Randy Brandoff remembers the first time he thought twice about a watch – really, seriously coveted one. His friend Bobby, whose parents were in the jewelry business, had come to their Long Island high school sporting an Audemars Piquet Royal Oak. "I need to have one of those," Brandoff remembers thinking. Almost 30 years later, that thought informed his creation of Eleven James, the subscription service that lets the horologically inclined to test drive Panerais, Hublots, and IWCs for two months a time. No, Eleven James does not offer members the joy of owning a memorable timepiece, but it does offer the chance to – however briefly – possess one.
Prior to starting his latest venture, Brandoff was a marketing executive at NetJets, the timeshare plane company, with a small but memorable watch collection. He spent a lot of time at parties talking to smart, wealthy people – seeking out the ones with serious hardware on their wrists – and learned that conspicuous consumption was less of a choice and more of an inevitability for a certain type of spender. These were, after all, men who could afford planes, but didn't want to own them. "I had a front row seat to the rise of luxury collective consumption" says Brandoff. "Every time a luxury asset class met with an alternative to the ownership model, that company got a nine or 10 figure valuation."
Eleven James remains small – the company has less than 200 members – but it's only been in operation since November and is likely to grow based largely on word of mouth within the watch-loving and money-having communities. With prices between $250 and $1,600 depending on watch selection, the service is expensive, but not unreasonably so considering what it offers and the alternatives. Members who subscribe to the most-expensive, "Virtuoso" service, receive a rotating cast of Jaeger LeCoultre, Rolexes, Vacheron Constantins, and Blancpains, which tend to make the biggest splash of the bunch.
A new Vacheron, which will run you between $40,000 and $200,000 on the open market, loses monetary value as soon as it leaves the store, and personal value over the ensuing few months as familiarity diminishes its allure. That's a big problem if you're well-to-do, but not fabulously rich. "This is for that big sweet spot of folks who do well," says Brandoff. "We're probably talking six-figure incomes, but not necessarily high six."
In order to make sure that Eleven James members are happy with the timepieces they receive, Brandoff tracks personal preferences and has each watch serviced between wears. In fact, he doesn't get to see the watches very often. The system is built so that the watches remain in constant rotation rather than in some corporate closet.
"Watch collecting, unfortunately, is about visiting your watches at home," says Brandoff. "The more you have the less time you actually spend enjoying each watch."
Despite the fact that Eleven James represents the incursion of modernity on the watch industry, which is famously hierarchical and opaque, Brandoff says several brands (he won't name them) are already selling directly to the company. He theorizes that this enthusiasm might be a product of the fact that – if his company grows significantly – it might be able to provide companies that have long operated in a sort of privileged dark with actual data about their goods. There is currently no way for watch companies to gauge audience reaction prior to full-scale production. Eleven James can provide that. It can also quantify to what degree people take a shine to individual watches. Brandoff is happy to sell to his members.
"This is the first or second inning of the ballgame," says Brandoff. "We're going to see where this goes as we develop a culture around watches and enjoying them."