Monday, May 25, 2020

A Few Minutes With Marcella Dolan

I first bumped into Marcella Dolan back in October at the District Time Show in Washington DC.  She and her partner Stephen Rowley have been working away at the launch of their new brand - Stella.
Courtesy of Stella W
We had a brief chance to speak and we did a brief write up about their launch prior to their Kickstarter announcement - 

I am particularly enamored with the Downtown Red -
Courtesy of Stella Watch Company
Now that the dust has settled on the Kickstarter campaign, I thought it would be a good time to follow-up.  So gentle reader, a few minutes with Marcella Dolan

James Henderson - Tell us about your first watch.  Was it a gift?  Is there a story behind it?

Marcella Dolan - The first watch I actually remember falling in love with was a sterling silver Navajo design with turquoise stones and hand tooled feathers on the arms. It had a mother-of-pearl dial and an expansion back and fit my scrawny wrist perfectly. My mother and I would roam the flea markets on Saturdays and when I saw this on a table with a bunch of odds and ends, I thought I found a treasure! That was sometime in the late 70’s, early 80’s when I was into fringe leather jackets and moccasins so this was for sure my pièce de résistance

JH - When you were younger, what did you want to be when you "grew up"?

MD - That’s easy - a starving artist! My dream was to live in a small, sunny art studio where I could have the solitude and freedom to paint all day and night. I assumed I could sell a piece of art whenever I needed to eat or, you know, pay rent. It’s a romantic dream until you have to, you know, pay rent!

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

MD - It’s a long story but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just say I did not go to school. I lived in and traveled around Europe for three years after high school. Paris, Aix-En-Provence, Germany, Belgium, Amsterdam, Italy and Luxembourg. It was the school of life and I do not regret a moment of it.

The education that would lead me to a career came later when I first set eyes on a Macintosh computer. Remember the first Mac commercial, “1984” with the woman throwing a sledgehammer at a projector screen? That was just a few years before I sat down in front of my first Mac and was instantly enthralled. Although the programs were still very rudimentary, I was amazed that you could create art digitally! I found a book and taught myself how to use the programs and from there, taught myself everything I needed to land my first graphic design job. I have been an autodidact throughout my entire career and I believe hands on learning is the best way to gain knowledge (unless you’re a surgeon).

JH - What did you do before you got into the watch business?

MD - See above! I’m going to just admit here publicly that I lied my way into my first “real” job as a graphic designer. It was for a firm that manufactured ATM machines and they needed a graphic artist to render the machines in real life settings. I hadn’t learned the program they were using yet but when asked if I had the experience I said yes and then immediately found the “how to” book in the library (remember those days of no internet?).  At the next interview I got the job. From there I had a few graphic design jobs before a previous boss left to work for a small watch company and subsequently asked me to work for him. It was very early in my career and since that first job, I never left the industry. Along the way I learned everything I could, not only about watches, but also about business and eventually became the VP of Timepieces for a large NY fashion accessory company.

JH - As someone who has worked in the watch industry for some time, how long had you been thinking about starting your own brand?
Courtesy of Stella Watch Company
MD - I would say it’s something I always wanted to do. I love designing watches but when you’re designing for someone else, you have to work within the constraints of that brand’s DNA. I do enjoy sculpting out a watch line as the extension of a brand. But the idea of having the freedom to create something with the only constraint being my imagination was always enticing. It was my partner Stephen’s idea to start our own business.  Having worked together before, we developed a mutual respect for each other’s talents and work ethic and when he approached me with the idea, I was all in. 

Courtesy of Stella Watch Company
JH - So what makes Stella special?

MD - I think what makes Stella special is that it is not trying to be something else.  I have tons of respect for the microbrand community but I have seen a lot of homage watches and that is not what we wanted. Stella is a watch with its own DNA and you would be hard pressed to put a “label” on it.  Some reviewers have called it a type of field watch or a dress watch but Stella was intended to be just a cool looking watch that you could wear every day, on any occasion. It can be dressed up or dressed down, depending on your vibe. It is neither masculine nor feminine and at 40mm, it really can be worn by anyone.  That is what we wanted to create. 

