Watch retailer Jannie Tay on creating a sense of luxury in Singapore


Over the last 20 years, Asia's luxury goods market has gone from strength to strength. One company that has prospered during the boom is The Hour Glass, a watch retailer with branches across Asia and Australia.

The firm was founded in Singapore by Jannie Tay and her husband. Mrs Tay had gained experience in watch retailing from working in her husband's family business.

She recalls that she "learnt everything from scratch…. I learned from the sales people mainly and that was great because I learned how they do the book-keeping, I learned how they order stocks." Her sales colleagues also taught her about the importance of customer service.

But the family business she was working for catered mostly for the domestic market. Mrs Tay had studied at university in Australia. She felt her experience of Western consumerism gave her the ability to exploit a different niche.

She says, "I'd experienced modern shopping, I'd experienced shopping malls, I'd experienced the boutiques that were different and the service that was different."

Mrs Tay decided to go in to the market for high-end watches and in 1979 she launched The Hour Glass. She says that "we actually conceptualised at that time what was a showroom retail space, and asked our partners to set up a Cartier boutique around us, which was the first Cartier boutique in the region."

She believes that image was vital in attracting the customers she wanted. "We set up a 1,200 sq feet shop which was unknown at that time… We were so plush, and so highly sophisticated."

The approach seemed to work: royalty and other 'high net-worth individuals' came to the shop. But Mrs Tay admits that not all felt welcome. "My friends said 'Jannie, I wouldn't dare step in' so that was a bit of a difference. But we were in the tourist belt so we catered for a very specific niche."


Mrs Tay says that at first it was hard to compete with other stores selling top-of-the-range watches, many of which had exclusive deals with leading brands.

"We had to contend with the politics of the distribution to retailers" she recalls.

A breakthrough came when she met the watch designer Gerald Genta. His help proved invaluable.

"I was very excited and passionate about his designs…and then later on because of his talent as a manufacturer, his talent as a designer, we were then able to customise watches...that made The Hour Glass a different company."

Changing attitudes

Jannie Tay rejects the suggestion that luxury watches are no more than pieces of expensive jewellery. But she accepts it takes time to change attitudes and perceptions.

"In the 1970's, when we first started … everyone was so proud of the fact that I've got this watch for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, so how do we change that concept. How do we educate them that it's beyond a timepiece? That it is an investment, it is a piece of jewellery, it is an accessory, it is fashion, and it is also something that you can hand over, an heirloom piece."

Image caption,
In 1979, the Glass House's luxurious 1,200 sq feet shop was unlike anything else in Singapore

One approach the company has taken is to organise watch fairs. Mrs Tay wants her customers to have the chance to see the processes involved in watch making and speak to the different manufacturers.

She says "We do not want to… get our customers just to buy because we spend a lot of money on advertising. What we actually want them to be is knowledgeable, to understand what they are investing in."

Women in business

Jannie Tay says being a businesswoman in Asia is sometimes difficult. At the beginning of The Hour Glass she was the only female board member.

She frequently encountered "male chauvinist" attitudes. After dinners with business partners she'd be urged to leave, so that the men could talk in private.

Today she says there can still be a feeling that women should stay at home and be "submissive housewives".

People sometimes ask "why aren't you a normal mother, why aren't you a normal person…they still feel that as a mother, I should be still at home, be very subservient…to my husband and still look after him, put his needs first and my children's needs first".

But Mrs Tay also sees signs that things are starting to change. Male, as well as female employees, now ask for emergency time off to look after sick children. Both parents now "want to share in the upbringing of the child, they want to be there for their education."

Mrs Tay says a more open, flexible society is coming to Singapore: " the younger people can now do what they want, they can live where they want, they can have the lifestyle they want, I think it is a lot more open than it used to be".