Interview: Anish Bhatt aka Watch Anish
Having been around since the early days of the watch-related-Instagram scene, Anish Bhatt has made a name for himself producing strategic content for brands for some time now. Anish has grown a significant following in excess of 1.7M people on Instagram alone, and has branched out into the magazine printing business. We sat down with Anish to see where it all began for him, as well as to get his opinion on the current state of affairs in the watch industry.
Let’s kick this off with your early professional ambitions…
I went to university to get a degree in absolutely anything, my parents really wanted that for me. I studied chemistry and biology for my A levels, which I crammed into one year because the first year I just didn’t do any work.
Did you have an interest in the subjects?
Not really, but I just thought I might as well choose something related to what I had been studying. I wound up on a pharmacology course, which is the study of making medicines.
That’s not exactly what you would call making it easy for yourself right?
[Laughs] Yeah, not really. I chose to go to Manchester University because I felt like getting out of London, and to be honest, it was quickly clear that I wasn’t interested in the subject. I wasn’t really paying attention, wasn’t studying or attending lectures, so…
Did you begin making other path plans during this time?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, to be honest. I was eighteen and perhaps a little immature even for that age, but I knew I had to find something I was truly passionate in, to maintain focus. It’s hard to balance a career like that though, you know, something that pays well but also gives you fulfilment…
Both of my parents were both working class, they both worked 15, 16 hour days, seven days a week.
You felt that you wanted something a little more emotionally rewarding?
Yeah, exactly. It was around this time that I started reading and learning about watches. I stumbled across an article about Paul Newman Daytonas and other vintage Rolex, which was originally sold for $500 and now on the auction market was getting like $15k or $20k at that time, in the early 2000s.
This would have been in the dark depths of the forums back then?
Yeah, you had TimeZone, Watchuseek and the Purists making up the top three, but I was getting most of my information from Japanese reference books on Rolex and Panerai. These books would detail the differences between Daytona references, GMTs but obviously it was all in Japanese.
The imagery was great though, so it worked for me. It went into such crazy detail, like the sub dial height compared to the hand stack, the small design differences and nuances. I became obsessed with understanding all of these differences and that shifted into an obsession with how much of a part, provenance plays in the value of a watch.
You seem to be quite evenly split between appreciating the aesthetics and the story behind these watches...
Yeah, I guess so. What interested me was the idea of wearing something that could be quite discreet, but have so many elements to it. The more I understood that, the deeper and deeper into the hole I got.
And you start talking a new horological language?
Yeah, talking to people in reference numbers that to most people is a complete jargon that only another watch collector would understand. 1680 this, 1675 that...
"Anyone listening to that conversation would say, “What on earth are these guys talking about.” [laughs]."
Spider dial… all sorts. Anyone listening to that conversation would say, “What on earth are these guys talking about.” [laughs].
Given that you weren’t so taken with your studies, was this the first time that learning about something technical didn’t feel like a chore?
Yeah, I think to some degree, though throughout most of my life I’ve become borderline obsessed with various things for periods of time. Music, photography, fashion, you know, these were all important to me, I would stay up until three or four in the morning just researching this stuff.
[Laughs] Instead of studying…
Yeah, exactly. So then I left University because it became clear that it was a waste of time for me to be doing that. When I got back to London, I found a job in the fashion industry and started working my way up the ranks there. I started to earn good money and I decided the time had come to buy my first nice watch.
What were the potential brands on your list?
I considered Rolex, but I felt like everyone was wearing one, so it seemed like too obvious a choice. I obviously loved vintage Rolex, but the price was a bit out of my budget, for a Daytona anyway. I was a big fan of Genta, I loved the Royal Oak and I love the Nautilus, but these were again out of my price range, so the Vacheron Constantin Overseas became the entry level for a Genta-inspired piece.
And you went for it?
Yeah, I bought it, it took me about three years to save up, but that was the first nice watch I ever bought.
For how long did you work in the fashion world?
It all came to a head in 2010 because my boss and I weren’t getting on. I told him in more colourful words, “Forget it, I quit.” I moved back to London as I was working between Florida and London at that time. I moved back in with my parents, no savings, 30 years old like, “Hi mum, I’m back.”
At what point did Instagram enter the picture?
I had started a blog which had gotten quite strong traction related to fashion and watches. I would either find people around London or give someone something to wear for a picture and hope that they don’t run off with it [laughs].
That wouldn’t have been great…
I found Instagram maybe in late 2011 or 2012 I think, and it just seemed like a cool image-based platform requiring less writing from me, so I thought, great. It started to take off quite well and continued to grow.
"I think maybe the first to approach it in the way I do it, focussing more on the lifestyle aspects rather than the technical side of things."
Was there a point that it spiked and went crazy?
