Interview: Arthur Touchot
The name Arthur Touchot should be very familiar to our readers, having become known in the community for his editorial contributions to Haute Time and Hodinkee to name but two. Following his recent departure from his role as European editor of Hodinkee, moving to a new position with Phillips auction house, we decided to catch up with Arthur and find out how he found himself a part of the watch world.
Tell us a little about the first spark or the first memorable moment that gave you an interest in watches...
To be honest, I’m not totally sure when I first came across watches or what that first spark was but I was always interested in them. I actually started writing about watches when I worked for the International Herald Tribune (now known as the International New York Times), which was my first job after college.
Yeah, I moved to the United States to study journalism at Northwestern University and the idea was always to become a journalist. My first assignment at the Herald Tribune was to edit the luxury supplements that they publish, of which there were two at the time, A Cut Above Watches and A Cut Above Jewellery, so I was editing other writers’ work before I began writing on the topic myself.
And how did you make the leap from editing to writing on the subject for them?
Well, as you can imagine, most people who write for the Herald Tribune aren’t necessarily writing about watches, that’s not how you get a Pulitzer Prize [Laughs].
So they had a deadline on a particular supplement and they needed additional stories, so the editor asked me if I might be interested in writing one, knowing that I had an interest. I of course accepted the offer and they loved the story, so in the next supplement they asked me for two stories, the next one three and suddenly I was a watch journalist.
Do you remember what that first story was about?
Yes, it was about how photographers tackled the various issues that come along with shooting watches. I interviewed a bunch of still life photographers about the challenges involved with photographing watches.
And what was the outcome?
Well, the conclusion was that each watch presents a unique challenge both technically and emotionally, because these photographers need to interpret the watch and give some feeling or story to the piece.
Yeah, and funnily enough, it’s something that I experienced later in my career… It brings a new understanding to a watch, because each piece needs to be considered uniquely. I definitely feel like photographing watches helps you in understanding them, and writing about them. One of the photographers interviewed in that story is Ming Thien, who has since launched his own watch brand. I think that’s really neat in a way and unsurprisingly, his watches are brilliant.
Speaking of watches, what was the first watch you owned?
The first watch that I owned was a Flik Flak, which I found years later and ended up writing about for Hodinkee. There is also an unflattering picture of me as a kid wearing that watch in that article [Laughs].
[Laughs] And did you buy it or was it a gift?
It was a gift from my parents for getting good grades one year at school. It was a small green thing which was designed to help kids learn to read the time. Reading the time is one of those first big lessons that you learn as a child..
"The fact that a Speedmaster can cost anything from about $3,000 to $250,000 is awesome, there’s something quite magical about that piece."
They still make those watches by the way. It was fun to write about, because at Hodinkee, we wrote for men and women and I felt that we had completely forgotten about the fact that maybe there were kids in the marketplace too. My first ‘proper’ watch was an Omega Speedmaster, which I absolutely love. The fact that a Speedmaster can cost anything from about $3,000 to $250,000 is awesome, there’s something quite magical about that piece.
So, how did your journalism career develop from the New York Times?
Well, I wrote a number of stories for the news section of the paper, but I was increasingly writing about watches, so I began pitching to other big newspapers like the Financial Times and the Telegraph; all newspapers who had supplements on watches. What I discovered was that there was a thirst for good watch content and that writers on the subject were in demand, because there weren’t many people who could write about watches in depth. I decided to jump right into this niche, which was something that my parents struggled to understand initially.
The fact that you were making a little bit of a leap of faith?
Yes, exactly. They were worried for me, but they soon realised this wasn’t some rash decision on my part. I was going to make this work. Interviewing famous ambassadors reassured them too. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Oh dear...
Neither of my parents were interested in or collected watches, so it was very difficult for them to relate. I don’t come from a family where watch collecting has been a hobby spanning generations, being passed down as some sort of tradition. I’d fallen into this by accident. I absolutely love watches, but I didn’t set out to be a watch journalist; that came later. Though, saying that, my mom recently bought a Tag Heuer Monza for my dad, so maybe he will catch the bug now.
So what was your intention before that?
