Conversation: Theo & Harris' Christian Zeron
"I'm kind of a hatable guy"
“I am kind of a hatable guy,” Christian Zeron, founder of Theo & Harris, tells me as we’re about to end our Zoom chat. “I have comically large hair, I’m decent looking — not super good looking, but decent — and I’m 25 and doing pretty well. That’s a very hatable recipe.”
Okay, now that that’s out of the way.
If you’re a watch enthusiast of a certain generation (millennials, I believe we’re called), no doubt you were introduced to Christian at some point early on. He launched Theo & Harris six years ago, selling vintage watches on his website and talking loud and fast about them on YouTube, an early adopter of video in the space.
But if you only know Christian from his on-camera persona, you might not know the whole story. He’s a thoughtful guy who, among other things, views YouTube personalities with the same sense of skepticism that many others do (including me). He majored in Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University, thought about law school, thought better of law school, but says you’ll still find him reading law journals more often than watch blogs. Six years in, he’s moving his business beyond selling vintage watches, positioning Theo & Harris as digitally-native storytellers creating ads for luxury brands.
Christian’s self-awareness is evident: he knows he can be a caricature of himself, or rather, of some idea of a loud-mouth, fast-talking Italian-New Yorker who peddles watches for a living (of which he said “there are few life forms on earth worse”).
We hopped on a video call in late November of last year to chat storytelling with brands, vintage values, and much more.
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Where is Theo & Harris at in 2020?
Our business is segmented between retail and advertisement. Retail is the back that has carried the business over the last 6 years. But advertisement has been our biggest driver in the past year. It’s something I’m passionate about and that I find stimulating. I got lucky in that the industry I love is a little bit behind. If this industry was on par with others, I would have missed it five years ago. Because they’re just now waking up, we’re poised to do very well in a way we wouldn’t be in other spaces.
In respect to covid, it’s been interesting. I’ve been watching this ticking time bomb in the industry as far as media techniques and strategies — I’ve been saying they’ve been doing digital wrong for years. But covid really accelerated the inevitable. Look at Baselworld and SIHH: these are some of the largest marketing efforts in the industry all year. People disproportionally allocate time and cash to those two fairs, and because of that, brands are ignoring so many other opportunities through digital and social. So now that those things didn’t happen, the brands had to say ‘what the fuck are we doing this year instead?’ And that’s really how our business accelerated a lot in the last 4 months.
What do you make of all the conversation about editorial independence around advertising, sponsored content, etc.?
At the end of the day, you’re selling watches. It’s not that big of a deal. At Theo & Harris, we’re at the point where we’re able to avoid selling our opinions. I just go to a brand and say ‘I’m not gonna talk about the thing that I dislike, so as long as you give me the one I want to talk about, we can have a great, positive relationship.’ It becomes difficult when the brand says to you ‘we want you to talk about the entire collection, and you need to cover the thing you hate.’ That’s a difficult position to be in, but I’m not in that position right now. We’ll see what we do when that time does come — I like to think I’d have some integrity. But sometimes these things are blown so out of proportion.
Do you have designs on exponential growth, or will it continue to be slow and steady?
I’m not really someone who bites off more than they can chew. I don’t know if I’d ever take venture capital money. Not because it’s the wrong route, but I just don’t know anything about it.
I hold us to high standards, quarter over quarter. Sometimes, financially, your best month isn’t the month you’re most proud of. For example, we kill it every December because of the holidays, but I don’t feel good if we don’t make big strides in other parts of the business, like the ad side. So much of what we’ve done in the past 3 months that I’ve been proud of hasn’t been directly related to putting a ton of cash in my pocket. We have partnerships with Omega and Nomos coming out, a really great one with Grand Seiko (see below), even a partnership with a real estate company. I’m really driven and excited by proving concepts and proving that we are quite possibly the best storytellers in the industry. I’ve been saying this for awhile and we haven’t really proven it, because the content wasn’t there — we didn’t have the opportunities to work with brands. So now that brands are finally saying ‘hey, you talk a big game, do it’, I’ve had that opportunity.
Watching some of your old videos, it’s pretty obvious how much you’ve matured — both as a person and in your production. What’s that been like?
First of all, I hate all of our old videos. In part, that’s objective because there are plenty of undeveloped opinions or nervousness that came out as excitement. To be fair, I don’t really like the video format of ‘authority sitting there telling you about the thing.’ I don’t like the watch YouTube space. I just don’t like it. It’s not something I would watch. I like short films. Those are the YouTube videos I watch, whether they’re from Mr. Porter or Pixar. When Netflix produces something that’s truly interesting and artful, that’s what gets me going. But no, sit there and listen to a talking head talk about a topic is not something I do on a regular basis.
I’ve definitely matured a ton and am embarrassed by a lot of our old videos.
“I don’t like the watch YouTube space. I just don’t like it. It’s not something I would watch.”
How do you view yourself and your personality within the industry?
I have virtually no relationships in the industry. I’ve never had an interest in being a member of the watch community on the B2B level. I don’t go to mixers or meetups, I have no interest in it. My interests lie in developing a community with our followers, whether we’re doing that digitally or with our meetups. That stuff gets me going.
