“Well I hate to ruin the watch further for you but…” said Cullen hesitantly as he held my Seiko SPB PADIMAS.
Given that the topic of discussion was manufacturer variances and how every Seiko SPB that I had encountered in the wild had something wrong with it, I had to know what else was wrong with my particular watch.
“By all means, what’s wrong with it?”
“Well, the bezel is misaligned from the entire case to the left.” As soon as Cullen pointed this out, I could see it from across the table and instantly started laughing.
“Why is it always to the left?” Wes asked looking at his business partner and life long friend.
Starting a new watch company in a world where such mechanical devices are obsolete and in an industry as challenging as it is today is not an easy feat. As Cullen and Wes just showed, they had an attention to detail and vast industry knowledge which dwarfed that of regular watch enthusiasts. This gave me a sense of relief for when ever we meet people who are making their own way in an industry that we are passionate about, we tend to get behind their efforts and do our best to support them. While on their east coast tour where they were to meet several enthusiasts and customers from Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Boston, Wes and Cullen carried themselves with a gravity and purpose that gave an impression of two young men that are much older.
While at their brief stay in Toronto, the two gentlemen behind Nodus, Cullen Chen and Wesley Kwok, were kind enough to answer some questions regarding their watches and their approach. I highly recommend that you bookmark their site and follow their blog for it is informative on a level that is rare when it comes to this industry and its inner workings.
And as you can see, not only do Wes and Cullen make fine watches, but they are good writers as well. Below Wes answered some of my questions giving a greater insight into their work and where they see their exciting company heading in the near future.
FWA: Speak about your design process and how it plays between you two. Both of you have a strong music background where teamwork and playing off of each others ideas is key. Do both of you sit down together and work through brainstorming sessions, or does one of you specialize in a field in particular that allows you two to work autonomously in certain aspects of the design process?
Wes: I’m glad you brought up our previous experience working together. Cullen and I started playing music together pretty much within the first week of meeting each other, so while we definitely learned how to work better with each other over the years, there was something very natural and special about our friendship and eventual business-partnership right from the get-go. The design process for our watches is actually not unlike our writing process for music. We each have our opinions and ideas and some of them work better than others, but having a history of working together has made it easier for us to challenge the each others’ ideas in a way that isn’t offensive and helps build a better overall product. Every design usually starts with a very general concept such as a “dressy dive watch,” or a “cushion case” or a “sport watch for travelers”. From there, we bring up a bunch of examples of watches that fit that criteria just to get some inspiration. For example, the Contrail was heavily inspired by the Sinn 104, Seiko SARB, and Rolex Explorer, yet looks vastly different from all three. We’ve always been good at working autonomously and have divided up much of the day-to-day responsibilities pretty well, but the one aspect of running Nodus that we always insist on doing while physically together is the design process, simply because we go through hundreds of different possible iterations of the design, which can be pretty time-consuming. We stay away from catalogue parts due to the limitations that come with it, and frankly it feels kind of lazy. Microbrands already get a bad rap for “putting a bunch of catalogue parts together” but that couldn’t be further from the truth with us. We really enjoy having a fully blank canvas when we design.
FWA: On your new release the Contrail, you decided to have a very interesting dial texture treatment on two “Sand” variants of the four. What brought you to this eye catching texture, and how did you achieve the stunning outcome?
Wes: It was a tough decision for us, as we know that textured dials are pretty divisive. However, without the texture, it felt a little bit “empty”. Sandpaper texture is one I’ve always loved because in some lighting conditions, it replicates the patina on many vintage pieces, but is still very much its own thing. When we finally saw all the watches in their entirety, we knew that we had to keep it on the Laguna Sand and Black Sand. With the Ballistic Green and Mute Gray however, they both had their own unique strong identities, and we didn’t feel like either one needed the textured dial.
In order to achieve the texture, we manufacture the dials as a smooth matte dial then put it through a textured press to stamp the texture into the dial.
FWA: On your blog you go into detail about homage watch brands and the merits of such pieces. To my eyes the Trieste and the Contrail are not homages for they incorporate many design aspects from various influences and seamlessly fuse them into a distinct watch, where as the Retrospect’s influences can be more easily identified from a distance. Do you see Nodus doing more homages in line with say the Relative Homages such as the Halios Puck/Seiko Tuna, closer homages that are arguably harder to make your own, or something more distinct and different from anything on the market down the line?
