Ben Clymer, Hodinkee
Ben Clymer, founder of Hodinkee: the site plans to open a watch shop and lounge space in a landmark New York venue

News that the chief executive of Rolex’s watch brand Tudor would be leaving to join Hodinkee, a website for watch enthusiasts, was no run-of-the-mill job move.

The announcement in February that Russell Kelly would assume the newly created role of chief commercial officer — and that Hodinkee would open a physical retail store in New York — is the clearest signal yet that platforms that cross media with commerce are extending their reach.

Proprietors speak of the diversification into retail as a way of protecting the prized content side of their businesses.

Hodinkee, whose name derives from the Czech word for watch, was founded in 2008 when young financier Ben Clymer lost his job as a result of the unfolding financial crisis. Today, Mr Clymer employs 35 staff and, alongside digital content, has a print magazine and a fast-growing watch sales business.

The site started selling watch straps and accessories in 2012, and later entered vintage retail. Since 2017 it has been selling current productions and is now an official retailer for 10 brands. Last year the company’s turnover was $15m, according to Mr Clymer.

Now, as chief commercial officer, Mr Kelly has been mandated to open a bricks-and-mortar watch shop and lounge space in a landmark New York venue that will feature a podcast studio alongside watches and merchandise.

“I am excited by the opportunity — it is something that the industry needs,” says Mr Kelly. “Just as Ben has brought new customers into mechanical Swiss watches, so [too are] young people looking for a new way and place to shop.

“Retailers tell me that the challenge is getting young people into their stores — we want to create a place that merges content and commerce in a physical space.”

Hodinkee is not the only media player becoming seriously involved in watch retail. Singapore-based Wei Koh started the magazine Revolution 14 years ago to indulge his passion for wristwatches.

In 2009 he launched The Rake, a publication that covers tailoring, bespoke shoemaking and other aspects of contemporary male style, alongside features celebrating the elegance of old Hollywood and the mid-century European jet set. (Full disclosure: I contribute to both titles.)

Mr Koh has found an affluent international audience who want, literally, to buy into the lifestyle his publications celebrate.

As he sees it, expansion into retail was crucial to the ongoing health of his business. “We saw the writing on the wall regarding traditional print revenue and while print will remain as an emotional touch point, as publishers we had to evolve,” he says. That evolution was turning The Rake into an ecommerce site, which sells everything from ties to vicuña dressing gowns priced at £20,000. Watches are a big part of its offering: last year The Rake and Revolution sold $3.5m worth.

He believes that buyers respond to the authenticity of the limited editions he creates in collaboration with brands: “Every watch we make is something that I would like to own personally.” So far, he has worked with TAG Heuer, IWC, Chopard LUC and Bell & Ross. “The TAG Heuer ‘Blue Dreamer’ and the 36mm IWC pilot in bronze on a reindeer hide strap by Cleverly sold out in minutes,” he says.

Hodinkee has experienced similar success. It recently created a limited-edition Omega based on the watch given to Mr Clymer in his teens that ignited his love of watches: the 250 pieces sold out in minutes. Should any of those sales fall through, Hodinkee says there is waiting list of more than 5,000.

Omega watch limited to 250 pieces

All three sites have different tones of voice, but their legitimacy comes from a fundamental enthusiasm for and knowledge of watchmaking.

When asked about potential conflicts of interest, they say they only sell items that they genuinely appreciate, and so therein lies their brand equity. As the watch industry has become larger and more corporate over the past 15-20 years, Hodinkee, Revolution and some other commentators find themselves sitting on a reservoir of years of insight. And now, thanks to social media, they are communicating directly with a savvy and enthusiastic customer base — one that brands are eager to reach.

Ahmed Rahman, a collector of contemporary timepieces, is positive about the content-commerce crossover. “These collaborative watches bring something interesting to the table that is not in the regular catalogue,” Mr Rahman says.

“It is often about exploring and amplifying historical aspects; for instance the Hodinkee Vacheron Constantin Cornes de Vache is a cult classic chronograph, and to bring out a steel version that never existed before in a limited number of pieces is attractive to a collector.”

For the brands, exclusive tie-ins give them an opportunity to stretch themselves in terms of design.

“The idea is to go beyond what we usually do and develop a design language that is different,” explains IWC chief executive Chris Grainger-Herr. “The Rake-Revolution pilot’s watch was about contextualisation of lifestyle. Together we developed the concept of the gentleman aviator and it becomes part of storytelling, creating more than a watch. Seeing the watch as part of a curated selection adds more to it.”

“It’s a win-win,” agrees Raynald Aeschlimann, chief executive at Omega. “People react very well when the two DNAs create something that has even more value. But both parties [must] have shared values as a basis for collaboration and there has to be a real reason: the 10th anniversary of Hodinkee and the fact that Omega inspired Ben to found Hodinkee seemed like a good opportunity to work together.”

That said, Mr Aeschlimann points out that the five or six limited-edition series Omega issues each year account for “less than 20,000 pieces” out of annual production of about 700,000. In other words, it is not big business and the next challenge for content-commerce platforms is how to scale up.

Mr Clymer clearly believes that a physical retail space is the next step, while Mr Koh is exploring the market for high-value collaborations, at six-figure prices, made in small quantities.

Although this strand of business is in a nascent phase it is already attracting the attention of investors. Tony Fadell who sold Nest, a maker of smart home products, to Google is among the largest investors in Hodinkee, for instance.

Mr Koh, meanwhile, says the business model is in flux and is therefore difficult to put a price tag on. He has already received significant offers, he says, “but we are not interested in being valued as a print or even digital media company”.

In the wider luxury industry, where authenticity is the watchword, businesses like his are right to choose their identity and partnerships wisely.

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