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Great achievements require time

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon9/29/2022 05:34 PM GMT+08  • 10 min read
Great achievements require time
Great achievements require time
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A conversation with the CEO of Sincere Watch, Ong Ban, is a lesson in the history of watches, watchmakers and trends. He plucks off facts, figures and timelines without once referring to any notes, as we listen with great interest. We have every reason to believe him as he joined Sincere Watch in 1995 and has seen everything as he regales us with the many nuggets of all things horology.

The ambience for this walk down memory lane is at the renewed Sincere Haute Horlogerie (SHH) concept boutique at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, which offers an elevated luxury experience for the most discerning watch collectors.

Ong begins: “To understand SHH, you need to take a step back to see what the DNA of Sincere is. So when Mr Lim [of Cortina Holdings] acquired the company last year, the first thing he did was to look at Sincere Watch and, and look for strong DNA, or core competence of the company, so he can expand and invest.”

One of the core competencies cited by Ong is Sincere’s ability to source and also to purvey very high-end watches. In 2005, the Singapore Tourism Board wanted to introduce a retail concept called Uniquely Singapore, a campaign that was aimed at marketing Singapore as a unique tourist destination. The challenge put to Sincere at that time was to provide a concept where the merchandise, product or services offered can only be procured in Singapore, and nowhere else, according to Ong.

It was then that the SHH concept was born in the retail space at the Hilton Hotel (now known as Voco), where they featured a series of limited-edition watches for the Singapore market, only to be bought in Singapore. “That was back in 2005 and the shop existed until 2016, when the lease expired. We gave this up and I think the concept went into hibernation for quite a number of years, until the acquisition by Cortina,” says Ong.

Ong adds that for a concept like SHH, it is very important for Sincere to articulate the right message to the stakeholders, the collectors, and to the connoisseurs who want nothing but a great watch. He says that the history of Sincere clearly shows the company’s strength when it comes to brand management. Ong explains: “We are very good at not forcing. We are very good at identifying the new stars of the industry. When they come on board Sincere, we groom the brand so that after a number of years with us, they become established players.”

Ong offers a few examples: A very good example is Franck Muller, which Sincere bought back in 1992. In the 30 years since then, the brand has found its “destiny in Singapore and in Southeast Asia”. In 1995, Sincere only brought in Lange & Söhne while IWC and Jaeger Le-Coultre were brought in by German entrepreneur Günter Blümlein, all before they were acquired by the Richemont Group. Sincere saw the brands’ potential and looked for more such brands. Enter Panerai and on Oct 18, 1998, the brand was launched. “Panerai started from here before it even started in Hong Kong,” Ong says. Fast forward and in 2012, Greubel Forsey joined the Sincere family.

Greubel Forsey honours its long-standing relationship with Sincere Fine Watches, its partner in Singapore, by creating a special edition of its Double Balancier Convexe to commemorate the opening of its new Sincere Haute Horlogerie boutique. Only six timepieces will be made in this never-before-seen purple livery, made exclusively for Sincere Fine Watches

See also: From Happy Sport, Alpine Eagle, to jewellery timepiece, Chopard has a watch for every person in your life

The Lang & Heyne Georg SHH Edition is the first in the Georg collection to leverage a unique ceramic dial, set against a royal blue givree-finished silvered baseplate. Limited to just 12 pieces, each watch is hand-engraved with “One of 12” on the movement

To commemorate the opening of Sincere Fine Watches’ new flagship Sincere Haute Horlogerie, Laurent Ferrier — synonymous with technical refinement and flawless finishing — unveils a new limited edition of its Classic Origin. The watch is housed within a 40mm stainless steel case and endowed with a gradient green opaline dial — and will be limited to just 10 pieces

See also: Emmanuel Breguet has just released the third edition of a book that covers a detailed history of Breguet

Ong says: “When we recruit a brand for SHH, the message is that we hope that when customers and collectors who love watches come in, they look at the watches as a touch-point, for greater things to come. If today you hold a Lang & Heyne or a Laurent Ferrier, they may be a small watchmaker. But to us, we know that these brands have enormous potential. They could be the next winners in the industry, five years from now, 10 years from now.”

The potential is all around us as we sit in the cosy private lounge of the new concept boutique that was designed from the ground up to be a sanctuary for the celebration of independent watchmaking. Just as the watches on display tend to the level of art, so too should the environment in which they are showcased. In order to ensure a premium experience, SHH called upon the talents of celebrated Singaporean interior designer Peter Tay, to present his unique vision of the ideal space for the enjoyment of timepieces.

