The watch industry is littered with self-proclaimed experts, specialists and historians with only a handful of those actually worthy of such titles. One such individual who has certainly earned his stripes, after quitting a steady job, is Alex Ghotbi; a specialist within the walls of the seemingly unstoppable force of Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo. Mr. Ghotbi has not only worked with brands like Vacheron & Constantin, but has been involved in founding many of the earliest online watch forums. Following the recent Geneva auctions, we caught up with Alex to find out a little more about his journey into the business.
Let’s begin with a few classics, tell us a little about how you came to be interested in watches?
You know, I’ve always tried to have a funky answer ready for this, but honestly, I really have no idea. [laughs]
We’re off to a good start…
Well I think it more or less started when I was twelve years old, when the whole Swatch coloured-watches thing was the big new craze. I remember being in school, and myself and my friends were nuts for them, with their red, green, blue bands and so on. After this initial spark, I grew more and more interested in mechanical watches, and it’s been something that’s been ever-present in me for the past thirty years or so. The interest continues to grow daily actually.
Do you remember your first watch? Presumably it was a Swatch…
No, it wasn’t actually. I had been given a quartz Omega by a friend of my parents when I was just four years old. I remember also having all these funky watches from the 70s and 80s which had LED screens that lit up when you pressed a button. I don’t really remember all the in-between watches, but the first serious watch I bought for myself was a Daniel Roth, back in the mid 90s when he was still with the company. It was the first watch I bought when I started making a living for myself.
So are we right in thinking that you held a job working in corporate law before working in the watch industry?
I was a finance lawyer in the 90s, and I think I attended my first SIHH and Basel fair in 2001, after deciding that my new goal was to quit and get a job in the watch industry. At the same time as this, I co-founded The Purists. Initially, it was just an Audemars Piguet forum, but then it expanded into the much broader forum that it is today. In fact, the main reason I accepted the offer from the firm I wound-up working for, was because the main partner was wearing a different watch every time I was interviewed.
"In fact, the main reason I accepted the offer from the firm I wound-up working for, was because the main partner was wearing a different watch every time I was interviewed."
[laughs] What was he wearing?
He would have a Vacheron & Constantin, then the next time a Breguet tourbillon, a Cartier and so on. I took that job to be close to those watches [laughs].
So, who did you found The Purists with?
It was with Thomas Mao, old timers will know him, but he’s been on the scene for more than a decade.
So at what point did it switch over into becoming a career for you?
Well, it wasn’t easy. It had been in the back of my head for some time, but I just didn’t know how to attack it. I had tried quite a few different angles and had written to multiple brands, telling them that I had no experience with anything other than law, but that I loved watches and why don’t they just hire me.
No, I went from refusal to refusal to refusal, so then, a friend of mine who was a watchmaker had setup a brand and needed someone to take care of all the finance, admin work and to put together a business plan. So I put that together, and we sent it out to independent watch companies in order to obtain financing. The thinking was that if they financed us, perhaps we could develop a movement for them. Although, we didn’t get a response from anybody, no one returned our phone calls, it was a disaster.
Then at around 7pm, I’m at the office and I get a phone call saying, “Hi, this is Max Busser from Harry Winston”. He then spent the next two hours trashing my business plan, explaining all the inconsistencies and flaws. It was very good of him to do this, because getting the CEO of Harry Winston to take two hours out of his busy day to give you a lesson in business planning, is no easy feat. Ultimately we didn’t get any financing and my business partner went into restoration of original Breguet pocket watches, while making the occasional bespoke piece for a client here and there. He still makes one or two pieces a year, but it’s mostly restoration work for big brands.
"Then at around 7pm, I’m at the office and I get a phone call saying, “Hi, this is Max Busser from Harry Winston”. He then spent the next two hours trashing my business plan, explaining all the inconsistencies and flaws."
And what did you do after that?
Well The Purists was still going strong and I had also set up the Hour Lounge, which was a Vacheron & Constantin forum, though I had been offered by my firm to go and work with their legal team in NYC, which would mean I would unlikely be able to keep the Hour Lounge going. I called Vacheron up to tell them that I would have to stop, to which they responded, “please don’t stop, come and join us.
Wow, that must have been quite a surprise after chasing a job in the industry for that long…
Yes, It took me about a third of a second to accept their offer, and so I quit my job and left Paris for Geneva. The hilarious thing about it was that I finally got my dream of a job in the watch industry, the second I stopped looking for it.
And what year was this, and what exactly was the role you were offered?
This was 2008 and I would be taking a position as the community manager, as well as heading their social and collectors clubs.
Phillips watch specialist, Alex Ghotbi.
How did you then become involved with the auction industry?