While we used to be immature, now we’re youthful — still highly critical, but fair. I’m no more critical now than I ever was, but I just know more now, so how critical we are is a little more justifiable.
Now, I can finally say I’m proud. I’m proud of the way the company is represented.
Does any of that growth come from listening to criticism you get, or is it self driven?
Very little of that growth comes from criticism or comments. I read comments for sure — especially the critical ones, because often there is truth in there. That being said, the vast majority of development has come from finding idols and role models in other spaces. Whether they’re economists or whoever. Thomas Sowell is a great example. I try to model behavior in general off of people who can be a bit sarcastic and make a wisecrack, but are fact-based, driven, and not flustered by looking like a bit of a schmuck.
As long as you keep your space narrow, you never really run the risk of coming off as a jerk. I don’t talk about things I don’t know. If you want to sit here and talk to me about collecting vintage Daytonas, I don’t have that much of an opinion for you. If you want to talk about storytelling in luxury watches, now you’re going to get an earful.
I’ve heard you say before that you’re an entrepreneur at heart and you might want to start another business in the future. Do you see a life beyond T&H?
Maybe 5-10 years down the road, after establishing ourselves as someone who can really get to what is important and touching about a product, a company, an identity. I don’t see the end of this road in watches. The watch industry is a fairly small industry, all things considered. I do think that staying here would be limiting. If I could establish that ability and expertise in this space, then going on to other industries — for example to big corporations, would be very interesting.
Put it this way: I’m working with Jacquet Droz now. What’s really interesting about them is their connection to the Enlightenment. It’s easy to bridge that gap: watch to the greatest thinkers of modern history. But it’s much more difficult to convince people that a certain financial product is something you can actually love or be passionate about. That’s a harder challenge. That’s what I’m interested in.
On the watch side of things: what are you seeing that’s hot right now?
Of course, F.P. Journe is the elephant in the room — holy shit. What’s beautiful about the Journe market — it’s not perfect, none of these markets are — the production numbers are small. In a lot of other spaces, Rolex, for instance, there are just so many watches that I always caution people to get involved. Paul Newman Daytonas are a classic example. This is not a rare, rare watch, by any stretch of the imagination. And yet, dealers and auction houses position it to the contrary, which I’m not really a fan of. At least if you’re buying a Journe, you really know it’s rare — there’s a sense of security there. It’s a safer market in many ways.
What about Cartier? A lot of people associate you with *the maison*.
Basically any Cartier before 1980 — even Cartier after then I’d recommend people buy, but if you’re talking about real collectibility, almost anything before 1980 is great. To take one example: the price for a medium Cartier Tank Cintrée, going into covid, was $7-11k. They were never easy to find, but that was the price. Now, those prices have what, quadrupled? It’s unbelievable. Why is it able to happen? They’re so distinct and they have a huge brand name behind them, which helps. But there are so few. It only takes a handful of people to move that market. If four people in the world want a Cintrée, the market has moved up, and good luck finding a Cintrée.
[Ed. note: And we recorded this long before the 100th Anniversary Tank Cintree was announced, itself a $30k limited edition watch.]
What about in the more affordable space?
This hasn’t really changed since I got into the business: vintage Omega, Girard-Perregaux, so many others. Even 34mm vintage Rolex models, they haven’t gone up a ridiculous amount. In the grand scheme, they’re still affordable watches. If you really get into it, you can find truly rare dial configurations. I just bought a gilt, 34mm Rolex OP this week. It’s a phenomenal watch. Let’s say it’s a $5k watch. Gilt in any other Rolex case is $30k, and this is a few thousand bucks.
My taste in watches actually isn’t that expensive. Compared to a lot of my colleagues and fellow collectors, I really do enjoy the affordable, approachable end of the market.
You’ve seen some movement in Tiffany dials — I remember when I got into the business, a 34mm Date with a Tiffany dial might have a couple thousand dollar premium. That premium has really gone up. But in general, 34mm Rolexes are totally under the radar — and yet they’re not — it’s still the most classic watch of all time.
What watch are you wearing today?
The vintage Omega Seamaster, given to me by my parents for my 21st birthday.
Anything else you want to say to the people of this fine newsletter?
No one’s ever left dinner with me with the same opinion they had after watching videos of me [Ed. note: I might say the same of Zoom calls with Mr. Zeron too]. I swear to god I’m a nice guy. Some videos do come off as obnoxious, so I try not to do it again. It’s just how it is.
On YouTube, a lot of it is knuckle dragging. ‘Best ways to save money on watches’ — shut the fuck up, who cares? But you have to make a video like that to stay relevant, to get new followers.
By the end of 2020, we’ll have released a few short films and I’ll finally feel like when someone goes to our YouTube, I’m actually proud of this channel. Because right now, it’s like ‘what am I talking about?’ It gets old.
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Like many a basic b****h, Sushi Nakazawa *changed my life*. So I thought Christian’s recent video with Grand Seiko, set at NYC’s Sushi Nakazawa, was well-conceived and well-executed. Even if the Billions scene at Nakazawa was better (“a fucking cell phone, in this temple?”).