Of all the horological literature out there, many texts can be unapproachable for your average collector, with terms and theories so complex, that they may as well be written in Chinese. One enthusiast, named Ryan Schmidt, noticed this issue, and set about creating a book which could take the reader on a journey of horological discovery, not too dissimilar to his own experiences. The book is called The Wristwatch Handbook, and became the talk of collectors and enthusiasts immediately after its release. We decided to have a chat with the man behind the book, to see where this mammoth project came from.
So, how about we kick things off with a classic…
Tell us a little about your earliest memorable interaction with watches…
I have a very vivid memory of a blue rubber Casio, which contained probably the cheapest and most ubiquitous post-quartz revolution movement you can imagine, however, it looked awesome. It felt great, and I became completely obsessed with it.
Sometimes the price bears no relevance to the enjoyment. Do you still have it?
Unfortunately I have equally vivid painful memories of losing it, quite early in my relationship with it. It’s something that has sat with me for a long time, and full disclosure, I still feel a slight pang of heartache about losing it. That was probably the earliest timepiece of any kind that I had. Roughly around the same time, I went through a brief obsession with watches that would illuminate at the touch of a button. The type of thing you would expect to see in an Argos catalogue.
So you started at a young age and never lost interest?
Actually no, during my teenage years, after losing the blue Casio, I went through a full blackout on watches. I didn’t really care much for them again until my twenties, which is when the obsession began.
The Wristwatch Handbook by Ryan Schmidt
And how did it re-emerge?
It was in the early 2000s that myself and my then girlfriend, now wife, took a trip to Paris to buy her an engagement present. She had an old 70s Omega Constellation, and I had decided that I wanted to buy her a shiny new version of it. We popped over to the Omega boutique and in the window, they had a central tourbillon De Ville in yellow gold, and it just took my breath away. It was fully wound and pumping away and I had just never seen anything remotely like it. Seeing the thing in operation added to the mystery, and on the price tag beneath it were so many digits, I just couldn’t believe it. I had to know how this thing worked.
So you got a hands on look at it?
Yes, I asked the boutique staff if I could handle it and had so many questions for them about how this thing functioned and how it can cost so much money. As is often the way, the boutique staff don’t have quite the technical understanding some might hope for, so it left me with more questions than answers. This began a ten year journey of discovery, and I think I now finally know what that watch is all about. That watch features in the book first, because I wanted to give some readers a similar experience, of seeing something ridiculously complex in the beginning, to spark their interest, much like mine.
"I would randomly come across an article about a dive watch with a depth indicator, for example, and I would then spend the next few weeks obsessing about understanding how that works and exploring other examples and approaches."
Did that then inform the whole narrative of the book?
The flow is slightly more objective than my own personal journey, as my discoveries have been somewhat rambling. I spent the last ten years in a job which required me to travel very frequently, so I would visit airport watch boutiques and buy magazines in duty free to indulge my interests. I would randomly come across an article about a dive watch with a depth indicator, for example, and I would then spend the next few weeks obsessing about understanding how that works and exploring other examples and approaches.
You seem to have a very methodical and meticulous nature about you…
You know what, I’m really not. I can see why someone might suggest that, given that I’m an auditor, accountant and watch book author, but my wife would laugh in my face if I described myself as such. I would describe myself as more artistic and impulsive, so it’s quite strange to think that I’ve managed to put something like this together. I think it has something to do with the magic of a watch, because it’s inspired me against my better nature, to understand these logically complex objects. I’m not a born engineer, nor watchmaker, though I like to think I would design a pretty decent watch; I’m sure I’d be useless at assembling one, as I don’t have the discipline required.
Have you ever taken the idea of designing a watch seriously?
Maybe one day I would, but the market is far too flooded right now. I would only design something that would be, in my opinion, a ‘masterpiece’. I would work with a watchmaker, who would actually go about making this masterpiece, but I like the idea that one day, I will stumble on an approach that bridges two complications or something, or a certain technique that I just hadn’t seen before. I would pitch it to a watchmaker, who would do all the legwork [laughs].
