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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Betteridge dynasty adapts to shifting demographics

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From the Jewelry Quarter of Birmingham, England, to Manhattan then Greenwich, Aspen, Palm Beach and Vail, the Betteridge family has always moved with the times. The business today has boutiques in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States, which ensures that, even though the country’s billionaires are a remarkably mobile cohort, they always find a warm welcome at one of the Betteridge stores. Just ahead of lock down, Rob Corder sat with the company’s CEO of 45 years, Terry Betteridge (pictured above), to learn how he and the next generation of his family are adapting to a changing world.

Betteridge can trace its beginnings back to the 18th century in Birmingham, England, where the family was part of the country’s fine jewelry design and silver-smithing that was centered in the city.

Albert Betteridge Sr., better known as “the Colonel,” learned his goldsmith trade in the Jewelry Quarter before setting sail for New York in 1892. He went on to run the International Silver Factory in Meriden, Connecticut, a cooperative of producers in the town.

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Albert ‘The Colonel’ Betteridge.

The Colonel’s son Albert (Bert) Betteridge — you have to be specific because of the number of Alberts in the Betteridge family — was the first in the family to move into retail, with stores on Manhattan’s Fifth Ave & 45th Street, and Wall Street & Broadway. The family business later added a boutique in the Miami Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fl., all of the stores focusing on the finest jewelry of the time, and only adding clocks and watches in the post-war decades.

Bert Betteridge.

The business’s fortunes rose and fell in the first half of the 20th century as the roaring twenties gave way to the great depression, then recovery before the devastation of World War II and the rebuilding of the global economy that followed.

A young Terry Betteridge was thrust into running the family business after the death of his father.

Betteridge’s first store in its current home town of Greenwich, Connecticut, was opened after the war in 1948, and the company’s current custodian and CEO, Terry Betteridge, was born soon afterwards in 1952; the next generation of a dynasty of jewelers with very little interest in the luxury watches for which it is now so famous.

“My grandfather’s dying words were: “stay away from watches”,” recalls Mr Betteridge during a conversation about the past, present and future of the family firm.

WatchPro: The family appears to have had a great gift for adapting to changing markets. How has that continued in the time since you took over in 1975?

Terry Betteridge: In 2006 we bought a shop in Palm Beach from a guy I first met and shared a room with in Basel when he couldn’t find a place to stay. He owned a place called Greenleaf & Crosby, the longest-serving jewelers in the area [founded in 1920] and an art deco gem. I had that in my back pocket for about five years with it rolling along not losing any money and not making much money, but over the past five years it has become the fastest growing part of the business because we have put a lot more focus into it.

It only sells jewelry, other than a few estate watches, because it would need a real watch geek to make watches work, and we don’t have that in Palm Beach. My view is that it is so well run by the staff down there that I leave them to get on with it. They are a team generating seven-figure sales; they are incredible.

Greenwich and our other shops [in Vail and Aspen, Colorado] have become more watches than jewelry, which is honestly nothing that I meant to happen. As much as a grand complication is a rare and wonderful thing, I could buy three of them if I really wanted to. That is not something you could say about my jewelry, where each stone is unique and fashioned by jewelers that had to work ten years at the bench before they are allowed to make a ring.

The great joy of an engagement ring is that it is a distillation of skill, experience and rarity that makes it unique. It is also indestructible. You could sift it out of the ashes of a house and it will still be perfect. Watches are less so.

WatchPro: It is interesting, sitting here in Greenwich in a great emporium of fine watchmaking that your heart lies more with the diamond business.

Terry Betteridge: Not just diamonds. We have a Kashmir sapphire piece at auction right now that should bring a million dollars. That is an historic item. You are certainly going to find the same pride, history and craftsmanship at Patek Philippe, but it is different in jewelry where you have to be an artist in every stroke.

In modern watchmaking, it is more about precision to match Richard Mille’s incredible CNC work. Even if you are doing it by hand, you are trying to match that machine.

WatchPro: Are you speaking as a gemologist and goldsmith yourself? Did you spend time at the bench?

Terry Betteridge: I was always at the bench, working with my dad. I remember when I was four, I had the Hope Diamond dropped in my hand by a jeweler at Winston’s who was resetting it. I always made jewelry as Christmas presents and I’ve become a pretty good setter.

WatchPro: If I steer this conversation onto the topic of Swiss watches, am I going to get the same passion and enthusiasm as you so clearly have for jewelry?

Terry Betteridge: To be truthful, no. But I do love my watches and tinker with watches as well.

WatchPro: So how and when did the watch business become significant to Betteridge.

