The Edge Neil, you’re a design wizard. Do you have your own definition of good design, and particularly good design when it comes to watches?
Neil Oh, I have a couple of opinions here. I think one of the things that drew me to vintage Heuers, beyond the familial connection, and what kept me collecting them, as opposed to anything else – I have a few vintage Rolexes, and a few vintage Omegas, all of them chronograph based, I’m a car nut, so racing is a core thing for me – but Heuer has done a pretty magnificent job of colour. If you took a regular Rolex GMT, you would not find any of the colour, the yellow in the sub hands, the colour pops, the dial colours that verge upon greys, blues… Heuer really has had a majestic colour history, which nobody ever really talks about. I find it to be stratospheric. It’s one of the single easiest things for me to differentiate by, in terms of what I like. Mischief is a core element for us at Discommon, and colour is a really good sign of mischief.
There are other important elements for me in watch design, often lacking elements. We’re an industrial design firm, so we do a lot of things like big crazy one-off executions of things, but our bread and butter is doing great industrial design for medical companies or the automotive world, and we function through lines – the structure of lines, the flow of lines. So one of the things that drew me most to the Autavia was the arced side-line of the case, and the chamfers breaking off into the polished side. When they first did that in the 60’s, it wasn’t an easy form to create, in terms of stamping, or machining, or any of the processes that they had back then.
One of my major criticisms of watches in general right now is, I would say, a lack of interest or focus on case shapes. If you took a Lange 1 or an F.P. Journe or anything like that, the cases, they’re just a circle with four legs, and that makes me a little sad because there’s so much you could play with there. The simple fact of something being titanium, or white gold, or rose gold or whatever, that seems to be enough for some people. But for us, for my employees, for our souls, there’s so much space there to work with, and it’s underserved. Also, colour balance is a real challenge when you have so many levels – a seconds hand, a sub dial, a chapter ring – you can mess that up badly, or you can find a sublime balance, and throughout the history of TAG, there’s been a pretty brilliant balance of colours.
The Edge You put that superbly. I’ll extend that question to you too, Morgan, because you both have this affection for colour contrast. Can you speak a little on that, with regard to your collection?
Morgan King's collection
Morgan For one thing, Neil is describing youthful, imaginative thinking. A lot of the aristocratic royal tea type watches are wonderful, but they’re for the conservatives, the ones who maybe stopped creating a long time ago – not to say anything bad about them, because we all have our conservative phases. We all need a black tuxedo to go somewhere. But inside Neil’s closet, inside my closet, there’s also a polka dotted suit with a red handkerchief, and when you have that mindset, it’s exciting, it’s a young guy’s game. When you think of racing, and Heuer in the 50s, 60s and 70s – everything was beautiful, and flamboyant, like peacocks. There were a lot of egos and machismo flying around, but also there was so much creativity. The ‘Dark Lord’ 74033 – with that, Jack Heuer thought ‘hey, let’s put it on something dark and make it PVD. Let’s do that’, And it created a whole new era.
Even if you look at the Monaco blue, it’s ridiculously different. Everyone copied the Monaco after the blue came out, if you think about it. First, it was a dull type of blue, and then it had a metallic sheen, almost like the ocean, and when you think of Le Mans, McQueen, the Delaney character, the racing suits, it’s white with a pop of red, his gold hair, the blue eyes – he’s a walking Heuer watch, if you think about it. So they really know how to play with the colours. Even the vintage Heuer box, the red with the black and white checker. It’s just so cool. It’s pop art, and that will last forever. I collect the boxes, I have about 40 of them, but I can’t get enough of them. I need more.
Morgan King's collection
Neil We’re basically describing one of my biggest challenges with today’s society, and a lot of our clients. The middle manager in any firm is a ‘safety keeper’, and nobody wants their door darkened by somebody questioning them, saying ‘why did you do that’? Max Büsser would say that a creative adult is a child who survives, and I feel like as a society, we’ve almost lost that youthful, creative thinking. We’ve all been forced to grow up for some reason. I think the hedonism and cavalierness of the 60s and 70s bred a freedom that was core to great, fun design.
Again – we use the word ‘mischief’ in our company a lot. Even in the way we behave with clients, when we’re with a billion dollar medical company – there’s no reason meetings can’t be fun while you’re conspiring about something you’re designing. I mean, shit, you’re creating! Enjoy it! It’s something I feel very passionate about. With the Swiss watch industry, the challenges that it’s gone through in recent years have bred elements of fear which have the possibility of stopping the passion growing within people, and within the generations that are coming up. I want to see elements of fun and playfulness coming back into the industry, which I think would bring a great new chapter to it.
Heuer Monaco 1133B "McQueen"
The Edge Speaking of mischief and creativity and not letting fear slip in, Neil, what is it that you’ve done to get you in trouble with TAG?
Neil Which time? [Holds up a watch] This one never got me in trouble, because I only ever made one. I wanted a full, true lightweight race watch. So this one is an 1163 case, but we did a CT scan on it and completely rebuilt the cad, machined it, had it finished with the correct chamfers, and starburst finish on the titanium. You couldn’t tell at first, but this is 6.4 titanium sheeting from a billet block. It was just for me, so it didn’t get me a cease and desist. This one [produces another watch] did.
