Fascinating people sharing stories, opinions and insight. Sometimes horological. Always interesting.
3. Michael Clerizo
Michael Clerizo is an American freelance writer living in London. He is a contributing editor at W.S.J. magazine and the author of two books, Masters Of Contemporary Watchmaking and George Daniels: A Master Watchmaker And His Art.
Michael has a unique perspective and insight on British horology and is also a regular guest host of our Open Dial events…
HOW DID YOU COME TO BE IN LONDON?
Well, I made an incredibly intelligent life-changing decision. I married a British woman! We met in New York. I was working for a British publisher at the time and she came over to work for the same publisher. So it turned out to be an office romance that went horribly wrong and some 38 years later, we’re still together. But she thought we could do much better in London. And lo and behold, my wife was as good as her word and did very well here. And I’ve always enjoyed London and the British. So, here I am…
YOUR ENTRY TO HOROLOGICAL WRITING CAME OUT OF A RAPID EXIT FROM A BRANDING AGENCY…
I was doing a lot of different things there, new business; a lot of writing; video production. And one day the owner of the agency came in and said to me, I’ve got a brilliant definition of a brand that you are really going to like. And the thing about branding agencies is they spend huge amounts of time trying to define a brand. It’s a bit like Plato trying to define pity or truth or something like that. It just goes on for days. So, this man came in and he said to me, “A brand is a code by which we live our lives.” And I thought… I have to get out of here.
Then mother nature intervened. I became very ill with a virus that apparently, I’d picked up in Thailand. And I actually spent 11 nights in a hospital here in London, on the NHS. And as you know, to spend 11 nights in a hospital on the NHS, you have to be really sick. But I had shockingly high fevers and my devoutly Catholic nurse would make the sign of the cross before entering my room.
THAT’S GOING TO FILL YOU WITH CONFIDENCE
It was very uplifting! But, between being covered in ice and all the religious ceremony, I just started writing; about my experiences in the hospital and I was reading a lot as well. And I thought, well, hmm, I can do a lot better than these people are doing. I’d always done writing in my business life. So, I wrote and submitted an article to the FT on a silk manufacturer I knew in Florence, Italy. And that was it. I was off as a freelance writer.
SO WHAT LED YOU IN TO THE WORLD OF HOROLOGY?
It was a Friday afternoon. I was doing what every freelance writer does on Friday afternoon, you’re either reading a magazine or watching daytime television. And I was reading a magazine at the time, and I got a phone call from an editor who asked me if I knew anything about watches. So, my career as a watch writer actually began with a lie because I answered; “Yes! What would you like me to do?”
She wanted a thousand words by the following Tuesday on three watch brands. And I said; “Of course, no problem.” Except of course, I didn’t know anything about watches. And then she asked which three brands…
So now I was stumped because I don’t even think I knew three watch brands. But I was reading a magazine at the time and, in those days, every magazine on the back cover had an ad for Patek Philippe. So, I said, ‘Patek Philippe’.
And she said; “Great. And what’s the next one?” Now my father had left me a Vacheron Constantine, about which there’s a story that I’ll get to. So, Patek, Vacheron. And she said; “And what else?”
Now, a few weeks previous to this, a friend of mine had said to me; “I just bought a Franck Muller Master Banker”. Until he corrected me, I thought that was some kind of accountancy software, you know… “Master banker, it helps you take care of your finances”. But that was the third brand I proposed for the piece.
So, I spent the weekend researching these brands and that was when the watch bug bit me. It was a deep bite and it’s never let go…
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT WATCHES THAT CONNECTED WITH YOU?
I realised that watches; while at one level, yes, they’re a fashion accessory but, at another much more important level, watches contain the history of Western Civilization. The whole idea of time keeping as we do it here in the west is rather different from the way it’s done in the rest of the world. I’m not saying it’s better. It’s just different. And it contains Art; Aesthetics; Design; Mathematics; Physics; Geometry; Tribology (the study of friction); Metallurgy; Chemistry… I realised so many topics in which I’m very interested are caught up in watches.