Wes: Well, we were watch-lovers before watch-entrepreneurs. Despite the fact that we own our own watch brand, we still have a large collection of other brands (yes, even other micros), and love wearing them just as much. Because of the rate at which our collections change, it is very hard to not incorporate some design inspiration into our own pieces. I feel that in order to properly do an homage would mean that instead of starting with a blank canvas, we would have to take a much more scientific approach, starting with a pre-existing design and tweaking things from there instead of starting with a totally blank canvas. Designing watches is definitely an art and as long as we see it that way, it allows us to stick to our guns when making design choices. While we have tremendous respect for people that do homages properly (which is actually an incredibly hard thing to do), we don’t see ourselves going down that path, as we want to maintain our creative autonomy. We will likely not be making any direct homage, but obviously, our designs pull influence from others and will continue to do so, as almost every other watch in existence does.
FWA: Most people who react harshly towards homage pieces are usually not that involved or enthusiastic about the watch industry to know the difference between homages and straight copies.
If seated in front of one of these people, how would you explain the differences between the two and describe the strengths of a well made homage watch?
Wes: I’ve noticed that most of the collectors that have strong opinions about homages tend to be newer collectors. I feel that as they learn more about different brands as well as their own tastes, they’ll come to appreciate homages. To be honest, I haven’t really seen any valid argument against homages, especially as I learn more about this industry.
I think in regards to a well-made homage, it always comes down to intent and mission. For instance, a brand called MKII makes, in my opinion, the best homages in the market. Bill (owner of MKII) not only stresses about the quality and perfection of his product, but also his design. He always gets the proportions down perfectly. Always. He sets out to create the perfect homage to specific references and has done an incredible job of capturing the same flare that many of those references did. You can read more about his intent behind founding MKII on his website’s blog. MKII obviously had a mission when the brand started, and they have never wavered from it. I can’t say the same for some other brands. But again, this is just the watch-collector in me speaking, and I want to stress the importance of forming your own opinions by researching and demoing.
In general, I think that well-made homages are the ones that have a specific mission and intent, while the mediocre homages tend to be more confused and misguided. Again, this is only something you can learn if you handle the watches or do the research.
Being on the inside, I can’t help but be slightly biased as well, as I know when a watch uses catalogue parts and when it doesn’t, and that fact alone definitely has an effect on my opinion. The less it is about creativity and artistry, the more it seems to be about business and profit, and that always steers me away.
FWA: Given that your market and clientele are primarily watch enthusiasts, what has been the biggest challenge in pleasing this group? First with regards to the watches themselves, and second to reaching such an enthusiastic group.
Wes: The thing about design and quality is that it is always subjective. Every single collector looks for something different in their watches whether its a design choice or quality. The best and worst part about such an enthusiastic and passionate market is that they tend to have very strong opinions that are hard to sway. Some people like smaller watches, others like larger ones; some like bright colors, others like black and grays; some people care about tight bezel action, while others care more about lume brightness. No brand has ever successfully built a watch that has everything that is perfect for everyone; and if we try to please everyone, we will end up pleasing no one.
In regards to quality, I always say that microbrands have it hardest because we have to work twice as hard for half the reward. I believe this is true because for the most part, none of us have any history to back up our product. The only “story” we can tell is about our passion and love for the art and hobby. That being said, we take pride in our quality standards. For each piece that goes out, we aim to make sure the standard is about at least neck and neck with mid-tier luxury brands such as Oris and Sinn. We even went so far to have product from our factories tested by the same quality control teams as higher end Swiss brands.
With design it is a little bit tougher to distill down into words why people react the way they do to certain designs. There is a certain “magic” that certain designs have had for me, such as the Halios Seaforth and the Monta Triumph, just to name a couple. Every time we start with a blank canvas, we aim to capture that secret sauce. I wish I could explain in words what it is, but unfortunately, I have no idea how to. You just know if it’s there or if it isn’t. There are countless designs that we have worked on for months and completed then dropped because we didn’t feel like it had that certain “spark”.
Part of our brand’s mission was/is to be accessible. Obviously a large part of that is pricing, value and quick fulfillment, but another very important aspect of being “accessible” is offering variety. While we don’t want to subject our clientele to decision fatigue, we definitely want to offer a bit of something for everyone, at least from a design standpoint. Our first model, the Trieste, was a dressy diver, the Retrospect appeals to the vintage-lovers, the Contrail is designed for world travelers, the Avalon is designed to take a serious beating. Without getting too deep into design choices, since that is what our blog is for, we always stress the importance of starting with a specific concept and sticking to it. Whatever happens after that is up to the market and whether or not the magic we felt is also felt by them.
Lastly, I don’t see our marketing as very traditional. We obviously have paid placements on different platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, which certainly helps get our name out. We have a pretty well-optimized site, as I did SEO before Nodus. But none of the more traditional marketing stuff is nearly as important as being an integral part of the community. That is why we are so active on Instagram, travel around meeting different communities around the world, and spend so much time emailing, DM-ing, and chatting on WhatsApp/Messenger with customers and watch enthusiasts. There is something to be said about how tightly-knit this community is, especially on Instagram and WUS, and when we can talk about this passion to other people as human beings rather than just customers, it makes this whole thing more fun for both us and our customers. We care less about “selling” our product and more about becoming a part of the community. That is ultimately what this hobby is all about after all.
