(This article by Roberta Naas first appeared on Forbes.com.)
It’s really the stuff that stories or legends are made of. Who would think that in five years a 15-year-old watch lover would become a $15 million business. But that is exactly what this individual has accomplished. And one conversation with him will make you understand why. When he was just about 13 years old, Linden Lazarus was visiting London with his father when he got bitten by the watch bug. They wandered into a Watches of Switzerland store and didn’t wander back out for the entire afternoon. Lazarus says he found his calling that day – and today, at age 20 – he has built his own vintage watch selling company, Oliver & Clarke, into a $15 million business.
At the time of his visit to London with his father, Lazarus says he had an interest in items that have a history around them. He had been collecting (in the form of birthday and holiday gifts) vintage baseball cards (circa1909-1911) at a young age. But when he walked into that retail store in England, the watches he saw there ignited his passion.
“It’s like it was meant to be,” says Lazarus, who told his father that afternoon that he was going to do something in the watch world. He started scouring the markets online to find watches he may be able to afford and soon he went from dabbling in buying and selling to having a full-fledge company – earning hundreds of thousands of dollars while still in high school.
“Vintage watches are a great window into the past. They have a lot of historical perspective and that gives them personality. It is even better when they have personal engravings on them,” says Lazarus. The year after that trip to London, he asked his father for an Orient watch but it cost more than his mother thought a 14 year old should own. He got a Seiko, which he was just as happy with.
The first nice watch he bought himself was in his sophomore year in high school. It was an IWC Ingenieur from the early 2010’s. “I didn’t have enough money to buy it, the seller on e-bay was asking $4,000. I sold my baseball cards and did a lot of summer work and pieced together $2,800 and finally someone selling this watch accepted my offer,” recalls Lazarus. “It was better than I could imagine.”
He wore it for a while and then decided to sell it – making $800 profit. “That’s when the idea came to me. I was working for $12 an hour and this was an amazing profit. That’s when the idea sparked to start a business,” he says, noting that the $3,600 he sold the watch for was the starting capital for Oliver & Clarke.
According to Lazarus, he had always been business minded and he was excited about starting this business. He began with four inexpensive watches, all under $1,000, and started his own website to sell them on. “I didn’t sell anything for the first four months, probably because it was my own site and nobody knew about it yet, but then I made the first sale, an Omega Constellation, and it all went uphill from there,” he says, noting that he still stays in touch with the person who bought that first watch.
During the summer of his sophomore year in high school, he went to New York to 47th Street and met different people involved in the industry. ”I was 15 that summer and I met so many people who mentored me because I was young and eager and ready to learn. I bought and sold so many watches . Buying at $400 and selling at $1200. I was in the right place at the right time and made more than $100,000 that summer.”
Still, Lazarus returned to school for his junior year, but knew he had a feasible business. “I thought I could make maybe $60,000 a year and have fun, but then I realized it could be a lot better than I thought. I kept selling watches in my junior year, but I felt checked out of school. I wanted to form my company into something different than others were doing. I set my goal on finding really unusual watches. Hard to find watches and unique watches.”
While he was formulating his next steps, Covid hit. He moved home, finished high school online and then moved out at age 17. He had accumulated enough money for a car, an apartment and other needs and was intent on building his company. In 2021, at the tail end of the pandemic, he visited his brother in California and decided that was home for him so he set up shop—opening a showroom and offices.
“The pandemic was good for business. Our numbers really skyrocketed. We went from being a $1 million company to a $5 million company. We were buying rare watches and marketing them on social media. Sales were great and I hired people to help me, especially with the back end,” he says, admitting that until then he did everything himself – even shipping.
By 2022, Oliver & Clarke Vintage Watches had grown significantly. Lazarus invested in hard-t0-find Rolex watches. Average sales per watch grew from $5,000 to $10,000 on average and today, the majority of his inventory is Rolex – with average sale prices of $20,000 to $40,000. “In 2022, the business did just over $15 million – better than I ever could have imagined.”
While the sliding prices of vintage watches, including Rolex, continues to fall, Lazarus is not concerned. “I mad the strategi decision to only focus on the very special vintage watches with a condition of 9 or 10 out of 10. Those watches didn’t dip like the average Rolex did. Today the market is a little slower and spending is more conservative, but our inventory holds its value. We source the best watches in the world.”
Lazarus says Oliver & Clarke differs from its competitors because of the quality and rarity of the watches it sells. The company focuses on good prices for its pieces, elite customer service and full transparency. It also offers a lifetime return policy for authenticity questions but jumps through hoops on every watch it buys and sells to ensure that authenticity. “We use multiple authenticity procedures, inspect every watch and take thorough pictures and videos of each,” says Lazarus.
Today, at age 20, Lazarus admits that his biggest challenge is still his age. “There is more to prove to be taken seriously than there would be if I was, for instance, 35 years old. Buying a million dollar watch from a 20-year-old versus a veteran in the industry may have been a factor five years ago, but there is a big difference between being 15 and 20. Still, we have to go the extra mile all the time to remain in high regard.”
Definitively drive, Lazarus says the next step will be to expand the company – most likely opening doors in New York city next. He has a penchant for SoHo.