INTERVIEW: Zoe Abelson
Interview by Brynn Wallner, photos by Alex Maeland
Zoe Abelson (aka @watchgirloffduty) has been in the watch industry for nearly a decade now. In 2011, she dropped out of school to accept a job offer at a NY-based auction house, and the risk paid off. She wound up graduating on her own time, juggling class with her budding career – and fast forward to now, she’s in her 3rd year living in Hong Kong, working as a Senior Client Advisor at WatchBox.
When I started the Dimepiece Instagram account, Zoe and I became fast internet friends. I even downloaded WhatsApp for her! She’s been such a resource for me, generously offering guidance and tidbits about the watch world that I otherwise wouldn’t pick up. I didn’t have the patience to wait for an eventual IRL meeting to hear her full story, so we conducted this interview over Z**m (incidentally, the NYC to Hong Kong time difference is a beeyotch). And even through the screen – 8,045 miles in between us – I could feel her energy and passion. She’s a gem, this one! Read below to find out how a (momentary) college drop-out from Westchester established a successful career in watches and wound up halfway across the world:
DIMEPIECE: Okay, start from the top. How did you get into the watch industry?
ZOE ABELSON: It was completely by accident. One summer in between college semesters, I went home to New York and got an internship at Antiquorum through a family friend. I had no idea that the watch industry was a thing; they basically just needed someone to pick up the phones. I remember watching the auctions, in awe that people were paying $300K for an old watch. But then you’d see an all gold watch sell for $2K. I remember thinking, what is going on?! I was so fascinated by it. Like, why is an all gold watch worth less than this shitty-looking old vintage steel piece? I needed to know more.
So I went and offered myself to them as an intern over the next summer, and they hired me to digitize their archives. This was in 2011 – there wasn’t really any digital information on watches. So I was taking all these old catalogues and auction results and copy/pasting for hours in a day. Reference numbers, sell dates… entering data into their website. I didn’t even learn that much because it wasn’t very interesting. I wanted to hold the watches in my hand, to play with them.
DP: So then you went back to school?
ZA: Well, after the summer, they actually wanted me to stay full time. I had a year left of school, but I was never a great student. So my parents were like, take the job. You will finish college on your own time. During that time my schedule was crazy. I’ve always been a morning person, so I’d take classes from 6–8:30AM. Then I’d do admin work at Antiquorum from 9–5:30PM. Then more class from 6–8PM. It was a 12-hour schedule, 5 days a week – and on Saturdays, I was also working at an Art Gallery and BLT Prime as a hostess.
DP: I’m guessing you never slept then. But how was it, working at Antiquorum?
ZA: It was really amazing… a lot of the heavy-hitters today were getting their start around the same time. HODINKEE was just one person, then. Ben Clymer [the founder of HODINKEE] would come in with his SLR camera, take photos of the watches, and write a blog post. The industry was really starting to evolve into a more digital business.
DP: So then what?
ZA: After 2 ½ years of Antiquorum, I knew I wanted to stay in the watch industry, but I didn’t know exactly how. There weren’t many jobs back then – it was either work at an auction house or work in retail. But one of my Antiquorum colleagues – who’s now the brand historian for Audemars Piguet – was always pushing me to be a junior specialist, or to work in a more client facing role. He wanted me to learn more about watches. And it was at that time that Auctionata – a Berlin-based auction house – wanted to expand into the US with an office in NYC. My colleague put me in touch with them. They didn’t quite have a role for me, but my colleague insisted to them that hiring me would be worth it. That really jump-started my career, and I’m very thankful.
DP: At Auctionata were you still doing admin work?
ZA: At first, yes. But within the first 6 months I got promoted to Luxury Department manager. I put watch auctions on, in addition to handbags and purses. I was 24/25 years old at the time and I was managing five or six people. Those were the days that I really started to get into it. I went to all the trade shows put on by IWJG [International Watch and Jewelry Guild]. I was traveling once a month to different states within the US – traveling alone and begging dealers at all the shows to consign watches with me. It was a totally new concept for them. No one knew me, and no one knew of Auctionata. But I really hustled and built relationships. I started executing bi-monthly auctions, 100 watches per auction… a high-volume business.
DP: How long did that last?
ZA: That went on for at least a year. Then Crown & Caliber approached me in need of a watch expert to build out their dealer program. At about the same time, Govberg Jewelers (now WatchBox) was heavily pursuing me. After 10 months at Crown & Caliber, I moved to Philadelphia to work for WatchBox, then after 1 year they asked if I’d be willing to move to Hong Kong for 3 months to expand the business there.
DP: OMG, Hong Kong. Were you so excited?
ZA: Well, at first, I was like no way. It was too far. But I called my mom and she was like, are you crazy? You need to do this. Go to Hong Kong. The day I landed, I was like, there’s no way I’m leaving this place in 3 months. It’s amazing here. I need to take advantage of this opportunity… fast-forward to now, I’ve been here for 3.5 years.
DP: What was it like working in Hong Kong when you first got there?
