This is another in an occasional series of conversations in which The New York Times invites watchmakers, collectors and fans to discuss, well, almost anything they please.
In April 2022, Jason Gong, a diversity, equity and inclusion expert with 20 years of experience working in corporate America, united his lifelong passion for watches with his professional expertise when he organized the first meetup for Complecto, a watch community he had founded the year before to address the watch world’s longtime lack of diversity.
At that first meetup, which took place at the Bryant Park Hotel in New York City, almost 100 people showed up. Before the event, Mr. Gong had reached out to WatchBox, a pre-owned watch retailer, to borrow about two dozen timepieces for people to handle and discuss.
“A lot of my education over the last five to six years came from consuming as much as I could on YouTube, through WatchBox reviews,” Mr. Gong said on a video call last month. Justin Reis, WatchBox’s co-founder and global chief executive, was on the call, too.
The two men had met in December 2021, when Mr. Gong accompanied some friends to a holiday meetup at WatchBox’s headquarters in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., about a 20-minute drive north of Philadelphia.
“When I look back at the story we’ve been involved in with WatchBox, it’s really about forging these great relationships with people,” Mr. Reis said. “It’s a culture where everyone drops their guard. ‘You like watches? That’s great.’ And everyone opens themselves up in the room.”
That experience of inclusivity has been heightened, both men said, by the growing ranks of independent watchmakers — typically small, artisanal brands whose owners often use social media to connect directly with clients.
During their video discussion, Mr. Gong, who joined from his home in New York City, and Mr. Reis, who joined from the WatchBox office, spoke about the independent brands they were most excited about, retail experiences that can make newcomers to the watch world feel unwelcome and Rolex’s entry to the certified pre-owned sector.
The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Jason, what motivated you to found Complecto?
JASON GONG What I’m focused on with Complecto is really trying to transform the culture. As someone who’s loved watches for a long time, my experience has been that the industry has tended to look at customers in a really monolithic way: There are men, and there are women who like watches that are gem-set and really tiny. And then they look at markets: There’s China and the U.S. and the Middle East.
What gets lost in that approach is a ton of opportunity. I look at a platform like ours as a way to surface some of that nuance, and help introduce brands to an audience they’ve historically never spoken to.
The folks who’ve been buying watches for the last 50 years are not the same people who will sustain the industry and drive that growth in the next 50. So if you’re not already thinking about more diverse populations and a broader set of demographics — and seeking to understand how to engage them in an authentic way — you’re really behind the eight ball.
JUSTIN REIS Hearing your passion, defining what a watch collector looks like over the next 50 years, is exciting. Today, we have collectors from age 25 all the way up to 75. One of them said something to me recently: “I love coming to meet collectors. I may not have anything in common with them outside of our love for independents, but for me to learn in today’s age can’t be just being educated by the brand, because it’s a very biased point of view.”
When you’re in these very open and trusted environments where everyone comes as they are — T-shirts, jeans, shorts, whatever it may be — the principle this guy mentioned to me is “iron sharpens iron.” When you bring these collectors together and they’re all wearing their favorite timepieces, they’re educating each other.
Which watchmakers are you most excited about now?
GONG The Dutch brand Grönefeld is, in my mind, as good as it gets when it comes to independent watchmaking. Their watches are truly artisanal in the way they are crafted. I’m also a very big fan of Ming, a small brand out of Malaysia that’s maybe six years old. I’ve got on a Ming chronograph right now. They’ve got a unique design language and incredible diversity in terms of the kind of watches and different complications they offer.
I have to give hats off to WatchBox because they got ahead of other retailers and entities when it came to the indie game — the way they were elevating F.P. Journe, which is now the pinnacle for so many collectors. I still kick myself for not buying a Journe back in 2019.