JH - I often talk about the Sapphire Crystal Ceiling - essentially, that the watch business is fairly replete with middle aged white men and not necessarily so welcoming for women in the upper echelons.  This is of course, my opinion as a middle aged white man.  What's your take on the industry as an insider of many years?  

MD - Honestly, I don’t consider this industry different from any other.  The unfortunate truth is that women have to fight harder, work harder and constantly prove that they are just as capable, or even more so, than their male counterparts in every profession. But in this industry in particular, yes, I agree there are a lot of “old school” stodgy middle aged white men who don’t understand the benefit of having a woman’s perspective. And that’s a huge miss in my opinion.  If there were more women in this industry, classic upper echelon “men’s” brands would try to do more than just vomit diamonds on smaller rose gold versions of their best sellers and call it the “ladies collection”.  Come on, it's degrading! If I were running a brand (which I am!) I would respect that in 2020 diamonds are a cliché and women have more depth of character. I would take the time to design interesting models without a gender label and I would do my best to accommodate all wrist sizes (which I am!)
Courtesy of Stella Watch Company
JH - You were able to raise a decent amount of funding through Kickstarter.  Did the campaign go as well as you'd hoped?

MD - Given the timing of when we launched, yes, we were very happy with the campaign. Stephen and I debated whether we should go ahead with the launch or hold off for “better” times.  We ultimately decided to just go for it because we were anxious to “be in business” and the Kickstarter campaign was the launch. We already decided to go ahead with production months earlier because we were fairly confident we would be well received and we didn’t want customers to wait so long to get their watch. We didn’t have production worries since I already knew which manufacturers I wanted to work with and because of our long-standing relationships, they were happy to take on the venture. Still, in a time of Covid, it was a gamble but what in life isn’t?

JH - Who do you see as the "Stella" customer?

MD - Everyone and anyone who appreciates a well-made Swiss watch with a cool, unique design. I’ve learned not to tell my customers what they like. If it appeals to someone, that’s our customer.

JH - What are some of the challenges that you've encountered during this process?

MD - Even with all the experience Stephen and I have in the industry and in business, there are things we had to learn, like how to build an e-commerce website or what is the right demographic for a Facebook advertisement.  When it’s your own business, you are the designers, developers, marketers, sales team, accountants, procurement managers and file clerks! If there’s something you need to get done and you don’t know how to do it, you learn it – quickly!

JH - Who else is making watches out there that you admire?

MD - Honestly, I admire anyone who has a vision and the drive to see it become a reality. Stephen and I both have a strong work ethic but building your own company from the ground up takes a LOT of work and commitment. Anyone doing it and succeeding is to be admired.  But there are a number of brands that I think have done a great job, from design to a good quality build. Chris Ward tops my list although I don’t know if we can still consider them a micro? Farer as well, they have a unique aesthetic and I love their use of color. Jonathan at Brew because I love that he sticks to his brand story. I think Aevig did a really nice job with the Huldra, Nodus is solid, the new Marternero Bayshore is sharp and I’m hoping it will be as good in person. Monta, Halios, Baltic, there really are so many.

JH - If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

MD - Starving - as an artist.

JH - What advice do you have for the next Marcella Dolan out there?

I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to build a career doing something I love. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs over the years in this industry and today I don’t know if I would recommend it as a profession to go after. BUT, I know that having a passion for watches cannot be denied. So, I would say if you have been bitten by this bug, find a way to make it work. Whether that’s as a career or as a collector, seek out people who are knowledgeable and never be afraid to ask questions. I think most people in the watch community have this hidden fear that it will someday be a lost art and are therefore happy to pass down their knowledge. Embrace it, and it will embrace you, for better or for worse!

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