Warm copper earth tones are the dominant colour theme that is inviting, while reflective mirrored surfaces mostly along the upper edges of the ceiling add an edge to the feel. The boutique is divided into two equal parts – the main display area and a private lounge. Lining the wall on the left as you enter via the main entrance in the main area are five podium capsules with a rotating selection of the rarest horological highlights on offer.

This is complemented by a large central island that is meant for pieces from exclusive brands with ample space for the display of accompanying objects and materials. Lastly, the rear wall of the main area is dedicated to a selection of brands with larger collections, with each having a dedicated interactive digital panel from which boutique patrons can peruse more detailed information.

Another thing to note is the SHH logo which is a refreshed version of the old one. In this reiteration, Kate Lim, who is the granddaughter of the Cortina founder Anthony Lim, was very much involved in the logo. The SHH logo represents the case back of a watch. Ong says it may look simple but it is effective, as it is a part that is found in every watch.

Clearly excited about this new boutique and all the potential it has to offer, Ong tells Options more about what we can expect in the future.

Tell us more about the new store concept. What are some of your plans to make it a success?
What's very important for a concept like this is you need to ensure supply. When we open our doors with 70 or 80 watches, we have to ensure that after these 70 or 80 watches, the supply is continuous. I think if we look at the disruption of the last two years, that's the major challenge that every one of us is facing. Having said that, when you have a concept like this, the brands do prioritise where they want the watches to be represented and to be sold.

We have to continuously add value to the brand and as a store concept, we need to continuously engage the community of watch-lovers. I think a space like this with a private room is available to any VIP customer or regular customer to book for any watch gathering. We provide a menu of drinks for them. I think the [watch] community is important; it’s not so much the individual opinion anymore.

Social media has ensured that collective opinion is critical to success and also in some ways, the failure, of many brands. You need to be able to create and maintain toys for boys … and girls.

Is taking over Sincere Watch a huge risk because of its track record, having changed hands four times since 2007?
The reason why I am confident enough to do a concept like this is that Sincere has found its forever home. Sincere would never be put on the market again. Now that it's done, it is time to grow, strengthen and look forward. The owners of Sincere today are owners and operators, they are in this business.

If you know the history of Sincere, this whole episode has been like a legacy story of Singapore - the watch landscape and the three retailers that started, and what has happened today: the consolidation. To me, it is a legacy. And if people look back at the history of watch retailing in Singapore 100 years from now, this would be one major episode. And because of that, the investment put into SHH reflects the core strength and core competence of Sincere. I think it's the right thing to do.

What strategies are you adopting to lead SHH out of the pandemic as Asia begins to slowly open up?
Actually, last year, if you look at the SHH numbers … the numbers went up. Many brands have had a record year during the pandemic. In a market like Southeast Asia - Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand - even without the presence of tourists, the locals have managed to sustain the business. For watches, it revolves a lot around creativity and desire. And it is in many cases, it is an emotional one … pandemic or no pandemic, they want a watch.

You have been in the watch industry for a long time, what are some of the changes you have seen?
Every good brand has upped its game and is out there. Social media has changed everything, Google has changed everything. In the past, it was very different when I went to the watch fairs in Basel and Geneva; I came back with my catalogues, I kept the catalogue to myself, nobody knew what was inside. Today, when I see the watch at the fair, the customer would have seen it one minute before me. That's how things have changed.

It's no more about how fast you are, it's no more about the retailers having the knowledge that the consumers don't have; in terms of information, the playing field is totally levelled now. As long as you have a smartphone, you know everything as well as I do, so that's a big change. As a retailer, knowing that change, you have to ask yourself, what sort of value can I provide to the customer? This is where we need what we call industry secrets, or trade secrets.

Moving forward, what plans are in the pipeline?
For the short and medium term, we are going to expand SHH. We want to bring the concept to Malaysia and Thailand where we have already identified the locations. And thereafter, hopefully, we may attempt North Asia. I think the concept is global for independent brands. They are like a living organism of their own, they don't rely on too much industry or infrastructure. The high-end brand can come to the store with three watches and they have a start with us.

Will we see this happening soon?
As you know, our business is all about location. We are actively engaging the key localities. If the right location comes along, we will be able to do the expansion quite quickly.

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