So, I decided that I would start doing more writing about watches. And the first place I proposed writing for was the Wall Street Journal. They accepted and that’s gone on now for more than 20 years. I was also very, very fortunate in that somehow or another, exploring the internet, I came across independent watchmakers that I knew nothing about. I came across George Daniels and found out there was this great, in fact, the greatest ever independent watchmaker, living almost in the same country I was in at the time – he was on the Isle of Man and I was in London, but he was indeed a London boy. And I was able to make contact with him and it turned out to be a very easy and productive relationship between he and I. So, my whole relationship with independent watchmakers began that way. And the first article I ever wrote for the Wall Street Journal about watches was about George Daniels, Philippe Dufour and Svend Andersen.
IT MUST HAVE BEEN QUITE DAUNTING TO GET STRAIGHT INTO A CORRESPONDENCE WITH GEORGE?
Something I think Roger Smith would agree on was that George, when he wanted to be, was a brilliant teacher. He could explain very complicated technical concepts in very simple, straightforward language, very simple declarative sentences. He was infinitely patient with me, throughout the more than a decade that I knew him before he died. He was funny. He was informative. He was always patient. He always made the time for me. And he formed my opinions about watches. And in some ways, I consider myself a ‘Danielista’. We have fashionistas. Well, I’m a Danielista. Because I was taught about watches by George Daniels. And I was taught to look for elegance, simplicity and superb functionality in watches. And, to this day that’s how I look at a watch; whether it lacks elegance, it’s too angular or the dial is far too busy and I can’t easily tell the time. And I find that’s George’s influence on me.
IN A WAY THAT’S A ‘MASTER-APPRENTICE’ RELATIONSHIP, BECAUSE YOU WERE WRITING ABOUT WATCHES, BUT GEORGE WAS INFORMING YOUR VIEWPOINT…
Oh, he completely formed my opinions. And when he died, I happened to have a conversation with Will Andrews who knew George very well and went on to become a famous, highly regarded museum curator in the US. Will said; “Just think of all the questions we’re going to have a hard time getting answers to”; because with anything to do with watches, you could call up George and say, “George, what about this?” And he knew right away. There was nothing he couldn’t answer.
PERHAPS, BECAUSE HE’D HAD TO MASTER EACH AND EVERY WATCHMAKING CRAFT, HIS LEVEL OF UNDERSTANDING WAS ALWAYS GOING TO BE DEEPER THAN ANYONE ELSE.
Well, yes, you’re exactly right. Because George never approached any topic in a superficial manner. He dove to the depths and stayed there until he knew everything he wanted to know, which would probably be everything there was to know about the project, and then he came back up for air. And when he did, he was incredibly knowledgeable. The same thing is true about car engines, as it was about watches, and about a number of other topics that he became interested in such as French furniture…or the French language for that matter!
WHAT IS IT ABOUT MECHANICAL WATCHES THAT YOU APPRECIATE?
We are, as a species, very mechanically minded, partly because one of the reasons we survived as a species is, we learned to manipulate tools. And this gave us a huge advantage over previous human species and over the rest of the animal kingdom. And it gave us the ability to at least partially influence our environment. So, I think we are hardwired by evolution to appreciate craft. And an example of craft, one of the few left in the world today, is the mechanical watch. Not only do people appreciate it, but there’s also an urge to create them.
I once said to George; “What about the theory that art is useless?” And he said to me; “Well, in the Renaissance a lot of people couldn’t read. So, the only way they could learn about religious stories was from paintings and frescoes. Art had a purpose. Michelangelo’s art had a purpose. So of course, you can make something useful like a watch, it has a purpose. But it’s still a work of art.”
And the other thing is, I think you develop an affection for an object. You strap on your wrist, and you can wear it for decades. There’s almost nothing you can say that about these days. Phones run out after two years. Computers after maybe five. But with watches, you develop an affection for them and the stories connected to them. I mentioned that my father left me a Vacheron. Well, I’m wearing it right now.
AN OPPORTUNE MOMENT FOR A WRIST CHECK…
My father always said he won this watch in a card game with a Swiss ambassador to Japan, because my father was stationed in Japan. That was always the family story. And my uncles always said it was to pay off a gambling debt, but not a poker hand with the Swiss ambassador in Japan, but that was just the way my father liked to elaborate the stories.
