INTERVIEW by BRIAN EDELMAN |PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of GREG SIMONIAN
Egyptians captured time by using the sun. Swiss watchmakers captured time by constructing mechanical watches. Westime is capturing our imaginations by selling high-end mechanical watches the world has never seen before. Greg Simonian of Westime is on a mission to bring independent watchmakers to the forefront by selling their watches at his store. He is passionate about unique watches that will not only stand the test of time, but will also be a statement of “this is who I am” for those who wear them. Young, confident, and already a master of his trade, he is expanding Westime all over Southern California, bringing a level of customer service that is unprecedented, and showcasing some really AWESOME (sorry, there is no other word for it) watches and luxury items.
As someone who grew up wearing a Mickey Mouse watch and watches that cost no more than 15 dollars, I can’t say I knew much about the art of watchmaking before doing research for this interview. Can you give our readers a crash course in high-end watchmaking?
I guess if you’re going to start from the very basics and don’t know anything about watches, in high-end watchmaking all watches are mechanical, a “technology” that’s been around for a very long time. There was, what was called in the watch industry, the “quartz revolution,” where quartz battery-operated watches took over for a period in the middle of the last century. And now this mechanical, old world of watchmaking and the Swiss watchmaking industry have come back. So there are still battery-operated watches, but in the high-end of watchmaking it’s all mechanical, meaning the watches are powered by manually winding them, or are self-winding via a rotor. The more high-end the watch, the more complications they have. A complication is what we call a “function” in high-end watchmaking. Examples are a chronograph, a date, a perpetual calendar, a minute repeater, and a tourbillon. There are watches that incorporate many of these complications at once, and, incredibly, they have just gears and a main spring to power them.
Why do you think the art of watchmaking has been revived in recent years?
I think watches never really went away as a cultural symbol. A watch is something that I think a lot of men like because it’s the one item you wear day after day for years. It’s something that’s on you all the time. The only reason it went away for a little bit is because quartz watches coming from Japan got so popular in the late seventies. I think it’s interesting that high-end mechanical watchmaking is now emerging into American culture, which is — I think — sort of the last place for it to enter. It’s very popular in South America, Asia, and Europe, but I think there’s this American mindset where the world beyond Rolex doesn’t exist for a lot of people.
How did you get into watchmaking?
I’m actually a fourth generation. My grandfather was in the production side. His uncle was a little watchmaker. My father was also in the production side in Switzerland and opened boutiques here in Los Angeles. Now I’m in retail.
What sets Westime apart from other independent high-end watchmakers?
Most stores that sell watches are also jewelers. We’re different in that we’re not jewelers. We sell just watches. There are a couple of things that are unique about us: one is that we have, at any given time, an inventory of very special pieces, complicated pieces, or limited editions. Harry Winston makes a watch limited to ten pieces for the whole world; we’re one of six stores in the world that they turn to to sell one. The only limited edition of anything that Chanel has ever done for one retailer was for us. They made a limited edition watch just for Westime. The other thing that sets Westime apart is the support we provide to independent watchmakers. There are a lot of companies owned by big groups. They employ some well-known watchmakers who decide to form their own brand. The only problem is, who is going to buy a brand that nobody knows? Even though it’s a well-known watchmaker. So Westime is a very big supporter of those watchmakers. We take a risk on those. There are a number of brands that we carry that we’re the first ones in the country to start selling. They may only make between 100 and 200 watches a year. They always start out with our store. Once people find out that Westime is carrying it, other stores start carrying it as well.
How do you choose the independent companies to invest in?
What’s most important to me is that it’s a brand that’s going to stay around. Also originality. I want something that’s going to impress the customer. I want someone to walk in and say, “Wow, did you see what’s new at Westime?”
It seems like you cater to the customer. Can you talk about your customer service approach, both in-store and internationally?
A lot of times when I know a customer is coming in, I’ll prepare certain things for him. I’ll contact the watch companies and get interesting models in just for that person. Everybody likes to take care of their customers. I take it very seriously. I want everybody to be happy with their perks. They know that when they come to me, I’m not going to try to sell them whatever I have; I want them to be happy with their decision. Also, it’s not even about what they are buying or the price they are paying; people come to us sometimes just to get an education on watches, and we’ll do that. We’ve delivered watches all around the world. We’ve organized factory tours for people who wanted to see watchmaking in Switzerland. On top of that, I have a staff that tries to make everybody comfortable. We have fourteen languages we can cater to our customers in. We have a watchmaker on staff who can come in and explain from a watchmaker’s point of view what features make a watch unique.
What are some of the features that set the newer avant-garde watches apart from more traditional styles?
That’s pretty avant-garde. It has a very traditional pilot’s watch on it: two hands and the triangle at twelve o’clock. But it’s a pilot’s watch where the whole watch is aviation-inspired. Everyone knows how to design a watch that has two hands and tells time. But to design something that fits into a case like this is very unique and very difficult to do. You have to design a whole movement from scratch. The piece of sapphire that goes all the way around was thought to be impossible, but this guy pushed to get it done.
URWERK’s Ur-110 Titanium
There’s another brand new movement that came out, all mechanical, of course. But on top of those you see a lot of different stuff at Westime. We have what you call lifestyle luxuries.
Mark Newsom designed a limited edition hourglass. You can only find that at Westime. We also have luxury cell phones.
I see you have mechanically-driven belt buckles and cuff links. How does that work?
You can expand and shorten the belt without undoing the belt with the click of a finger. It’s incredibly complex to make and has a lot of moving parts. It’s made by a Swiss watch case manufacturer, actually.
We sell watches at all prices. I have some from 200 dollars and up. When I sell something expensive it’s not because it’s encrusted with diamonds; it’s really about the craftsmanship. Mechanical luxury is what we do.
What does the future look like for Westime and high-end watchmaking?
Very positive. People are starting to see watches as an expression of themselves. It’s not so much, “I have this watch. Everybody knows what it is and it’s my status symbol.” A lot of Americans are comfortable with spending a lot of money on a suit that they wear only every so often, but won’t spend more than that on an item they wear daily.
I’m looking more into mechanical items. I think that’s what’s really fascinating to me. Other watches and other independent watchmakers will come, of course.
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