All discussions about the future of luxury retail in the age of eCommerce were temporarily suspended last month when Rolex and their retail partner in Dubai Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons announced the opening of the world’s largest Rolex boutique at the Dubai Mall. 

The showroom covers 850 square meters of retail space

The opening of the boutique also marked an important milestone for the Seddiqi family, whose partnership with Rolex goes back more than 60 years. The leading purveyor of luxury watches in the region, Rolex represents a big portion of the Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons business, which began when founder Ahmed Qasim Seddiqi was given the Rolex franchise for Dubai in 1952.

“We can now show our friends and clients that we can get the best of the Swiss watch industry, and specifically Rolex, and cater to their requirements in the Middle East. With the boutique opening, we also wanted to show people that despite the political situation in the rest of the region, Dubai is still number one when it comes to luxury retail,” said Mohammed Abdulmagied Seddiqi, Chief Commercial Officer at Seddiqi Holding.

The chandelier in the showroom is inspired by the Rolex cyclops

The three-storey boutique boasts an impressive 850 square meters of retail space and is designed to provide customers with the quintessential Rolex experience. “Regardless of its size, this boutique concept is a first in the world for Rolex. When it comes to the display, the experience, the service, or the quantity of watches we stock – there is nothing else like this,” said Mohammed.

The grandson of the late founder, Mohammed recounts how the family still has in its possession a recommendation letter from His Highness Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former ruler of Dubai, to Rolex. “It basically said Mr. Ahmed Seddiqi is a trustworthy person and can be entrusted with the Rolex agency in Dubai,” explained Mohammed. “It’s funny but my grandfather never visited Switzerland his entire life despite doing business with the Swiss. My late uncle, Ibrahim Seddiqi, was the one who visited Switzerland on official trips before my father and uncle Abdul Hamid entered the business.”

A Seddiqi store selling Rolex in 1967

According to Mohammed, Rolex stands alone in the watch industry. “Even internally at Seddiqi when we divide brands into luxury, high-end, independents, mid-range, Rolex stands by itself. They are at another level in the way they market themselves or the brand ambassadors they work with,” he said.

“Rolex stands out because it possesses a timeless quality that no other brand quite has. If you look at the watches from the 1950s to the watches that are sold today, you will notice that there are no dramatic changes in the way the watches look. Yes, there are facelifts, the movements have been upgraded but the philosophy has remained the same – to deliver the best quality Swiss watches at reasonable prices.”

The Seddiqi family has been selling Rolex since 1952

The UAE has consistently been among the top 10 markets for the Swiss watch industry and the country finished the first quarter of 2018 up 6.6 per cent from 2017 on the Swiss watch exports chart. “Dubai is a hub for luxury today. Today tourists can come here easily – Chinese and Russian tourists get visa on arrival, Indians with US visas get visa on arrival. Dubai caters to everybody – it accommodates different lifestyles, it is open to everyone. All this helps in the growth of the luxury industry,” said Mohammed.

While luxury retail may have seen slow growth in recent years, the secondary watch market has been booming and is worth $400 billion now according to estimates. Richemont recently announced the acquisition of UK-based pre-owned watch dealer Watchfinder and brands like Audemars Piguet and FP Journe have also announced certified pre-owned divisions of their business.

This is the biggest Rolex boutique in the world

It's a thought that resonates well with Mohammed. “I have been trying to convince our board to do this [get into the pre-owned category] for the last 12 years. I think we have reached a point where they are finally in agreement and now we are working on bringing this to the market,” he said. “At the end of the day, regardless of their status or need for money, people get bored of the watches they own and want a change.

There is no authentic or certified place to trade-in watches in Dubai at the moment. Yes, there is the Gold Souq, but that’s not ideal. Not everyone will risk trading-in at the Gold Souq. So, we are thinking of doing this for everyone who receives watches as gifts or get bored of their current collection.”

A Rolex Ref. 6263 sold at the Daytona Ultimatum Auction

Vintage watch enthusiasts will note the special relation that the retailer has had with Rolex. In the late 1970s, the UAE retailer was commissioned to procure Rolex watches with the name of His Highness Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum – then the Defence Minister of the UAE – and the official Ministry of Defence emblem on the dial. These watches, given away as diplomatic gifts, are highly prized in the vintage market and often command high prices at auctions. Notable among them is the Rolex Daytona Ref. 6263, the only known Daytona which doesn’t have the Rolex name on the dial.

“Back in the 1970s, we sold them for AED6,000-7,000 each. Some stock from our initial order remained and it wasn’t an easy to sell them to the public. Remember that this was during the Quartz Crisis – it was hard to sell a manual-winding chronograph with screw-down pushers. We discounted them, but still struggled.

I remember a prominent Middle East collector telling me he bought a few of these watches. The UAE as a country was less than 10 years old then and no one really cared about this logo on the dial. Some of these collectors actually removed it from the dial. Look at how much they are worth now. In fact, the person who bought the Ref. 6263 from the recent Daytona Ultimatum auction actually got a good deal, the one that was sold a couple of years ago was sold for more than half a million dollars,” said Mohammed.

(This is an abridged version of the interview that will appear in our Fall Issue in September this year)