ZA: WatchBox was not well known there at all. The vibe was very “start-up”, which I’ve always liked… at Auctionata, I built the watch department. At Crown & Caliber, I built the dealer program. So this was an exciting challenge for me. The thing with WatchBox, there was no buyer-base in Hong Kong. We really had to hustle to gain people’s trust. I would say that in the last 3 years this has changed quite a bit, but in Asia – prior to WatchBox – no one bought pre-owned watches.
Culturally, people didn’t like not knowing the history of what they were buying, so they always opted for new pieces. We started gaining traction by buying watches, instead. It’s such a timepiece culture here. You get in a taxi cab and drivers are wearing Submariners. You take the MTR and someone’s wearing a Patek Minute Repeater. On the walk from my apartment to the office, there are at least six authorized dealers on the way – Rolex, Rolex, Rolex. Patek, Patek, Patek. A lot of people have so many watches, but they didn’t have trusted places to sell them.
DP: So that’s where you came in!
ZA: Yeah, they would come into WatchBox and sit in this beautiful lounge talking to me and my colleagues. We’d make things very comfortable – and discreet – for them. We gained trust that way. And people who were more than just consumers, but true watch collectors, started looking to trade, which turned into a massive business here. I’m leaving WatchBox soon, but it’s really exciting to end on a high note. The office is doing so well and we’ve really built something big.
DP: What has your day-to-day been like there? You sell watches?
ZA: Yes, but it’s a very different type of selling than if you go into a retail store. It’s very much centered around relationship-building, and I provide a lot of guidance. People will say they want something, but then try it on and realize they don’t like it. So I help them figure out what to do next. You really have to vibe with your clients, it’s such a relationship. My biggest clients I’ve known for 3 years now, and we’re texting all the time, sending each other watch images, like, did you see this? These collectors are so happy when they wear their watches; and to know that when they look down at their wrist, they think of me and our positive experience… I love it. It’s so personal.
DP: Okay, so tell me about your collection.
ZA: Well, I remember mentioning this to you earlier, but my first watch was a light blue Baby G watch that I wore to summer camp. I don’t know where it is… probably in a landfill somewhere [laughs]. My first real timepiece was a Raymond Weil with a mother-of-pearl diamond dial – my grandparents gave it to me for my bat mitzvah. My mom still has it in a box for me. But back then, watches were just like jewelry to me… wrist candy.
DP: What was the first watch that you bought for yourself?
ZA: When I started working at Antiquorum, I didn’t have any nice watches at that point. But I was really into Jaeger-LeCoultre, and I knew I wanted a vintage chrono from the 50s. I found one through this Massachusetts-based dealer on Instagram. Stainless steel, 72 movement – which was a good and popular movement from around that time. The dial is beautiful. I used to wear very feminine clothing, but would pair it with this very masculine chronograph. My collection really snowballed from there, and I would say that it’s divided 50/50 between heirlooms and personal purchases or gifts.
DP: How did you start your IG account, @watchgirloffduty?
ZA: Well, I had a personal account on which I started posting all the watches I’d come across at Antiquorum and Auctionata. My friends did not care at all, so I started @watchgirloffduty just for fun. One of my early watch posts – these 4 beautiful perpetual calendars – was included in a HODINKEE round-up by Eric Wind (now a dealer, but a HODINKEE collaborator then); and from there my account grew exponentially.
DP: What is one of your favorite watches that you own?
ZA: I always loved a specific Patek Philippe Aquanaut reference. A 5065 – it’s 38mm so it fit a lot better than their bigger references (36mm is my sweet spot). A client of mine had bought it and I had to hand-deliver it to him in the Maldives. Or was it Hong Kong? I don’t remember, but it was in mint condition and the dial had aged so nicely. I said to him, if you ever want to sell this watch, let me know. I love it, I need it. And he came back a few years later and sold it to me at a very opportune price.
DP: Any other interesting watch stories like that?
ZA: Yes, so the day after Rolex released the Oyster Perpetuals with the colored dials, I saw someone post that they were available at an AD in Hong Kong. I don’t think they knew those watches would be such a hit – Oyster Perpetuals were never much of a thing. I texted my colleague and I was like, come with me, I need to see these watches. They had the Tiffany blue, the candy pink and the coral, and I was like, I’ll take all three of them. Then the AD looked at my colleague – who’s a male – and said, how will you be paying for these? I had to explain to her that it was actually I who’d be paying for them, and I wound up forming a relationship with her… every time I walked into her boutique, I would wear a different watch to show her that I knew what I was doing. It’s really common here that the male gets all the attention when watch shopping.
DP: What’s next for you?
ZA: I’m leaving Hong Kong in June, but I am going to stay in the industry. I’m in the development stage for an app focused on watch trading for collectors. I will also continue to trade on my own.
DP: Any advice for watch world newbies?
ZA: I think my best piece of advice – which I tell my clients all the time – is buy what you like, not what everyone else likes. You’re the person wearing the watch and it should make you smile.