Home Continuing Series Interview with a Watch Maker Interview with a Watch Maker – Chris Vail

Interview with a Watch Maker – Chris Vail

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Welcome back to what has proven to be a very popular feature, the “Interview with a Watch Maker” series.  We’re planning to talk with a wide variety of folks in the industry, so you can get some insight into what makes them tick.  Today, we’re speaking with Chris “Doc” Vail, the man behind Lew & Huey, as well as NTH.

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WWR:  What is your history with wristwatches?

Chris Vail:  Prior to starting my business, my history was probably the same as most people just getting into watches. I had owned a few, none very special, and thought I knew something about them, but I knew almost nothing.

WWR:  Much like Jon Snow!  Why is now the right time to become a watchmaker?

Chris Vail:  If you mean literally becoming a “watchmaker”, as in going to school to learn watchmaking, it’s a fantastic time. Most of the watchmaking schools are tuition-free, no strings attached, and watchmakers are in high demand.  If we’re talking about starting a company making watches, I don’t know if now is the right time, but it’s certainly an interesting time.

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Social networking has made it possible to target narrow-niche markets. Couple that with contract manufacturing, and the ability the internet gives us to effectively work with people anywhere in the world, it’s a much different proposition than it would have been just twenty years ago. We can now deliver an expensive-to-make product to a very small segment of the world population without investing millions in R&D, infrastructure and marketing.

On the flip side, the apparent “ease” of starting a watch company has drawn a lot of people in. There’s been an explosion of startup micro brands launching with the help of crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter, making it a crowded field, and this is happening against the backdrop of a sustained global recession, with major implications for our business.

WWR:  Before you became a watchmaker, what was your intended career path in life? How did you come to watch making?

Chris Vail:  I was in financial services, and doing well in my career when the “credit crisis” hit, and sent the world economy reeling. Because I had been making good money, I never thought much about whether or not I actually liked what I was doing, and I’d probably still be doing it.But like many people, things got hard for me, and I was forced to re-think my priorities. I realized money wasn’t as important to me as freedom, so I started laying the groundwork to become self-employed.

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I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I lost my job. Two days later, my watch stopped – dead battery – after owning it less than a year. It got me wondering how much a “good” watch costs to buy, what they cost to make, how and where they’re made. My online research kept leading me back to forums like Watchuseek.

From the perspective of someone who’s spent a career in sales and marketing, discussion forums are pretty amazing places. A lot of companies spend millions of dollars trying to figure out what customers want, but forums are places where people discuss that very topic 24/7. You can’t buy that sort of market intelligence anywhere, at any price.

As a product, watches hold a special appeal. They’re products people feel connected to, and passionate about. Within a month of losing my job, I knew I was starting a watch company.

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WWR:  Why the watches you’re making?

Chris Vail:  Are you asking me why we decided to make the watch we’re working on now?  With past models, sometimes I made what I wanted for myself. Other times, I made what other people said they wanted. But there isn’t much else I want for myself, and we’ve pursued the best ideas we’ve gotten from our friends.

The new brand, NTH, was originally conceived as a way to bring back vintage designs with modern materials and capabilities (“Nod to History”). Lots of people long for things which went out of production decades ago, so we looked to the past for inspiration.  Somehow, it also became about exploring the margins of what we can do (the “Nth” degree). We’re still a small company with limited resources, which constrains our creativity in some ways. So overcoming certain challenges was also a motivating factor.

Most people buy watches because they like how the watch looks. If someone asks, “why should I buy this watch,” my answer is if you like it, and you can afford it, buy it. If not, then don’t. Buy some other watch maybe. It helps if the watch fills some want you have, and if you appreciate its virtues. Most people don’t need to be sold, they sell themselves.

WWR:  What’s been the biggest manufacturing or engineering challenge you faced so far?

Chris Vail:  As a rookie designer, the knowledge gap was the biggest hurdle. Because of all the things I didn’t know, I had to accept all the little changes, compromises, and other things that keep a vision from becoming reality.  Having gone through ten production cycles enables me to push back on my vendors, and get what I want. The ultimate realization of that was the work that went into the case of the NTH subs.

Getting 300-meter water resistance in a case just 11.5mm thin required pushing back on the engineers to shave thickness everywhere. We drew and re-drew that case at least half a dozen times, and each time, I went over the engineering drawings with a fine-tooth comb.It was a game of nanometers, in which we saved 0.03mm in air-space here, 0.02mm in crystal thickness there, etc. If we’d made the subs two years ago, there’s no doubt in my mind they’d be at least 10% thicker.  I literally spent three months of my life arguing over 1.5mm. My guy at the factory told me – in a nice way – that none of his other customers are as much of a pain in his ass.

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WWR:  Well, that perseverance certainly paid off.  Casting a wider net, where do you think the industry is moving?

Chris Vail:  In the near-term, I think we’re going to see another year or two of consolidation – smaller, struggling brands bought by bigger brands with deeper pockets. Some brands will just disappear, or maybe go into hibernation until the dust settles.The fortunes of the luxury brands will rise and fall with the world economy. But I think there’s been a seismic shift because of how long the recession has lasted.One possible future is that the entire industry becomes more narrowly focused yet more segmented. It costs a lot of money to maintain mass market appeal. It’s less costly to focus in on core customer groups – enthusiasts, collectors, and the small segment of the population able to afford luxury goods.

WWR:  Where do you fit within that future?

Chris Vail:  If we can maintain our focus on our core customer, and stay connected to them, we’ll be fine. The luxury brands seem to be locked into an upward trajectory, which leaves a lot of opportunity for brands like mine, which cater to enthusiasts and collectors.