Terry Betteridge: Aside from Tiffany’s, I think we are the oldest Patek Philippe dealer in the United States. I had a watch that was in inventory in my father’ store from 1938. It never sold as the depression went on. It was a ladies’ quartz that was simply unsaleable and it ended up in the back of a safe.

Hank Edelman [president of Patek Philippe USA from 1991 until 2006] is still a friend. We have always sold Patek Philippe well and I do love them. We have a couple of families who have historically been great collectors and we have handled a lot of the very best watches for customers like that: minute repeaters, grand complications, watches with provenance that are not seen very often.

I hired John Reardon from Patek Philippe and he became my watch guy for a year [he later moved to Sotheby’s then Christie’s before launching his own business for high end watch obsessives called Collectability.com]. We have always maintained great connections with Patek Philippe.

I was one of the first Lange & Söhne dealers when it re-emerged in the early 1990s and I remember them pitching to me. I was asking why I would need Lange when I was, at that point, the biggest Patek dealer in the United States. They responded by sending me two first class tickets, a chauffeur for a week and putting me up at the in the finest hotel in Dresden. At that point, I took the trip with my daughter, who I wanted to spend time with. We had a great trip, I loved the energy of the city, and they persuaded me to take Lange.

I spent time with the team and they were showing me the school and the factory they were opening. Walter Lange would follow us around everywhere, and I remember sitting down and talking with him for an hour about the war. My dad flew in World War II, so I had heard the other side of it. Walter Lange had an amazing story to tell.

At the end of it, and they still do this today, they sit you down with a little one of their bridges so you can engrave your name as a memento. When I finished mine, they went into a little huddle and then the foreman came over to me and said that they could find a room for me so that I could finish my engraving apprenticeship in only two or three months. They didn’t realize I was not an engraver but the owner of a visiting business. That was one of the most charming things that has happened to me, and I really wanted to stay and finish that course.

The girl, whose block I was using, engraved my watch for me. They did it as a surprise. They took a picture of the best elk I ever hunted and engraved it in relief on the back of my watch. That was pretty wonderful.

WatchPro: You make it sound like running Betteridge these days is more a passion than an occupation.

Terry Betteridge: At this point, yes. I am 68. I wanted to retire at 40 when Tiffany’s tried to buy me. I had their CFO and CEO sit in my office for days trying to talk me into selling, but I like running my own show and doing things a little differently. At 50, then 60, you have children and grandchildren giving you more reasons to stay at work.

WatchPro: And that next generation is now running the business with you.

Terry Betteridge: They do. My son Win is my chief operating officer and my daughter-in-law runs my estate jewelry business, and she is fabulous. If I had to choose between the two, if I had to let one employee go, I think I would keep her [laughs]. They are both excellent, so I am really lucky.

Win Betteridge.
Natalie Betteridge.

My daughter, Brooke, is in the Aspen store, and hopefully she will come back because I miss her. I have five kids, and I try to persuade them all to join the business, but they have their own ideas.

Brooke Betteridge.

WatchPro: You describe business decisions as if they all come from the heart, but when I look at the watch brands you are carrying, they come from the more corporate end of the spectrum as well.

Terry Betteridge: We carry a lot of Richemont brands and we love Rolex. I am the only American on the council of the Federation de Haute Horlogerie and I have to defend Rolex every time I am there because they love to beat up this company that makes a million watches every year. But, as a guy who sells watches, I tell them Rolex has the lowest repair rate, by an order of magnitude, of any brand out there. It is the only watch out there I can’t break.

I might add Tudor to that list. Tudor has really come a long way, they are better than you know. I love the Black Bay P01 that came out last year and I have been wearing it for weeks. When you wear it, it really grows on you. It is fun and I like fun watches.

We only want watches that work. I hate watches that come back for service and repair and I always want to give good advice to our customers. So, if they want a watch that is always going to work, its Rolex, Rolex or Rolex. It will retain its value, it will always get you to the train on time. The accuracy of Rolexes today is astounding.

WatchPro: I am enjoying the image of you cheerleading for Rolex at an FHH meeting surrounded by the Swiss artisan independents that slave over hand-making 300 watches per year.

Terry Betteridge: They do love their hand-made specialties, and I get that. There is fun in that, but from my standpoint Rolex is outstanding.

WatchPro: Maybe it is the purity and lack of the extraneous at Rolex that speaks to you.

Terry Betteridge: That is exactly what it is. What they do is keep time. For me, and I think of myself as much a farmer as a jeweler these days, I beat the dickens out of my watches. I wear out five chainsaws per year wearing a Rolex, swinging an axe, working machinery, and the watch doesn’t give a darn.

WatchPro: It is the same pitch as Rafa Nadal wearing his Richard Mille on the tennis court. A watch that can survive that sort of impact must be made right.

