TALKING TIME

Fascinating people sharing stories, opinions and insight. Sometimes horological. Always interesting.

October 2021

2. Nicholas Manousos

It was a huge pleasure to ‘talk time’ with Nick Manousos, who is the Executive Director of our partners the Horological Society of New York.

Nick is a horologist who has played a pivotal role in bringing the HSNY back to prominence. While the HSNY is the hub of New York’s horological community, their mission is more egalitarian, namely; ‘To advance the art and science of horology’.

A highly respected writer for Hodinkee, Nick is also a great friend to British watchmaking and our conversation, coming shortly after we published our KPMG Bellwether, felt like a forum for some exciting possibilities…

Alistair: So what are you doing today? Apart from talking to me…

Nick: Today, I’m writing an article for Hodinkee. Every now and then I like to keep writing articles, doing research, just keeping all these various things going in my life. Later today, I’m heading down to Midtown Manhattan to the HSNY office. I’m really excited for a very specific reason! You know the older New York building in Midtown that we’re based in? The elevator in our building had some major renovations. And today is the day that it will finally be turned back on. I’m very excited to have a functional elevator!

Alistair: When I was last at the HSNY back in 2019, I remember that elevator went up for five flights…

Nick: Yes, my legs have got to be very strong over the past couple of months going up and down the stairs! But next time you visit, you’ll see a brand new elevator in our building.

Alistair: We’ll have to charge for rides. You know, we’re always talking about fundraising efforts for the Alliance, and you’ve always been really helpful…

Nick: Could be!

Alistair: So Nick, kicking off, let’s start with when you first got your spark of interest in watches?

Nick: Well horology, and watchmaking specifically, is a second career for me. My first career was in California. I worked in the tech industry. I grew up in the Monterey Bay Area, Santa Cruz, and then eventually moved up to San Francisco. And so, when you live in that part of California, you’re really exposed to the tech industry. That’s what everyone does. I majored in computer science at college and, from about 1997 to 2010, I had my first career working at various dot-com companies all over the Bay Area, such as LightSurf Technologies. At LightSurf we had this crazy idea that we’d put a camera inside of a cell phone and then you could take a photo with your camera and send a photo to your friends. And that was kind of the beginning of having camera phones..!

Alistair: I love the fact that, very modestly, you admit to having virtually invented the camera phone…

Nick: Well, we had several hundred people working there, but I wrote a little bit of the code to make it work, so I was just a part of it. But the tech industry is also very intense, working long hours, seven days a week. And I knew that it was something that I did not want to do for my entire life.

I also met my wife in San Francisco, we got married, and she encouraged me to look at other possibilities. And one day she said; “You know, you’re always looking at watches, you’re reading about watches, collecting watches, studying them. Why don’t you look at getting into watchmaking?”

I looked into it and I quickly discovered that most watchmaking schools are free. This was, I guess, my ‘Aha!’ moment. I ended up enrolling in the Swatch Group school in Miami, Florida. I really enjoyed living there and studying. My instructor was amazing and I still keep in touch with him today.

Then I moved to New York and started working independently here. It’s just a great place for watchmaking in the US. It’s really the centre of watchmaking here. I quickly got to know Ben Clymer and other friends and I started working with Hodinkee for a while. I was working full-time there, writing articles all day, every day.

Alistair: So you must have joined Hodinkee pretty much in its infancy?

Nick: I think I was employee number four or five… That was a lot of fun. I got to see a lot of incredible watches, and I was just reviewing watches and trying to say nice things about them – and maybe some critical things about them, too! I did that for a while and these days I’m still writing for them, but more on a part-time basis. My full-time job these days is managing the Horological Society of New York. As you know, I still like to spend some time at the workbench, so I’m not completely at the desk just doing managerial duties. I think it’s always important to stick with watchmaking in some sense. So that’s my journey. That’s how I got from the tech industry to watchmaking today.

Alistair: So how did you get introduced to HSNY? What happened there?

Nick: It was right away when I moved to New York in 2013. One of the first things I did was get in touch with a couple of my friends from watchmaking school who I knew lived here. I said; “Hey, I moved to to New York, let’s get together!” And one of the first things they suggested was that I should come to this Horological Society meeting which at the time was just a small group of watchmakers. I think it was October 2013. I remember it was maybe 10 or 15 people at this British pub on the Upper West Side. And we just had a nice meal, talked about the watches that we were currently working on. But I was really intrigued by this group. I was by far the youngest person there. Everyone was very much my senior. And I started asking more questions about the Society.

