Monday, March 4, 2024

Dimes Square, an area in the Lower East Side bordered by Chinatown in Manhattan, has been called the hippest neighborhood on earth — a magnet for skaters, Gen Zers and streetwear fans. That may sound like a poor description for a horological hot spot, but not to the vintage watch dealer and social media influencer Mike Nouveau. He has lived in the nearby East Village for 20 years, and Dimes Square is where he regularly meets up with watch enthusiasts to chat about their favorite timepieces and record it all for TikTok. Since May 2022, when he posted his first video on his new TikTok account, Mr. Nouveau has amassed more than 340,000 followers. His signature is “Watch Spotting,” as he labels his videos of people on the streets of Manhattan talking about their watches. The format is simple and consistent: Mr. Nouveau asks for some basic information, including the name of the watch on the subject’s wrist, and he and the person then chat about the timepiece. The footage feels spontaneous and improv-ish, a bit like street-style fashion photography but with movements and straps.

On a Saturday afternoon in late September, I met Mr. Nouveau at Scarr’s Pizza, a restaurant on Orchard Street in Lower Manhattan that is one of his favorites. Others must like it, too, because there was a line of sodden customers waiting outside in the pouring rain. Mr. Nouveau, 39, was dressed just as he usually is online: vintage baseball cap, jeans, boots. On his wrist was a 1970s cushion-shape Coussin de Cartier, with a bamboo-motif bezel and 18-karat gold case. Mr. Nouveau called it his grail, a term often used by watch collectors to describe coveted pieces — and documented the mid-September purchase in a two-minute-plus video that, as of mid-October, had more than 323,000 views.

Among his more than 600 posts are his reviews of watch-auction previews, hunting for horological gems around the world, and tutorial-style videos, like of the process of ordering a custom strap, using his own experience with the French leather maker Jean Rousseau. That one, posted in February, had more than 13.7 million views by mid-October.

‘The Collector’s Gene’
Mr. Nouveau started out as a DJ at fashion shows and events around the world, spending 15 years in the business before giving it up in 2020. (“Covid ended it, essentially,” he said.) The last couple of years that he was DJing, he also had a side hustle as a watch dealer. It seemed a natural progression from teaching himself about watches and then years of collecting vintage pieces. “You’re going to learn if you’re obsessed. I’m very obsessive,” he said. “And I’ve always had the collector’s gene.” He now makes his living as a dealer; his videos are not sponsored by watch brands or industry organizations, but he does benefit from TikTok’s Creator Fund, which pays makers based on criteria such as views and engagement.

Mr. Nouveau said he was inspired to join TikTok after seeing the success of men’s fashion influencers. He stayed off camera for his first video, which, in 56 seconds, featured a man talking about his 1968 Rolex Day-Date. But by his third post, Mr. Nouveau decided to go on camera. “Quickly I realized that while the ‘Watch Spotting’ was cool, there was an audience who was curious about collectability.” The age of his followers, he said, also was an eye-opener: “Suddenly, all these kids aged 16 to 30 were asking me, ‘Where do I buy vintage watches?’, ‘How do I find a good dealer?’, ‘My grandfather left me these 12 Patek Philippes — what do I do with them?’ An entire generation of young people, the ones that make up like most of the TikTok audience, were being ignored by the vintage watch community.”

(According to the market research firm GWI, TikTok is the fastest growing platform worldwide among Gen Zers — except in China, where the domestic version, called Douyin, takes the crown — even though the oldest Gen Zers top out at 25 years old, and the average age of TikTok’s users is 34.)

Sharing the Passion
It was still raining when Mr. Nouveau and I walked to Mott Street in Chinatown to visit Eagle Chen, a third-generation watchmaker who sells and repairs vintage timepieces from his shop — and who features regularly on Mr. Nouveau’s account. The small shop is lined with glass display cases holding scores of vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre, Omega and Cartier gold watches, something that seems to baffle many of Mr. Nouveau’s followers. (Some typical comments: “How do you know it’s real?” and “r u sure its genuine?” Or, “Are the watches truly original?”)“People can’t believe that you can find good stuff just laying around,” Mr. Nouveau said. “They can’t accept it.”

After a brief chat, we walked the short distance to Pell Street, where Mr. Chen’s sister, Yan, has an antique jewelry shop — and I spotted a jeweled Gübelin watch priced at $5,800. “It’s awesome,” Mr. Nouveau said. “I can’t believe no one’s bought this yet.”

Another regular on Mr. Nouveau’s account is the watch collector Quang Tran, who is based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and is featured on the account in videos known as “Quang Spotting.” Mr. Tran likes to buy Patek Philippe watches that are sold by Tiffany & Company and have the Tiffany name on the dial, an indication of the special relationship between the businesses that has existed for more than 170 years. Why those watches? “Just because it’s extra hard,” Mr. Tran said in a phone interview from London, where he was on business. “It’s something a bit special.” Although not on TikTok himself, Mr. Tran has made more than 10 videos with Mr. Nouveau, and said that he always thinks of him when he buys a new watch, is digging one out from his collection or when he is in New York. “It’s fun to share my passion for watch collecting with others,” he said.

‘Passing Our Watches Around’
Mr. Nouveau recently has begun highlighting cars and fashion, too. While his fans may not be typical watch geeks, “they are geeks in the way that they’re probably also geeks for, like, Supreme, or streetwear or cars,” he said, referring to the popular skateboarding lifestyle label. An enthusiast identified only as Alexander, for example, showed off his rare rose-gold Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5980 while leaning against his limited-edition fluorescent green Lamborghini Huracán STO. Clint 419, founder of the cult London streetwear label Corteiz and a passionate watch collector, also has been featured several times.

And, in a recent video, an unidentified collector drove up in his Range Rover and, without getting out of the car, passed a 1970s Cartier through the driver’s side window for Mr. Nouveau to examine. After he drove off, Mr. Nouveau passed the timepiece to several friends, who seemed to have been sitting nearby or just wandering up to the scene, so they could try wrapping it around their wrists.

Fans seem to love the videos’ New York City settings, and Mr. Nouveau said he frequently received comments from followers who couldn’t believe that collectors in New York wore such expensive items in the street. “The perception is that they’re so high up, that they’re never on the street,” he said. “That they’re only in Town Cars, their collections sitting in safes. But we’re sitting around like eating a slice of pizza, talking about watches and making jokes, passing our watches around talking to people passing by.” Even if a viewer is not really into timepieces, “The banter gives people who don’t care about watches something to watch,” he said.

Phillip Toledano is a New York-based artist and serious watch collector who has had repeated appearances on Mr. Nouveau’s account, which Mr. Toledano called an embodiment of the city. “On TikTok, we’re so used to seeing people prevaricate and dither and not have real opinions, because they want to grow their audience. They don’t want to offend people,” he said. “Mike likes something or he doesn’t — it doesn’t matter if it’s a posh brand or not.”

All this has boosted Mr. Nouveau’s public profile. This past summer, TAG Heuer invited him to an event with the actor Patrick Dempsey, one of its ambassadors; the pair recorded a “Watch Spotting” video that’s been viewed more than 2 million times. And in March, Mr. Nouveau attended Watches and Wonders Geneva, his first visit to a watch fair since he started working in the industry. (Thirteen years ago, he did attend the World’s fair in Paris to research Audemars Piguet timepieces, but didn’t attend any fairs since then).

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