When Dunhill asked watch enthusiast and writer Tom Bolt to design its latest collection of watches, he turned to the brand’s heritage for inspiration. Watch journalist Ken Kessler discovers how this collaboration led to a collection of timepieces that encompass a touch of retro, genuine watch values, fashion and a little bit of novelty, all neatly mixed with a dash of Britishness and the Dunhill essence.
Tom Bolt’s enthusiasm for both wristwatches and for his employer, Dunhill, is so overpowering his speech gets tangled up due to eagerness. Keen to share collector’s lore and arcane, Bolt behaves more like a purist enthusiast than one who earns a living from watches. This watch maven is horologically inclined to his marrow.
Bolt, who is only 37, cut his teeth in the world of vintage watch dealing before the boom started to peak. With a reputation built on a solid background in buying and selling – he operates from www.thewatchguru.co.uk – as well as a sideline in watch journalism, Bolt understands the mind of a new and increasingly important type of watch consumer: the knowledgeable devotee.
Delving into the archives It was to Bolt that Dunhill turned when its range needed a sharp kick up the backside, despite Bolt having no training as a designer. Asked, then, what it was about him, beyond years in the vintage watch trade, that made hime a good “fit” for Dunhill, he recalls his first meeting with Dunhill chief executive Simon Critchell.
“I came to Dunhill basically with the idea of a franchise – retailing vintage watches. After a few meetings, Simon asked me what I thought of their current watches. I said, in words not as polite as this, ‘I don’t like them’. He laughed, but then asked if I would look through their archives. I did – they were quite in-depth. I came back and talked to Simon about it, and we just hit it off with what he believed was the way forward.”
It was Bolt’s knowledge of vintage watches and of Dunhill itself that encouraged him: “I thought Jeremy Beadle was going to jump out because I was thinking this is the actual core of what [Dunhill] is about . . . let’s go.”
Bolt and Critchell are clearly on the same wavelength. Without any sense of deference or embarrassment, Bolt offers: “I think Simon Critchell is a brilliant man, a shrewd guy. He knows his onions.” As a team, the two have managed to breathe new life into a line of watches with a staid image, and in record time.
“People had come to me in the past, those watch brands just starting up, and asked if I fancied doing something. But I was too busy making money with Watch Guru to want to have a go. But Dunhill somehow caught my passion – going back into the archives and learning about Alfred Dunhill. Something within me said something could be done here.”
Transforming the brand Bolt hit the right note, deftly juggling just the right amount of retro, genuine watch values, fashion, novelty and what he calls “the Dunhill essence.” “To me, the fun is getting the essence and transferring it to the watches. Take, for example, Chanel’s J12. I would no sooner wear a J12 than I would my mum’s underwear. But I have to say the J12 is a superb example – the definitive example – of extracting the branding and putting it into a watch. And I take my had off to whoever’s done it because it’s one of the finest examples of that I’ve ever seen.”
Bolt acknowledges that the watch press responded favourably to the “new Dunhill”, but its still early days with the trade. I particular, there was the inevitable lag between trade shows and actual product shipments. But Bolt is optimistic. “This only started 22 months ago, literally going from evaluating what was wrong, putting it right, then doing some designs, to getting it out. And bear in mind that at SIHH we were selling them to people we haven’t even delivered the first collection to yet.”
But Bolt also knows, having observed the trials of other brands attempting rebirths, that it’s tougher to relaunch a brand after a fallow period than it is to establish one with a clean slate. “In the short-term, of course, you’re going to have a problem with certain people’s views being, ‘Dunhill – do me a favour, get them out of here. Not a watch company’. But I think that once they’re given the breathing space, the time to work, the truth always wins out. I don’t mean that arrogantly. I just mean that the watches are good, and I think they’re going to work.”
As an outsider who understood watches, Bolt had to learn about and apply Dunhill values to timepieces that would be competing in a hotly contested area. The new collection offers watches at price points that range from upper-level TAG Heuers to entry-level Rolexes.
Bolt was adamant the Dunhills be “real watches”, with appeal to buyers fitting a couple of major profiles. On the one hand, they had to exhibit the Britishness of Dunhill, while on the other, they had to be what Bolt calls “truthful” in horological terms. “Here’s how I look at it. I’ll wear, say, a vintage Patek Philippe stainless steel 1463 screw-back chronograph worth £120,000 on my wrist. But I’ll also wear a watch that costs £1,500 and to me it absolutely doesn’t matter.
What matters is the watch is truthful and it has intrinsic value. There are lots of watches out there, but many have no value. I am confident these [Dunhills] have already retained value.”
With rapid-fire delivery, Bolt cites numerous details about the various models in the new line-up tht ensure they won’t be written off by enthusiasts as mere badge carriers for Dunhill. The movements are, for most of the range, mechanical, with dedicated features including such firsts as a rotating bezel that exposes or retracts the buttons on the chronograph. The cases are beautifully made and robust. And the look combines retro and modern with seamlessness on a par with the style of the new Mini.
Humorous touches The watches also reflect Bolt’s sense of humour. It is wry, terribly British, and you have to marvel at his naming watches Bobbyfinder or Citytamer. While a boon for British retailers, isn’t there a danger this will be lost on non-English-speaking consumers or those devoid of irony?
“That was important to me. Take the Petrolhead with the petrol gauge – it’s like the analogy of the Patek 1463. If you took the 1463 in steel to someone that knows a bit about watches, and it was banged up and you asked £3,000 for it, they’d think you were crazy. They’d say ‘no, it’s steel and it’s old’. Yet why is it billionaires will wear a steel 1463 with an F&B case, but won’t wear a West end Watch Company with the same case maker? Because one ‘is’ and one ‘isn’t’. It doesn’t matter no-else knows – they know.”
So, too, the authenticity of the Petrolhead. “The Petrolhead has a decent movement, it’s built in the proper way, decent construction, and that for me is the reason you can have fun with it, even if it goes over someone’s head.” It’s OK with Bolt if someone buys the watch because it’s a Dunhill, as much as because it’s a good watch. “But,” he adds, “what I’d like to see down the line, is the watches I’ve created trading for a fair value. Then my work’s done.”
BOLT ON . . .
ESCALATING PRICES: “To me, a watch isn’t worth what it retails for in the store – a watch is worth what you can go out and get for it.”
“NAME DESIGNERS: “I think that it’s strange to get a designer [from another discipline] to have a go at designing watches because to me, the most basic, fundamental importance for any watch is a spirit and a truth. And I personally believe that unless you know watches, you can’t get that.”
BEING A WATCH CONSULTANT: “If someone came to me and said, ‘hey, we think you should have a go at this new watch line that we have’, I don’t think I could. I have to be inspired. I don’t think I would be any good just doing this as a job.”
DUNHILL’S HUMOROUS APPROACH TO DESIGN: “I believe watches can be fun as long as they are what they purport to be. But this is as long as the fun isn’t masking the seriousness of the watch.”
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Like the reintroduction of the Mini motorcar over a decade ago, this reinterpretation of Big Pilot by IWC is better than the original. This 1st series Platinum example is of course the top of the top.