A Near-Death Experience Led to the Launch of This Luxury Watch Brand

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Magana luxury watch
MAGANA

The world of luxury watchmaking consumption has become more cutthroat than ever in recent years. You could have more gold than Midas and still not be able to buy some of the world’s most coveted timepieces. This game is not about wealth but about relationships and reputation. You could try your luck by getting your name on a waitlist, but that’s no guarantee of access. If you don’t have a pre-existing relationship with the brand’s sales associate, or a proven track record as a collector and not a flipper, your chances of grabbing a watch from makers like Audemars Piguet, Patek Phillipe, or Rolex are slim to none. 

The Moroccan-French watch authority, collector, and enthusiast Omar Chaoui has been in the game a long time. His passion for watches began in 2003 when he started working at Baume & Mercier when he was inducted into the company on a three-day training stint in Switzerland under the guidance of a brilliant master-watchmaker. “Before that, my $50 watch was to me the best watch in the world. I was barely even aware of the existence of premium watchmaking and what it meant. He opened my eyes,” Chaoui told Savoir Flair in an exclusive interview. “For the first time, the stuff I studied in school – math, physics, chemistry, and other topics – all came together in watchmaking.” Here, the goalpost shifted for the first time. Chaoui understood that it was “okay to save two to three months’ worth of my salary in order to get myself a nice proper watch.”

Magana luxury watch
MAGANA

In the early aughts, things were evolving in the watchmaking world. Around this time, Harry Winston opened their first subsidiary here in Dubai, and Chaoui was brought along to help. Back then, Hary Winston was split into two companies, the jewelry brand that everyone knows thanks to its fervent celebrity and high-net-worth clientele, and Harry Winston Timepieces, which was run by Maximilian Büsser. Büsser is a celebrity in the watchmaking world, and his ambition to create a new concept unlike anything watchmaking had seen before was fated from the start.

 In 1998, as the century turned the page, Büsser was at Baselworld where he entered an elevator and had a chance encounter with François-Paul Journe. Back then Journe was one of the world’s most skilled and brilliant watchmakers, but he was toiling in obscurity thanks to the NDAs he had signed with the high watchmaking houses for whom he created some of the most notable timepieces of the era. Both Büsser and Journe were frustrated, Büsser because he was not a watchmaker but had an incredible body of knowledge of marketing and distribution, and Journe because he could not be publicly recognized for his work. The two forged a plan, and it changed everything. 

Büsser decided to bring his skill set to bear alongside the work of obscure geniuses that nobody knew and create watches with them, thereby establishing their names in the industry and aligning them with his know-how and expertise. “They would take care of the movement, and he would take care of everything else,” Chaoui described of his hero, Büsser. The first watch to be born of this concept was the now iconic Harry Winston ‘Opus 1’. Büsser would later leave to start his own brand, which is now known the world over as MB&F, or Max Büsser and Friends

Magana luxury watch
MAGANA

It was through this project that Chaoui really learned how intensive and extraordinary high watchmaking is, in terms of quality, the skill it takes to engineer difficult complications, and price positioning. Prices for watches at this level are easily north of AED one million.  The goalpost shifted once more. “I went from thinking I needed to save two to three months’ salary for a watch to wondering if I could ever afford one in my lifetime,” Chaoui said. 

By the mid-aughts, Chaoui moved over to Roger Dubuis to run the brand in the Middle East. Once more, he was immersed and fascinated by the world of premium watchmaking, but this time he was inside a brand that completely manufactured their watches internally from start to finish. It was a different type of education and one that sparked an idea. “A thought began forming in the back of my mind, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have my own brand someday?’ I wasn’t a watchmaker, but I didn’t have to be. I had to have access to manufacturers, suppliers, and engineers. Even knowing that, back then, [the dream] was still out of reach.”

In 2011, Chaoui and his wife Linda welcomed their first child, a son, and a year later they moved to Qatar where he worked at Al Fardan Jewelry. For the first time, his salary made it possible to start collecting, and he did so earnestly. “I bought my first Rolex, my first Vacheron Constantin, and I started collecting art as well.” Eventually, the pressures of the job and parenthood had Chaoui reconsidering his career path. “I was super busy all of the time. At some point, I had to make a decision to save my career or save my marriage.” Chaoui went to Mr. Al Fardan and explained the situation. “He almost fired me right on the spot. Not because I was complaining about my job, but because he said, ‘No one can say that working for my family cost them their family. Pick your family first.” So Chaoui did, and he relocated his family back to Dubai where he joined de Grisogono (thanks to an introduction by Mr. Al Fardan).

A twist of fate occurred during his time at de Grisogono, one that reminded him of why he got into this career, to begin with. “I was at Baselworld hanging out at the entrance of the de Grisogono booth when the hostess asked me to meet someone because no one was around to help. To my surprise, it was a 16-year-old kid named Tomas and his father.” Tomas was obsessed with watches. He had flunked out of high school on purpose because he was determined to go to watchmaking school instead. The passionate teenager had convinced his father to take him to Baselworld so he could see his obsession in person. “The kid asks to see a very specific watch. Funny enough, it was one that never performed well for de Grisogono, but it was an incredible watch, mechanically speaking.” Chaoui brought Tomas the watch and then noticed in astonishment that he had produced from his own pocket a jewelry loup and gloves and proceeded to inspect the watch with the utmost care. “I teared up. For him, it wasn’t about the financial value or rarity, but the beauty of the craft.” 

