four to five weeks to fulfil an order as the process of crafting a mechanical watch requires more attention with additional components; and a buyer can still expect to have his or her unique timepiece on the wrist in about six weeks from the point of order confirmation.

Its Kickstarter campaign is currently over 200 per cent funded and while the brand has sold hundreds of bespoke watches and grown organically over the last two years, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

“The market can be very diverse and often saturated,” notes Nicholas. “When we started, we often faced criticism and dismissal from others because people tend to assume that buying a watch is only about a brand and the impression it gives.”

Watch snobs who pooh-pooh the idea of a homegrown brand still exist though good reviews and strong word-of-mouth is helping Schaffen to establish a name for itself here and overseas. “It has definitely been difficult to earn the acknowledgment and trust of people… but along the way, we learnt that there remain many watch enthusiasts who are genuinely intrigued by what we’re doing,” shares Nicholas. “Watch snobs are rarely interested by niche, boutique brands like us anyway and we have learnt to look past their remarks.”

There have been enough proud moments to keep the siblings encouraged. He adds: “A customer and watch collector in the US e-mailed us after receiving his watch last month, sharing that this is the best watch he’s owned, because it’s uniquely his.”

This story was originally published in The Business Times.