Terry Betteridge: I am amazed he does that. They don’t look that strong to me. I was sitting with Jasmine Audemars [chairwoman of Audemars Piguet] at one of these FHH meetings and we were grading the brands on their strengths, and she says: “Richard Mille, how wonderful it is that they have 56 parts in their case, alone. How stupid!”

WatchPro: You sound like a fan of simplicity. Does that apply to the way you run the business?

Terry Betteridge: Sort of. Every level of complexity increases the chance of something going wrong by an order of magnitude.

I tried to hire Franck Muller when he was a kid. I was at Basel 40 years ago and they used have all those hand-made watch guys at the back. There was Franck Muller with a little case with four watches, all tonneaus. He had a minute repeater that didn’t work, an old perpetual calendar that didn’t work, but you could see genius in him. I told him he was a super watchmaker but trying to make unbelievably complicated stuff and I tried to hire him for my workshop. He turned me down and decided to keep going with his business.

Around the same time, I had a customer who owned 40% of Ford Motor Company and had the idea that he wanted to buy Patek Philippe and asked if I could help introduce him. I knew all the right people, but I also knew they would never sell. These guys flew all the way to Geneva and I don’t think they even got an appointment with Patek.

When they came back I said that, rather than trying to buy Patek, why don’t they invest in this guy Franck Muller. That’s what happened and that is how Frank Muller got started.

Betteridge in Palm Beach, Florida.

WatchPro: Dragging this back to the present day, and bringing the Betteridge story up-to-date, how would you describe where you fit into the markets in which you operate: Greenwich, Colorado, Florida and the wider US market?

Terry Betteridge: Historically, we have had the best customers in the world. Let me show you something [he shows a photograph from a 1988 hunting trip with some of America’s most venerable families, philanthropists and successful business leaders (who shall not be named)].

These guys have all been great friends of me and my family for years and they are the most generous men in the world. Most of them didn’t have a nickel when the photo was taken, but they are all watch guys now.

Betteridge in Aspen, Colorado.
Betteridge in Vail, Colorado.

WatchPro: With customers like that, I assume it is more about you sourcing the watches they want rather than trying to sell them something they do not know they want?

Terry Betteridge: Honestly, yes. I talk to my son [Win] a lot about this, particularly since we moved into this new much larger position on Greenwich Avenue. Our old store was an architectural gem built in the 1890s, but it was small. We had 900 square feet of retail and 5,000 square feet in the rest of the building. Here, we have 13,000 square feet, and half of it is retail. We have Rolex pressing us to use more space.

A big nudge for us was when this company from Boston [Shreve, Crump & Low] opened up next to us and they pitched Cartier, they pitched Patek, to steal our account because they had double the space that we had to give them. This was seven years ago when they were all pushing like crazy and they said that we would have to get more room. That was how we ended up here.

In my old shop, we put a couple of Patek chairs in and sold the watches at a bar. Philippe Stern was a fan and then Thierry had a couple of drinks at the bar and loved it. Even Rolex let us use our own displays in there because they were so genuine to the place.

WatchPro: Competition is pretty stiff here on Greenwich Avenue with Shreve, Crump & Lowe, Manfredi and Tiffany’s on the same street, but you appear to have the brands that any of them would choose for themselves.

Terry Betteridge: It is terribly competitive. And that is where having the brands you want makes such a difference. We have Patek Philippe and Rolex, and nothing else has the same weight. Richard Mille would be a great brand to have, but you would get so few watches that you can’t really think of it as a business.

WatchPro: Do the majority of brands give you exclusivity here in Greenwich?

Terry Betteridge: Generally, no. Some of them, like Rolex, are the best at controlling that. The one exception was that Rolex allowed Manfredi to buy a store in New Canaan, [a 30 minute drive from Greenwich], which surprised me.

WatchPro: How do you keep the personality of Betteridge when you have to work within such strict guidelines from the brands?

Terry Betteridge: It is getting increasingly difficult. With Patek we have to vet the customers. I got in big trouble for selling watches to a guy who was a great customer who had bought a $100,000 ring from me, but is one of these business people who fancies himself as a watch dealer and wears watches for a month then flips them for fun. We got a dressing down for that and he was off our list. That stuff drives me insane.

We defend these brands. I got them in the first place because I believe in them, I invest in them. But to be slapped around by brands and asked to fire a salesman that I have invested in? That should not happen.

Right now, Rolex is a license to print money, so as a businessman you just say ‘yes sir’.

WatchPro: Is Rolex still as valuable today, even with the world-wide shortages that are frustrating so many customers, with prices rising and margins being cut?

