The appetite for Swiss timekeeping and independent watch brands is growing in Malaysia, if recent high-profile watch events, product launches and new store openings are anything to go by. Watch retailers play a pivotal role in nurturing this thriving trend. This penchant for luxury watches seems to have bolstered the local retail landscape.
Step into the world of SHH, formerly known as Sincere Haute Horlogerie, which underwent a remarkable relaunch and bullish expansion, starting with the opening of the inaugural SHH boutique at Marina Bay Sands (MBS) in Singapore in September 2022, followed by the SHH Pendulum in Thailand a year later. Most recently, SHH Taipei in Taiwan and Pavilion Kuala Lumpur were added to the fold.
Sincere Fine Watches CEO Ong Ban, who was in town for just one day recently, is pleased with the outcome of this two-floor flagship boutique in KL that is set to be launched on Nov 28. “Initially, there were concerns about maintaining the quality and execution at the high level required for a project of this scale. However, scaling up from the small model in Singapore exceeded our expectations,” he beams.
The new store — strategically situated at the Chulan Entrance — boasts convenient kerbside drop-off and an expansive fine dining area on the second level, making it the largest SHH boutique in Southeast Asia at 4,778 sq ft. Pedestrians on the link bridge and commuters will be treated to mesmerising video displays of exclusive space and galaxy-inspired timepieces from SHH, courtesy of the 3D anamorphic LED billboard screen adorning its façade.
In a true commitment to excellence, SHH has prioritised putting customers’ satisfaction first by meticulously designing the store to enhance their overall experience.
Upon entering the flagship boutique, you will come across the central display area showcasing sought-after watches, each housed in its own capsule. Interactive digital panels are included to provide customers access to brand history, manufacturing processes and collection information for their perusal.
The entire showcase deliberately adopts a democratic design devoid of branding, where the watches take centre stage. Designed by renowned Singaporean interior designer Peter Tay, this boutique echoes the inviting copper earth tones that peppers the MBS outlet and is complemented by reflective mirrored surfaces and intricate multi-layered visual elements.
The “maison concept” invites customers to slow down and thoroughly explore the watches, enhancing the overall shopping experience. For those who value privacy, a private lounge is available for a more personalised space for discussions with sales associates. Customers can take their time to address any questions before making a purchase while having a closer view of the watches. Also thrown in for good measure is a sufficiently stocked bar.
In a groundbreaking move for watch outlets, this establishment reaches new heights of sophistication with its exceptional fine dining area — an unprecedented feature in the world of timepiece retail. Setting itself apart, the outlet boasts an open-kitchen design with the capacity to accommodate groups of up to 16 for Western or European menus. The establishment also caters for groups of up to six with an exquisite omakase-style offering. The culinary journey is complemented by a fully functional bar, adding an extra layer of indulgence to the overall retail experience.
“This is only possible thanks to the shared vision of our chairman Raymond Lim and landlord Pavilion KL. Recognising the success of our first SHH boutique, the chairman sought to make a statement in the retail scene here.” Ong says. He recalls a meeting with Pavilion Kuala Lumpur CEO (retail) Datuk Joyce Yap, where she presented a piece of promising real estate. It took Lim only 30 minutes to decisively embrace the opportunity it offered.
What's in store
Ong says the store is designed to be a collector’s haven, akin to an Aladdin’s cave for enthusiasts of fine watches. Guided by SHH’s mission statement of offering the “latest and the best”, the selection process involves identifying brands at the forefront of the industry.
“In our meticulous curation, we delve deep into various categories, from marine chronometers to watches with top-notch finishing, because that’s what collectors look for. Notably, brands like Ferdinand Berthoud and Laurent Ferrier have garnered recognition, with recent accolades such as the chronometry and tourbillon prizes at the 2023 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG).”
Greubel Forsey is celebrated for its exceptional craftsmanship, particularly in finishing. With a production of about 200 watches annually, it has more than 20 dedicated watchmakers at its factory focusing solely on finishing touches. Not surprisingly, the brand’s watches are highly coveted in the market. Moritz Grossmann, known for producing the thinnest hands in the industry, exemplifies its commitment to craftsmanship.
“The boutique showcases 17 high-end independent brands, each chosen for its unique DNA and contribution to the industry. Craftsmanship, sustainability and manufacturer integrity are paramount in our selection process,” says Ong, adding that securing the dealership of Credor, a Japanese national treasure, is a major milestone for SHH. For the first time, these prized watches will be available outside Japan, at Pavilion KL.
“In offering a centralised location to view these esteemed brands, we aim to provide collectors with a comprehensive experience. With laurels won by the brands we carry, including GPHG awards, we consider ourselves not just retailers but brand builders in the world of high-end watches.”
