Dunhill has launched a exciting range of watches aimed squarely at the motoring enthusiast. Simon de Burton meets Tom Bolt, Dunhill’s watch designer, and finds that cars and bikes are his first loves.
The twinkle in Tom Bolt’s eye is visible from 100 yards as I cruise towards his idyllic country home on one of Triumph’s almost cartoon-like Rocket III motorcycles. There’s barely time to flick out the sidestand before Bolt takes my place at the controls, guns the 2.3 litre motor and disrespectfully invokes the bike’s 147lb ft of torque to smoke the Rocket’s £200 rear tyre back down his driveway.
‘Yes, thought he’d be a nutter,’ says Chrono photographer and Advanced Motorcycle Instructor Mykel Nicolau. Motorcycle burn-outs and rude-looking, fat-arched Bentley Continentals aren’t what you’d usually associate with the calm world of horological design – but it’s precisely because Bolt is unusual that Dunhill employed him to inject some high-octane excitement into its previously rather staid wristwatch range.
Since he began working with the luxury goods firm in 2003, Bolt has developed a fresh, innovative and witty Dunhill watch collection, which includes models with such intriguing names as the Bobby Finder, the City Fighter and the Car Watch. Also due to be unveiled at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva are the Petrolhead and Pressurehead versions of Bolt’s unique Dunhill Wheelwatch, the case of which was inspired by a knock-on wire wheel spinner. Keen on cars, then? ‘Yes,’ replies Bolt. ‘But I’ve only really become interested in them – and bought the Bentley – since I began working with Dunhill and learning all about the Motorities story by looking through the firm’s archives.
‘Until then it was mainly motorcycles, which I’ve been riding since the age of about eight. I was a schoolboy motocross racer and never lost the bug. Dirt bikes, road bikes – I love them all and have owned more than 40, from tricked-out Harleys to my current Triumph Daytona.’ The son of author and screenplay writer Robert Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago, A Man for all Seasons, minor stuff like that) and actress Sarah Miles (Ryan’s Daughter, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines etc), Bolt had a somewhat unusual upbringing.
His parents split when he was five and he ended up living between ultra-chic Beverley Hills and rural Devon, attending 12 schools and moving between 18 different houses by the time he was a teenager.
‘I never wanted to be an actor, because it was too close to what my parents did, but I was always mad on music and ended up playing bass guitar in Soho clubs when I was 13. That lasted until the time when I was so wasted that I had to be carried on stage, which just happened to be the night my grandmother had come to see me.’ Bolt is quite open about the fact that his unorthodox upbringing and involvement in the music scene of the 1970s and ‘80s resulted in a serious narcotics habit (heroin at 15…) but he gave all that up almost 20 years ago and hasn’t touched drink or drugs since the age of 18.
‘Ironically, I’ve never actually had a drink since I’ve been legally old enough to buy one,’ says Bolt.
‘It might have been a different story, because when I was 21 I was offered the chance to play guitar alongside Topper Heddon, the famous Clash drummer. We really gelled musically, but I just didn’t want to et back into that dangerous scene. I sold all my instruments and studio equipment, left music behind and decided to try and earn a living out of wristwatches.’ Some might call that case of going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but wristwatches have been another of Bolt’s passions since early childhood.
‘I think it all started when I was about six and saw the 1973 Bond film Live and Let Die, where Roger Moore wore a Rolex Submariner fitted with a buzz saw which he used to save himself from a shark pool – and an ultra-powerful magnet which he used to unzip Jane Seymour’s dress. ‘A bit later, my dad turned up in his Triumph Stag and he was wearing a Rolex. He gave me a Timex – I knew they weren’t quite the same, but mine had a rotating bezel so it was good enough for me,’ recalls Bolt. From small beginnings in the early 1990s, Bolt has built up an internationally respected, high-end watch business called The Watch Guru, which operates mainly through word of mouth and a sophisticated internet site.
He deals in modern pieces priced from as little as £500, vintage watches by Rolex and other brands and, of course, more expensive, complicated models costing up to £80,000. ‘It was a steady business to begin with, but the past seven years – since wristwatches really began to capture people’s imagination – have been absolutely phenomenal. When it took off I was about the only person operating this type of business, so I was in at ground level, which is always good.
‘People’s enthusiasm for the subject is extraordinary. A guy arrived the other day in an immaculate turbo-bodied Porsche 993 to see a 1958 Milgauss that I had in stock. I told him I didn’t want to sell it outright, but he ended up taking a half-share in the watch in exchange for the Porsche. Watches stir up that sort of passion.’
Bolt came to design the Dunhill watch range entirely by chance, having approached the firm’s CEO, Simon Critchell, to see if he would display some vintage Watch Guru pieces in Dunhill stores.
‘His response was to ask me to use my knowledge of watches to do something better, He gave me access to the archive and I immediately saw that Dunhill had a great name for timepieces which needed reviving, and then I got the go-ahead to start designing.
‘Simon just had the nerve to go out on a limb. It’s rare to find someone in corporate life who is willing to do that – it is just a great project to be involved with and I enjoy it hugely.’
As much as a burn-up on the bike or a cruise in the Bentley?
‘Well, be realistic…’
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