As they were finishing up, Chaoui called his friend Max Büsser and introduced him to the enthusiastic teenager. “He spent an amazing day with all of his heroes. All of them called me up later and told me they offered him a job after he finishes watchmaking school.” For Chaoui, this story reinforced the idea that even the most impossible dream, one that he had already rejected years ago, was still within reach.

Magana luxury watch
MAGANA

As the 2010s ran their conclusion, Chaoui co-founded a new venture called DynaLux with Andreas Vassiliades, which he describes as “a sort of Google Analytics for physical retail stores so that brands could better understand audience measurements.” It became a valuable tool for brands. Success came quickly, but then 2020 happened. “With COVID, Dynalux almost died,” Chaoui said. While DynaLux went on standstill during the height of the pandemic when no one was physically shopping, it bounced back and remains operational with Vassialides leading the company. However, during its slowdown, Chaoui found himself in a very tough spot. “I was depressed. I was broke. I had to sell most of my watch collection. I was wallowing. But my amazing wife Linda, who is wise beyond her years, gave me a wake-up call. She said, ‘If you’re not happy this way, find a job. If you don’t want to work for someone else, work for yourself.’ So I did. I started dealing watches.”

Chaoui found that he really enjoyed this type of work. By this time, he had amassed a gigantic knowledge base, a stellar industry reputation, and was a trusted voice in the watch-collecting community. But things quickly changed in 2021. While on a visit to Paris, he was walking down the street wearing a Rolex and someone tried to rob him. Panicked, Chaoui ran out into the road to escape the attack and came within millimeters of getting hit by a car. Dazed by his brush with death, he attempted to calm down and recover when he was struck by a dark thought: “You almost died for a watch.” A few other uncomfortable thoughts followed, “I am my own man, and if I had died, I would have left my family with a few assets but nothing that can self-sustain. I need to create something that lives beyond me. I need to build a business that survives me so that my kids have something to fall back on.”

Later that summer, like his hero Büsser and his chance encounter with Journe in the elevator at Baselworld, Chaoui has his own fated meeting. While at a friend’s house, he met someone who was a subcontractor for the watchmaking industry. “It turned out that this guy has a sort of white-labeling business, making watch-related products for the industry.” The two talked long into the evening, as Chaoui shared his dream of starting his own brand. In the end, the man said, “If you do the rest, you can leave the watchmaking part to me.”

Chaoui’s idea is rather novel in the world of luxury watchmaking. With the intent of creating timepieces that have the same quality and complications as high-end competitors and by going direct-to-consumer, he is able to eliminate the margin that would typically go to a distributor or a boutique, and offer aggressive price positioning for customers. Thus Magana was born.

Magana luxury watch
MAGANA

“The story of Magana is the story of time,” he says, “Time is quite precious. Every moment that passes is never coming back. You start having children, your parents start getting older, and you realize there is an expiration date for every one of us. It makes you want to spend time responsibly and make every moment count.” With this idea at its core, Magana focuses on a profile of modern urbanite nomads. “It’s not a watch for a 20-something,” he describes. “It’s for people who enjoy traveling. They are curious about other cultures, places, and experiences. They are mindful of their environment and responsible for the way they consume. They want to impact their surroundings positively.”

Magana’s first drop, which launches on April 17, 2023, with the ‘Cities: Tribute to Fes’ model, focuses on a style that looks like a chronograph but is functionally useful. “I know that chronographs are the most successful models for digitally native brands in this realm. But I also know that nobody actually uses the function,” Chaoui laughs. The first Magana drop is a handsome black piece with a grain and satin finish dial, a day-date-time function, a Japanese automatic movement, and a fabric and velcro strap. It retails for a humble AED 5,900.

Because of Chaoui’s Morrocan-Senegalese background, his intention with Magana is to give back in a tangible way to his home continent. “It’s not about profit for me, it’s about truly making an impact.” He searched far and wide for an NGO to partner with and landed on Trees for the Future, a non-profit that plants trees to stop the advance of the Sahara desert across Africa. “It is one of the top NGOs in the world in terms of governance and complete transparency,” he noted. The organization also looks beyond forestation to educate farmers and set them up with a four-year training program to help them produce and cycle their crops. Strict terms are in place for the farmers participating in the program. They have to dedicate up to 10 percent of their land to produce vegetables and fruits that will allow them to feed themselves and sell their surplus. No one below the age of 15 is allowed to work the land, and at least one-third of their workforce needs to be women.

The philanthropy at the heart of Magana is the brand’s raison d’etre. “Every single Magana watch will finance the planting of 212 trees through Trees for the Future. Assuming I sell 100 percent of what I make, we will finance the planting of 180,000 trees with the first drop.” Magana’s small-batch runs and sparse drops not only build anticipation and scarcity into the brand’s DNA but also keep the philanthropic engine behind the brand manageable and consciously scalable. 

It’s at this point in our conversation that Chaoui does something that shocks us. After explaining that transparency, sustainability, and ethical responsibility are the goals of Magana, he shares his screen and pulls up an Excel spreadsheet containing his PNL. “Has anyone ever done anything like this before?” he laughs. “I wanted to prove that our dedication to tree planting is literally built into our PNL.” Amazed by his guileless passion, we ask if Magana represents a regional first. “I’m not the first person in the region to launch a watch brand,” he says humbly, “But I might just be the first Moroccan. And we are definitely the first in terms of our commitment to a charitable organization.”

Magana’s inaugural drop takes place on April 17, 2023 at www.MaganaWatches.com.

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