Sincere has always been at the forefront of acquiring new brands and, through the years, it has slowly introduced them to gain market share.
“We brought Franck Muller to Asia in 1992 and were the first to bring A. Lange & Söhne in 1995. Panerai was introduced to Singapore in 1998 and FP Journe in 2000. The competence of the company has always been in brand management. We carry commercial brands too, and together with independents such as Christiaan van der Klaauw (CVDK), H Moser & Cie and Parmigiani Fleurier, we have a complete portfolio.”
Integrity is the cornerstone
Next year marks Sincere’s 70th anniversary, a milestone that underscores its standing as one of the longest-serving watch companies in Southeast Asia. Ong says discussing budget and price points is subjective, with varying perspectives on money.
“Someone may save RM50,000 over a lifetime to purchase a quality watch, while others may indulge in numerous high-end timepieces throughout their collecting journey. Regardless of the collector’s category, the crucial factor lies in the 70-year-old legacy associated with our brand.
“Before adding a brand to our portfolio, extensive due diligence is conducted. We scrutinise the brand and company profiles, assess financial stability and evaluate long-term sustainability. It’s essential to avoid a scenario where a customer invests a few grand in a watch, only to find the brand has disappeared five years later.”
Less talked about is after-sales service. Collectors inevitably bring in watches for servicing, regulation or repair after a certain period. “When selecting a brand, we ensure the company is well positioned to provide long-term support. Selling may be the easy part but, in our industry, maintaining and servicing watches after a sale is challenging. We prioritise the ability to care for watches in the long run before deciding to incorporate a brand into our offerings. These considerations are significant objectives guiding our approach to taking on new brands,” says Ong.
Store expansion is carefully planned and precisely executed. While growth is a constant objective, it must be approached with care. Ong explains: “Ensuring the quality of our products remains uncompromised during expansion is paramount. For instance, Ferdinand Berthoud produces only 50 watches annually and I need to make sure they are accessible at all SHH stores. If we were to open another four stores, I have to ensure our partners are equipped to follow our expansion plan.”
Expansion is key but not crucial. “The quality of our business in existing stores will always take precedence. Let me tell you an interesting story about one of our most recent additions.
“We needed to fill a gap in our portfolio of watches, focusing on astronomy, and we found CVDK. The Planetarium watch, showcasing planets moving around the sun on the dial, captivated customers. Presenting this brand allowed us to share the fascinating concept of time as an eternal entity and our small place in the universe. Intricate details, such as Neptune taking 249 years for one orbit, resonate with customers, transforming watches from mere timekeepers into philosophical reflections.”
Onwards + upwards
The general watch market has experienced tremendous growth across various countries, with Swiss exports notably surging during the pandemic. “While the overall industry has stabilised post-Covid, the momentum for independent brands remains robust. This is evident in the results of prestigious events such as GPHG, where independent brands claimed the most prizes this year,” says Ong.
“The trend suggests that independent watches are not just a passing fad but have become mainstream, owing to their exceptional creativity and the freedom to innovate without the constraints faced by other brands.”
It looks like independent watch brands are here to stay.
To stay ahead of the curve, SHH recognises the importance of remaining relevant to market demands. “Constantly monitoring and understanding the evolving preferences of collectors is crucial. As consumer tastes shift over time, our merchandising strategy must accurately reflect these changes. Listening attentively to collectors is a key element, as the industry has witnessed a shift in preferences such as the evolving perception of watch sizes. Remaining responsive to customer feedback and adapting our offerings accordingly is integral to ensuring our continued success in serving the changing needs of the consumer.”
Under Ong’s leadership, the company’s sustained success is assured. With an unparalleled understanding of market dynamics, his visionary approach places the company ahead of its time, leveraging immense knowledge to navigate the industry landscape.
In 2005, the Singapore Tourism Board approached Ong with a challenge: Make the city state a premier shopping destination for watch enthusiasts worldwide. His response was groundbreaking — a unique watch concept store featuring special limited editions from various brands, exclusive to the store. This marked the inception of SHH, with its first concept boutique at the former Hilton Hotel premises, a testament to Ong’s innovative thinking and ability to initiate game-changing strategies.
A pivotal move in 2004 showcased his commitment to education and industry advancement. To commemorate Sincere’s 50th anniversary, he set up the Sincere Watch Academy, the first such establishment initiated by a retailer. The academy, located in Suntec City, Singapore, became the blueprint for many training centres established by watch brands.
Hosting watchmaking classes and monthly colloquiums, the academy set the standard for educating enthusiasts and professionals alike, showcasing Ong’s dedication to shaping the future of the industry.
As the journey continues at the new SHH Pavilion KL, his vision to educate will endure as it becomes a centre of excellence to foster a legacy of knowledge and innovation in the world of watches.
This article first appeared on Dec 27, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.