Terry Betteridge: Did you see our cases? We used to display 270 watches. We now have 43. They keep sending me forms [the presentation trays inside cabinets] that hold fewer watches. I have a case with a form that has no spots for watches. That was their answer to the problem.

But Rolex is very wise. They have gone to three shifts, 24 hours a day, to make a million watches. They have shifted more to 18ct gold and platinum because, if you can only make so many movements per year, you should make them expensive.

Our sales went up 30% last year in dollars, and I think we were only 11% up in units. We are selling more than we ever have, and we don’t have any in the case. Customers keep coming in and asking for the same watches, and we do not have them. We have even been trained by Rolex in how to say no.

It used to be just Daytonas, but now it is almost everything. Even a 41mm steel Day-Date is unavailable.

All that said, the watches are better than ever. That is the good part of what Rolex is doing. They have maintained and improved the quality. They are really smart with the way they run their business.

WatchPro: The bigger brands are getting evermore powerful, but where does that leave the rest?

Terry Betteridge: The little brands? God help them. There are already a few that have gone under and I think there will be some real blood over the next couple of years.

WatchPro: I wonder if some of the brands we might lose could be from the big conglomerates. It is hard to see how smaller brands from Richemont and LVMH can be given enough attention when these groups are so focused on cash cows like Cartier and Bulgari. Perhaps the smaller brands would perform better outside these groups?

Terry Betteridge: I see that happening with Breitling now it is being run more like an independent. The watches have improved. They are much more focused on their best models.

WatchPro: There could be some rationalisation across all the big groups: Richemont, Swatch Group, LVMH and Kering all have marginal brands. Swatch Group getting out of Calvin Klein watches might turn out to be an early example of a trend.

Terry Betteridge: I think that is likely to be true.

WatchPro: You have stores in very different parts of the United States now. How have they been performing relative to each other?

Terry Betteridge: Over the past five years, our destination stores in Aspen, Vail and Palm Beach, have been our growing businesses, while Greenwich has been shrinking a little bit. It is hard to calculate that exactly because we do all of our servicing and repairs, and run the other businesses from here, but retail sales here are down.

The issue here in Greenwich is Connecticut tax law, which has pushed so many of our best customers out of town. This guy, this one and this one [he points to three people in the old hunting photograph] have moved out; all of them billionaires. We have the highest estate tax in the nation so dying in Connecticut is a big mistake.

WatchPro: Where have they all gone?

Terry Betteridge: They go to Palm Beach. They go to Texas.

WatchPro: That is a long way to go to escape estate taxes.

Terry Betteridge: I had that discussion with the Governor here. He was saying good riddance to these people [that would move to avoid higher tax rates]. I was like, “Are you insane?” One of these guys [back to the hunting picture] was employing 220 people, ten of them earning over $10 million per year. He had to fire them all when he moved and they have all gone. He had 32 people working at his house. They are all gone. He gave $100 million to Greenwich charities.

Every person chased out of Connecticut is another story just like this one. It’s insane. All the city needed to be was fair. These people are happy to pay taxes, they just don’t want to be singled out. Greenwich was the golden goose, and they have just about killed it. It is very sad.

Rents on Greenwich Avenue are half what they were five years’ ago and there are still empty units. Ralph Lauren’s unit, next door, has been empty for two years and it is the best location on the Avenue.

WatchPro: 2019 was a great year for the American watch market and it looks like The Watches of Switzerland Group and Bucherer got their timing about right with their move here. What impact, if any, do you think these $1 billion+ European groups will have here?

Terry Betteridge: That is a weird one to me: when we have such a shortage of product and yet Watches of Switzerland is opening up stores in Hudson Yards and SoHo. If they are opening up, then Rolex is going to have to close others when there is an absolute limit on product. They have been doing that. Fortunately, we are a big enough player.

WatchPro: Watches of Switzerland has been open about the strategy that, if it invests in new and better stores for Rolex, that will secure them better allocations, and you could see why that would be desirable from Rolex’s side.

Terry Betteridge: Absolutely. It works. I am generally very behind Rolex. It worries me that they can get so tough on things that are clearly just slips, but I am the biggest fan in the world of Rolex and I think they will keep getting stronger than every other brand over the next two years.

WatchPro: Do you think Tourneau will be a stronger organization once Bucherer’s investment and ideas start to show through?

Terry Betteridge: I worry about it. Bucherer has taken on a lot with Tourneau. There are many bright people that will have a very hard time in the next few years.

3 Comments

  1. it is kind of funny having a quartz watch from 1938 when Quartz watches came out in the 60s with Seiko and Bulova Accutron,
    I wander what brand would it be ?

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Rob Corder

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