The vintage watch dealer goes its own way
Zoe Abelson’s Instagram feed, @watchgirloffduty, the watch usually posing in places to die for with even more wrist candy to die for, like a limited edition Rolex Oyster Perpetual with a blue enamel dial or a Patek Philippe Aquanaut 5060A from the 1990s.
But Ms Abelson’s message from Hong Kong in November 2020 diverged from the usual format. Yes, she wore an Audemars Piguet KO stainless steel Royal Oak. Sharing the spotlight, however, was a decidedly less glamorous bracelet: the white plastic GPS tracker that, at the time, the government required residents to wear during their mandatory 14-day hotel quarantines.
“I am a very calm person, like a balanced person. I have no anxiety. I don’t get mad,” the 32-year-old said from her current home in New York. “But the first day I woke up in my hotel, I had a massive panic attack, just thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can’t leave this room.'”
For Ms. Abelson, this difficult time was the catalyst for great personal and professional change.
In April 2021, she resigned from her position as senior business consultant in Hong Kong for second-hand watch retailer WatchBox and moved back to her native New York (she grew up in Westchester County). In June, she opened her own luxury watch dealership, called Graal – the French word for “grail”, a term used by vintage watch fanatics to describe what Ms Abelson called “the endgame watch, the ultimate desire. She said the company made $4.5 million in revenue in its first six months.
You could say leaving Hong Kong and the security of a job with the company was a risky move, but Ms Abelson’s 11 years in watches were built on some unusual choices. “She’s the only woman out there in that space,” said Isabella Proia, watch specialist at Phillips auction house in New York. “To go out and do her own thing alone, with her own capital, Zoe has guts.”
Hong Kong has long been known as a watchmaking city: for years it was the largest export market for Swiss industry, occupying a more prominent place than usual in the culture of luxury consumption. When WatchBox, founded in 2017 in Philadelphia, sent Ms. Abelson there in 2018 to help open her first overseas office, she quickly realized that high-end buyers and collectors in Asia weren’t around. comfortable with second-hand watches. “Culturally, people thought they were taboo,” she said. “They didn’t want to buy a watch that they didn’t know the history of the previous owner.”
During her three and a half years in Hong Kong, that perspective changed. WatchBox has opened a private retail lounge near Queen’s Road Central luxury watch row in the city’s main business district. “There were always a lot of junk shops in the Hong Kong market, in small shops in Mong Kok or Tsim Sha Tsui,” Ms Abelson said. “But we were the first to offer a white glove service in this market.” And well-funded players such as Watchfinder in Hong Kong, Hodinkee in New York and Watchmaster in Europe have also established themselves in the secondary market.
Although a combination of political unrest and the pandemic knocked Hong Kong off its top export spot in 2020, Ms Abelson said it was its biggest ever year for sales. “After a few months of Covid,” she said, “I’ve really seen a lot of collectors say, ‘I’m so bored’ and bury themselves in their collections.”
But while she was happy in Hong Kong (and at her former employer, with whom she still exchanges references), Ms. Abelson’s love of travel (“It’s my other passion, after watches”) clashed the wall of Hong Kong’s strict quarantine restrictions, which at one point required 21 days of hotel isolation for anyone arriving from designated “high-risk” countries.
“I felt trapped in Hong Kong,” she said. “I also felt like I had hit my record. I was at my peak. I just felt like, okay – I need to figure that out.
A willingness to follow her instincts has guided Ms Abelson since dropping out of Florida International University in 2011 to take up a full-time job at auction house Antiquorum. (A family friend had landed her a summer job there answering the phone and she stayed, finishing her studies part-time in New York.) “I wasn’t really into watches,” said said Ms. Abelson. “I wanted to be a hotel lawyer. But then I was fascinated by trading. I’d see an old steel watch outsell an all-gold watch and I’d think, “What’s going on?
Shannon Beck, vice president of e-commerce at WatchBox, spotted Ms Abelson when she was at another watch auction house, Auctionata, and hired her in 2017. “As a woman in an industry dominated by men, I am committed to opening doors for other women,” Ms. Beck said. “And Zoe was special. You rarely find someone who is smart, and smart too. And she was already looking to the future – she was on Instagram in 2015, before almost everyone else. (The account now has about 12,500 followers.)
In a way, Ms. Abelson’s career path is a paradigm of the recent and rapid rise in the vintage watch trade. The occasion is now the Cinderella segment of the watch market, with annual growth of 8-10%. In its 2021 Watches and Jewelry Report, McKinsey & Company predicted that the sector, which accounted for $18 billion in sales in 2019, would reach $29 billion to $32 billion by 2025.
With such market research in mind, Ms. Abelson had pondered her next chapter: “I wanted to create a start-up, membership-based watch trading app for collectors.” Once back in New York, however, things changed. “Having been away for so long, I thought, well, I need to spend time here with my family and friends and catch up,” she said.
“Catching up” for Ms. Abelson, herself an avid collector, meant connecting in person with a long list of vintage watch enthusiasts in the United States and Europe whom she had met online and through social media in Hong Kong. Kong. “In the watch community, there are bubbles,” she said. “Even though it’s a small community, it seems like it’s all these little niches, that we maybe don’t talk to each other.” She launched three WhatsApp groups, two for watch enthusiasts interested in independent watch brands and what the industry calls “neo-vintage,” watches from the 1990s and 2000s.
The third was a group reserved for women from the watchmaking world. “I really wanted to create a space, somewhere non-judgmental, where women can ask questions and not feel intimidated by, you know, looking at nerds,” she said. Within 24 hours, 100 women had joined, from 20 countries.
When Ms Abelson took a long-awaited European trip last summer, “I had women in the watch business in every town to watch, have coffee with,” she said. “Collectors, women in industry. It made me feel like I was truly a global citizen in the world of watches.
As his network grew, so did the demand for his services as a reseller. The watch trader once trapped by quarantines and travel restrictions now flies back and forth to Europe for business – and to the West Coast, where she plans to open a second base: “Every time I go in Los Angeles, whether for pleasure or for business, I gain several new customers. There is certainly a thriving vintage market in California, and there are not many dealers there.
The private membership group watch app is still in development as Ms. Abelson pursues her customers’ holy grail – and, when she has time, hers: “The FP Journe Calendar with a black mother-of-pearl dial.” Classic but modern. All the little details in the room. Mechanically impressive. Rare. It’s everything a watch should be.