February 7, 2016
Welcome back to an original aBlogtoWatch feature, “My First Grail Watch.” In this series, we ask prominent people in the watch industry about the first timepiece that they lusted after. Today, we are speaking with aBlogtoWatch’s own Mark Carson who, along with writing for the site, also owns and operates his own micro-brand of watches.aBlogtoWatch (ABTW): Who are you, and what is your relationship to the watch industry?
Mark Carson: Nobody really, just a guy who had a drawing for a watch back in 2009; things got out of hand from there. Not knowing any better, I pursued getting my watch design produced and, instead of making just the one piece I wanted for myself, I ended up as a micro-brand. Along the way, I became aware of aBlogtoWatch (née aBlogtoRead) and submitted some watches for review in late 2012. My first contribution to ABTW was a post before that (July 2012) on how to operate a slide rule on a watch.
These days, I mostly do the retailer interview series on aBlogtoWatch along with what are probably far too many comments on virtually all of the posted content. In 2013, I bulldozed my way into tagging along with Ariel and James Stacey at BaselWorld. Inside access to the world’s greatest watch show is like being the proverbial kid in a candy store. I keep going back, and it’s nice to make new friends and see old ones each year. Plus, it’s a treat to meet the true greats of haute horology and getting to strap on their masterpieces ever so briefly.
ABTW: When did your fascination with watches start?
Mark Carson: I had a normal person’s interest in watches prior to 2009. I had a few Seikos, Casio calculator watches since they came out decades ago, a Movado museum watch, a Chinese tourbillon, etc. Nothing special, really. But with my 2009 watch design as the ignition point, I immersed myself into the world of watches and life has not been the same since. So much to learn, so little time!
ABTW: What was your first grail watch?
Mark Carson: In my “normal person” life it was a 1975 Pulsar P4 LED watch.
ABTW: What drew you to this particular watch?
Mark Carson: It was high tech and stylish in that 1970s kind of way.
ABTW: Was there ever a time in your life when you could afford it – and if so, did you get it?
Mark Carson: Yes, after lusting over it at a local jewelry shop in Des Moines for many, many months, I finally broke down and got it around 1976. It really was too expensive for what I was making at the time, so I had to save up and mostly justify to myself why I thought I deserved it despite my poverty. I later bought the ladies model for my first wife. How cute, his and hers Pulsars!
ABTW: Are those watches still part of your watch box today?
Mark Carson: They disappeared long ago (after no doubt languishing for a new battery). I do wish I had kept it.
ABTW: Since your “Awakening,” what was your first grail watch?
Mark Carson: Without hesitation, it’s the watch the blew my mind the first time I saw it in a watch magazine. In a word, “Freak” (the Ulysse Nardin Freak, that is).
ABTW: Ah, yes – that one certainly does capture the imagination. What drew you to this particular watch?
Mark Carson: The unique construction approach and the sheer (and oh so visible) mechanicalness (is that a word?) of it. Elegant and so unique-looking. A gear-head’s wet dream.
ABTW: I don’t know if that is a word, but it is one now. Given that inspiring language, inquiring minds want to know – have you been able to acquire one?
Mark Carson: The Ulysse Nardin Freak is still far beyond my watch means and, when you come down to it, I will probably never own one. Every time I get a few bucks of revenue from my watch sales, I just plow it back into more watch parts. But I still have a grail list which also includes the Patek Phillipe Nautilus (my favorite of the Gerald Genta 1970s designs) and the Arnold & Son Time Pyramid, among many others.
ABTW: We know you haven’t gotten your ultimate grail, the Freak. Have any others from your list slipped through your fingers?
Mark Carson: In 2012, I almost pulled the trigger on a TAG Jack Heuer Limited Edition Carrera 80. I only “let it get away” because I was trying to get it for a discount which it turned out was not going to happen. Probably just as well, I could not really afford it then either, as I was putting discretionary funds into launching my line of watches.
ABTW: You mentioned how your perception and understanding of watches changed. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Mark Carson: My appreciation of watches has changed dramatically since 2009 when I started to dig into watches. The more I knew about mechanical watches, the more fascinating it became. In the old days, I considered the choice between quartz and an automatic to be simply a toss up of having to set the time on a watch I don’t wear daily versus getting a battery change done every few years (back in the days before I did it myself). I saw the fundamental difference between quartz and mechanical only in terms of convenience.
As a lover of technology I certainly did not approach quartz negatively. But as a car guy, when I started to get watches with exhibition backs, my love of the machinery began to push quartz watches into the realm of useful but not as interesting. My decision to use automatic movements in my line of watches only pushed me deeper into wanting to really know how mechanical watches worked. The escapement was such a baffling concept in those days – and still an almost magical invention to this day.
ABTW: And how has that changed your ideas around grail watches?
Mark Carson: My grail watch list evolves every year as I see what is new at BaselWorld and also what is covered throughout the year on aBlogtoWatch. Some watches, like De Bethune, are so impressive in person that you become a huge fan once you have actually seen them and had the pleasure to put them on your wrist. And I love to see the new watches from the AHCI (independents) like the Gronefeld brothers, Kari Voutilainen and Stepan Sarpaneva each year. So my grail list is an ever changing wish list.
In the end, perhaps the best grail watch is one you design yourself and are lucky enough to produce and wear. So I have a lot to be thankful for in that department.