On the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, occupying the ground-level space of the Peninsula Hotel, is Wempe, a German family business operating 32 stores in seven countries. A purveyor of fine jewelry and the best name-brand timepieces, Wempe manufacturers its own watch line as well. The president of its U.S operations is Rüdiger Albers. Rudy, as he is known, has been with the company for 28 years, and Wempe has developed into America’s premier address for fine watches and jewelry at this location over the last quarter-century. But soon—since the Peninsula’s two remaining retail tenants, Swarovski and Lindt, have vacated their stores next to Wempe—a larger Wempe will take form and offer a fully renewed, rich ambience and a superb shopping experience. The Peninsula, which encouraged the move, is thrilled; its retail space on Fifth Avenue will now have a homogenous, elegant look. Albers is equally excited. So excited, in fact, that he’s taken me to the gutted Swarovski and Lindt spaces to show me his vision. Wempe XXL, he’s calling it.
Right now, Wempe is in the process of building a temporary store in the new location they’ve acquired. Once complete in January, they’ll move in to that space for four months while the current Wempe store undergoes renovations. Then, by early summer, the temporary space will be combined with the newly constructed and remodeled ones. Albers is looking forward to seeing the results. The redesigned New York Wempe flagship, carrying 20 of the world’s best brands, is a concept he’s particularly proud of. Some highlights—“We’ll be flanked by a Rolex showroom on the southwest corner…we’ll have a Patek Philippe showroom on the south side…we will remodel everything: new concept, new materials, but keep the signature red carpet…there will be a focus on high-end jewelry as well as our iconic jewelry BY KIM…and, with the new entrance in the center, we will have one of the longest storefronts on Fifth Avenue.” Plus, with the Wempe Rolex boutique located just two blocks south and across the street in the Rolex building, the brand’s presence on Fifth Avenue will certainly be felt more than ever. “There’s no way to escape the lure of owning a Rolex watch,” jokes Albers.
The son of a watchmaker, Albers entered the business at a time when watchmaking seemed to be going the way of the typewriter. In the 1980s, quartz technology, which uses an electronic oscillator to keep time, was becoming the standard. The discovery essentially made mechanical watchmaking, insofar as it comes to telling time, obsolete. According to Albers, because of quartz’s popularity, there were only six other watchmakers enrolled in the master class in Northern Germany. “People said to me and my family, ‘You guys don’t read the papers, do you?’”
Still, he kept at his craft. And the decision paid off in spades. In the 1980s, Hellmut Wempe, the grandson of Wempe founder Gerhard Diedrich Wilhelm Wempe, was looking to expand his family’s company outside of Europe. New York was the logical choice.
Originally, Wempe was located across the street from its current location, where the Valentino tower stands today. (A narrow, deep store was Wempe’s home for the first, very challenging 10 years.) A watchmaker by trade, Hellmut Wempe thought it would be essential for his sales team to fully appreciate the complexities of all the timepieces. So Albers, armed with nine months of experience as a master watchmaker at Wempe Hamburg, was sent over to the United States from Germany in 1988 to assist with both service and maintenance and to educate the sales staff in these matters.
Business was improving, and things were going well for Albers. He liked New York, and soon after establishing himself there, a big opportunity came knocking. “I was very fortunate,” he recalls, “that the young lady who ran the store at the time fell in love with the son of [fashion designer] Max Mara.” She moved into his castle in Italy; Albers moved into her office. He was 28. “Pretty green,” he concedes. “But timing is everything when you’re in the watch business.”
At that age, I ask, was it exciting or slightly intimidating?
“All of the above. But you grow with the responsibility. Fortunately, the Wempe’s have a style of leadership that allows every manager to be him or herself—we all share the same philosophy for our employees and our customers, but I think each style is pretty unique. There’s probably not another company like this.”
It’s true. Wempe’s commitment to sharing its passion with its customers is unmatched, as are the products and services that it offers (there are 5 master watchmakers and countless spare parts on hand for faster repair services). And most importantly, there’s a palpable sense of joy in the air when you visit the showrooms. It’s clear that the staff at Wempe love what they do and that they have fun doing it.
For example, if you happened to walk into Wempe on October 31, you may have been greeted by a unicorn and talked fine jewelry with a pharaoh. Or maybe a devil. Or even a cat. Or, if you encountered Albers himself, he’d have been delivered by the grim reaper, presented wrapped in a red Wempe box, ready to address your questions. “It’s a riot because who else would do this?” he says with a laugh. “Customers would take pictures of us and they’d say, ‘I can’t believe you guys are doing this.’”
But Wempe is doing this and much, much more. With Albers at the helm, the brand is deftly moving into future, realizing the wants and needs of both new and existing customers. Not only timely service repairs and a passionate, intelligent sales team, but a superb selection of jewelry, timepieces, watch winders, clocks, and an abundance of quality leather straps not found in any other store. “Brand boutiques often refer clients to us,” notes Albers, “since chances are we have straps that they don’t.”
And, speaking of the future, does Albers feel worried by the current digital watch movement—Fitbits, Apple watches, and all? “There’s still a great renaissance of mechanical watchmaking. I think all the digital devices that we currently adorn ourselves with might even foster the craving for something more individual. We have all sorts of tracking devices on ourselves. There’s no black box in this,” he says, pointing to his mechanical wristwatch. “It’s a different feeling.”
For more information, visit Wempe at 700 Fifth Avenue, or call 212.397.9000.