I quickly found out that it started a long time ago, back in 1866 – and it had been continuously operating since then. That motivated me to really pay attention and get involved, so I joined the board of directors. I started helping in any way that I could. I built a website for them that was my contribution from working in the tech industry. We just started publicising the organisation and it just started to grow very quickly. People just needed to find out. You know, to this day, we get people who say, ‘Oh, my father or my grandfather was a member of the Horological Society and I’ve still got his lapel pin. I didn’t know that you guys still existed!’ So, yeah, that was my initial introduction to the Horological Society of New York.

Alistair: But I’m guessing it was a bit more involved than that..?

Nick: Absolutely. It was a difficult situation because back in 2013. Based on the way that it was going; it was not going to continue much longer. The membership was dwindling year after year. It was very difficult to encourage new people to join, to be a member. The first thing we changed was to switch non-profit designations for donations to be tax deductible. So that helped. The other thing was to let people know that we were no longer just an organisation specifically for watchmakers. We’re for anyone interested in horology. You can be a collector. You can be an enthusiast. It doesn’t matter. But you’re welcome to come and attend our meetings free of charge. If you’d like to become a member, you can. And your membership contribution is tax deductible. And those two things really were key to opening it up and getting a lot of new people interested. We’ve also had incredible support from Hodinkee, mainly in terms of publishing articles and publicising what is going on.

Alistair: I remember one of the key pieces of advice you gave us in the early days of the Alliance was to make sure we had a place for enthusiasts and collectors and it’s been amazing to discover all those people are out there and all over the world…

Nick: It’s funny, if you look back in our archives, in the 1950s and 1960s, they had upwards of five hundred people attending meetings every month. To give you an example, when Roger (Smith) came and lectured a couple of years ago, that was a very popular, ‘standing room only’ lecture for the modern times. But that was two hundred people. So just to think that back in the 50s there were five hundred people attending and the crazy thing is, these were not watch collectors. They were watchmakers in the industry who lived and worked in New York. The American watchmaking industry back then was still huge… Hamilton, Bulova, Elgin – and these working watchmakers were coming to the meetings to network, to ask technical questions, to get advice, to advance their careers.

Alistair: Hearing your enthusiasm, I just want to sidebar to what is it you love so much about horology?

Nick: Well, I love watches and clocks for the same reason I love New York City. It never gets boring. Right now is an amazing time for New York. We’re starting to emerge from Covid. People are out there shopping. They’re going to parties. New restaurants are opening. It’s going to be a fun summer here in New York and there’s always something new to see. I can still go to a part of New York and get lost because I’m unfamiliar with it. And it’s the same feeling I have for horology. It never gets boring. I’m always learning something new. I enjoy the more technical aspects of watches and clocks such as learning about escapements and oscillators, about how technology has improved over the centuries to miniaturise watches and clocks to the point that we are at now. 

Alistair: And I guess you can get lost in the unfamiliar!

Nick: That’s why I love it. That’s why I spend so much time working on it. It’s really not work to me anymore. I love facilitating that type of education for others who are interested in horology as well; if they want to take a class or want to use our library to research some very specific topic, it’s there for them. Yeah, I just love horology because there’s so much to learn.

Alistair: If possible, it would be great to get your condensed history of the USA’s horology?

Nick: I guess you could say that American horology, historically, has been a victim of its own success. We can take that apart and think about what that means. Back in the 19th century and early 20th century, the American industry was at the top. We don’t really think of that today. We think about Swiss watches.. But it wasn’t always the case. And it used to be that American watch brands were the biggest in the world. Brands like Waltham, Bulova, Hamilton and Elgin.

The reason why that happened was the American industry figured out the way to do interchangeable parts. Today, if you drop your watch and break it, you take it to the watchmaker. They say, “Oh, you need a new centre wheel. Let’s just go on the website of the manufacturer, order a new centre wheel. It’ll be here next week and I will replace it”. And there’s your watch back. That’s not what happened back in the 19th century. If you dropped your watch and needed a new centre wheel it would have to be made from scratch. And it was a complicated and lengthy process. Now, the British were very good at this.

