Welcome back to an original aBlogtoWatch feature, “My First Grail Watch.” In this series, we ask prominent people about the first timepiece that they lusted after. Today, we’re speaking with Jonathan Ward, the CEO of ICON Automotive. You might be wondering why we’re talking with a car guy – but you’ll find that he’s quite the watch guy as well, even going so far as to pair watches to his automotive designs.
aBlogtoWatch (ABTW): Who are you, and what is your relationship to the watch industry?
Jonathan Ward (JW): I am the lead designer and CEO of a niche automotive brand called ICON. At ICON, we revisit vintage transportation designs in a modern context. So in a nutshell, we take vintage vehicles and infuse them with modern engineering to breathe new life into them, as modern daily drivers.
My relationship with the watch industry is purely as an outsider and a consumer, although I have been to the Basel show and aspire to be in the business one day (that said, the monopolistic nature of the Swiss watch industry is scary!)
ABTW: Planning to get into the business must mean there’s a passion. When did your fascination with watches start?
JW: Ever since I was a little kid. I remember getting a Citizen red LED watch for Xmas when I was seven, and thinking I was way cool. Also, my dad always had cool watches I admired. When visiting my grandparents, the best adventure was always to hunt around in the attic of their old farmhouse – tons of neat old stuff up there.
One day, I found an old Gruen up there. It turned out it was my grandfather’s, a gift from his dad when in high school. So I took it back to LA and had it restored as a gift for their fiftieth anniversary.
ABTW: That’s a great family find, and one I’m sure was cherished. How about yourself? What was your first grail watch?
JW: When I was a kid living in NYC, I was fascinated by all the watch and electronics stores, and I used to drive them all nuts peeking in the window and wasting the time of the salespeople. When the Seiko Data 2000 came out in 1983, I had to have it.
I thought I was pretty clever using it to cheat a bit in school, because the teachers were not up to speed with the available technology. I saved up by grabbing anything of value in my apartment building trash room. Things like old boob boxes (aka televisions), which I would diagnose, fix, and then resell. Took a while, but I finally got it!
ABTW: What drew you to this particular watch?
JW: It was out of this world, super high tech!
ABTW: That Casio is obviously a very gadgety (and digital) watch. Given your auto designs reflect an earlier time period, have your tastes in watches changed since that first grail?
JW: Since then, my watch tastes have gone more analog, and mostly focus on more classic designs and industrial processes. Things like porcelain dials, guilloche process… love it. I am fascinated how the watch industry, in a time where watches have become something none of us need anymore, have managed to prevail. They even manage to flourish by constant advances in process, material, and design. The art is in the details
ABTW: Sounds like you have a real appreciation for those details. How is this reflected in your own collection?
JW: I am totally out of control – my watch habit exceeds my income! Right now, I have 44. To fund the addiction, I resell leftover parts from my projects on the weekends. I have always respected Urwerk, and a few years ago was able to buy a 101, which I cherish. Past that particular watch, I really just seem to have a penchant for jump hours, regulators, world time designs, etc.
In general, I am more inclined to buy a niche (or independent) brand than a status watch. I prefer it when people only notice or comment on my watch when they appreciate it because of the design, not the price. I switch out my watches daily, and wear everything from $150 vintage or modern watches, up through to the high end pieces.
I just have had to learn not to weld with my watch on! I have a titanium Breguet Transatlantique Type XXI Flyback [hands-on here] and a Bell & Ross Space One, both with welding slag zits on them – whoops.
ABTW: Well, that certainly is one way to make the watch your own! It sounds like you’ve got quite the extensive range – is there a watch that’s been “the one that got away”?
JW: I always wanted an OMEGA “Bullhead” CHRONOGRAPH [hands-on here], Caliber OMEGA 930 manual winding, REF. 1460011. When they were running $3-4000, I was on the fence. Now they run $10-14K, and I missed the opportunity!
ABTW: Earlier, I asked if your watch tastes more closely aligned to your automotive work these days. To flip that around, how does your watch collection/collecting influence your vehicle designs?
JW: In the details: finishes, materials, fit & finish, tactile values, and tones. I draw inspiration from the attention to details. On our FJ series, our gauge cluster and glovebox for designs were clearly directly inspired by the Bell & Ross BR01 series.
ABTW: That’s great you can work those details in. Let’s take a step back and consider the whole vehicle – if you were going to pair “the” watch for each of your lines, what do you think they would be?
JW: For the FJ, it would be the Bell & Ross BR03-92 Phantom. We were in discussions with the team at Bell and Ross about designing a pairing, but they never followed through, unfortunately. I was really looking forward to that!
For the CJ, I’d go with the Kobold Soarway GMT, and the BR line I’d say the Hautlence HL-08; for the TR series, the perfect watch would be the Jaquet Droz GRANDE SECONDE METEORITE (either in white gold or titanium).
That leaves me with just our Derelict vehicles, which are a unique range of their own. For those, I think some of the repurposed pocket watches from Doughboy would be ideal.
ABTW: Given your passion for watches, and your manufacturing experience, do you think we’ll see an ICON-branded watch in the future?
JW: ICON, as I mentioned, is all about revisiting classic designs in a modern context. Long term, as our brand reputation grows, I really want to either collaborate with one of the great watch brands, or establish my own, to create a watch line for ICON. I have spent a bit of time researching and designing. I also have a crystal clear vision on the theme, packaging, and logo. Oh, and a handful of designs already! So, to answer your question: all in due time. I would see it as a great honor should I be able to realize that aspiration!