The Icon Duesey: An Automotive-Inspired Watch So Interesting You Won’t Believe That It Was Created By A Car Designer
Jonathan Ward is as authentic a watch aficionado as any I have ever met.
Not only has he collected approximately 110 watches of varying brands, provenances, and eras over decades, they are all carefully curated according to personal criteria. “The vast majority [of my collection] is vintage, maybe 30 are contemporary,” the fast-talking 47-year-old automotive restoration guru added during a personal conversation. His avid world travels are a big part of his collecting tick; it’s the fun of the hunt. “All my favorite vintage watches are associated with a story.”
Ward started young, owning six or seven watches by the time he was 18. Then the success of his automotive business allowed him to dive deeper into the world of horology.
“But I am not a brand buyer,” he was quick to add. “I don’t believe in the modern definition of luxury. So I have watches I paid $100 for right next to Patek Philippes. I’m driven by the design and I avoid social stigmas.”
Ward bought his first watch of significance in the early ’80s at the age of 13: a Seiko Data 2000, which was ahead of its time in including a calculator and very small computer. He laughingly related that he could cheat with it in algebra class. “It was well beyond what my teachers thought was possible at the time.”
Ward, who gets his love of watches from his father, was already sketching his own timepieces at the age of eight – even before he was sketching cars. “I was fascinated with my dad’s cool watch and kind of coming up with my own designs and ideas,” he confirmed.
Who is Jonathan Ward?
If you’re into rare and exotic automobiles, you very likely already know the answer to the question posed above. Ward is a celebrated auto designer in the niche world of recreating and customizing classic utility vehicles for the luxury collector.
But how that connects to watches is the real question.
Ward has always had a connection to design, engineering, and all things mechanical. “I was drawn to watches organically, but even before that I was the weird kid who would take my alarm clock apart and then try to put it back together and see if I could make it work again.”
Even though Ward did not formally study design, mechanics, or engineering and has no degree in higher education, he has intuitively allowed himself to be guided by his own natural perspective and opinion. “It has served me well,” he laughed. “Now I speak at those design and engineering schools! And now I think that’s my greatest asset as they almost train the individual perspective out of you.”
In his late teens, after having moved to California with his family, he started doing automotive restoration and design work as a hobby. Over time, he turned this first into one automotive business and then another.
In 1996, Ward and his wife created California-based TLC, a repair and restoration company for Toyota Land Cruisers.
However, Icon 4×4 is his primary focus today.
Icon revisits classic transportation design in a modern context. This can mean making a car from scratch that was brought to him “sketched on a napkin.” Or it could mean taking the shell of a magical vintage vehicle of distinction, engineering a modern chassis and other elements, and adding the “perverse” conveniences of modern cars while making sure these have no impact on the original aesthetics.
“Production” models by Icon 4×4 can run from approximately $190,000 to $270,000, while one-off creations can start from $300,000 and head past $1 million.
“I seem to have a habit of turning my passions into businesses,” Ward summed up his two companies, who share a campus but maintain separate staff. “Having a ‘real’ job and sitting in some cubicle while my soul slowly dies is just so not my thing.”
And it’s the success of Icon 4×4 that has allowed him to consider really taking some of his watch ideas out of his head and putting them out on the market.
Watches have inspired his automotive designs
But before we head into the details of Ward’s premier watch, let’s delve a bit deeper into how watches have actually inspired his car designs.
“There’s two levels of that,” he explained. “A direct level and an indirect level.”
The indirect level comprises his awe of the longevity of the watch industry, dissecting details, geeking out over them, and pondering the use of novel materials. “The way that that industry has sort of pushed forward to remain relevant, even though it’s structurally irrelevant, is something I’ve always found fascinating. When I started Icon, everyone was kind of doing the same old thing, all these established signets, which you see quite often in different arenas of design. Starting Icon, I was inspired by the watch industry’s perspective and applied it to transportation, where my style of the mashup of engineering and vintage was not happening.”
On a more precise level, he also points toward finishes. “For example, on my FJ series – my longest running and most popular series – that powder coat finish was inspired very specifically by the older Ventura watches from the Hannes Wettstein era. He pioneered that silica black DLC coating on titanium on the v-tec Kappa.”
This particular model was Ward’s daily wearer for six years, and he wore it to weld, grind, hammer, form metal, and do pretty much anything else working on automobiles required. “And I watched everything bounce right off it.”