WWR:  Earlier in the interview you mentioned social media and online forums.  How do you see those online communities playing a part in your brands’ future?

Chris Vail:  They play a huge part. It’s amazing to me that more brands aren’t more engaged with their customers online. It reminds me of working in sales for a big company, where the people in charge never bother to get feedback from those on the front lines, who deal directly with customers.Some brands feel unwelcome within those communities, and maybe other brands are concerned about the possible downside. The downside is real.

I engage with my customers online, but doing so exposes me to critics and haters, and puts me in a position where I’m frequently confronted with the dilemma of how to respond – if at all – to someone who seems bent on creating a problem for me.But the alternative is what? Don’t engage at all, or limit my engagement to such an extent that it’s perceived as inauthentic, or opportunistic? To me that seems like under-utilizing a tremendous resource. I think the upside of being able to engage directly with my customers online more than outweighs the downside risks of attracting a few haters.

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WWR:  We do think it’s great to see that engagement.  How are you bringing that feedback to bear on your business?

Chris Vail:  I pay attention to what’s said online, but human nature is such that we will often say different things when we know someone is listening. Our answers to the questions change.  Instead of asking people what they want, I try to gather as much of information as I can without them realizing, then sift through it to separate the stuff worth pursuing from the stuff that isn’t.  I have a large “inner circle” – a mix of repeat customers and trusted, knowledgeable friends who I use as a sounding board. A lot of the raw ideas I get from the forums get refined through my discussions with those guys.A fair number of micros use some variation of that approach, and it does change the business, by giving customers more control over product development. That said, it can go horribly wrong. I’ve seen how a small group of very vocal people can drive product development right over a cliff.

WWR:  Vocality (or not) aside, how do you define your ideal consumer? Who is it, in your mind, that wears your brands’ watches?

Chris Vail:  We don’t have the budget to do “lifestyle marketing”, so we’ve focused on customers who don’t go in for all that anyway. They tend to be less brand-conscious, and more knowledgeable about the product itself.Our typical customer is generally interested in watches, but not overly interested in any specific sort of watch. They’re watch guys, not necessarily dive-watch guys or pilot-watch guys.There are older guys who’ve had a lot of success in life, but aren’t into spending a lot on luxury items for themselves, and younger guys who are coming into their own, maybe discovering micro-brands on their way up the price-scale towards luxury brands, or maybe finding a “home” with micro-brands, building collections of more affordable pieces.The unifying theme seems to be they like the bold styles of the Lew & Huey brand, or the vintage-inspiration of the NTH brand, and the bang-for-the-buck both brands offer.

WWR:  What is it that defines your watch? What characteristics are identifiably Lew & Huey and NTH?

Chris Vail:  I think attention to detail is paramount, and leads to people’s perception that we offer a lot of watch for the money.  The music I like best, I think of as having a “big sound” – lots of instruments playing together, in which it’s hard to pick out the sound of any one of them. It’s a forest, not just a bunch of trees. That’s how I tend to approach design – lots of little details making up a richly-textured whole.

Lew & Huey designs tend to be more colorful, and favor free expression over adherence to convention. We colored outside the lines and mashed styles together, making them harder to categorize.NTH is sort of the opposite, where we’re looking to refine and improve upon what we’re doing within the established boundaries.With both brands, I think my “signature” is a tendency I have to always add a little twist, something “extra” and unexpected.

WWR:  Along that line of questioning, what are your guiding principles when making design choices?

Chris Vail:  Generally, I believe form should follow function, but that can lead to designs being overly rigid and utilitarian. Functional things can also be beautiful. I try to think about how to make things both functional and visually appealing, without putting too much emphasis on one at the expense of the other.  I also tend to dislike ambiguity in most things, but when you’re designing something, there are so many decisions to be made, often with no clear “right” or “wrong” answer. How long should the minute hand be? It should reach the minute markers, right? Okay, but just barely reach them, or overlap them slightly, or reach to their outer tips? If I want to make the 12-3-6-9 indices larger than the rest, how much larger? What proportions are the best?

As a way to deal with those sorts of dilemmas, I’ve used logic to developed some rules-of-thumb, all intended to remove ambiguity. So if you look at my designs, you’ll see a lot of the same proportions, and things aligning in a consistent way across models.  Lastly, I think about things like ergonomics and real-world use. The reality is that most of my customers are going to be wearing their watches under their sleeves, not over a wetsuit, so I try to balance technical specifications and aesthetic expectations against what’s practical and what will actually be comfortable.

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WWR:  How do you think about design and its role in your life?

Chris Vail:  It can be maddening to struggle with various design challenges, but in the greater scheme of things, it has a calming effect.  There’s a frustrated designer in all of us. We all encounter things which don’t seem to be very well thought out – things like cup holders located right where you want to put your elbow. We think, “what sort of idiot came up with this?”  By designing this one thing, at least there’s one thing I can totally control, and make it exactly how I want it. The rest of the world can be a complete disappointment, but there’s one thing I can do for myself and my customers to make it all a little more bearable.

WWR:  What would the crowning lifetime achievement be for you and your brand as a company?

Chris Vail:  It would be awesome if there was some watch-industry equivalent of the people’s choice awards, and I won an award for anything. I literally don’t even care what the award is, just give it to me. I want what Sally Field had when she realized how much we all really like her.Until that happens, I don’t have any specific long-term goal I’m trying to achieve. This isn’t a business with many accolades. The closest I get is when people say they like my stuff. If I’m still doing this in ten years, and we’ve made a lot of people happy, any awards or recognition would just be a bonus.

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