The British made the best watches in the world. But the Americans figured out how to make interchangeable parts. And the industry started to grow, and the British industry did not really adapt to that. And that was one reason why the British industry started to decline. And then we get to World War Two. A lot of the American watch companies, they go through what’s called the Defense Production Act, where they were forced to stop making watches and to start making guns and ammunition. After World War Two, it was not so easy to switch back to watches and clocks. At the same time, the Swiss benefited because they were a neutral country in World War Two and their major manufacturers never made that switch, so they were able to keep going. Then we get to the Quartz Crisis, and the American industry tried to keep up with the Japanese brands, but they couldn’t. Of course, quartz decimated the Swiss industry. After the Quartz Crisis, we get into the resurgence of the mechanical watch as today’s luxury item. No one really needs a mechanical watch. But the Swiss were able to pivot and reposition their existing industry. And they were very successful at that. By the time they pivoted, all the American brands had either closed shop – or moved to Switzerland.

Alistair: Let’s dial back to what you said at the outset, that the USA was a victim of its own success? 

Nick: The reason I say we were a victim of our own success is that the brands here were so big that there was almost no supply chain outside those brands. It ended up with a similar issue that you’ve identified in the KPMG Bellwether Report. We ended up with no small independent shops that you can go to get a mainspring in, or to get a balance wheel, or to get a barrel. It was all under one roof. Hamilton did everything themselves. Bulova did everything themselves. And when those companies failed, there were no back-ups. There was no easy way for someone to start up a company themselves making their own watch and sourcing components from the supply houses here in the US. It was either all or nothing. That’s still the story today. There really is no supply chain for the horological industry here in the US. And we know from your Bellwether that this is a problem for the British industry as well. But we can look at the problem and think maybe this is a possibility for the future. Maybe this means that there’s a great opportunity for someone to start a company manufacturing bridges or main plates or hair springs or wheels or gears. 

Alistair: Anecdotally, I think we’ve often commented to each other how uncannily similar the respective situations are…

Nick: Where there is a difference is that the American industry was never really focused on making luxury or complicated mechanical watches. We made millions and millions of very reliable, dependable, simple watches.

Alistair: I suppose I do tend to think of a fairly utilitarian watch when looking at the famous US brands in their heyday.

Nick: Yeah, so a collector looking for a very rare, complicated watch made by a certain maker doesn’t really exist for American watches.

Alistair: Apart from New York, are there any other regions where watchmaking has traditionally been strong in the US and might again see a resurgence?

Nick: Lancaster, Pennsylvania can be thought of as the historical home for American watchmaking, as that is where the Hamilton Watch Company was. Very close by, in Columbia, Pennsylvania, is the National Watch and Clock Museum that’s operated by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.

Alistair: And who is doing particularly interesting work in the US? Who should we look out for?

Nick: There are two makers I like to point out – one is Roland Murphy and RGM watches. Roland does amazing work. He does a lot of work with engine-turned dials. At one point he worked at Hamilton. He has a lot of historical experience, a wealth of knowledge. And the other person that I like to point out is on the other coast, in Los Angeles, CaliforniaJosh Shapiro. His entry point has been engine-turning. He makes absolutely beautiful dials and he got a lot of inspiration from George Daniels, studying his books, and his watches and those by Roger Smith. He has had a lot of success with his engine turned dials and he’s now working on building more of the watch himself here in the US.

But, you know, it’s back to that issue. Where’s the supply chain? Either you’ve got to do things very differently or you’ve got to do them all yourself. Are you going to invest and build out your own workshop with all the tools you need to make all the movement parts? Both are big tasks.

Unfortunately, there are some brands that use a movement that is sourced from another country, put it in a watch and then advertise the watch as “assembled in the USA” or “built in the USA”. It is somewhat misleading to consumers. The consumer may think that this is a watch that’s made in the USA when it’s not. This situation has been happening in many different countries and industries. It’s not new.

Alistair: And it’s exactly the same here. But when we started the Alliance it was with the belief that to stand any chance of developing an indigenous supply chain, you have to get everybody inside the tent and then help by sharing knowledge and developing a strategy.

I always say, a single company is a customer, but with 61 companies we have the start of a market. And the interesting thing is, I don’t think there is a single maker in the Alliance who wouldn’t prefer to be doing more making here in Britain, if it was viable.

