Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Few Minutes with Joost Vreeswijk

It's not just anyone who is willing to invest 7 years of their lives and a fair bit of their own money to create a watch. Fewer still who fall in love with a long-gone brand and roll up their sleeves to
revive it.  So I have personally been quite fascinated by the journey that Joost Vreeswijk has made with his re-imagined Lonville brand.  I got a chance to finally lay hands on these beautiful time machines and they are truly special.  But even more interesting was the man behind them.  So now, a few minutes with Joost Vreeswijk -

Tempus Fugit - What was your first watch?  Was it a gift?  Is there a story behind it?

Joost Vreeswijk - I think I have three conscious ‘first’ watches. They all had a different but important influence on me, and they all are tied to an ‘event’.

My first ‘first watch’ occurred when I was a boy at primary school, so about 12 years old or so. I had just about saved up enough money to by a very ‘cool’ quartz watch – it was the thing to have.  My mother then intervened and basically told me “if you buy something, you buy something decent”. In came the indestructible Seiko Sports 100, the one with 4 buttons on the front.  My mum helped me with the missing cash and I was the king.

My second ‘first watch’ was a Seiko diver 200m that I bought with the proceeds from winning the best graduation project at university in 1992. It was a proud moment that I wanted to remember.  I still have that watch and occasionally wear it.  It taught me about an understated way to celebrate a tough personal achievement.  It beats shouting it from the rooftops.

My third ‘first watch’ was 4 years later.  I landed my dream job in London and wanted to reward myself, so I spent all my savings on a Jeager Le Coultre Reverso (steel, Grand Taille).  I had been introduced to Jaeger a few years before by a good friend (Lauran) and it actually ignited my love affair with mechanical watches.

TF - When you were a boy, what did you want to be when you "grew up"?

JV - In my late teens Eric Clapton was the top of the list!  Before that time I was mostly interested in taking technical things apart and putting them back together. Would that make me an engineer?

TF -  Where did you go to school?  What did you study?

JV - I attended the Venlo polytechnic in something called ‘engineer in business logistics’. Today we would call that supply chain management, but in this case it was half engineering and half business-economics.  Not totally useless when facing watch designers and watchmakers!  I later studied for a Masters in Supply Chain and Business in the Cranfield School of Management in the UK.

TF - As you are what some might call an outsider in the watch world, what got you involved in the first place?

JV - A naive love for watches is what got me involved.  For many years I had this desire to design and build my own watch, heavily inspired by the 50s and 60s watches and classic cars – my other passion.  I then stumbled across Lonville through a pocket watch I bought online.  And somehow that triggered me to go on a mad eight year journey to create a watch that somebody like me – a watch enthusiast – would truly love and appreciate.  As you know, the watch industry can be a hostile environment for a pink-glassed dreamer, so it certainly was not easy to be an outsider. At the same time, sometimes being an outsider means you can challenge things easier.

TF - What was the inspiration for the Virage?

JV - My love for 1950s and 60s watches with curved dials and curved hands, applied indexes and the like was a very clear influence on my initial sketches.  The objective was not to be vintage, it was rather to use some of these timeless watch features.

On top of that I wanted a small second hand as an homage to that first Lonville pocket watch.  I then integrated a few design features of historic Lonville watches.  So in many ways Virage is the watch that Lonville never got to make the first time around (as they stopped in the mid 50s).

The ‘fuel tank’ feature is a clear homage to my other passion - classic cars.  This feature was modeled after my 1950s Jaguar's fuel gauge.

TF - What were some of the greatest challenges in getting the Virage designed and made?

JV - You mean why did it take me so many years James?

The first challenge was me.  With no experience in watch making and not a single contact in the industry the learning curve has been exceptional.  Also, don’t forget this was a journey fueled by passion as opposed to a calculated business venture. And, I do actually have a day job too that is pretty demanding.  Getting my full-time colleague Matt involved made a tremendous difference.

Finding high-end suppliers and artisans that are willing to work on such a niche product was another challenge.  When I started this adventure the watch industry was still printing money – so who needed a new entrant that wanted to produce 18 pieces?  Luckily this is where the human side of things comes in. With the tiny Lonville team we have established some great relationships and that has made all the difference.

I designed my watch requirements ahead of having a movement, and then fell in love with a prototype of the beautiful micro-rotor movement that we are now using. In the end that movement needed ‘a couple’ more years of development before it was production ready, had my desired features and was ready to meet the COSC requirements. This was a roller coaster ride and I considered pulling out various times, especially as this has been a self-funded venture.  In the end I am glad I stuck with it.  And the movement is simply mind-blowingly gorgeous.

Another challenge was the introduction of ‘all Swiss’. This is a personal philosophy.  It requires all parts, components, tooling, indexes and the like to be fully designed and made in Switzerland.  In my book this is more ‘how it used to be’ and I wanted to preserve this for Lonville.  There is also something very satisfying and important in working directly with artisans, engineers and watch makers to get the results right. You can’t do that easily with people on the other side of the planet.  We specifically engrave ‘all Swiss’ on all our cases and print it on the dial. I’m very proud of this.

