Mr William Massena On Collabs, Hype, Vintage Bargains And Bringing His Brand To MR PORTER

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Mr William Massena On Collabs, Hype, Vintage Bargains And Bringing His Brand To MR PORTER

Words by Mr Chris Hall

17 March 2022

Few people have experienced the world of watches from as many different perspectives as Mr William Massena. From teenage years spent with his nose pressed against Geneva boutique windows, he became a pivotal figure on the forum TimeZone.com, arguably the predecessor of all watch blogs, a long time before anyone used phrases such as “user-generated content” or “new media platform”. After the site was acquired by Antiquorum in 2006, Massena became the auction house’s chief operating officer. Along the way, he ran watch shops both new and vintage, in Miami and New York respectively, before launching his own brand Massena LAB in 2018 as a platform for collaborative limited editions as well as his own creations.

This week, we welcome Massena LAB to MR PORTER, and took the opportunity to sit down with a man who, when it comes to watches, really has done it all.

When did watches enter your life?

I was super young, about seven or eight years old. I grew up in Switzerland and, believe it or not, the Swiss are not so much into watches. But Geneva, which is quite touristy, has a lot of watch stores, and I really got into it as a teenager. At the weekends, I would leave school and go to the city to see watches. I got a Rolex when I was 16 after my first summer job, and then when I got my first job in the US, in the early 1990s, I started collecting. You could buy used watches for much less money than today – whatever the price was in the window, you could get 60-70 per cent off. So, for a young banker with no wife, no kids, I could do that.

Mr William Massena. Photograph courtesy of Massena LAB

What was cool in early 1990s watch collecting?

IWC was maybe one of the coolest brands in the world – very engineering focused. A. Lange & Söhne just came out in 1994, and was the thing to have. Getting hold of a Lange was extremely difficult as they had only one store in the US; most of their distribution was in Asia. They were the two cool brands.

In 1996, Patek Philippe introduced the 5035 annual calendar, and that made many of us rediscover Patek, to a certain extent. Rolex was Rolex, but they were $3,000 watches and you could get them on every street corner.

Vintage was extremely inexpensive; you could buy any vintage watch for pennies on the dollar compared to the modern version, including Rolex. The Daytona, that was a hot watch, but the rest of it was not. I bought my first 6263 Daytona in 1998 when France won the World Cup; I was in Las Vegas, I won $3,000 or $4,000 at blackjack and I bought myself a 6263 which I still own.

Then in the late 1990s, one brand came along kind of as the Richard Mille of its day, only celebrities wore them, and that was Panerai of course.

How did it feel to go from selling, collecting or writing about watches to launching your own product?

It’s a very good question. I have been known to be very harsh in my criticism of watches. You put me in a room with a watch and I have made people cry with my comments about it. Being on the other side of the table, you feel very naked – your baby is always the cutest. It was a very humbling experience, because people obviously criticise your work. But because I’ve been on the other side, I think I can take the punches a bit better than most. Every time I release something, I’m scared of what the reaction will be, but confident that I’m doing it for myself. You cannot please everyone.

Tell us about the Uni-Racer collection – where does that come from?

The Uni-Racer is very much an homage to the Unicompax from Universal Genève. My idea was that if I do my first project, it needs to be something that already exists; that way you can’t cut corners. People criticise that I copied an existing watch, but at the end of the day, the copy is really freaking good. And it’s in the press release, it’s the whole point, we were open about what we were doing. From there, the idea was to evolve it in a way that Universal Genève never had the chance to do. The first two are straight from the 1960s, but the other three, what I call the holiday collection, they move it on a bit.

What’s coming up next for Massena LAB?

I did a secret launch recently that sold out straight away, but I kept five pieces back for MR PORTER – it’s called the Geometer, and you’ll see that later this year. It’s similar to the Uni-Racer, but after this the next project is something from a different era. This time, I’m not only doing the design, I’m also doing the movement, which is much harder. It’s not new old stock; we have remade a time-only movement that was historically important, but has been lost. It’s a very modern watch, in the sense that it’s not a recreation of something aesthetically.

What do you think has driven such a huge appetite for collaboration over the past few years?

It’s an inexpensive way for a brand to get a different angle on their product, refresh their product and attract a new clientele. Look at H. Moser & Cie. and MB&F – they are very different companies, but the product they created together was one of the best collabs in watchmaking so far. That showed that two different visions of watchmaking can work together, and bring clients together. But that kind of collaboration is so very rare in the watch industry. Each brand’s history is siloed and you can’t touch it.

There should be more collaboration between brands – and 25 years ago, there was. If it wasn’t for IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre working together there would be no A. Lange & Söhne. People have a tendency to forget that.

You’ve become synonymous with limited-run watches that sell out almost immediately. Is it a deliberate ploy to always build the hype and keep the numbers small, or do you see the business scaling to a more traditional model?

Believe it or not, but this was never the intention. I don’t like the fact they were selling out that fast. I know that sounds weird, and I love the business I’m doing, but I’d rather the enthusiasm was continuous and people were enjoying and learning about the watches. It’s tough on the team, because we’re just three people.

The Geometer, I thought would take a few months to sell out; it sold out in 48 hours. People see it as the new normal – then you release a watch and it doesn’t sell out in 24 hours, they’re asking, “What’s wrong?” New collectors in particular think that success is measured in the speed of the sell-out of the watch and that’s very dangerous for the industry.

We did a collab with Ming last year and we had 14,000 bots spamming the site, we had to shut it down twice and do a random draw to allocate customers. If you’re greedy, you can say this means I should increase the price, but if you’re a normal person, you’re trying to find a way to democratise the process. But it’s impossible.

And then you have the flippers behind it – an hour later, it’s on social media or eBay for sale. Don’t think that seeing my watch an hour later at twice the price makes me happy. It doesn’t make me sad, for sure – I’d rather see it twice the price than half the price – but this is not the intent. I wish we could make enough watches to meet demand, but I don’t have the money.

Is this the inevitable consequence of more people getting interested in watches?

It is, and at the same time coming from someone who has been around for a while, the problem is the cyclicality of it. What will happen when the other shoe drops? That’s my issue – you go from something crazy when unknown brands sell out in minutes… What will happen when the market isn’t there any more? Because it will stabilise, people will not be buying watches like this for ever. Or, you know, maybe I’m in the right place at the right time and my kids are going to drive Rolls-Royces and own castles.