Roberto Chiappelloni built his first successful business empire as a restaurateur, bringing his passion for food from his Italian homeland to the residents of Queens and upstate New York. But a love of watches and a chance encounter with the owner of a pawn shop who sold him unloved timepieces turned into a second career as the creator and owner of Manfredi Jewels. The company now has two stores: a luxury multibrand in Greenwich, CT, selling pieces from the world’s most exclusive independent watchmakers, the other an authorized Rolex boutique in New Canaan. Mr Chiappelloni has helped many great watchmakers get a foothold in the United States, but now, as he tells WatchPro’s Rob Corder, finds little loyalty in return for his decades of service and wants to see much tougher action to fight the gray market so that he can continue giving gold standard service and support to his valued customers.
WatchPro: How did it all started for Manfredi Jewels.
Roberto Chiappelloni: I started this business in 1988, but the story really began much earlier than that because of my lifelong love of collecting watches. I grew up on a farm in Piacenza, Italy, a small town about 25 minutes from Milan. I went to school in Italy and then in Geneva, Switzerland, where I developed a love of watches before moving to the United States. When I was a young man, 45 years ago, I opened a restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens.
In the mid-1970s I had two customers that came to my restaurant almost every night who owned a pawn shop. As you know the mechanical watch business was almost extinct at the time, so I used to buy loads of amazing watches that these two guys were selling at scrap value for their gold. They had no clue what they had, they would just come in every night with this shopping bag of watches they had bought.
My business was very successful, so three things came together: I loved watches, I had money, and all these beautiful watches kept being offered to me, which I kept buying. I never thought they would be worth anything at the time when quartz watches were all the rage.
WatchPro: What sort of watches were you buying in those days, and what were you paying?
Roberto Chiappelloni: I was buying watches like a Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar for a couple of thousand dollars; beautiful Breguet mini tourbillons. You name it, it was a free-for-all for that sort of stuff at the time. In my case, it was not that I had some incredible wisdom that these watches were going to be a great investment. I was only 25 years-old, the restaurant was very profitable and I had no other major expenses. Buying watches was just a reward to myself, nothing else.
WatchPro: It’s a great back story, and an interesting twist on the common theme of entrepreneurs turning their passion into a business. When and how did you create a shop for watches?
Roberto Chiappelloni: Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1980s I moved to Greenwich, Connecticut. By then I was married and had five restaurants. In those days President Reagan made us all think we were infallible, we could do anything. The sort of pieces I had been buying for a few hundred dollars started selling at auction for thousands and I saw an opportunity.
Great brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe and Cartier were already represented in the area, but there was a slew of opportunities for other brands. So I decided I would use some of the money I made from selling vintage watches to open a little shop. It was slowly, slowly, just a little shop to play with to begin with in 1988. It was not a bad bet because I had access to almost any brand: Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Breguet, Omega, Piaget.
WatchPro: Are you saying you had access to vintage and second hand watches from these brands, or that you could become a dealer for their new watches?
Roberto Chiappelloni: When I opened my shop, I could become an authorized dealer because, at the time I opened, only the big three brands were taken. Everything else was available. Also, back then, you really felt like you were going into a partnership with the brands I worked with.
WatchPro: Where did the name Manfredi come from?
Roberto Chiappelloni: I acquired the franchise for what was a small Italian jewelry brand Manfredi. They were very respected with small stores all over the world, and that gave me instant credibility with other brands including watches. I started working with Manfredi because the owner Giulio Manfredi was a friend of mine back in Italy.
The first watch brand I took on was IWC, then Piaget, but my passion was always going to Basel and heading to the back of the room where the smaller independents were showing their watches. These were the inventors, the real passionate guys. I remember meeting Franck, before he was big with Franck Muller; I met Michel Parmigiani, Kari Voutilainen and so many others.
I loved to wear watches from these independents and felt that Greenwich had the potential to bring these watches and find a market for them. And my bet was correct because we have done exceptionally well with many of them. I sold the first Parmigiani watch in the United States, I was the first retailer with Franck Muller. I was the only person representing Voutilainen in North and South America. The relationship with Kari Voutilainen was so good that on my 30th anniversary he made nine watches; eight for my customers and one for me.
WatchPro: For those that don’t know Greenwich, Connecticut, describe the city and its people.
Roberto Chiappelloni: It is a small city about 30 miles from New York City. From its inception it has always been a wealthy town because of its proximity to New York and the New England coast. It is a beautiful location, wonderful lifestyle, great schools. It has a very high income per capita and highly educated, well-traveled residents who want the best.