So, this watch, which is from the 1940s, it’s got a very elaborate story my father told attached to it. It has the fact that I greatly enjoy wearing it because it feels so comfortable, and it still keeps excellent time, and I love the way it looks. And then there’s the fact that very early in my watch writing career, I decided, as it’s a round watch, I would buy a rectangular Vacheron to go with it.
I feel most comfortable when I have it on. In fact, one time when we lived in another house, a neighbour complained about the fact that she saw me walking around the house naked, to which I answered, ‘Nonsense. I was fully clothed. I had on my glasses and my watch!’
YOU’RE HEREBY THE MARILYN MONROE OF BRITISH WATCHMAKING*…
BUT LET’S TALK ABOUT SOME OF YOUR FAVOURITE POCKET WATCHES. I’M SURE GEORGE’S WORK WILL FEATURE IN THOSE…
My favourite pocket watches of George were the first six. They were Time Only. I think they are a design triumph. They are the first watches he ever made and they are simply brilliantly designed. And I think those have always been my favourites of his, because I actually don’t like watches that do more than tell you the time and perhaps the date. Not that I don’t like them, but I just don’t find them that practical.
I like watches that provide me with those two bits of information or even just one of them, just the time and I’m happy with that. Now, of course, I appreciate things like the Space Traveler watches or his Grand Complication. But to me, I don’t need that information in my day-to-day life.
I quite like moon phase and moon-age complications. I do see a need for them. And in some parts of the world, the Middle East, Asia, the moon is highly significant because they use a lunar calendar. So moon phases and complications like that, I still think are very important.
Of other pocket watches, I think John Arnold’s work was wonderfully elegant and quite forceful because he made his pocket watches large. Of course Breguet, in particular, the Souscription watches with one hand, I like that economy on the dial very much.
I admire almost any Waltham watch because you can see that New England puritanism in their simplicity. I have more than one Waltham, more than 100 years old and they’re still working. There’s a Swiss watchmaker who moved to London, Josiah Emery, and I think his watches are magnificently eloquent. Of course, in those days everyone made their own movements and you can look at his movement and understand how the energy flows through it.
THAT’S QUITE A PROFOUND OBSERVATION…
I think that point, watching the energy flow through a watch is something we’re very attracted to as human beings because we love movement. We love watching a Formula One race, or a motorcycle race, or a horse race. We love movement, and we like to watch it. This has always existed, by the way, because if you look at a medieval manuscript, those very elaborate capital letters that would start a page, that is actually a very early form of animation.
There’s a group of archeologists in, I think Washington, who have just discovered that certain tribes would carve animal figures onto stone and then put them into a fire because the moment the fire gets into the stone, it has a strobe effect, and you begin to see the animal that’s carved on the stone move. So as far back as we can go almost, people have appreciated movement. So, the energy flow through the watch is one of the ways in which watch has a narrative.
ULTIMATELY, IT’S NARRATIVES AND STORIES. DO YOU STRUGGLE TO CONNECT WITH THE DIGITAL WORLD IN THE SAME WAY?
One of the things I never liked about digital timekeepers was I have never, ever had an appointment scheduled for 2:17. And yet, my Casio watch told me when it was 2:17. I’m not sure I ever needed to know that.
WHAT DO YOU THINK GEORGE WOULD HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT THE RESURGENCE IN BRITISH WATCHMAKING?
He would’ve loved it. In fact, if you go back and look at minutes of the Worshipful Company of Watchmakers, George was talking about this in the 1970s. And a lot of people within the same organization, at the time, were saying; “It can’t happen. There’s no way. You have to face up to it. The Swiss are it”. Some people were very, very pessimistic about the future of the mechanical watch because of the arrival of quartz, so there was this, shall we say, overly fond attitude toward the past, or the idea that was our pinnacle, and we’re never going to be able to reach it again.
George never accepted that. He thought there was a huge amount of creativity and energy in this country in a number of different fields when he was alive.