I wanted to write about stories that matter and I feel that’s exactly what I was doing, because the stories I wrote mattered a lot to people who are interested in watches. Like most of the journalism students at NU, I initially wanted to become an international reporter, and I did end up travelling to conflict areas. I spent a bit of time in Rwanda, because I had been there shooting a documentary previously. So, I was there a few times, and when conflict broke near the border, in RDC, I thought, “this needs coverage, I’m a journalist and I’m nearby,” and off I went. I jumped in a car with a Danish journalist and we covered the rebellion for a couple of months.
How did things progress professionally as you began writing more and more for supplements?
Following the six month internship at the International Herald Tribune, myself and my wife, who was an intern there as well at the time moved to London after they gave her a full time position there. I continued writing for the IHT, the FT and the Telegraph, and I think that’s when I first reached out to Ben Clymer at Hodinkee. I was an avid reader and I remember getting in touch to see if he might be interested in having a freelancer in Europe.
How was his response, presumably positive?
You know, I don’t think he got back to me [Laughs].
He got back in touch two years later while I was working with Haute Time. I joined shortly after my move to the UK, having met the owners at Baselworld that year and because of my strong background in journalism, they gave me the reigns. They said, “You do whatever you want to do with this, we trust you.”
Yeah, a few months into the job they named me editor in chief, and so I revamped the website, hired a couple of photographers and writers and off we went.
"I don’t think there were any specific problems, but I thought there were plenty of great watch stories that were not being told."
What did you set about changing, what were the problems?
I don’t think there were any specific problems, but I thought there were plenty of great watch stories that were not being told. The magazine was well-known for hosting events with celebrity watch collectors and I thought the watches themselves should receive some star-treatment.
My focus was to make original content that would be interesting to watch collectors. A lot of what they had been doing, which everyone was doing at the time, was producing stories from press releases with unoriginal imagery; there were no hands on reviews and factory visits. I wanted to be a platform which was breaking news in the industry, not just regurgitating available information. After a while of doing that, I got a call from Ben Clymer, one of the only guys doing everything I just mentioned, out of the blue telling me that he liked my work and that he would like for me to work for Hodinkee.
Must have been a nice call to receive...
Yeah, absolutely. It was right after Kevin Rose had invested heavily into the company to turn what people then called a blog into what it is today, a media organisation with a very successful online retailer. So, when that offer with that mission came, it was a no-brainer for me.
And were you personally familiar with the team at the time?
Oh, definitely. For the past two years I was travelling around to the events and watch fairs, things like that and had met most of the team. We all gelled very well, very similar backgrounds, similar interests and goals, so it was an easy decision to make.
How did you find working there?
It was great, I think that some of the pieces I have been most proud of producing were for Hodinkee.
Yeah, I absolutely loved it. Particularly the video series I produced for them called The Road Through Britain, looking at the United Kingdom’s position in the watch industry and exploring its history. Completely original content. I’ve always been encouraged to think that if you’re being told what you should write by a brand or a PR, that’s probably the story that you want to avoid.
Because that story is almost definitely being pitched to other people.
Do you think there is a growing problem with this style of journalism, regurgitation of press releases and that sort of thing?
On the one hand, it’s very tempting to regurgitate the press release, because it’s easy. This has always been an issue in specialised media, because the publishers are reliant financially on the brands. When Hodinkee launched its shop and we as a business had our own stream of revenue, I think the editorial team gained lots of freedom. We could write whatever we wanted, and I think this ultimately benefitted the audience.
Broadly speaking, do you think this is a problem for editorial platforms, taking ad revenue from brands who gain a certain leverage over them?
I think that’s always a problem. I don’t think it’s a problem which is specific to the watch industry though. I would think it’s the same with wine, cars and cigars, because they’re all such niche areas, they need to nurture the relationships of the makers.
How long did you remain in that role with Hodinkee?
I think it was around two years, maybe a year and a half.
And what drove the decision to part company?