FWA: What has the feedback been regarding the blog section of your website? It is extremely informative as to the inner workings of your field and the challenges you face. Do you see yourselves potentially growing this section of your website to more than just an informative view of your business?
Maybe some more commentary on the industry, or maybe some articles on guitars?
Wes: Absolutely! I have always really enjoyed writing, but in the past, have never really had an outlet to do so. As we grew Nodus, and continue to do so, we have seen the amount of misinformation out in the market that is disseminated either by brands, collectors, or entire countries (Swiss Made, haha), and understandably so; this is not exactly a technologically-innovative industry, so the only way the industry can protect itself is by pulling the wool over the markets’ eyes. Because the arts have played such an integral role in my growth, I have always stressed the importance of authenticity, not only in my musical ventures, but also in my business ventures. Sadly, authenticity and traditional business don’t always get along. Luckily, we are now living in a world where, thanks to the Internet, consumers have easy access to information. The flip side is that it makes it easy for more established brands to bully the little guy out of the market. Because of the amount of smoke and mirrors in the watch industry, we saw it as low-hanging fruit to put out some honest information and insights about how this business is run and how this industry really works, and if the market fought back and called BS on our claims, at least we would know that the market is not yet ready to think differently and outside the box. Thankfully, that has not been the case.
Some of our posts have gotten quite a bit of attention. Unfortunately, some of the things said in those articles were detrimental to the way some other business had been running up until that point and it rubbed them the wrong way. Yet, the response from consumers and followers of the blog has been nothing but positive, and the only thing that we place more priority on than the watches themselves are our customers. Because customers and the market always come first for us, it makes it easy to ignore the backlash we sometimes get from our competition for being honest.
The articles that we’ve written that tend to do the best are the ones that draw parallels between different industries and the watch industry. In most of my writing, I try to create analogues to other hobbies and passions that I have because shifting my perspective in that way tends to help me, and I think other people, see things from a much more credible standpoint. Also, the saying “history has a tendency to repeat itself” definitely holds true, and I would prefer to learn from other more established industries than to make the mistakes they did again. Ultimately, consumers all want the same things in any given product, whether it is a cup, a guitar, a laptop, a phone, or a watch; brands in different industries just have different ways of communicating that value to their customers.
FWA: Given that the progression of your time pieces, from starting with the Treiste that has quite frankly one of the most beautiful hands and hour marker designs as of late across the entire industry, to the Retrospect which elegantly offers a timeless offering that is built tough enough to endure as long as it’s design, to the new Contrail which offers a similar timeless design for the traveller, where do you not only see your overall design legacy for Nodus heading?
Is it by simply offering something different each time by refining your offerings within the dress dive watch arena? Or will there potentially be a day of a Nodus watch such as a dress watch or a chronograph for instance?
Wes: While we understand the importance of “identity” when building a brand, we do feel that it is quite lazy to continue to ride on the success of previous designs over and over again. I mean, the Submariner has been a model for decades, and while they have made amendments to the design many many times, the underlying DNA is the same. Rolex, however, has done a great job of changing just enough of the design to keep the aspects that give it its identity, but change enough of it to refresh the design. Again, artistry plays a very important role in our approach, and while we want to make sure everyone who wants one of our models gets one, we will always try to push for new designs. How boring would it be if our favorite musicians never evolved and every single album they put out had the same sound as each other? Even directors such as Martin Scorsese, who is well-known for his gangster-films, changes his cast, story, and style of videography from film to film. The watch industry is one of the last industries that as a whole is behaving in the very same way it did decades ago. Don’t get me wrong: I am extremely passionate about business and building a brand, but when it comes to watches, design is paramount. It is the first thing that speaks to a customer, before quality and brand.
In terms of our long-term goals, we aim to continue to put out innovative designs at accessible price points. The reason why we started with a huge focus on dive-watches is because that is where our personal tastes sat comfortably. Also, having a watch that isn’t functional and durable seems like a bit of an oxymoron to me. So we will always put “sport” watches out, a.k.a. water-resistant and can take a beating, but we do aim to put out a chronograph, GMT, dress watch, pilot watch, and everything in between eventually. That being said, we don’t want to be limited by the “traditional” genres of watches, and I think the Contrail was our first successful design that ventured a little further from traditional categories. I think you can tell by now, but we always challenge ourselves to think outside the box, which sometimes works against us especially when more traditional and/or closed-minded collectors take a look at our designs, but that isn’t the market segment we are trying to capture anyways.
Time of writing July 6th 2018