The Omega De Ville Central Tourbillon
[laughs] Seems fair enough. So what brands have you excited these days?
Gosh. I’m always drawn to the independent brands, because if an independent is doing something creative, innovative or risky, they are really putting themselves on the line. The exposure from a balance sheet perspective is immense, as it just has to be a successful endeavour. They don’t have the ability to plough money into research and development as a pseudo marketing exercise, releasing a product just for attention. I feel like these brands deserve more attention than some of the major brands that get all the coverage. I’m also very drawn to anything highly complicated, as you’ve probably guessed.
[laughs] Yes, we had…
I like Greubel Forsey a lot, who are pushing the boundaries of quite how many hours you can subject a highly trained artisan to, to black polish a single bridge.
Isn’t it an absolutely absurd amount of hours overall for an entire movement of theirs to be polished?
Yes, I think it’s around a day and a half of black polishing just on the tourbillon bridge alone, which to me, is fascinating. They must be taking a lot of exercise breaks to prevent repetitive strain injuries, I would imagine. I’m also quite fond of funkier brands like DeBethune, who have created this unusual bridge between classical watchmaking and the future of watchmaking. I like to think of them as aliens who captured Abraham-Louis Breguet, cloned him twenty times, putting them to work in a spaceship somewhere above Switzerland with their alien technology.
"I like to think of [Debethune] as aliens who captured Abraham-Louis Breguet, cloned him twenty times, putting them to work in a spaceship somewhere above Switzerland with their alien technology."
[laughs] Woah, that’s a trippy thought. They hold a huge amount of patents for a lot of these creations right?
Yes, I believe so. I’ve got a lot of love for their approach. Even the ‘simple’ things they do, like the way they blue steel and titanium. They’ve become absolute masters of blueing; sometimes you find that even the simple things can be equally captivating.
We had the pleasure of watching them blue half of a spherical moonphase at the manufacture last month, it was quite breathtaking to see happen live…
Is that a single piece or what? how do they do it?
It’s two halves of different metals, which react at different temperatures. It’s ‘simple’ but utterly fascinating, though we digress. Are there any others that spring to mind that you feel deserve the spotlight?
Definitely, I think what Andreas Strehler is very interesting, although the design of his watches didn't initially do it for me. I’ve become obsessed with his wheels and ratios. The man is a genius. I call him the gear king, because he can deliver gear ratios which can create the worlds most accurate moonphase. These delicate, thinly spoked wheels are a signature of his. A lot of these brands have manufacturing signatures which you just don’t see with some of the larger brands.
Ryan Schmidt, author of The Wristwatch Handbook
Would you say that you’re more technically driven when choosing watches you like?
I’m a bit of both, to be honest. I would always react immediately on the aesthetics, but I’ve learned to never dismiss a watch, even if you don’t initially like the design of it. I now try to understand what’s really going on technically before completely making up my mind on a watch. There are many examples of watches which initially did nothing for me, but after understanding them in more detail, became watches I now adore.
Any examples spring to mind?
Absolutely, F.P. Journe is a good example. From the hands, right down to the ropes on the crown, something about them didn’t satisfy my tastes when I first came across the brand. However, I’m now completely obsessed with them and lust after a Chronometré Bleu. With some research, you can understand why he uses each and every technique or design choice. The new Zenith Oscillator is another good example.
The reaction has been polarising to say the least, what’s your take?
It's amazing, but it has been presented and packaged in an unsurprisingly loud way, given that Jean-Claude Biver is behind it; this increasingly familiar format of lugs and open worked dial, along with this wild oscillator which takes up the full diameter of the baseplate. It’s such a violent looking action that people are immediately turned off the technology as a result of its presentation. I’m not going to be one of the ten guys that actually buy one of these things, but I’m not writing it off, and want to fully understand what’s going on there. Mostly because this will begin to be packaged differently in the future, at which point, this hyperbolic marketing speech may have serious relevance.
