A Tale of Two Families: The Wexlers and the Tourneaus
By Victoria Gomelsky Editor in Chief, JCK Magazine
In order to understand the history of Tourneau, the New York City-based watch retailer that has set the Guinness world record for having the “World’s Largest Watch Store” not once but twice, the first thing you must know is that at heart, it is a tale of two families: the Wexlers and the Tourneaus.
The roots of Tourneau go back more than 150 years, to the Ukrainian village of Kherson, where the Wexler family operated a small jewelry store. In 1900, Morris Wexler, an ambitious young man who started out as a watchmaker in the family business, grew confident enough to open his own store. His business thrived until 1918, when the Russian Revolution forced him and his wife, Jennie, and their two young sons, Harry and Louis, to flee the country. The family stopped first in Bulgaria, then Paris, before coming to America, where opportunity beckoned.
Despite the Wexlers’ inauspicious arrival in New York City, on August 2, 1923, the day President Harding died, Morris was very optimistic. After all, he had a useful trade to fall back on.
By the time the Wexlers’ third son, David, was born in New York City in 1928, Harry was 16 years old and Morris was already four years into owning his first American jewelry store. He had opened M. Wexler Watchmaker & Jeweler in 1924 near the busy intersection of Seventh Avenue and 34th Street, across the street from the commuter hub of Penn Station, and just a few blocks from the garment district. Morris may not have known it then, but the store would link his family’s fate to the very fabric of its adopted city.
“My mother would bring me down from where we lived in the Bronx and I would help at the store,” David, now 85 years old, recalled when we met in his apartment with New York skyline views. “One time when I was six or seven, my father sat me down next to a watchmaker, he thought it would be interesting, and I started out by grinding crystals.” Still, David had other ambitions. “I wasn’t shooting to be in the jewelry business,” he said. “I was going to college – it was in 1944 – but my brother Harry gave cause to believe he wasn’t going to come back because he was all set with his military job, so that’s when I started to spend more time in the store… and that’s how I got into the watch business.”
Harry, as it turns out, did come back, just in time to take over M. Wexler Watchmaker & Jeweler in 1949, when Morris finally handed the reins to his sons. It had survived the Great Depression and World War II, thanks in large part to the reputation for service Morris had established. At the peak, the retail business, totaled three stores on 34th Street and two stores in New Jersey. He was now poised to capitalize on the exuberance of the post-war era.
Which isn’t to say the brothers had an easy time of things. “They often worked late in the store,” said Harry’s son, Robert “Bob” Wexler, born in 1947. “My mother went from the store to the hospital the day I was born. [I was brought in] at a very young age, I was always in the store. And any early recollection was from my time in the service department, where I used to do engraving.”
To hear Bob tell it, the service department was the ideal training ground for a budding salesperson, because it saw a lot of foot traffic and therefore helped newcomers get introduced to the clientele. Not that M. Wexler Watchmaker & Jeweler was hurting for customers. “The store was right next to the Greyhound bus terminal,” Bob recalled, “and they’d stay open till 10 or 11 o’clock at night, that was the nature of the business.”
On some of those late nights, Harry offered to look after his little brother, David, and by “look after,” he meant take the kid to nightclubs. “I guess you could say I was precocious,” David recalled, with a rueful smile.
Concurrent to the Wexlers’ arrival in the United States, Pierre Tourneau – Viennese immigrants who’d settled in Paris with their family, where they changed their name from Tournheim – followed their eldest sister, a couture dressmaker, to New York. This was the mid-1920s, when she rented a shop in the Berkshire Hotel on Madison at 52nd Street.
“It was popular then to have watchmakers take corners in shops because watchmakers were visited very often, because people broke their crystals,” David said. “You might go see a watchmaker four to five times a year. That’s why they exploited the watch business … for traffic.”
The original Tourneau business was “like an art movie, stylish but small,” David said. As Swiss competitors began to open up around the Madison Avenue location, Gübelin and Bucherer for example, the business continued to grow, leading the Tourneau brothers to open a bigger shop down the street, at 49th Street and Madison Avenue.
“Tourneau did a lot of exclusive designs: pen watches, belt watches, money clip watches, a lot of creative and very interesting things,” Bob said. “They were one of the first Rolex dealers in the city. Rolex tells a story of how forward-thinking the family was, and how cutting edge as far as technology and design.”
In 1965, the Longines-Wittnauer Watch Co. bought Tourneau and used the stores primarily to showcase the handful of Swiss brands it distributed, including Longines, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Vacheron Constantin. The company was later acquired by Westinghouse. At the time, Tourneau’s fortunes were tied to those of the Swiss, who were in the midst of a debilitating crisis brought on by the introduction of cheap and accurate Japanese quartz technology, which threatened to put mechanical watchmakers out of business. The Wexlers, however, sensed an opportunity and acquired Tourneau from Westinghouse in 1975. “We changed the name of the Wexler store about 1980, and converted it to Tourneau,” Bob said. “And the instant recognition of the name caused a big spike in the business.”
By the 1980s, mechanical watches were back in fashion, and Tourneau helped stoke the flames of consumer demand with a creative advertising campaign that many people remember to this day. “We had the 10 o’clock spot on Channel 5,” David recalled. “You’d hear ticking the last four seconds to 10:00 and you’d see a Tourneau watch. ‘It’s 10:00 p.m. Do you know where your children are?’”
The company’s retail empire had already expanded beyond the borders of New York City by then with the opening of a store in Bal Harbour, Florida in 1979. It was the beginning of a trend that picked up steam as the 1990s progressed. A Palm Beach location on ritzy Worth Avenue opened in 1992, followed by the 1993 opening of a store in Southern California’s luxury mall par excellence, South Coast Plaza. Nothing, however, compared with the 1997 opening of the TimeMachine on the corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street in New York City, a multilevel, state-of-the-art superstore, mere blocks from where it all started. Tourneau has also moved its Corporate Headquarters from East 54th street to Fifth Avenue, allowing Tourneau to fuel its continuous growth and expansion.
The flagship reigned as “the world’s largest watch store,” according to the folks at Guinness, who certified the world record, until 2005, when the Tourneau Time Dome opened in Las Vegas, besting the company’s own record.
Leonard Green & Partners, L.P. bought a majority stake in the company in 2006, but Bob Wexler still serves as chairman of the board—for what would Tourneau be without a Wexler at its helm? Throughout the decades, successive generations of the family have borne witness to the changing times, and their changing city, with the grace and wisdom that comes with experience. Their stewardship is all but a guarantee of the company’s continued excellence.
Besides, they couldn’t leave the business if they tried. “My father once told me when I wanted to leave the trade: the jewelry business is like a chronic disease,” David joked. “You never get well but you won’t die from it.”
This article and all accompanying images originally appeared in Tourneau’s The Watch Book: 2013/2014.