This week, we speak with Watchworks, a longstanding fixture in the Portland watch scene. Like all small independent retailers, the store has fallen on tough times, but Alex Hofberg, the founder of Watchworks, is charting a new course. Throughout his years of collecting, he’s managed to put away some interesting examples of rare vintage watches. Now, he plans to bring them to the market.
Everyone has a creation story. What’s yours?
Watchworks was established nearly 30 years ago when founder Alex Hofberg, who was finishing a Business Degree at Portland State University and living in a drafty large rental home with roommates, became a professional antique and collectables picker. By coincidence, one of his housemates had been trained as a watchmaker at the Joseph Bulova School. Together, they bought and sold antiques and Alex learned some watchmaking essentials. At the time (1990), many watchmakers who had been trained post-World War II as part of the GI Bill were aging out, and Alex bought out many caches of watches, material, equipment, and horological libraries – so much that he quickly amassed a working knowledge of the marketplace for fine timepieces. For decades, clocks and pocket watches had been collected, but the popularity and desirability of wristwatches were quickly developing. That growing market offered great opportunity.
The hip-pocket business soon became a full-time profession with the addition of a storefront in Portland, Oregon. Originally, the wares were somewhat limited to vintage wrist and pocket watches such as Hamilton, Gruen, Omega, Rolex, railroad watches, etc., but living simply and reinvesting profits in more valuable and collectable items propelled the business forward, and Watchworks’ fame grew.
Currently, the store does a significant business, mostly by assisting customers who walk in (rather than e-commerce), both in pre-owned and antique pieces, but also as official retailers for Omega, Breitling, Bell & Ross, Longines, Hamilton, Oris, and others.
Watchworks is known for its expert repair department, largely due to the skill of head watchmaker Paul Manney, who has been with the company for over 26 years. Paul trained with WOSTEP both in the USA and in Switzerland.
How has Watchworks been supporting the watch community?
One of our goals is to offer expert advice and repair services, regardless of the bottom line. This means we will try to dissuade clients from chasing projects that likely will offer continuous difficulties or are poor economic models with regard to restoration costs. Not every watch should be fixed.
Another goal is to offer the kind of shopping and buying experience that we all wish we would encounter everywhere: no pressure, lots of listening to client needs and desires, and crafting answers that serve the clients completely rather than simply making the next sale.
Authentication services are also critical as so many of our clients face various forms of skullduggery when considering investing in items elsewhere. Part of the magic of our success is that the vintage and rare objects we like to do business in came to us from original owners, rather than unreliable sources like websites or watch and jewelry trade shows.
What watches do you carry that folks should be paying attention to right now?
There is no question that sport “tool” watches are currently super hot in the market. Also, the major brands are jealous of the successes of vintage watch dealers and, if they can, are looking to their own archives (or in some cases, the archives of others) to create offerings that, with new products, can give them a sliver of the value of the vintage marketplace. For example, look at the continued success Omega has enjoyed by offering both original Speedmasters and countless iterations and special editions. If possible, collectors and enthusiasts should look to the new offerings of these vintage styled pieces and then strive to find the best example of the actual vintage model that they can afford. The new products keep the old highly relevant.
What do you specialize in?
As cash flow for the past few years was steady and money in the bank earned nearly zero interest, Alex set aside some of the rarest vintage “sport tool” watches that walked in. Specifically, Alex sought out vintage Omega, Breitling, Rolex, and Heuer watches. Now, some of those pieces will be made available.
Alex also loves and collects the visual side of the horological world: correct time clocks from various brands, the Mido Man Clock Robot, antique advertising pieces, navigational clocks and chronometers. One of his prized possessions is a wristwatch automaton made by Baranger Studios – a whimsical store window “fascinator” depicting men working on a zany wristwatch. Aside from that, candor: Alex specializes in honesty and transparency.
How can customers and those interested in purchasing a watch connect with you?
As a result of forced closure during the pandemic lockdown, combined with damage to our store sustained during the recent unrest, Watchworks will not re-open the store immediately, but rather, relocate to an office to proceed in a safer and more exclusive business model. Alex and his staff plan to work by appointment only, employ video conferencing, social media, etc. A new website is already under development. Currently, the phone is forwarded, emails are being answered, and the old website is functioning but archaic. Stand by for a revamped Watchworks!