Not really, no, it was quite a gradual thing, steadily growing day by day. There were a few good voices on there already from the watch world, I think Hodinkee were on there, The Rake and a couple others. I was by no means the first, but I think maybe the first to approach it in the way I do it, focussing more on the lifestyle aspects rather than the technical side of things.
What were the general interactions you had on there at this time?
A lot of people were asking me questions about watches, having me explain some of the jargon we spoke about before. Why a tropical dial might be worth more money than a standard one, that kind of thing.
So, one year into Instagram where is the following at?
I hit 10k in year one and it was at that point that I thought, “Ok maybe I can do something more with this.”
What sorts of things were you thinking you could do?
I started approaching boutiques, telling them I had this blog and an Instagram page to see if there might be some collaboration to be had.
To influence sales potentially?
Yeah, because I was getting a lot of messages from followers saying, “Hey, I bought this watch because of you.” Or, “I didn’t know about this and I bought it because you posted it.” It became clear that I had a very engaged following, so we started borrowing pieces from boutiques to shoot photos and they saw a direct effect from this, so it kept growing.
Does it become tricky to balance that, so as not to seem disingenuous?
Yeah, that’s the main hurdle, it’s how to you showcase things in a genuine way without coming off too commercial. For me, it felt natural because I liked that stuff, and I was choosing to post about it because I was interested. Where it became slightly trickier was further down the road, when I was building a team and a business, because you have to commercialise, but then you have to figure-out what’s appropriate and what’s not.
How do you decide?
We consider whether it’s actually something interesting that we can talk about in a genuine way. This leads to turning down a lot of business because you can’t be talking about the importance of a Royal Oak or a 3700 and then put up an advert for a Chinese-made, $200 watch.
Who were a brand you worked with early on?
Linde Werdelin was my second client, a Danish watch brand, but Swiss made. I had suggested that they get on Instagram and start using it heavily as a marketing tool…
Were they immediately into the idea?
Not so much at first, but I really insisted and so they put some trust into me. We ran the account for them, producing regular content and they saw a sales increase shortly after of around 45%. This really demonstrated the power of that platform early on.
How do you think watch brands have adapted to modern means of communication like this?
I think brands have been forced to enter the social media marketing area, but they have to be smart with how they do it. Brands who say, “This isn’t really our thing,” get left behind, because you know, 80% of their clients are digesting some form of horological information through social media.
So the direct effects you were seeing back then were translating directly into sales?
To give you an example, a Rolex retailer in Spain had made an edition of 135 Submariners to celebrate the outlet’s 135th anniversary, with a special engraving on the case back. It was a cool project, Rolex had issued a second authenticity certificate to authenticate the engraving having been carried out by Rolex. In the first two months, they sold maybe 15 pieces, something like that…
"We shot the pictures at 11am and the first post went out at 12pm. Every single watch was sold by 9pm."
Unusual for steel Rolex to sit around…
Exactly, but then they approached us about promoting these pieces, and of course we were happy to, I’m obviously a huge fan of the brand, so it was a no brainer. I landed in Majorca at 9am, we shot the pictures at 11am and the first post went out at 12pm. Every single watch was sold by 9pm, and I don’t mean people putting their names down, they sold all of them.
That was just shy of €1 million in revenue in a single day.
Things must have felt like they were getting serious for you professionally at this point?
Yeah, totally. I mean look, it’s not hard to sell a stainless steel Rolex but it showed that if we can communicate something in the right way, that was cool, we could influence sales.
Do you think physical retailers are becoming redundant to today’s consumer?
I don’t think they’re becoming redundant necessarily, but I do think that they are playing an old strategy. Some are adapting well with quite forward-thinking strategies, but the days of waiting in your boutique for someone to walk in, some millionaire requesting a tourbillon there and then, is over.
You have to be engaging and offering a service that you can’t really get elsewhere. It’s not easy being a retailer like that, you know, you have to take on so much inventory, most of which you don’t really like, but you’re forced to take the rough with the smooth...
It’s certainly not an easy position to be in, and suddenly all the leveraging for specific pieces makes sense…
It’s part of the reason I don’t want to get into retailing watches to be honest. A lot of people ask me if I’m planning on doing it, but it’s just not my direction, that’s all.
What do you think retailers could be doing differently?
I think they need to look at putting a genuine effort into how they can attract people to come in store. People go to Harrods to buy goods because it’s Harrods, you know, they want to walk out with that green bag because it’s a statement. They need to consider how they can emulate that effect to some degree, how can I have an inventory which will attract people to visit the boutique, how can I build systems and technology to assist the consumer.
"If you’re able to make your clients feel like you’re not just someone who is trying to sell them something, you’re a lot more likely to succeed."