I had always loved vintage, and even though I worked for Vacheron & Constantin on the modern side of things, I had always been a huge fan of their vintage pieces. I began collecting auction catalogues as a means of learning more about watches. The old Antiquorum catalogues from the 90s and early 2000s were genius, you could just soak up so much information from them. As I mentioned earlier, I had sent my resume all over the place, including to Aurel Bacs, who was with Phillips at the time, before he joined Christies. I remember meeting him, and him saying “listen, you’re a lawyer, we’re not about to hire you to become some kind of junior cataloguer”, and fifteen years later, I wind up joining him at Phillips.
And how did that come to fruition after the stern words from Mr. Bacs?
I had been considering moving on from Vacheron & Constantin, and I received a call from my friend Paul Boutros, who was then head of Phillips North America, he said that they were looking for someone in Geneva, and he wondered if he could put my name forward. It all happened very quickly.
And was the decision as quickly-made as the Vacheron offer?
Yes, sometimes when you get these types of opportunities only once in a lifetime, and you just have to say “Yes, let’s do it”.
Was this in 2015?
No, this was April 2016, actually. I’ve been there just over a year and a half.
For those that don’t know, what exactly do you do for Phillips?
I basically do a bit of everything with our tiny team in Geneva, I find watches for sales, assist the worldwide teams, occasionally passing watches to them which we feel may be more geographically appropriate on their soil. I’m also involved with inspecting watches, and making decisions on which ones make it into our sales, researching and writing catalogues and once we are done with that, I source buyers. It’s a very broad role.
What is the sourcing process typically like?
Sourcing is a lot of fun because there are typically one of two things that will happen. One is through collectors that you’re familiar with, but you’re not exactly sure what they have tucked away in their collection. So you have to try and encourage them to part with some of their precious pieces. The other route, is that you get a random phone call out of nowhere, from somebody who has absolutely no idea what they’re selling and it turns out to be an extremely rare Patek Philippe or something like that; it can be quite Indiana Jones occasionally.
Presumably with these types of calls you hop straight on a plane and see them if it sounds promising enough?
Definitely, it’s all about relationships in the auction business. Why should someone give you their watch rather than give it to any of the other auction houses? It all lays with your relationship with that individual. The trust will often need to be built before you even consider contacting people about their collections.
And how is it that Phillips so consistently tracks down such ‘hero pieces’ and record breakers?
We have a great team and we have a great advantage, in that we have the worlds greatest auctioneer, Aurel Bacs. I use the comparison of Phillips being like Real Madrid or Barcelona; it’s a great team already, but then you have Christiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi at the helm. That makes it easier.
[laughs] That’s an oddly sensical analogy… So the latest news is that you will be selling Paul Newman’s personal Daytona, how much can you say about that?
Not much, though, it was a tense moment when we were being offered the watch. What I can say, is that it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to sell such an important watch, and we’re all very excited.
Getting back to vintage, Phillips has a themed Heuer auction coming up, what do you make of the vintage Autavia market right now?
The Autavia market is crazy, because ten years ago, these watches were so affordable. They were maybe €1,500 or €2,000 and now a decent 2446 is around €30,000. I won’t go as far as to include the pieces we’ve all heard about online, trading for over €100,000 and even €200,000 apparently, these were new old stock condition. However, the Heuer brand has always been cool, and a lot of these collectors who grew up in the 70s and 80s are rediscovering these pieces. The prices will continue to rise, because finding one in good condition is becoming more and more difficult; they were inexpensive watches when they came out, so no one took particular care of them.
Do you see them as a good investment?
I always like to say, don’t consider vintage watches as an investment. Consider them as fun, and if you make a little money through buying and selling, then it’s a bonus. Saying that, the prices on old chronographs, divers and tool watches in general are likely to climb higher and higher. I think that a lot of younger buyers will lean more towards other brands like Longines, Omega, Heuer and Jaeger, as vintage Rolex have become so prohibitively expensive.
And what are you collecting at the moment?
I’m very interested in buying early / mid last century pieces from brands like Vacheron & Constantin, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet; the big three. Saying that, I do like Rolex, but I’m not in the same league as some of these guys who know every single variation of dials, bezel colours and cases. To me, that’s more like stamp collecting (!) I’m also very interested in some of the more disruptive brands like DeBethune and MB&F.
"Saying that, I do like Rolex, but I’m not in the same league as some of these guys who know every single variation of dials, bezel colours and cases. To me, that’s more like stamp collecting (!)"
Where do you see independent brands in the auction world?
I think they will find their place, not necessarily in the next five or ten years, but let’s not forget, these brands are making watches by hand, like no other larger brands. They make extremely limited quantities, making them very rare. I remember buying a Dufour in 2001, and it was the most expensive watch I had ever bought; my friends thought I was crazy. But then I sold mine a few years ago for a very nice return. It’s only a matter of time before they do.
Any brands in particular?
Well the rise of Philippe Dufour at auction is nothing new, but Laurent Ferrier, Voutilainen and DeBethune, these are the types of brands that will likely do very well in the future, because people will realise just how amazing these pieces are. It just takes time.To follow Alex Ghotbi, you may do so on Instagram.