Austen Chu bought his first Royal Oak at 18 and built a massive following on Instagram by posting pictures of the luxury timepiece.
That got him in with the illustrious Swiss watch brand Audemars Piguet, with whom he collaborated on a titanium perpetual-calendar special edition, exclusively for the Chinese market, in early 2020.
Now 26, Mr Chu is turning from collector to chief executive and co-founder as the head of a pre-owned online watch trading platform aiming to shake up the industry in Asia.
Luxury watches — in pictures
He’s raised $8 million in funding for his platform called Wristcheck, which has opened a retail location in a prime spot at Hong Kong’s Landmark shopping mall near Louis Vuitton and Tiffany.
Financiers include Gobi Partners, which manages the Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund and AEF Greater Bay Area Fund. Also involved is K3 Ventures, the family office headed by Kuok Meng Xiong, the grandson of Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok.
Wearing trainers, dressed in black and with a Royal Oak 50th Anniversary self-winding tourbillon on his wrist, Mr Chu said the website has about $80 million worth of luxury watch inventory for sale.
“In Asia, there hasn’t really been a platform that has ever emerged that has been trusted by the masses,” Mr Chu said in Switzerland, where he was visiting Audemars Piguet chief executive Francois-Henry Bennahmias.
With the business based in Hong Kong and its sites set on young, wealthy clients, Wristcheck wants to bring Asian buyers and sellers online to a business that has traditionally been done in person.
He’s also going up against well-established industry players including trading platforms like eBay and Chrono24 as well as resellers such as WatchBox that have also expanded into Asia.
Watchfinder, the pre-owned dealer owned by luxury conglomerate Richemont, opened a boutique in Hong Kong in 2019.
Arjen van de Vall, the platform’s chief executive, said the company’s sales growth in Hong Kong had been “surreal” until the secondary market for luxury watches took a downturn last April.
“Hong Kong is known as an incredible investor-collector market, not only because there is a lot of wealth, but also that there’s a real watch passionate community,” the chief executive said.
The island is the centre of watch trading and watch culture in Asia, but it’s remained a mostly analogue rather than digital market, with most transactions taking place in bricks and mortar locations.
Mr Chu was born there and raised in Shanghai.
“Our strategy initially is to be based in Hong Kong, doubling down on Hong Kong, but growing in greater China and also in South-East Asia,” he said.
“People view Hong Kong too often as the gateway into China. But it’s also the gateway into South-East Asia.”
Being located in Hong Kong should allow the platform to source supply from local dealers who have been trading watches face-to-face for generations, Mr Chu said.
He also wants Wristcheck to expose sellers from Europe and the US to the massive collecting market in Asia.
The site is aiming for transactions totalling about $70 million this year, with the company charging fees of about 12 per cent on each deal.
Mr Chu wants Wristcheck to focus especially on young watch enthusiasts.
“For us, 43 per cent of our paying customers are under the age of 30,” he said. “So that is extreme.”
Wristcheck plans to use the money raised to fund its expansion into China and South-East Asia and also to develop its mobile app.
The platform has already conducted several transactions valued at more than $1 million, including a trio of Tiffany-stamped Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711s and a Patek 5004 split-seconds chronograph perpetual calendar, Mr Chu said.