Thursday, January 2, 2020

Where Evangelism Meets Retail - A Few Minutes with Jeff Hess

Believe it or not, all is not doom and gloom in "Watchville".

Courtesy of Jeffrey Hess
I started out late last year (yes, a week or so ago) wanting to do a story about Jeff Hess and what he has built not only with Old Northeast Jewelers but with three of the brands he has championed as a distributor in North America.  My reasoning behind this was that Jeff has frequently decided to adjust his sails in what might be considered a contrary manner to some.  He is not a "churn and burn" type of guy.  He has two PHYSICAL stores, he goes to BaselWorld every year, and if there is an equivalent in the watch business to that phrase in Ocean's 13 - "He shook Sinatra's hand", he would definitely be one of those people.

Jeff and I go back a wee bit, longer than some, and not nearly as long as others, and one of the things I truly appreciate about him is his refusal to simply take things at face value, and his willingness to consider alternative points of view.  Curious to relate, the more we got to talking about his experiences in the watch business, the more and more I got drawn into a deeper discussion about Grand Seiko.  So, gentle reader, a few minutes with Jeff Hess -

Tempus Fugit:
So what got you into the watch business in the first place?

Jeff Hess:
In a word - Vintage. I started collecting watches as a high-schooler, I even went so far as to enroll in watchmaking school. But I found out that I liked buying and selling vintage watches much more than I did watchmaking. One thing led to another... and here we are.


TF:
You've seen a lot of changes in the business, particularly in the retail sector - what has been the most positive?

JH:
In the long term it is the realization from the brands and the manufacturers, that the USA is completely different animal in the world of marketing than every other world market. There is a new awakening on this issue especially with brands like Breitling who, in my opinion, "get it" and proceed accordingly. Mr. Kern has it figured out. On a more immediate level it is the idea that smart watches have actually saved the Luxury business. Our business has thrived on Boomers and Gen X-ers. But now we see successful Millennials in their mid to late 30's graduating to luxury in huge numbers. From wearing nothing on their wrist, to smart watches and then maturing to luxury watches. We''ve even noticed Generation Z's are now having an interest.  I also want to give a nod to smaller brands and micro-brands who are leading the 21st century renaissance in collector/ design interest.


TF:
And the most negative?

JH:
It would likely be the age-old practice of "over production" from the big manufacturers. Overproduction is not new. It has been going on since the 1880's when Waltham "dumped their dogs" on the English market in Birmingham when too much stuff piled up. The big manufactures have not figured out a way of dealing with this. It puts great stress on retailers, distributors and on the manufacturers bottom lines. And it sends a confusing message to the end-user/buyers.

TF:
In our conversations leading up to this interview, it became more and more apparent that Grand Seiko holds a special spot in your heart not only as a retail partner, but as a watch enthusiast.  At times I thought I'd accidentally walked into a revival meeting, you are quite the evangelist!  What is it about Grand Seiko that attracts you as an enthusiast?

JH:
Great question! I am a watch guy. Perhaps a ten percent fashion guy, but absolutely a 90% watch guy. As mentioned, I got my start in vintage back in the 80's when acquiring that proverbial old "box of watches" from an estate. It seemed the only ones that ran upon picking them up after years of neglect and abuse would be the Rolexes, The Seiko's and the Breitlings. Shake them and they ran, no matter how weather beaten. 
Courtesy of Jeff Hess
When one of the watch magazine publishers brought Grand Seiko to my store in 2010 (yes we were one of the first three retail stores to take on the brand in the US) asking us to carry an 8000 dollar Seiko, well... let's just say I got a little push back from my wife, my staff and just about everyone else. "An 8000 dollar Seiko? Absurd!" was probably the most often heard type of comment. But I brought my wife around and we brought Grand Seiko in. It was not easy but the design and the quality was over-the- top insane. As a vintage guy I remembered the lion medallion series and the old Diashock Chronometers. And honestly?  While I knew that converting our Swiss and German watch aficionado clientele would not be easy, I knew it was doable. I am an equal opportunity watch guy. The Swiss in many ways "own" this space. But I felt there was ample room for the Germans and the Japanese in the luxury space as well. 
Courtesy of Old Northeast Jewelers
Our little store was visited by the head of Seiko Japan in 2012 and he promised great things to come. And we stuck with it. I was surprised at the push back from some of the bigger Swiss brands I carried. Some of them were insistent that I not put Grand Seiko in my larger store. But I eased them in anyway. Needless to say, it has been a terrific partnership. The Japanese have a decidedly different way of dealing with authorized retailers. It is a cool brand with a cool factor that has an "outsider" appeal to collectors. And Grand Seiko collectors are truly "rabid". Akin to Patek and Rolex collectors but in many instances a younger demographic. Once and still small and streamlined, now also bold and beautiful. (Some at 44mm! )But all the Grand Seiko styles are held together by one constant - accuracy.

TF:
Retail, as we both know, is a different proposition than many watch fans think it is.  You have to seek out the new and exciting, but you have to balance that with the reality of customer appeal, reliability of the brand to deliver in a timely manner, and the overall dependability of the watch itself.  How does Grand Seiko compare to the other brands in their price category?

JH:
As I mentioned, the demographic is a bit different with Grand Seiko
Courtesy of Old Northeast
It seems to occupy a comfortable space between the handsome rugged flyer/adventurist/ Breitling owner and the ever-gentlemanly Patek owner. The old "watch cliche" of "looks as good with jeans and a t-shirt as it does with at a black tie event" is apropos. One might argue that the Godzilla model might not work with suit. 
Courtesy of Old Northeast
But I'd do it! In short, maybe not as rugged as a Breilting, but as attractive as a Blancpain.

TF:
You are one of the most well-known and sought-after retailers in the US.  You have the ability to pick and chose what you want to carry.  What was it about Grand Seiko that caught your eye?

JH:
It's a simple answer with several components - It's different, its accuracy is beyond reproach, and the design is unique.  And probably, most importantly is its history. 

Courtesy of Old Northeast
Just about every brand we carry has a story. From Carl F Bucherer's early coziness with Rolex, to the fine enamel and robust military watches that Ulysse Nardin for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Heuer's patented oscillating pinion and Hamiton's American heritage... all of my store's brands have "historical aspects"that appeal to me.

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