One of the things that sets us apart at Manfredi is our service. We can talk about luxury products but in my world luxury starts with customer service. We have always had two to three watchmakers on site, goldsmiths, diamond setters, this is what creates luxury in my opinion.
WatchPro: How competitive is it between jewelers and watch retailers in Greenwich?
Roberto Chiappelloni: It is very competitive. One of them, Betteridge, has been around forever and is a very fine shop. It carries Patek Philippe, Rolex, Cartier and many of the other biggest brands. But we certainly have our place. From the beginning we felt welcome and that we brought something different. We never set out to take brands from other people, we created our own niche and it worked. It still works.
WatchPro: It is not easy to be successful without the blockbuster brands, so you must have been working incredibly hard to compete with the likes of Betteridge.
Roberto Chiappelloni: I really do not know what life would have been like with those brands because I focused on my business and what I was able to do. Now everybody is talking about pre-owned and trade-ins, but we did that from day one, so it was not a scramble for us to get into that.
Our philosophy was and remains that we always believe in the value of what we sell to our customers, so it has always felt right to buy back pieces so that they could buy new again. It is the same with the new trend for people creating luxury areas where customers can come in for a glass of champagne or sit and watch the football with an espresso. We were doing that 30 years ago. It is part of the Italian hospitality culture. We have always thought it is far easier to do business on the same side as the customer, rather than across a desk.
If you look at our store, when I renovated it I put all of the watch brand displays along the walls and each one has a little tray that you can pull out so that when you are showing watches you are with the client, interacting, standing next to them. We think this is a lot more welcoming and warm.
WatchPro: How has the business developed since those early years?
Roberto Chiappelloni: We grew steadily every year at ten, twelve percent. By the time of 2008, with the financial crisis, business was exceptionally strong for us after steady growth year after year. We had a bump in [the financial crisis of] 2008, but by the next year we had recouped what we lost and were flying again.
More recently we have seen the industry putting all of its eggs in the Chinese basket, then the dumping of product left, right and center via the gray market. That is not so easy to adapt to. I been fortunate enough to have sold every important watch that has come to market over the past 30 years, either new as an authorized dealer or pre-owned. I have a great sense of pride in how we have managed that. Now that business is, to a great extent, gone because these important watches can be found on the internet at 30 cents on the dollar. But there is no sense in wishing the world were different. I cannot change the internet, but one thing I can control is what happens in my store.
WatchPro: Was business affected as badly for the low volume, ultra-luxury, independent brands as it was for the more mass market brands?
Roberto Chiappelloni: The big issue for me in terms of loss of business — and I do not see how this is coming back — is for the beautiful high complication timepieces that people once had to sign onto waiting lists to buy. We all know what happened to that part of the market. First of all, prices shot up like crazy. Then there were people selling them as investments, which is another joke.
If we are honest, we cannot just talk about luxury and the beauty of these watches. We can do that easily, but really we have to be honest about what we are actually selling and what is right to sell to people depending on their personal finances.
All the numbers are out there. You can look at a beautiful tourbillon that sold five years ago for $200,000. Now that same watch can be found new on the internet for half that price or less. For me, I have to ask whether I should keep selling these watches in the hope that we find customers who are oblivious to the prices being offered online?
WatchPro: Over 30-40 years, you must have built up a loyal customer base that continues to come to you because they trust you and buy into the whole Manfredi experience? Or are you finding that even those people are tempted away when they see a brand new six figure watch online at 50% below retail?
Roberto Chiappelloni: What I am finding is that they either move away altogether from us, or they are true collectors who say they are never going to sell their watches. I have customers who are collectors with upwards of $50 million worth of watches. Those people are less affected by the way the market is changing.
There is a really wide array of people that have been sold watches from Rolex and Patek Philippe on the promise that they will go up in price. I have never sold watches that way. The reason why I carry 33 brands is so that I can show customers a wide range of options, let them try on the watches and see what appeals to them visually, aesthetically, functionally. I believe we need to go back to that as much as possible and in my store we do it that way.
WatchPro: Authorized dealers seem to get the worst of both worlds these days. Customers want to try on watches so they might seek out their local boutique, but once they decide what they love, they go away to find it at a discount on the Internet.
Roberto Chiappelloni: We have certainly experienced that, and that is part of our conversation with the brands, and I hope they are starting to come to terms with it. The internet is a wonderful tool, and we cannot do without it; we all need to present ourselves online. But it is mind-boggling to me that important brands are not making any effort to differentiate between authorized retailers and people who are just putting up pictures with a price. Very often I see pictures for watches that have not even been released yet. They get the pictures and start offering the watches at discounted prices before authorized dealers even have them. Why are brands ignoring that and not protecting their brands?
