Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Leveraged buyout experts Apollo Global Management made the latest move into the red-hot global watch market, taking its Watches of Switzerland brand — an official Rolex retailer that also sells luxury imprints Patek Philippe, Cartier and Longines — public.

Why it matters: Watches of Switzerland's successful IPO shows the skyrocketing popularity of luxury watches is not lost on financial markets. The stock debuted Thursday on the London Stock Exchange at an IPO price of 270 pence (about $3.41) and rose as much as 17%.

  • Its enterprise value is already 5 times what Apollo paid for it in 2012.

What's happening: Demand for luxury watches is soaring and supply is not keeping up, causing a gold rush in the industry. Once shunned, second-hand luxury watches are now the watch industry's secret sauce.

The market has taken off to such a degree that used watches sold online in 2018 regularly fetched higher prices than new ones.

  • "Based on worldwide sales over the past 15 years, we estimate the value of non-worn watches at $500 billion," online watch retailer Watchbox's vice president Patrick Hoffmann said in an August interview.
  • "Potentially then, the pre-owned market could be bigger than the market for new watches."

The block is hot: Luxury goods giant Richemont, owner of Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre, is going for broke, investing nearly $3.4 billion in used watch seller Watchfinder and other online vendors last year. They're not alone.

  • Online retail giants like Alibaba, eBay and Amazon are building top-dollar in-house authentication teams as watches sell for more than $100,000.
  • Audemars Piguet said it would launch a second-hand business this year.
  • Breitling's CEO says the company is planning to buy and sell used watches.
  • LVMH, owner of watch brands TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith, is reportedly considering entering the market as well.

But, but, but: It's not all good for everyone. Watch sales are slowing in places like Hong Kong and turning negative in the U.K.

  • Richemont's expansion has increased sales but profitability fell to the lowest level this decade. Farfetch's stock sank 11% Thursday after the e-commerce platform reported a wider-than-expected loss.
  • The online luxury business is currently going through an unprofitable investment phase, with some experts saying it's poised to slow.

Still, there are clearly high hopes for what's to come. "It's no longer a hidden secret anymore," Danny Govberg, owner of luxury watch emporium Govberg Jewelers, told Bloomberg last year. "It has a life."

Go deeper: The sign that Apple has ripened

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to show the IPO price of Watches of Switzerland was 270 pence.

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