Something more personal too?
Definitely, if you’re able to make your clients feel like you’re not just someone who is trying to sell them something, you’re a lot more likely to succeed. For this kind of thing, it’s all word-of-mouth, forget social media, forget any type of marketing, word-of-mouth is absolutely the strongest, which means service is key. If I suggested to you, “Hey, go to Hotel Olden in Gstaad because it has an amazing dinner,” or “Stay at Ultima Gstaad because the service is amazing.” you’d probably consider it quite strongly.
Because we would assume you were saying it for genuine reasons…
Exactly. Restaurants could be advertising like crazy along the roads around here, even on the iPads in Ultima to come and visit, but someone making a recommendation would be 20 times more powerful than all the advertising you’d been exposed to.
So really what you’re saying is that these retailers should be focussing on a balance between their digital and physical presence, upping first-hand, personal service?
Yes, that’s part of it. It’s funny though, because the power of social media is changing and has changed dramatically since I started. The level of trust we put into it has morphed, for example, if someone eight years ago had offered me to buy something from them through instagram, like, “Hey, send me $20,000 for this Supreme guitar.” You’d have said forget about it, it’s a scam, regardless.
These days it’s common place to deal through a platform like Instagram.
The watch fairs seem to be suffering as well as the retailers, what’s going wrong?
If we’re talking about Basel in particular, I think that they took for granted that people would just spend money and come regardless. Basel is a nice town, but paying the kind of prices that you would expect on Rodeo Drive for a hotel which is a four star by Basel’s standards, two and a half by anyone else’s, is a joke. 1,000 francs for a Swiss hotel, I don’t have anything against Swiss hotel, but come on.
Not to mention the price-hiking during the fair…
People are just sick of it because it’s not like you pay those prices and they bring in a specially-trained team to deal with the workload. They don’t bring in an amazing service manager, people who are really on the ball with waiters and the front of house staff. They don’t even remember if you’ve spent in that hotel the previous year, which is just not the service you’d expect.
It doesn’t exactly inspire you to do the same again…
If you’re operating in that price bracket, they should be operating at the same level as Ultima, or an Edition hotel, or Intercontinental, or Peninsula, you know?
So, the first thing they’re getting wrong is the basic logistics?
Yeah, I mean, it’s a small place so there are a shortage of rooms, Airbnbs are through the roof too, because house-owners know people are looking with not many options. On top of that, food prices triple, and that doesn’t feel fair.
At least if you go to Geneva, you know the price is the price; it’s expensive but that’s just what it costs. The Kempinski is 600 a night, and that’s it, no changes. People just feel like they’re having their arse handed to them and you just have to accept it to go and see these brands.
And you’re going to see brands who pay a hell of a lot of money to exhibit at the Basel Fair with no real kickback. The official restaurant gives no concessions, and these guys are paying 20 million, 30 million. Swatch were paying something like 55 million for that area…
"Is it any wonder that Swatch thought, “Hey, wait a minute, why don’t we do our own thing, we can just use that 55 million to put on our own events around the world.”
Is it any wonder that Swatch thought, “Hey, wait a minute, why don’t we do our own thing, we can just use that 55 million to put on our own events around the world.”
So, you think it was a smart thing for them to pull-out when they did?
I think it was smart from a fiscal point of view, but I think to some degree the show is not just a B2B scenario, there’s a lot of socialising that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, people you only see once a year which can lead to interesting things.
Do you think other brands are experiencing the same feeling?
I couldn’t say, but I think businesses that take part are feeling a bit like they get nothing in return. They supply a big warehouse and charge a boat load of cash, and that’s it. There’s no real marketing for the show, no PR, no proper social media. Why do we not see the fair being advertised as globally as the reach they talk about; you don’t see adverts for it in JFK or Dubai airport, you know? Where does all that money go.
Do you think they made a genuine attempt at modernising this year?
I do, but it’s like locking the door after the horse has bolted. It’s too little, too late, this should have been done five or six years ago. They should be managing the situation with the hotels and potentially even subsidising the rates by splitting some of their profits between a selection of the hotels.
And investing more heavily into the general promotion of the show and brands?
Yeah, getting digital teams who are engaged, influencers, improve the live digital elements, grow the Instagram account. You don’t want to sit down in the restaurant inside and be handed a stale €40 penne pasta. They used to have terraces outside, a bookshop, but now it’s just like an empty car park.
They don’t really have a caring corporate personality…
That’s exactly what it is. It was never about connecting with people for them, it’s business, we have been running for 80 years and they’re going to have to come here anyway, so why change. It’s a shame and I hope they fix it, because I wouldn’t like there to not be a Baselworld, but I can understand why brands leave.
In your opinion, if one more big brand leaves, is it over?