REIS Being involved in collecting independents was really interesting to me — because the industry is largely stacked against these guys. It’s really difficult for them to produce watches from a capital perspective. But things are changing now for the better because all of a sudden, you’re seeing these artisanal watchmakers who’ve worked for some of the larger brands come to center stage and are adopted directly by collectors who are allowing a 50-piece or 20-piece watchmaker to survive.
One of the brands I saw when I was in Geneva earlier this year was Simon Brette, which produces perhaps 15, 20 watches a year. I was blown away.
So many of these independents are pushing the boundaries of contemporary horology. Are people still interested in traditional watchmaking?
GONG What people get most excited about is discovery. They want to understand things like history and heritage, but they also want to know that brands care about understanding who they are as a community and who they value, and they want to see those sensibilities reflected in the products they’re making.
It’s not necessarily, “Do we want contemporary versus traditional?” We want options. And we want to understand what is interesting about them so we can make better informed decisions around what we collect.
Justin, where do you make your best discoveries?
REIS I’m a sucker for Instagram. I’m constantly being fed pictures and articles from collectors. I often reach out directly to watchmakers myself. I love when I write a comment saying, “This is a beautiful watch,” and they’ll write back to me saying, “Thank you for acknowledging it,” and I know they’re not a bot. These little things go such a long way.
GONG It’s interesting to think about watches through the lens of inclusion because it’s just a watch. But in my opinion, buying a watch can be a very personal and deeply emotional experience. None of us need a watch so when you put a watch on, you’re making a very conscious decision.
That’s why the relationship component is so critical. I’ve known so many people who’ve walked into a store and didn’t even have an opportunity to ask if they could buy a Rolex Submariner that is not in the case. They had an interaction with a salesperson where they were not welcomed, they were profiled or they were ignored. And now they’re feeling terrible — unwelcome, unworthy, like they don’t belong — and they walk out and think, “This space is not for me.”
REIS When I think about the watch experience today, you get told no and you feel a lot of judgment in some cases, and it’s such a disappointing experience. The watch industry really has to lean in. We’re not always going to have available watches for all the customers who come in, but you’ve got to be able to take them somewhere where they can continue their enjoyment.
I think the relationship between the primary and secondary markets has to change. Brands need to think about how they bring that primary and secondary into one offering because ultimately, you have to solve for the consumer, not solve for the business.
Speaking of the secondhand market, what do you make of Rolex’s entry into the certified pre-owned category?
REIS It’s still in its early stages — we haven’t seen much of an impact today, but so many collectors are asking. You have this very large unauthorized market trading in watches, be it through dealers or collectors, and now there’s going to be a channel where a brand will be working closely with the secondary market. One day I think it’ll be a Harvard Business School case study of how a brand has been able to keep its collector community close.
Jason, would you consider buying a secondhand Rolex from a certified dealer?
GONG For those trying to get into the brand, this is an entry point. It gives you peace of mind, it’s certified and, for some folks, that really means something so it’s worth its weight in the premium that you will pay.
For me personally, for all the Rolexes I’ve owned, I’ve never had an issue with a single one. I wouldn’t necessarily value the premium.
What are your biggest wishes for the watch industry in the next few years?
REIS I would love to see the continued focus on education and building community. I know that sounds altruistic, but it’s really important that brands continue to provide access and get personal with their communities. This is an industry that for the longest time has been disconnected from who collects their watches and the independents are leading the charge in breaking that tradition.
From a business perspective, I’m excited to see how brands in general, not just Rolex, will bring the primary and secondary markets in closer alignment.
GONG This is probably going to be pretty obvious: Over the next five years, I’d like to see the industry become more diverse and inclusive. Accessibility is a really big part of that. We need to see more investments made in educating salespeople in how to engage more people at retail, and have more authentic conversations.
With underrepresented groups — people of color and women of color especially — they should be seeing more people who look like them who work in the industry, whether they’re selling the watches or working in leadership roles at organizations like WatchBox. If you can get those things right, you’ll create an environment that will draw a much larger group of people.
REIS Amen to that!