Hodinkee was in an excellent position, still is, and that actually helped my decision. Part of my responsibility with Hodinkee was auction coverage, and so I became very familiar with Aurel and the team at Phillips, and I was then approached by Aurel with a specific project in mind. I knew the whole team over there, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision to make. It’s quite tough to join a team that you’re completely unfamiliar with, so it was a nice luxury to have, going into that role. Aurel made a point that I should be in Geneva, to be as involved as possible and as close to him as possible. That appealed to me as well. I had until then always worked on my own, from home.
What was appealing to you about this role with Phillips?
I think it became clear that my passion lies with vintage watches, because you just can’t get bored of the classics. It’s an area of study where you can just keep digging and finding more and more interesting things.
Right, because there is always going to be a unique story attached to each watch...
Absolutely, and I think that when you look at the 150 or 200 watches that are included in a sale, you get a full picture of a specific industry over a vast period of time. You get to see and understand the evolution of aesthetics and how the mechanisms have evolved and improved. It’s fascinating to see all these stories come from something as simple as an object which has one purpose: to tell the time.
What exactly is your new role with Phillips?
I’ve joined in two roles, firstly as the head of digital, which is a broad term that is often misunderstood but means I’m responsible for anything that’s non-physical, including our website, social media, online marketing and all digital campaigns. Secondly, I joined as a specialist, because of my background covering watches for some eight years or so, having also become familiar with so many collectors. It’s a lot of fun travelling around, hearing stories that are not necessarily the story of the watch, but the story of the owner of the watch, you know, I find that fascinating.
Absolutely, often the story of the owner can trump the story of the watch, but more importantly, these stories about owners often contextualise the watches...
I think so.
There are only so many ways you can write about the design or the mechanism before it becoming laborious...
Definitely, and this is something that’s been happening slowly over the course of about ten years, rewriting the stories of these watches because a previously unknown piece challenges the existing literature. There is a feeling out there that everything interesting has been found, every single watch has been located and are now in the hands of dealers trading them back and forth to each-other. I don’t think this is true though, because of some of the groundbreaking pieces that have sold recently. Paul Newman’s ‘Paul Newman’ or the steel 1518, I mean, we are getting more and more calls from people who have discovered something in a drawer, unused, that they’re unsure of even what they have.
The exposure from these blockbuster sales is reaching a broader market now...
How have you found the sourcing side of the role?
It’s always really exciting to fly to destinations around Europe, meeting with private collectors or individuals who don’t know what they have because you have that thrill of informing them of how valuable or special their piece might be. A lot of these watches carry with them an emotional attachment, often because they are gifts from their fathers or grandfathers. It’s such a pleasure to let these people know that the watch which they hold so emotionally close to them, is actually very special in the context of the watch market.
Presumably you’re in the middle of preparations for the Daytona sale, how is that all shaping up?
It’s coming together nicely. We are also in the middle of sourcing for the Geneva and Hong Kong sales, so it’s a busy period for us. I think the Daytona sale is going to be very exciting, because these are some of the finest examples in the world. It’s interesting to work on thematic sales, focussing on a specific model or complication, but it certainly comes with its own challenges.
Has the Paul Newman Daytona sale helped at all?
Definitely, because we have seen many great watches since, and I’m talking about pieces that have been owned by people who had no clue what they had. We are also being helped by Pucci Papaleo, the curator of the sale, a man who is very familiar with the Daytona, having written numerous books on the subject.
So, on a final note, tell us a little about your plans for Phillips, what can we expect online?
We will be relaunching the website, which will become integrated on Philips.com, rather than on Phillipswatches.com; that’s the technical side of things which is not so interesting [laughs].
But the new site will have much more of an editorial focus, featuring pieces from the upcoming sales, but also pieces that aren’t necessarily for sale. The aim is to participate in the education of collectors, new collectors, old collectors. We’re fortunate to be in this incredible community which has a lot of interest and enthusiasm. We have a great team of experts here, and we want to share that knowledge with collectors and enthusiasts. The challenge for auction houses is that the online activity is huge around the sales, but not so much otherwise. We want to create a space for collectors to learn about vintage pieces outside of the auction room, and in between auctions.
An interesting challenge...
Yeah, I’m looking forward to getting it all moving.
For more information, please visit the Phillips Watches website by clicking here.