If Rolex or Patek go, then it’s done.
"There are around 60 or 70 watches in there, a lot of vintage Rolex but a healthy amount of modern too."
Moving away from the fairs, your personal collection of watches, give us a snapshot…
I don’t really show them very often but I would say there are around 60 or 70 watches in there, a lot of vintage Rolex but a healthy amount of modern too. It’s quite eclectic, sort of like the way I dress; it can be really casual or really formal.
And what are you predominantly searching for where personal pieces are concerned?
I’m very impulsive with it to be honest, at any given time, there’s probably 20-30 on the hit list.
Is your initial impulse based mainly around the aesthetics?
The provenance is what gets me really excited, like, maybe I find a Steve McQueen Explorer that McQueen wore which would be the dream sort of story attached. But then I really like De Bethune DB28 for the way it looks. Ultimately whether I go for something comes down to price, because that part is important for any collection, you don’t want to pull a brand’s trousers down, but likewise, you don’t want yours down after the sale.
Even if I’m planning on never selling, the value in the market plays a role. It can be volatile for the independents and not for one second am I saying that they over-charge, I’m just saying that you need to be an informed buyer.
The perceived market value of certain watches can go a bit loopy from time-to-time right?
Yeah, I mean, ultimately it’s worth what it’s worth to you though; I’ve overpaid for watches because I love them, sometimes you have to. I don’t like to look at watches as investments because there is way too much of that in the market right now, buying up certain models, holding them for X amount of time and dumping it again.
Do you think that this makes some brands a bit emotionally cold to the collector, seeming more like commodities?
Possibly yeah, but everyone now knows the resale value of a Nautilus at 3x retail and you know, some retailers, not to name names, are charging almost a parallel market price.
It’s really not on…
And where does this leave the consumer. It’s like going into McDonald’s to buy a Diet Coke which is usually 1CHF but then they tell you it’s 12CHF. From the retailer’s side, I can understand the temptation, because they’re selling this thing to someone who is going to likely make a bigger margin than they are on the grey market.
"I got sent a Patek 5980R double-sealed and they wanted $160,000. Let’s just process that number. It’s £60,000 or so retail."
Do you think this limited supply strategy is creating a no solution problem?
Kind of, yeah, because it’s hard to see where it’s going. Is there a bubble which is about to burst, I mean, I got sent a Patek 5980R double-sealed and they wanted $160,000. Let’s just process that number. It’s £60,000 or so retail, minus tax.
How does that just continue...
Modern Rolex is reaching new heights too…
Yeah, the Pepsi is going for stupid money, the Daytona of course too. There is a huge demand and not a lot of allocation, so this is part of the reason I think Rolex didn’t release a lot of groundbreaking pieces this Basel.
It was more or less, a minor update here and there…
Yeah, a Jubilee and a movement change for the Batman.
Do you think there’s a bit of a mutiny growing around these frustrations?
I think things might change, because apparently Rolex will implement a guarantee card hold for a certain period, to ensure the watches aren’t being immediately flipped.
Won’t the consumer feel a bit slighted by that?
I guess if you have the watch, you don’t care much; only the flippers will care.
Does it not feel a bit disrespectful for the buyer though, spending a lot of money and to be treated with suspicion?
To be honest, I really think most people will be fine with it. You know, our mutual friend who asked Patek Philippe if he could buy the 5740 Nautilus Perpetual for his 30th birthday, luckily they allocated him one and delivered.
Which out-of-context is insane where transactions are concerned…
Yeah, we were laughing because only Patek could tell you for your birthday we are going to allow you to spend 120,000 CHF in our boutique and you’re happy about it [laughs].
I mean, the watch is beautiful but the market price is double retail nearly. The layman would just think you were a complete idiot. It’s good for the brands that these pieces sell above retail, because the more people hear this, the more they want them. I think maybe they want the hype but obviously it’s something to be controlled.
On a separate note, what is it that makes watches such a personal item to people in your opinion?
It all comes down to experiences that you’ve had with certain watches. It’s the attached stories that make these things special, you know, my wedding day, the birth of my daughter; those watches become part of the story.
There’s a social aspect to it as well, because what your peers are wearing, what they appreciate or dislike is a talking point. I love looking at my wrist and just admiring elements of design or a particular technical aspect, it’s all part of the fun. I don’t even care too much if the time is correct, because I travel so much, I’d be changing them all constantly [laughs].
And on a final note, what can we expect to see from Watch Anish in the coming months?
I’m working on some retail projects at the moment unrelated to watches, making spaces which are cool and fun to hang out in. We will be working with art, fashion and things like that with a curated selection by me. We’re trying to bring a more dynamic approach to this kind of retail. We are also being filmed for a Netflix series this year, which will be very interesting.