The Bling Job

They left in the middle of the night, the story goes, taking with them on an airplane bound for India 17 Italian leather suitcases stuffed with everything but the family dog. No forwarding address, no plans to return. It was Saturday, December 15, 2007, ten shopping days before Christmas, and four until news would leak to the local press that Raman Handa, owner of Cambridge-based jewelry chain Alpha Omega, had packed up his wife and two adult children and fled the country, quickly and quietly, without a word to store employees, neighbors, or even the cousin he’d followed to the United States 30 years earlier. In the absence of evidence, the rumor mill spun tales of bags loaded with merchandise: watches, diamonds, bricks of gold. And indeed, an inventory count would later show that roughly $8 million of Alpha Omega’s reported stock could not be accounted for.

Alpha Omega had become very well known in certain circles in and around Boston, earning fame as much for its prodigious marketing as for its unrivaled selection of exclusive watch brands like Rolex, A. Lange & Söhne, Vacheron Constantin, and Panerai. But as the details surrounding the Handas’ disappearance grew increasingly fantastic, it became clear that the seven-store chain had been surviving on glitter and pretense. The outrageous parties, photo ops with Bill Clinton and P. Diddy, and general ubiquity in magazines, on billboards, and in sports stadiums concealed a seriously troubled side to the business, one that included out-of-control debt, fed-up creditors, and nervous employees. Watch and jewelry vendors had been complaining of slow payment for years; toward the end, many started to withhold new shipments. Upscale line Breitling pulled its stock out of the stores altogether.

A year after the story first broke, the family’s flight is still described by people who knew them as a major shock, unexpected and out of character. Those who dealt with and, for a long time, profited from the Alpha Omega gravy train—creditors, vendors, and the media, in particular this magazine—told themselves that the bloated orders of watches and advertisements were an indication of the company’s profitability and never its excess, that any debts it amassed would be repaid because Handa always spoke of himself using words like "honor" and "integrity." Not everyone was fooled, though. "We all said what [Handa] was doing was too good to be true," says John Green of jeweler Lux Bond & Green. "But he thought he was king. He thought he could own the world overnight." In the end, the question isn’t how Handa’s business could have failed. It’s how anyone could have expected it wouldn’t.

 

Watch collectors are not merely collectors. They are aficionados. The average enthusiast owns between 10 and 20 timepieces, and most make their purchases the way some women acquire shoes; as in fashion, there’s always a new style, inevitably better than the last one, ideally better than your neighbor’s. "For an affluent customer, it’s similar to having multiple cars," says Craig Rottenberg, president of Long’s Jewelers. "It’s a status symbol. It’s good to have variety." Some collectors talk of building up to specific brands, of obtaining a particular watch only when they are ready for it. It is an industry-wide sentiment: At the largest and most important watch fair, Baselworld, held each spring in Basel, Switzerland, brands carefully hand-select their preferred dealers. In other words, you don’t choose Rolex. Rolex chooses you.

The yardstick by which watches are judged is known, quite aptly, as complications. Tourbillon escapement, chronograph, moon phase—complications are things a watch can do other than tell time. The more complicated the watch, the more difficult it is to design, assemble, and repair, and therefore the more it costs. A Patek Philippe nautilus, for example, has 327 parts, a 12-hour monocounter, chronograph hand, and sapphire crystal case back. It can retail for $40,000. Watchmaking is perhaps the only industry in which a complication is regarded as a good thing.

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