Now, what we are seeing is the manifestation of that belief, and this is partly because of the ease with which you can start up a watch company, buying components from outside the country, which is nothing new, by the way. The British always did that.
That’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing this great revival. Another reason is George and Roger, two men have said, “Yeah, guess what? I can do this on my own. Want to see?” And that’s hugely inspirational because George and Roger have never said, “You have to do things like I do”.
George and Roger would just say, “If you want to do it, you can do it, and you can make the watch look like anything you want it to, but just do it. Get started.” The idea really with George and Roger is that you can follow your dream. You can do it. And that is much more important than any other kind of inspiration or influence.
Of course, we’ll hear a lot of complaints; “It’s not British unless it’s made in Britain entirely”. But there’s a concept in biology known as hybrid vitality where two different species come together, and what you end up with is this very strong new species. Now, that’s what’s going on with the brands that import a lot of components from outside the UK or make the watches outside the UK. The design code is still very British, but somebody didn’t have the 40 million pounds, you’d need to set up a manufacturing facility. We really shouldn’t criticize people for that. I think demanding ‘British Only’ is a brake on creativity. And that’s the last thing in the world you want. It’s also a brake on commercial development, which is another thing you don’t want.
We have a very vibrant, energetic watch industry developing in the UK. I think that’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful, and we need more of that.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MOST INTERESTING ASPECTS OF BRITISH WATCHMAKING AT THE MOMENT?
I would have to say whatever Roger Smith is doing. That goes without saying. I’ve known Roger for a long time, and everything is a surprise. Roger is quite a calm and relaxed person, as you know, and yet, these watches come out of his workshop that are truly awe inspiring.
I like all these little brands that pop up out of nowhere. Mr. Jones, who does do a lot of work in London. He’s like the Monty Python of watchmaking, very eccentric, very going his own way. Eccentric is, I think, the right word, because eccentric is very much a British national characteristic.
Very good stuff going on there. The way Nicholas has revived Fears, the very calculated moves he’s made to revive that brand. Even the fact that, during the pandemic, he had to take a job in a supermarket to keep the brand going. That’s guts. If you don’t mind me saying, that’s the Dunkirk spirit.
When we look at a brand like Christopher Ward, which to me, looks so British. The style of those watches, even though most of the work is done outside of the UK, the watch looks so British, with its forceful pragmatism.
CAN WE TALK ABOUT YOUR NEXT BOOK?
I have been working for a while now on a book about watchmaking in concentration camps. For the most part, German watchmakers were off fighting the war, and the Germans needed watch and clock makers. Something like 90%, 95% of the watch and clock makers in Poland were Jewish. A large portion of the watchmakers in Germany were, and a large portion of the watchmakers in other occupied countries, particularly France and Holland, were Jewish. Consequently, Dachau had a watch and clock workshop. There is some evidence that other camps did as well.
I have been researching that for a while, but a friend of mine in Israel, his father and his uncles had exactly that experience. They were kept alive. They survived six years in slave labor camps and death camps, partly because they were watchmakers. My friend’s name is Scott Lenga. The name of the book is The Watchmakers.
I am also working on the history of time keeping, which fascinates me, because it’s different in different parts of the world. It starts with the calendar, and there’s a lot of evidence the first time keeping device in the Western world were the bones of an Eagle on which, someone scratched the phases of the moon. Many people believe, this may never be conclusive, that is the first time keeping device in the Western world. It’s been discovered in France. The idea of the history of time keeping and how it also affected society really fascinates me.
For example, before the second hand was developed, nobody actually knew what the normal human pulse rate should be. You could say a pulse rate was weak, but you couldn’t say it was slow until you could time a minute – for which you needed a secondhand. Another is the practical way it affected cooking. If you read cookbooks from, say, even in the 18th century, early 19th century, you cooked the chicken at a moderate heat until the skin was brown, or you baked a pie until the crust was golden. Once clocks become more common, you bake a pie for 45 minutes.
There are all those ways in which time keeping affected our life, and that fascinates me…
* A reporter supposedly asked Marilyn Monroe about her posing nude for a calendar photograph to which Marilyn replied… ’It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on’.
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