Book Review: ‘Retro Watches’ By Josh Sims And Mitch Greenblatt
If you are interested in design-led vintage watches, you may have heard of Mitch Greenblatt and his now-discontinued blog, Watchismo Times. I electronically met him once I joined social media.
That was probably a good ten years after Greenblatt purchased his first vintage watch in 1998, a move that ended up changing his life from a career as an illustrator to becoming an eBay dealer in vintage watches. In 2013 he founded his own micro brand Xeric, which offers design-focused watches at affordable prices.
For more than 20 years now, Greenblatt has collected and blogged on social media platforms about unusual vintage watches in addition to buying and selling them. His platform Watchismo – now watches.com, is an e-store for inexpensive new timepieces, primarily from micro brands. The idea for Watchismo only came to him in 1999 when Vogue reached out with the request to write a story about his collectible watches from the 1960s and ’70s.
Eight years later, historical French watch brand LIP approached Greenblatt about distributing loyal reissues of its popular 1970s timepieces in the United States; getting ready for that business venture propelled him into e-commerce in partnership with his brother, Andrew.
Greenblatt shares his collection on Instagram at @horolovox, while Horolovox.com is the website where you will soon be able to buy some of the vintage treasure he finds. “The inventory is [already] here,” he told me, “but my time is in short supply with my other businesses. I plan to launch a group of watches weekly on a certain day so one can plan on a certain time to view and reserve immediately. I plan to offer many cool vintage watches for sale!”
Currently at that website you can also order a special, limited edition (1,000 copies) Horolovox imprint of his book Retro Watches, which Greenblatt will sign for you before he ships.
Retro Watches: structure
Retro Watches was written by Josh Sims, a UK-based freelance journalist and editor specializing in fashion and design, who has also written about watches. The book was actually Sims’ idea. “Josh has come to me every so often for my obscure vintage watches over the past 15 years,” Greenblatt explained. “He thought my collection might make a good addition to [a book about vintage watches he was already working on] when in turn it became the entire book! I also have a load more of really unusual stuff that I hope will be in a second edition!”
Retro Watches begins with an introduction by Sims. In it, he explains that the watches photographed and written about in this book all come from Greenblatt’s own collection.
“Much like Marie Kondo, I included many of the watches from my collection that brought me personal joy and represent the experimental side of watch design ranging from long-defunct brands to some of the biggest names today. Much unlike Kondo, I will not be parting with many of them unless one day in an auction when they’re more appreciated,” Greenblatt explained the selection, also imparting that his personal collection comprises more than 400 pieces and continues to grow.
“Some of these watches are my most prized possessions,” he continued. “One was my wedding watch, one was the first watch I ever received, and one was my first vintage watch purchase ever. There are personal stories behind many of the watches featured in the book. A few are watches that took me up to 20 years to locate a prime example – or any example at all – of. Many are likely the last of their kind in decent condition, while others are so uncommon you’ll need to work hard to find another. Not to say this means they’re all valuable, because many are quite affordable due to obscurity, but rarity is its own thing.”
Retro Watches then launches, catalog-style, right into what are chiefly spreads of the more than 100 vintage watches from the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Some watches have warranted more pages with what we call “beauty shots” in publishing.
Some of the watch brands (Advance, Clipper, and Swank are good examples) are no longer presently known or active, while others like Girard-Perregaux, Hamilton, Rolex, and Bulova – to name a few – remain household names to this day, having survived their idiosyncratic period of design experimentation.
If you were Greenblatt, you might even say they not only survived, but managed to propel themselves back into the “boring” horological design era.
Retro Watches is a quirky and interesting collector’s guide for those who want to differentiate themselves and their wrists – at times outlandishly.
Retro Watches: content
Each of these mini chapters is light on text, but heavy on photos, just the way that much of today’s media-consuming public prefers. With a few exceptions, the excellent and expertly placed photos were taken by Tyler Little, a San Francisco-based photographer. Greenblatt is also at home in the Bay Area.
Each watch’s description is composed of a short intro text providing some context and a catalog-style set of bullet points that includes year of release, movement used, the “relative value” on the vintage market shown by a three-star system (one star being cheap and three stars being the most expensive), and the watch’s notable feature(s).
Interspersed among the watches are short, easily digestible featurettes on pertinent elements of watch history or technology and design principles, easily discernible by their beige-colored pages. This is brilliant as it breaks up what might become the monotony of watch after watch. These chapters have titles like “The Retro Aesthetic,” “Space Age Design,” and “Mechanical vs. Quartz.”
The book ends with a page on Greenblatt and a three-page timeline of watchmaking in key words. Some of the three-page timeline of watchmaking history’s listed points are very relevant to the material handled in this book and might not be found elsewhere.
As a timeless buying guide to inexpensive vintage collectibles with funky and unusual design from an outlier of a period in watch history, this book functions perfectly, informatively, and very aesthetically.
And I even found one vintage watch that I personally own in here: the Spaceman.
“I had a lot to do with rekindling the brand in 2001 when I met Felix Huber and I started to purchase the old stock of Spaceman and other vintage watches he produced; it is what I used to propel my original vintage watch site Watchismo.com,” Greenblatt revealed to me.
“I mean, someone would have eventually found them, but back in 2000 I had become obsessed with them, started looking for who made them, got in contact with Andre Le Marquand, who in turn directed me to his son, who told me to contact Felix Huber for the new old stock. I credit the Spaceman era of my life for nearly everything that happened since in my career.”
Retro Watches: quality
Very, very rarely do I get a book in my hands these days where everything fits together the way a book should: engaging, well-written text; very obviously carefully copyedited; great paper quality; good, clear, pleasing-to-the-eye design; super photography, and an engaging subject matter.
If these things matter to you (like they do to me), then Retro Watches is a great fit to add to your personal horological library.
You can flip through the pictures or dig into the text at your leisure and be entertained and informed, and do it without worrying about when the next error will show up – though I did find one erroneous detail in the LeCoultre category, where Sims opines, “ . . . Jaeger-LeCoultre (which, until 1980, sold most of its watches under the shortened LeCoultre name) had been . . .”
Regular readers of Quill & Pad will know that use of the “LeCoultre” name signifies a JLC watch sold by its North American distributor from 1932 through approximately 1985 (confirmed by Jaeger-LeCoultre: A Guide for the Collector by Zaf Basha). At that time, JLC was shipping movements to the U.S. from Switzerland, where the distributor assembled the rest with cases, dials, and hands made in the USA.
However, that is the only gaffe of this sort I have found so far. At less than $30 for a handily sized hardback edition, not only do you have nothing to lose financially if you buy this book, I love that you can actually hold it comfortably while resting in your favorite chaise lounge. Much like one of the gorgeous vintage treasures described within.
You can purchase Retro Watches at www.amazon.com/Retro-Watches-Modern-Collectors-Guide/dp/0500022968
and the signed edition at www.horolovox.com/products/retro-watches-the-horolovox-collection.
Quick Facts Retro Watches
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Pages: 256 pages
Photographs: more than 300, most originals by Tyler Little
Limitation of Horolovox imprint: 1,000 books, $35 (with Mitch Greenblatt’s signature!)