When we get the opportunity to welcome clients to our stores, spend time with them and show them watches that work with the style and budget then very often we can convert those people to become Manfredi clients because we offer so much more service and support and give them the security that they are buying from an authorized dealer that can issue a manufacturer’s warranty.
If we are sophisticated and gentle with our clients, we are still in the ball game. Then you add the ability to speak to them about the watches they may have back at home that are not being worn any more. We make it a great experience to trade those in, if they would like. Now the discussion about discounts and price becomes less important.
WatchPro: What would you like to see more of from the brands? I would have thought a good start would be to better manage supply and demand so that the watches are supplied to authorized dealers in the correct quantities: not over-supply where there is less demand and shortages where demand is strong.
Roberto Chiappelloni: That would really be a great start. The least they could do to encourage people like us that invest in inventory, training and providing excellent service to our customers, is to explain to the watch buying public why they should buy from authorized dealers. Or at least explain that when people are buying online, they are buying second hand watches. They might be in new condition, but they have been sold before. They need to educate customers so that those customers ask questions about who will stand behind them if something goes wrong. This is the minimum I would like to see.
WatchPro: How does the business look today? Is it two stores you have now?
Roberto Chiappelloni: Yes, we have two stores. One is the original that we have had for 30 years, and the other we I purchased about four and a half years ago. We bought it for one simple reason, which was that it has Rolex, and I bought it from a person in New Canaan who was retiring. It is about 20 minutes from my other store, and there I only carry Rolex, Tudor and jewelry. The Rolex space is a little over one-third of the store.
I believe that, other than the micro brands, Rolex is one of the few companies that consistently delivers more than they promise. If you look at the quality, if you look at the value retention, there is nothing like Rolex.
I am fortunate enough that almost every watchmaker that wants to enter the American market talks to me. Some of them are not right for me, some I cannot afford, some I do not have the space for.
WatchPro: How does the world change for a businessman like you from life before you are an authorized Rolex dealer to life afterwards?
Roberto Chiappelloni: For me, because I have owned Rolex watches all my life — mainly vintage pieces — it was like a little achievement to be part of the family because I respect the way they respect their clients and protect their brand. Financially, I am already very successful. I have sold watches for one million dollars, so it was not life-changing in that way. I am just very proud to be selling Rolex.
WatchPro: Do you reach out beyond your local market for customers, or are you very much focused on a domestic customer base in Greenwich and Connecticut?
Roberto Chiappelloni: Our advertising is really aimed at a 30 mile radius. I do have a customer in Dallas and a few in other parts of the world, but these are collectors that really seek out certain models from independent brands like Grönefeld, Urban Jürgensen, Laurent Ferrier or Voutilainen because I have stock of these watches where most jewelers don’t even know these names.
WatchPro: How does your business break down between watches and jewelry today?
Roberto Chiappelloni: In terms of money, it is 65% watches now because the average transaction values are so much higher. If you look at the volume of sales, jewelry might be a little higher. It is essential they are sold together. If you sell a nice engagement ring, we will almost always follow up by selling a nice watch. Anniversaries are the same; a watch is often the gift that the guy gets. We always talk to our clients and invariably find they are celebrating something like a wedding, anniversary, graduation. What we sell is always tied to something happy.
WatchPro: What are your personal plans for the future? Do you have other people from your family working in the business?
Roberto Chiappelloni: My wife still helps a lot in the store, and I have a daughter who is right now in law school but she has been part of the business since she has been a baby. She has done an internship with Hodinkee, she has worked at Montblanc and other things, so I could see her joining us. But I have 14 people working at one store and four at the other and I have no plans to retire because I love being in the business so much.
I feel the company would continue to succeed whether or not I have another family member working here. I am very confident in the teams we have. I am very much looking to the future. For example, I am renovating the building right now, upgrading the front of it. We are investing all the time in training. We have two people that have masters of communications qualifications that so all our digital promotions and social media. I am very bullish about the future.
I believe that we have not scratched the surface for what the watch business in America can be. You have no idea how many successful people are not wearing a watch, or they are wearing a plastic watch.
I think the Swiss watchmakers do not speak to Americans in their language; not in the right way. I am fortunate enough that almost every watchmaker that wants to enter the American market talks to me. Some of them are not right for me, some I cannot afford, some I do not have the space for. I ask all of them why they do not speak to jewelers that regularly sell engagement rings for twenty, thirty, forty thousand dollars. They say they will not go there because they do not have other watch brands that they like to be sold alongside.
This makes no sense. If a jeweler is trusted for such an important and high value purchase as that wedding ring, would they not also be trusted to recommend a luxury watch brand? I think we are leaving huge swathes of the country without proper representation for many watch brands.