Ward strongly dislikes paint, but he does love powder. So he began powder coating his vehicles at a time when that was not typically done. Icon 4×4’s engineered Teflon polyester hybrid powder coat was directly inspired by this finish, and it is now offered in 12 colors. “Its durability and the way it diffuses light was literally inspired by that watch.”
Ward also shares that a lot of his vehicles’ gauges and gauge panels were directly inspired by the design language established by the Bell & Ross BR-O1 (a watch Ward is actually wearing in the photo on the “Our Story” page of Icon 4×4). In many cases, their knobs were also inspired by watch crowns.
“I am a freak for details, and that is a big part of my brands’ successes. The level of finishing in the watch industry was something that inspired me to think that through here, too.”
Ward’s design process
Whether cars or watches, designs come to Ward easily; in fact they keep him up at night. “When I close my eyes I can literally see a high-detail 3D CAD model of whatever idea is currently gestating inside of me, and then I think that I would lose my mind if I don’t get it out.”
So he decided to take the risk and realize his watch dreams. “Watches for the most part I now find to be sort of dispassionate. Just like automotive, it’s now too much about the shareholders that run these brands more and more like MBA programs; these are design-intensive products!”
So for Ward design is paramount in the process, and it was important for him not to hand his ideas off to a trained or even experienced watch designer/engineer. “Because they’re reinterpreting,” he explained.
So he took some real time, starting from scratch and becoming competent in a CAD program that would allow him to work at the scale needed for watches.
He also paved his own road into the Swiss watch industry to get the Duesey built, no mean feat in an industry that thrives and survives on relationships. “I pounded on doors,” he revealed.
At first the prospective suppliers he spoke to had a hard time with his small order sizes. It was looking bleak until he chanced upon one high-quality supplier who was familiar with his car brand and decided to take the chance on him by allowing him to order smaller batches.
It did briefly pass through his mind to try to make his watch in the United States, reviving a “dying history of innovation.” But the dearth of suppliers was frustrating. Asian suppliers were never an option for Ward. “That would be like building a fiberglass car in the automotive world.”
Celebrating 10 years of Icon: introducing the Duesey
Developing the Duesey took Ward three years. And every detail except for the movement was personally designed by the Los Angeles-based carmaker, right down to the font on the disks displaying the hours and minutes and the titanium crown.
And nothing but the movement is off the shelf; even the alligator-skin strap with soft, rubberized calfskin lining and sandblasted titanium buckle were custom-manufactured in Switzerland according to Ward’s designs.
The movement is a tried-and-tested ETA base with Dubois Dépraz module 14400, a mechanical caliber known for its reliability and ease of service. A good choice in my opinion, and one that enhances the desirability of this watch.
But it’s the design of this new timepiece – one that admittedly looks quite vintage until you really look at the details, keeping in line with Ward’s own tastes – that we should focus on here. In fact, Icon Watches will continue to focus on revisiting classic watch designs in a modern context, sort of imitating the idea behind Icon 4×4.
This first watch is a creation that finds its inspiration in a vintage automobile, the Duesenberg SJ from the 1930s, a supercharged automobile of its era, affectionately known as the the “Duesey.”
The Icon 4×4’s time display is rooted in the inspiration of a drum-style tachometer. Ward explained that the “jump” in his mind to the jump hour was an immediate design connection.
Against the backdrop of the polished onyx dial and the low sheen of the grade 5 titanium, the time displays do their tireless job in a willful and elegant setting.
Sales are direct; the watch can be ordered at www.iconwatchcompany.com. Ward is banking on using the same process as with his car business to initiate success: keeping his products limited so that demand will hopefully outstrip supply. His existing client base gets first crack, of course.
For more information please visit www.iconwatchcompany.com.
Quick Facts Icon Watch Duesey
Case: 42 mm, titanium, sapphire crystal case back
Dial: onyx, brass titanium-colored window frames
Movement: ETA Caliber 2892-A2 with Dubois Dépraz module 14400, deluxe finishing, custom-made rhodium-plated tungsten alloy rotor
Functions: jump hours, minutes (disk)
Limitation: 50 pieces
Price: $11,500, delivery expected at the beginning of 2018
You might also be interested in reading about another watch that also came from a luxury automotive restoration company, Singer, which specializes in the Porsche 911: Track 1 By Singer Reimagined Is The World’s Most Advanced ‘Flat 6’ Chronograph: It Might Not Sound Like An Air-Cooled 911, But It Sure Laps Like One!
Also published on Medium.