Atlanta entrepreneur turns time into money

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Meet Hamilton Powell

Job: President of Crown & Caliber

Family: Married with one daughter, age 1

Age: 32

Lives: Buckhead

Education: University of Georgia bachelor's degree in business

Favorite book: "Every Good Endeavor" by Timothy Keller

Philosophy: Live for the line, not the dot.

Time is of the essence to Hamilton Powell of Atlanta-based Crown & Caliber. It’s what makes him tick.

Which is why the 31-year-old Atlanta native created Crown & Caliber, a rapidly-growing Internet-based company that purchases high-end luxury watches directly from individuals.

Since Powell started the company in January 2012, revenue has soared to $3 million. He expects to double that this year.

Plenty of men and some women crave luxury time pieces, even ones that to a novice wouldn’t look more impressive than a $30 watch.

Powell, a fourth generation Atlantan, is using his background in private equity to build a business that caters to what he says is a real need among luxury watch owners — how to safely and securely sell a watch for a fair price.

Q: Do you have a store where customers can go?

A: We are 100 percent reliant on the Internet and, therefore, we do not cater to foot traffic. In fact, one of the reasons we pay such high prices for our customers' watches is that we don't have the overhead of a brick-and-mortar jeweler.

Q: How many watches do you buy a day?

A: Recently, we have been buying about 10 watches per day, with an average purchase price of around $3,000 per watch. However, we buy over 50 brands including Rolex, Tag Heuer, Omega, Breitling, as well as many others.

Q: What’s the price range for the used watches you buy and then sell?

A: We focus only on buying luxury watches and, therefore, will not buy a watch unless it has a value of at least $750. But usually the prices are much higher. As an example, we just bought a watch for $37,000. We are currently working with a customer looking to sell an IWC Schaffhausen watch worth over $110,000.

Q: How did you get into this?

A: Back in 2011, I decided to sell a couch on Craigslist. It was my first time selling anything on Craigslist, so I didn't really know what to expect. Well, a long story made short, a guy shows up to my office late at night in a really sketchy van with $400 in cash.

Nothing bad happened, but the whole thing was unnerving. It made me wonder what other items people were attempting to sell that may be even more unnerving to sell than a couch. When I typed in the word “Rolex,” I was amazed at how many people were trying to sell their Rolex watch on Craigslist. It seemed there had to be a better way.

Q: Where did the start-up money come from?

A: We are funded by Powell Growth Capital – the private equity fund which I currently run. We took a hard look at investing in Crown & Caliber and one of the questions we had to answer was, "who is going to run this thing?" I absolutely loved the company, so instead of bringing in a CEO as we have historically done in our other businesses, I decided to run the company myself.

Q: Why don’t people just to go pawn shops?

A: They can, and many do, but they shouldn't. The problem with selling a watch to a jeweler or pawn shop is two-fold: One, most don't have the in-house capability to authenticate, inspect or value the watch. Therefore, they tend to make very safe/low offers. And two, because these jewelers or pawn shops rely on foot traffic to sell their watches, they likely cannot command a high price for the watches in their store. Therefore, in order to make money, they can't pay a very high price for the watch.

Q: You don’t advertise, so are there really that many people who want to sell their high-end watches, and a lot of people who want to buy them?

A: Yes. It is a big thing. There a lot of watch enthusiasts, collectors. We have a good following on Facebook and Twitter of influential watch collectors. There are at least 10 trade magazines that do nothing but serve the high-end watch community. There are lots of blogs.

Q: How do you gauge this interest?

A: In 2012, there were $21 billion worth of brand new Swiss watches sold worldwide. This represents a 19 percent increase from 2011. So every year the pre-owned market gets bigger and bigger.

The pre-owned watch industry is highly fragmented and terribly inefficient. However, the numbers are staggering with many individual pre-owned watches fetching six-figure and even seven-figure prices. It’s an industry that most people are not aware of.

Q: What do you do with the watches you buy?

A: We have a network of domestic and international watch collectors, enthusiasts, dealers, retailers, as well as others who we directly sell our watches to. About 40 percent of our sales are to international markets. However, beginning later this month, we will begin selling watches directly to the public on our site.

Q: How many watches have you bought since you opened?

A: Well over a thousand. We buy over 50 brands. In some ways, we have been hoarding watches in anticipation of selling them directly to the public via our site.  

Q: OK, so how does it work?

A: It all starts with going to the Crown & Caliber site and entering a little bit of information about your watch on our quote form. Within 48 hours, an associate from Crown & Caliber calls you with a quote for your watch. If you like the quote – Crown & Caliber will then send, at our expense, insured and prepaid shipping materials. Once you receive the materials, you mail us your watch. Once received by us, we inspect the watch and send you funds either by check or immediately via an automated clearinghouse process.

Q: But aren’t some of the watches fakes, or not what you thought?

A: Not really. Because we work so closely with the customer on the front-end, it is rare that we are surprised when the watch comes in. About 97 percent of the time, our customers receive a final offer that falls within the original quoted range.

Q: Tell me about your customer.

A: We have three different types of customers. Many of our repeat customers are collectors who are simply selling a watch to make room for the next one. Second, estate sellers are looking to sell a watch that may have belonged to a loved one. And some of our customers may have had a life-changing event that has required them to sell their watch in order to raise money.