As silicon components become more cost efficient, maybe there will be a crossover to where these become viable at the lower end of the market and actually do revolutionise things…
I think that’s exactly what’s happening, and you need a company like Zenith that can produce such vast volumes to forge the template. The argument against these types of technologies always comes back to what happens if the brand goes out of business, which, if Zenith went under in two years time, you will probably be screwed. However, if they sell well over the next ten years, you might find that these types of parts become open sourced, and can literally be manufactured by watchmakers, should the technology become that cost effective.
With all this talk of smart-watches, what do you make of the industry right now?
I think it’s interesting, as the bottom end of the market has completely given way and exploded into a place where you can find reputable and complicated mechanical watches for reasonable sums. We’re seeing more in-house manufacture coming from places outside of Switzerland and then you’re seeing an abundance of Kickstarter brands saturating the lowest end of the market. These lower end brands are under a great deal of threat from the smart-watch industry, as you can pick them at the same price point. The high end brands will remain mostly unaffected by this, in my opinion.
So how did the book come about?
The book is the manifestation of ten years of obsessing over watches, that I couldn’t buy, as I’m a father of two and mustn’t take my responsibilities lightly. I had gotten to the point where I had planned on pulling the trigger on some watches, but my wife said, “look, if you’re going to buy watches like this whenever you feel like it, you need to create some additional income”. She’s the CFO of the family [laughs].
The De Bethune DB29 Maxichrono Tourbillon monopusher chronograph as featured in Ryan Schmidt's The Wristwatch Handbook
Then one night in May 2015, I sat up in bed and said, “I’ve got it, I’m going to write a book about watches”. This allowed me to exercise my interest and potentially create a new revenue stream, with which, all of it could be ploughed into buying watches. The latter part I’m still working on.
[laughs] And what was the next step?
I started writing and by the time I hit around 25,000 words, I realised I had a pretty good skeleton to start pitching to publishers. I knew how it would look visually, so I pieced together a glossy presentation and now here we are.
What was the goal?
I had seen a handful of really good, but really dry technical books which are highly coveted by watchmakers and the occasional adventurous watch geek. I had also seen these beautifully designed coffee table books which are gorgeous, but when you start to dig, there aren’t quite as many words as you would maybe hope for. I felt that there was a mismatch between content and visual presentation, so I thought, here’s a gap I can fill. By the time I was done writing, I think the thing could have easily been 800 pages, so it was fortunate that it went off to an editor to be trimmed up. But then the painful process of sourcing all the imagery from around 90 brands began. It was at this point that I realised, this is why this book doesn’t exist yet.
"I had also seen these beautifully designed coffee table books which are gorgeous, but when you start to dig, there aren’t quite as many words as you would maybe hope for. I felt that there was a mismatch between content and visual presentation, so I thought, here’s a gap I can fill."
That sounds like a hell of a lot of emailing…
Oh gosh, I was up every morning before work to catch Switzerland while they were awake, stop for lunch and keep pushing because you know they’ll be finishing soon. I would then get home from work and fire off a load more emails so I could wake up to a flood of responses the following morning. It was a gruelling few months. I had the spreadsheet to end all spreadsheets.
Good God. So what do you have in your collection?
I have a very modest collection. I’ve bought only two watches in the past 15 years, one of which I have sold. That was a Bell & Ross, and it’s something I bought in the very early stages of my journey. More recently I bought a vintage Universal Geneve, which I absolutely love. I bought it from a friend, who is a vintage watch dealer; he managed to teach me the joys of vintage. I’ve got my eyes on one of the new sector dialled Jaeger LeCoultre Master Control, for my next purchase. That will sneak into the collection in the next few months.
Finally, what can we expect in the coming months and years from you?
Definitely another book. I’m in discussions with my publisher about a couple of different projects that I have in mind. But there is another project that I’d like to tackle, however, it will require a sabbatical from my current job, so that’s on the back burner for a few more years. I would think the next book will hit shelves in 2019. I’m not a watch guy by day, so I have to remain diligent to satisfy two or three masters.
Kind of like a horological Batman…
[laughs] Yes, exactly like that.