TF - What is it about the Virage that makes it special?

JV - A Virage owner joins the Lonville family and shares the dream of creating something rare and exceptional.  With just 18 pieces per model, you are unlikely to ever see the same watch again and I feel that this is something that is getting harder and harder to find in our mass production world.

From a more technical perspective what makes a Virage special is a totally unique, COSC certified movement with exceptional finish levels.  It just takes a single look to fall in love with that movement.  And that is before considering the details of adjustments, chamfered edges, blue engraving and that gorgeous blued rotor. Yes, blue is certainly a favorite color.

One feature that also stands-out is the dial finish.  The sunburst effect and the level of shine is incredible and must be seen in real life. With the rather understated design of Virage, the crazy finish level of the dial makes the watch jump off of your wrist. But not because it looks like a space ship, but rather the quality of finish. It adds to our desire of understated elegance.  Again, our ‘all Swiss’ philosophy means that these dials are all hand-finished by Swiss artisans near La Chaux-de-Fonds.

The last point to mention is that we make each and every watch to order.  This means that we actually tend to visit our potential customers for a face to face meeting, so it is a very personal ownership experience that culminates with the owner’s name, and the watch number, being engraved in the watch under the sapphire glass prior to final assembly and testing.

TF - How are you marketing and selling the Lonville collection?

JV - For the time being we prefer to work directly with potential customers.  A Lonville is a very personal experience and we like to tell our own story.  On top of that, our tiny series and made to order philosophy are less practical to combine with traditional distribution and retail.  Of course we are interested in working with a few enthusiastic independent retailers over time.

For now we are organizing small events and get-togethers with watch enthusiast in different cities to get noticed by the watch community with a specific emphasis on enthusiasts and collectors.  We also make a point of meeting potential customers over lunch, at their house or office.

Then there is The Lonville Classic, a deliberately small classic car rally with a focus on ‘la dolce vita’. I have been organizing this for 7 years now and what started as some fun with friends is now a truly magnificent long week-end where we enjoy classic cars, exceptional food and great company in Italy and the south of Switzerland.   

While this is strictly a non-profit event that we organize for fun, you can imagine that this brings together ‘boys and toys’ so some participants have become owners of a Lonville watch too.

TF - Who is the Virage customer?

JV - With so few watches there is no ‘typical’ customer.  But if I had to generalize:  men between 30-50 years old with an appreciation (not necessarily an obsession) for watches and a real passion for uniqueness, rarity, exceptional quality and personal attention.  The majority tend to own a few other quality watches.

The fact that we engrave the future owner’s name during final assembly under the sapphire glass has also proven to be an appreciated touch.  Something to remember special events with a particular engraving.  I recently hand-delivered a Virage to a groom during his bride’s wedding speech.  It was engraved with their favorite song ‘let it grow’.

TF - Tell us about the G24 model.  What was the inspiration for that?

JV - The Lonville G24, as this watch is named, has actually quite a story to it.  Back in 2011 a friend of Lonville, Gabriele Gardel, was going to race in the 24 hours of Le Mans – possibly the most famous and toughest car race in the world.

As he won his class the previous year we half jokingly decided that he should wear a special Lonville prototype (in black PVD’ed gold!) for the 2011 race, but only if he would do the impossible: win again.

I spent about 36 hours in the pits that weekend in June and Gabriele actually drove to victory once again!  It was a monumental experience for me as my beloved Jaguar made racing history more than 50 years earlier on the same track, and now my watch has been part of an amazing new win.  There and then I promised myself and Gabriele that we would design and build 24 watches, one for each hour of the race.

I subsequently approached Matthew Humphries – the designer of Morgan cars to see if he would want to have a go at designing the watch.  The result is spectacular: the G24 is constructed from titanium, has a COSC certified double barrel automatic movement with 120 hours of power reserve.  With Matthew we worked on a symmetrical design of the two sub-dials.  One is a power reserve indicator and the other one is actually a retrograde date function.  The pusher has been executed as a second crown, adding a more technical, chronograph like feeling to the design. The ‘superleggera’ model has drilled lugs you can see through—all part of the lightweight philosophy of race cars.

Finally, we asked Gabriel to name one particular thing that is special  about racing for 24 hours at Le Mans. His answer was immediate: how the night-to-day-light difference is playing with your mind while you have a constant image of a straight line – the road – in front of you. The G24 has a ‘straight’ line running right through the dial, this is emphasized by a level difference and a special hand-brushed finish of that  straight portion of the dial.

TF - Are there any plans for a new Lonville model?

JV - So many ideas and so little time!

Right now our priority is to introduce Virage and G24 to more people.  We have just started doing this and our small scale and direct customer relationship model means that this will take some time.  It is an immensely exciting and rewarding period, as people are judging your baby.

But obviously we are working in the background on some ideas.  I have a weak spot for cushion shaped cases, while we have also had many requests for a steel cased Virage.  

Time will tell!

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