We’ve already got people doing some very interesting work within our membership such as Jamie Boyd with Wessex Watches and Lewis Heath with AnOrdain. They have successfully defined their brands with these stunning and distinctive dials made in-house. There are more pockets of activity where people really are trying to do more and more in-house. I think we identified in the Bellwether that almost everybody is designing their own watches. We need to use that as a jumping-off point to try and get more making in Britain. I guess for both our organisations it’s about doing everything we can to encourage it.

Nick: Agreed.

Alistair: On that, can I ask what aspects of the British watchmaking sector you admire?

Nick: Well, of course, George Daniels and Roger were a major part of why I decided to personally study watchmaking. I got a copy of Watchmaking (by George Daniels) early on and read that book religiously. I still do.

The one thing that really appeals to me is the historical aspect of the British horology. There were quite a few individual makers who contributed significant inventions. I think you can make the case that the majority of the important horological inventions in history came from British watch and clockmakers. You can study a maker like Mudge, who invented an escapement that is in practically every mechanical watch today, or Harrison who invented the marine chronometer and shaped the entire world because of it – that’s really what I admire about British horology, this huge amount of rich history. If you come to the Horological Society Library, we have an entire wall dedicated to the history of British horology.

Alistair: It’s always really lovely to hear that perspective. We often talk about the similarities of the British and US sectors today. Having seen our recent Bellwether report, does that confirm those similarities for you today?

Nick: It’s practically identical. You and I have talked about this before. But we could equally have been wrong. It was very debatable. That’s why your KPMG report is so important, because it’s a third-party organisation that’s trusted worldwide which has verified what you theorised. Maybe there’s a few differences in our export markets, but, if you look specifically at the graph that shows the value of the watches produced and you see that most of the value is on the more affordable side with a few outliers. It’s really the same thing here in the USA. I agree with the report that there is a significant opportunity for businesses to enter the supply chain side of the industry. I also agree that there are not enough watchmakers out there for British companies to hire. That’s the exact same situation here in the US. That’s why we spend so much time focusing on the on the scholarship programs at the Horological Society. We try to encourage people to think about watchmaking as a viable career, because there’s this stereotype with watchmaking, at least here in the US, that watchmaking is just done in Switzerland.

If I’m at a dinner party now and someone asks, Hey, what do you do? And I say, I work with watches, they almost always respond that they didn’t know anyone did that outside of Switzerland. The Swiss do an amazing job. Most of the industry is in Switzerland, but there is an industry here in the US! It’s a viable career. And if you are good with your hands, if you like thinking about things in terms of engineering and mathematics, it’s a great industry to get into, especially here in New York. There’s a lot of job opportunities elsewhere in the country. There are many service centers in Florida, Texas and L.A. as well. It’s a great job to get into. I see so many similarities between the American and the British industries. And that’s why I think it’s so important that we work together to try to effect positive change.

Alistair: Yes, absolutely. I think there are huge opportunities for our countries to work together. In Britain I think the challenge for young people entering at the ground floor in is “Where’s the career path?” But, thanks to the survey, we now know there are over a hundred companies out there. Twenty-three are start-ups, a lot of which are very small, but overall the British sector has got a growing number of opportunities and jobs. That suggests genuine career paths.

Nick: Let me ask you a question. When you’re in London and you’re on the tube, do you ever see an advertisement that says ‘come to the school to learn how to repair, or come to school to learn how to be a nurse, a vocational school?

Alistair: Certainly vocational in general terms but not for watchmaking or repair.

Nick: So that’s my point. I ride the subway in New York almost every day, those ads are everywhere. They say something like “nursing school, one year and you’ll get your degree as a nurse”. “Automotive repair school – one year equals high paying job, secure job. Come study with us at the school.” I think maybe we need to do something similar for horology, an advertising campaign. Maybe it doesn’t need to be specifically for a trade school or a vocational school. Maybe it’s more of a public service announcement saying watchmaking is a viable career. This could be an idea for the future.

Alistair: It’s a great thought. In terms of the US and UK work together more, wouldn’t it be wonderful to think you could finish training and start your career in London or Birmingham and then maybe work in New York for five years before settling back at home. Or vice versa?

Nick: Absolutely – for young Americans, London and the UK is a huge draw.

