The Rodney Dangerfield Watches: Can’t Get No Respect
We all possess unique tastes, developed over the years for a number of reasons. I loathe lamb because I inherited a hatred for it from my mother, yet I love pasta, which she couldn’t stand. Go figure. In watches, we all march to our own beat, and I am constantly surprised by some of the choices made by, say, fellow scribes. Aside from possibly unsavoury reasons for wearing unlikely pieces, each has her or his own preferences, and it’s not worth questioning them. To each (their) own.
Among the brands I adore are two that – like Rodney Dangerfield – can’t get no respect. From the day they were introduced, I fell in love with both Romain Jerome and Ralph Lauren watches. The former upset people because of the homage paid to the Titanic; it was simply too morbid for some. What they constantly overlooked was the quality of the timepieces. As for Ralph Lauren, I have no idea why this fashion brand wasn’t given the same pass as Dior, Gucci, Chanel or any of the others with their roots in fashion or scents rather than timepieces.
All of this wouldn’t matter a bit if I wasn’t cursed with a nagging sense of justice. Beyond, for example, the failure of society to punish criminals and to penalise victims, or Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to suppress anti-semitism in his own party, I tire of seeing loathsome, me-too brands of zero integrity garnering massive sales and acres of coverage, while numerous brands of substance fail to sell in the numbers they should. Then again, Big Brother and whatever Ant and Dec are up to will always have more viewers than Spiral or The Americans or Gotham.
I am mystified, for example, by the refusal of the watch world to acknowledge the peerless horological greatness of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Zenith and Girard-Perregaux, whatever forensic explanation one cares to proffer, e.g. G-P could do with a new look. These are brands that should be mentioned in the same breath as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet for their history, their true manufacture status, their authenticity and their credibility.
Over the years, brands I adore have inexplicably failed to set the world alight. I marvel at the success (and massive visibility) of useless, costly “complications” and watches so grotesque that one wonders who signed them off, e.g. the early 2000s’ Zenith Defy. Then again, taste is subjective and inexplicable: one man’s Versace is another man’s Gieves & Hawkes.
That said, here is my ode to seven brands, listed alphabetically, that deserve/deserved better. Some are still with us, some are dormant, some are dead. I love them all, maybe as guilty pleasures like my love for the music of Herman’s Hermits, Mighty Mouse cartoons and Junior Mints. Alphabetically, these are some of the many watch brands that get no respect. along with my ill-informed/wholly speculative explanations as to why:
JeanRichard: I’ve been banging on about this brand for two decades, having fallen in love with the huge value-for-money Highlands of the 1990s, which looked like a Hamilton Khaki, but with killer three-piece case. The Highlands was 25 years ahead of its time, available in a number of colours besides the obvious white-on-black that affirmed its military bearing. I still covet the pale blue and burgundy dials. Ah, well.
Sold mainly, or so I’ve been told, in Italy and Japan, initially as Daniel JeanRichard, the brand’s death knell was rung when the watches climbed up the price ladder, enough to bring them within spitting distance of parent brand Girard-Perregaux. Had G-P treated them as Rolex does Tudor, who knows? It coulda been a hit.
Current status: Dormant
This story is actually too painful to detail, but look up the Jean Dunand Palace, and look upon a masterpiece of steam-punk genius, complexity and clarity of thought. If you ever gazed upon the Eiffel Tower in absolute awe at its beauty and technical achievement, this paid homage to it. Then, bow your head for the late Thierry Oulevay, who helped mastermind it. If I ever win the lottery, this is what I will buy. Current status: Website still active.
A tragedy, this. MHR, a.k.a. Mahara, championed the big 3/6/9 before the Panerai re-birth was even a twinkle in Dino Zei’s eyes: over 30 years ago. The estimable Dominique Pibouleau, even before the JeanRichard Highlands appeared, understood the appeal of a classic, affordable military-styled watch but with a range of colours. Red-on-black and vice versa, charcoal grey numerals on salmon pink (and vice versa!) before the Muller Casablanca used that scheme. The company was sold and shut down. Current status: Ms Pibouleau might revive the brand. Fingers crossed.
Once the greatest name in chronographs, purchased by Montblanc. Imagine if FIAT or VW or some other motoring group purchased a great, defunct name like Delage or Delahaye or Bucciali or Isotta Fraschini or Hispano-Suiza or Packard, and then revived the cars and called them …. FIATs or VWs. That’s what happened to Minerva, despite a name with so much currency among enthusiasts that one wonders how this has eluded Richemont. Current status: the name is now found on the back of Montblanc watches. Not the front.
It’s arguable that Ralph Lauren – the man – has the most finely-honed tastes in the world. His work is impeccable, his respect for beauty and art and manufacture is evident in everything he touches; I’ve seen part of his car collection, and his treatment of his vast selection of immortal vehicles transcends known standards.
I was present when the watch line was unveiled nearly a decade ago and listened to the mutterings of the idiots in the press pack. What I failed to see was: what part of elegant cases housing movements from Piaget and IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre don’t you get? This from the same cretins who wouldn’t apply the same criticism to other fashion brands that have put their names on watch dials. Fuck ‘em. The Automotive, Sporting and Safari lines are gorgeous, the execution as good as it gets. Current status: A puzzle, but grab one now just in case.
OK, so Titanic DNA offended some, and the founder, Yvan Arpa, knows no limits and has no filter (as evinced by his work with his next brand, ArtyA), but damn, if you ever loved Jules Verne, he nailed it. Romain Jerome has a few themes in its catalogue, but the unifying elements include massive cases and fine movements. Otherwise, the Titanic DNA, which spawned the sublime Steampunk (see Jean Dunand, above) range, couldn’t be further apart in context from the moon landing stuff, the comic book licenses, the 1980s gaming motifs.
That said, the watches – like the Ralph Lauren pieces – are individualistic, novel, attractive and have movements to silence snobs. Again, taste is personal, and I get it that some will hate the look. For me, as one who went through the whole Panerai shtick, who devoured steam punk books and films as a kid and who finds most of the macho watches eye-wateringly hideous, RJ talks to the 12-year-old in me – just as the Pac-Man and Space Invaders communicate to todays 40-somethings.
I love this brand, if for no other reason than the way they demonstrate that “Swiss” needn’t mean “boring”. Current status: The first brand to acquire licenses for both DC and Marvel Comics. Respect to follow?
Like Minerva, maestri of the chronograph. I know that there have been approaches to the current owners by investors eager to buy and revive the brand, but no luck so far. Again, a wasted opportunity, especially as Universals are super-hot among collectors and performing brilliantly in auctions. Current status: limbo.
© Ken Kessler 2018