This was my mischievous project with Abel, and Jean-Claude. I told Jean-Claude I’d been collecting these close to new old stock Viceroys, but some of them needed a little bit of love, and what I wanted to do was restore them, like you would with a race car. I’d found five dials and was going to use a F1 partner, and DLC coat them black. Jean-Claude said, ‘this is such a cool idea’, so we went ahead, and I pre-emptively sold them to my friends, and I designed an oxblood strap that I thought was a better colour for the watch. It was so much fun restoring all these parts, and so much work, going through the cases with Abel, trying to get them back to perfect.
I then screwed up because I machined a box that we ceramic coated red, and I put the Heuer logo on it, and I should have known better – I was so annoyed with myself looking back on it, because it was the only thing I did that wasn’t legally appropriate. And then I engraved the damn logo onto the case, and that started off a whole ‘you really can’t do this’. We completely understood, but the box was just an afterthought, and I couldn’t believe I’d screwed things up. So we high-fived and stopped immediately. But they still exist, and the cool thing is they’re with a couple of really great collectors, and they’re worn with a little bit of mischievous pride…
Heuer Monaco 74033N "Dark Lord"
The Edge Morgan, you’ve talked about the ‘watch gods’ getting angry if you don’t wear your watches and take them out for a spin. What else do the ‘watch gods’ frown upon, and what kind of behaviour do they reward?
Morgan Well, they always say fortune favours the bold, so you have to do things until someone says, ‘you can’t do that’. It’s almost like this creative frontier, if you will. A lot of us are Americans and have the same kind of attitude that sometimes gets Americans into trouble, but it’s a willingness to try, to do new things. Is it sometimes stubborn? Sure. But it’s full of passion, it’s guided by passion. …Now I’ve forgotten the question. Ah yes, the ‘watch gods’.
Neil I have an add-on question about the ‘watch gods’. Do they let you restore watches, or not?
Morgan The best watch in the world is the one on your wrist, so if you restore it, and you love it, and you’ll wear it, then go for it. So many people have told me ‘oh, that watch isn’t really a hundred percent’, but the only time watches are ever perfect is when they leave the factory. Any time after that there’s going to be a scratch, or something, because you’re going to wear it. You’re going to use it. I’m big on toys, and I always feel like when you’re not looking they wake up and move around, like in Toy Story. If watches aren’t going to be worn, they’re going to be miserable.
The Edge That’s an interesting idea. When you say they come to life, do you also imagine specific watches have certain personalities, like people?
Morgan Absolutely. How often do you put on an outfit and think to yourself, ‘I’m going to wear this watch’, but then you put it on, and it doesn’t match the colours you’re wearing, it doesn’t match the mood you’re in. For me, I like multitudes. I enjoy having different colours. Dark colours can be very classy, or very conservative. It’s about constantly feeling the emotion. Sometimes, I’ll take one out, and my heart just goes. It’s like I’m looking at her again for the first time, thinking ‘you’re so beautiful’, and you just put it on, and think ‘where have you been? I missed you so much!’ You wind her up… no pun intended. But there is a romance that you have with them.
Morgan King's collection - Heuer Autavia 1563 "Exotic"
The Edge You said ‘her’. Are watches gendered for you? Do you have some watches that feel more male on your wrist?
Morgan They are all women to me.
Neil Mine are both.
Morgan Really? That’s interesting. I think of them as female only because I feel like they’re fierce but very forgiving. Like my wife – she’s the backbone of the family, but she lets me do my thing. She lets me buy toys, she lets me, you know, I have Batman stuff and other random things all over the place. I play with Legos, and she’ll let me do it. But there’s a limit, and you don’t cross it. Once you do too much, you’re done, you’re sleeping on the couch. Or outside.
The Edge And Neil, how do you see your watches?
Neil I don’t see them as little characters, but I feel something very intimate about them. I see them as carrying stories. I had a Lange Zeitwerk for a long time, which is a pretty awful watch to wear. It’s about 14,16 millimetres thick. For anybody reading that doesn’t know what it is, it’s a digital dialled analogue watch. So the numbers move through mechanisms that are held inside and it contains many years of engineering, same as an Urwerk, or an MB&F, or one of the independents.
For me, the watches are carrying stories. If I was going to a car event, I might want to put on a certain watch, or if I’m going to a work thing, I might want to put on another, for good luck. It’s the story. I have an 1163 GMT with a great story – it was for sale for eighty dollars. This guy was in a nursing home, and he was selling all his belongings, but I bought it from him for eight hundred, because I couldn’t stomach doing it for just eighty – it had the box with it and everything. He’d bought it from a jewellery store in New York, as a dive watch.
So I chase stories, and I love carrying them with me, whether it’s just knowing that Abel sanded and refurbished every surface of a watch, or just knowing the heritage because I managed to get it from a race car driver. They have a depth. To package so much effort into a forty-two millimetre circle, as an engineer and a designer, that’s astonishing. I do call some watches ‘her’, and some watches ‘him’ – probably because of material, or execution. A titanium watch might be a ‘him’, certain black watches might be a ‘him’, whereas a watch with very elegant patina, or more delicate lines, I would probably say, ‘hey girl’, and want to be a little more caring with it. A Rolex Sub wouldn’t be a ‘her’, to me. It’s your dude, it’s your buddy, your pal.
Morgan You’ve never met my sister.
Join us for Part Three to hear tales of true love – in the watch-world.