Bob Xue: It Takes Time To Become A Connoisseur
Bob Xue first caught my eye at the King Farouk watch auction preview back in the spring. His suit was so strikingly fantastic, I was desperate to know more.
We meet at Christie’s boardroom, in the very modern Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), where we are surrounded by black marble surfaces, expansive courtyards, art galleries and executive offices. Once again, I am captivated by Bob’s suit (navy blue pinstripe by Armani). Bob has a young, energetic spirit about him, with a fresh enthusiasm and a passion for what he does.
Today, Bob works for Christie’s— a British auction house featuring auctions and private sales of fine art, antiques, interiors, jewelry, watches, wine and more. He serves as Christie’s Middle East Watch Specialist, where he is what some would consider a timepiece guru. His love for watches was born at just five years old, when his father gifted him with a limited-edition Citizen wristwatch. Since then, he has pursued his love for all timepieces which led him to his life-long dream of working for Christie’s.
But things have not always been so hopeful for Xue. Growing up in China and raised in poverty, he recalls sleeping on the floor when he was twelve years old. With very protective parents and a strict nightly curfew— it was challenging for him to leave home. In 2005 (at seventeen years old) he moved to Dubai with just $200 in his pocket. His first task? To learn English. Bob explains that to move from China- to live and work in Dubai— was somewhat of an anomaly, that to this day he has a hard time grasping. He worked at four jobs a day just to make 1,025 Dirham a month to pay for his English courses— anything to guarantee that he wouldn’t be left with even a hint of a Chinese accent.
After working in all the hotels (and every department) for six and a half years, he switched to retail, where he landed his first job at the luxury retail brand, Giorgio Armani. Xue speaks of wonderful memories of his time with Armani and he knows that he was very lucky that he was selected by the master tailor to be trained by the best. He will never forget the day that Armani sketched his first suit right in front of him— the one he’s been wearing now for five years. It’s no surprise that Bob’s suit continues to catch my eye.
Bob’s professional experience with watches, began at Vacheron Constantin. His training there included trips to Switzerland where he visited manufacturers and watchmakers and he was witness to the intricate process of watchmaking. Bob describes that observing a watch evolve from a diagram on a paper, into a beautiful timepiece, is fascinating. Some watches take a thousand hours to create, he says— and I quickly understand why Bob fell deeper in love.
Bob is proud of his history and his Chinese ancestry, but today, Dubai is the place he calls home; October 1st will be his first work anniversary at Christie’s. He was hired by Remy Julia, the Senior Watch Specialist, who trained him to manage the brand in the Middle East. It is here that Bob says he has found his niche, because it has given him the opportunity to gain a vast amount of knowledge of countless brands, together with the chance to meet people from many nationalities.
Bob worked hard to get where he is today. Consigning the timepieces for auction must be done with caution because they are old and belong to someone. “Every single watch passes through my hand, so I can feel it, touch it, see it, and know it well,” he says. Evaluating the timepieces, planning auctions and cataloguing, each present a unique set of difficulties that Bob continues to overcome.
Bob’s first auction was in Hong Kong, taking him back in time after thirteen years away from home. The auction proved to be a remarkable experience for him as he got a first-hand look at the wide range of items that Christie’s offers. An auction is a great opportunity to get to know the client, what is in their mind, what they need and what they’re looking for. Although Bob is a watch specialist, working for Christie’s means that it is necessary to understand the other departments as well, so that he can assist each client fully. He admits that the auction made him realize that he still has room to grow and improve. But luckily for Christie’s, he is not afraid of hard work. In fact, he thrives on it. Bob tells me that retail wasn’t stimulating enough because of the frequent downtime after completing his tasks. “Here, the phone is on 24/7. We get calls from all over the world— even at three in the morning.” Customers don’t want to wait for answers, Bob tells me— when they have a question, they want an answer right away.
A typical work day starts before 5:30am. After a thirty-minute workout, Bob heads to the office to answer calls from China where it’s already 9:30am. The work day ends at 3am, but his work phone stays on overnight. If he’s lucky, he gets four hours of sleep (after another workout). How does he get through the day on so little sleep? The team used to rely on thirteen coffees a day, but they have since switched to tea because it’s healthier. “We don’t feel tired actually— not yet— maybe once we get old. After a long time of functioning this way, we’re used to it.”
Xue also feels that he owes a debt of gratitude to Christie’s. As a watch specialist, it is key to communicate with the client, build a relationship, and to maintain that relationship— and Bob appreciates that the management provides each team member with the opportunity for growth, and assists them to achieve greatness. With their profits increasing each year, Christie’s expects greatness from their team members— they entrust the team with important responsibilities which encourage advancements— while still providing freedom for each individual.
Bob has big dreams for his future at Christie’s. While the existing clients hail from many nationalities, Bob has his eye on the population in China’s midland. As the only team member holding a Chinese midland passport, the headquarters is assigning him to be the face of the company there— to meet new potential clients and create a strategic plan. Bob acknowledges that there are many people to engage with there, but it’s still not easy— the Chinese are wealthy, but they don’t want to show it, he says.
And yet, luxury according to Xue, is for everyone. His belief is that it’s not only about price, and may not even be a physical object. When it comes to watches, Xue believes that people need to appreciate the watch, the craftsmanship, the gem settings and the engraving. And while it’s true that the brands that utilize the best techniques are luxury brands, Xue insists that luxury is not only for the super wealthy. As for the Middle East market, Bob has learned that they love watches, but the majority don’t really understand their value. With time, he believes there will develop more of an awareness.
The main watch brands in the auction business today are Patek Philippe and Rolex. While we tend to assume that an auction is only for vintage items, Christie’s also offers other rare and limited timepieces. Bob’s eyes light up when he tells me about his favorite watch— a very particular Rolex in yellow gold. A similar version sold in the last auction for 8.1 million Hong Kong dollars.
Xue’s desk is unquestionably the workspace of a watch connoisseur. It is home to a history book of every watch brand in the world, the tools required to open and check a watch, and certificates which verify the authenticity of each watch. Many of Bob’s own watches are kept there too— he tells me that he changes his watch throughout the day.
Before our conversation comes to a close, I ask Bob if he will work at Christie’s forever. "I love working with Christie's,” he says, “They do so much, and cover such an amazing array of arts. I have no plans on going anywhere soon."