When did it become OK for brands to charge upwards of $700 for a replacement watch strap, and it takes six months to get it? That is not OK. We cannot just keep quiet about these issues; we have to speak out.
WatchPro: Maybe it is the other way around. Perhaps the jeweler who is comfortable selling engagement rings for tens of thousands of dollars is afraid to stock and sell very expensive watches.
Roberto Chiappelloni: I get calls from many of these jewelers for advice. They want to stock watches but the brands will not even speak to them. The demand is out there. We get calls all the time from across the country from jewelers who have clients that want these amazing watches but they are not able to get the really good brands.
WatchPro: Do you think American stores look right to the Swiss? Europe has been investing far more money for longer into upgrading their stores and nowadays, particularly in key capitals around Europe, stores that do not look incredible simply do not survive.
Roberto Chiappelloni: You are correct, and there does need to be more investment here. But I still feel very bullish about the watch market. We have to be innovative and make watches attractive to millennials. Maybe we need to look at leasing options, but that could be above my pay grade. These people do not seem to want to own anything, so leasing could be a way to go.
We need to educate younger people that they will not take a beating if they buy a fine watch because it will hold its value. It is not like the disposable stuff they are used to owning. They will be surprised if they own a watch for 20 years that it is still valuable and can be traded.
WatchPro: Has the 2016-17 slump in sales for Swiss watches in America put businesspeople and the Swiss watch industry off investing in the sector or is there something else going on?
Roberto Chiappelloni: The first thing is that brands need to be disciplined about producing the right number of watches that will sell. Next you have to elevate the experience of buying and owning watches. When did it become OK for brands to charge upwards of $700 for a replacement watch strap, and it takes six months to get it? That is not OK. We cannot just keep quiet about these issues; we have to speak out.
WatchPro: We know how political the watch industry is, and retailers are afraid to speak out because they fear falling out with important brands.
Roberto Chiappelloni: Yes and no, but keeping quiet is to everybody’s detriment because some things need to change. When people stop loving you they stop visiting you. It does not matter if you have an MBA in marketing and client acquisition, but it is far easier to keep existing clients happy than to find new ones. I have an MBA in common sense.
WatchPro: Brands do not just need to provide better service and keep consumers happy, they need to take better care of their retail partners that have been representing them loyally for decades.
Roberto Chiappelloni: It used to be that way. I had the golden years when I, as a professional, could walk up to Patek Philippe and walk home with spare parts so I could take care of my customers. We had that with Omega, with Vacheron, and so on. Now that is all gone and watches get sent away for months to repair shops. That might be profitable for the brands, but it is a negative on the customer.
When brands first started opening their own boutiques, I thought that it was a positive development because I could send customers to them and they could see the full breadth of their product families in a beautiful setting and where they could speak to people fully immersed in the brand. All of a sudden they realised these stores are expensive and needed to sell more pieces at higher prices so they started making special editions just for themselves. That has consequences. For example, the boutique-only watch with a certain color, detail, complication becomes the only watch that a customer wants from that brand. Authorized dealers cannot get that watch, so every customer is disappointed and the brand is creating more enemies than friends. For every action there is a reaction.
If you sit like I do in a store, every other customer wants the same three watches from the same three brands. They do not even come in, they just phone now.
I do not want to dwell on the negatives, I only want to focus on things that I have the power to change, which is to be really good at what we do, to be respectful for our clients’ money, and remembering that almost everybody who walks into our store is celebrating something. It is our duty to make it fun.
WatchPro: What are your plans for future growth?
Roberto Chiappelloni: In the short term it is really to have a great representation for each brand that we carry. It is really important that we do not only have a few pieces because they are the hottest models. We constantly invest in our website and social media. And we work to make sure that our people treat every customer who walks through the door as important and special.
The long term is that I am expanding my building greatly and making it very user friendly. We have a three-story building that right now does not look so great because it is behind scaffolding. We are working to make sure that the top floors of the building match the quality of the ground floor space. We are making it match up all three floors so we will have very attractive kerb appeal.
WatchPro: Do you have any plans to open additional stores in the future?
Roberto Chiappelloni: No. Two stores is very comfortable. It is just the right size for me. I do not like to owe any money, I like liquidity so that if we want to make a move, like we are doing right now with the addition of Tudor, I can make that investment.
WatchPro: And are you still in the restaurant business?
Roberto Chiappelloni: Believe it or not, I am. Forty-five years since I started I still own one restaurant. I don’t work there, but I do still own it: Alberto’s in Forest Green. The food is terrific.