Alistair: It’s a really fascinating idea. But to encourage young people in to our sector, I’d like to share an anecdote you might find interesting. On behalf of the Alliance, I sit on the UK Government’s Economic Sector Panel for consumer goods. We do panel calls every couple of weeks and it’s remarkable to compare notes with fashion, or domestic appliances, or sports goods and so on. They’ve all got the same issues as us, where they’ve lost their supply chain. Post-Brexit, the Government is very keen here to try and recover indigenous supply chain, but one of the sector heads, for Shoemaking made a brilliant comment. She said it would never happen as long as Educationalists and Minister continue to use ‘working in a factory’ as a threat for academic failure.

Nick:  And I’ve seen the same exact thing here. “Go to university. Or you’ll end up working in a factory” – it’s become part of our collective unconscious.

Alistair: There is a very fundamental shift that’s got to happen to convince young people that, “Hey, it’s okay to be really practical with your hands!”

Nick: It’s starting to change a little bit in the US, but really in only one specific industry. That’s the oil industry. There’s been an oil boom here and, in the last two years, many news reports that welders and plumbers were making huge salaries working in the oil industry. There’s a lot of interest in becoming a welder or a pipe pipe-fitter, but we need to expand beyond that. There’s a lot more you can do with your hands!

So let me ask you a question from the report. Was there anything that you found surprising?

Alistair: Let’s put it this way, the entire experience of setting up the Alliance about constant surprises. A year ago, if you had asked me how many watch and clock making companies there are in Britain, I’d have referred you to a bit of a sweepstake Mike France, Roger and I, had and we all agreed somewhere between 20 and 25 trading companies at most. And in fact, here we are in Britain with 105 companies!? With a retail value of over £125m?! And obviously, if you told me when we first launched that 6 months later we would have 61 trade members I would have been floored.

Nick: Do you think we should do a similar Bellwether report for the American industry?

Alistair: Absolutely and I would be fascinated to find out where your sector is right now, because then we can start looking at not just the similarities but also on how we might be able to join hands to develop our sectors. Initially though, it would be great learn from each other on how to perfect these surveys as we were very much feeling our way with this first survey. Even for KPMG. It was a first for all involved.

Nick: I’m going to make a point to start looking into this with our board for next year possibly, or the year after.

Alistair: To conclude, Nick, what are your hopes and aims for HSNY moving forward? What does success like for you?

Nick: What success looks like is making a measurable, positive change to the horological industries here in the US and all over the world. One very concrete measure that we use is our scholarship programs. We started the scholarship program back in 2017 and named it after Henry Fried, who was a past president of the Horological Society of New York and a prolific author of watchmaking. And back then we had a single $5000 dollar scholarship per year and we thought that was great. And this year, we have awarded $70,000 in scholarships to students all over the country, as well as a financial aid directly to schools. Success for me looks like the day when we can award a scholarship to every watchmaking student in the country. We really want to make sure there are no students who say “I can’t study watchmaking because I can’t afford it”. That’s just not okay. That’s not acceptable for us. We want to make sure that never happens. Increasing the size and scope of our scholarships every year is a very important task for us.

Alistair: What a fantastic ambition. I wish you all the very best for that, Nick. And finally, a wrist-check…

Nick: I am wearing my Apple Watch today. After our call, before going to the office, I’m going to go for a run. My Apple Watch is my day-to-day watch now. Everyone likes to disparage smartwatches – you know, they’re disposable, they’re replaceable – which they are. But I like them a lot. They do things that mechanical watches really can’t do. They also encourage young people to wear a watch. Maybe later on they’ll get a job or promotion. They’ll get married. They’ll say, now I’m going to give myself a nice watch that I can wear for an important meeting or an event.

Alistair: Actually, it’s something I’ve never considered. If you have a generation conditioned to use their phone for keeping time, then how easy would it be for an entire generation to stop thinking that something should even be on their wrist…

Nick: It’s so funny that you bring that up. Last night, I watched a YouTube documentary specifically about why men stopped wearing hats. It talks about the historical origins of a hat. And then all the socio-economic reasons why hat wearing just stopped. I will find this video and send it to you!

Alistair: Nick, thank you for your time. It’s been both a pleasure and a learning experience listening to you, as ever!

PS… Here’s that link to the documentary on hat wearing from the Gentleman’s Gazette…

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