Thursday, September 3, 2020

A Few Minutes With Lewis Heath

A bit of Henki lore -

A long, long time ago I was actual fit (and rumor has it, somewhat handsome) and was fairly proficient with my left foot and a football. A brief flicker of boyhood fantasy was met head-on with reality when actually clapping eyes on the ability (and size) of the Lothian lads who I'd have to prove to be better than. Needless to say, university has proven to be a wiser choice in the end ; )

Years later, Wendy and I were what might be referred to as "summer guests" in the English Teaching Unit at Saint Andrews where students squeezed in some grammar between rounds of golf and lager. We spent four summers there, all of them memorable for different reasons. And while there is much to recommend Saint Andrews, I myself have always been partial to Dundee and Glasgow.

At that time (96 - 99) I was not really into watches. I had a very nice one - a Yellow Omega Speedmaster (one of the first Schumacher models) that I paid for with summer earnings from tutoring a large group of kids from an oil-wealthy nation five afternoons a week. And it is probably just as well that anOrdain was not "in the game" at that time, as all of my summer earnings might have found their way to Glasgow.

anOrdain is not an old brand, but as with many things, quality and originality find a way of making themselves known.

And now, a few minutes with Lewis Heath -
Courtesy of AnOrdain

James Henderson - What was your first watch? Was it a gift? Is there a story behind it?

Lewis Heath - The first one I remember was a small Russian propaganda watch with an astronaut on the dial. It was kitschy and quirky and very East-Berlin circa the early noughties - a place which my student-self was besotted with! It was, naturally, purchased in a flea market and although it never worked particularly well, does bring back memories of kebabs and pubs which never shut.

JH - When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

LH - I remember thinking I was going to end up as a poet for some reason - perhaps this was my 10 year old self managing expectations and, realising even then how terrible I was at singing, creating a more feasible aspiration than the normal Rock Star one.

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

LH - Architecture in Edinburgh’s art college. In all honesty I shouldn’t have got in, or (successfully passed) out really. I was a complete daydreamer at school and my exam results were awful. The admissions tutor took pity on me and let me in, but I wasn’t built for academia. It only took me 26 years to realise that..

JH - What did you do before launching anOrdain?

LH - I started a consumer electronics company - it was actually meant to be a bedroom-run business for a friend of mine who was struggling with some mental health issues, the idea was to give her some sort of purpose to her days. We borrowed money and then shortly after she got sectioned, so I was left with a fledgling audio company aimed squarely at teenage girls with a penchant for Japanese street fashion. At least you couldn’t say we didn’t have a niche! I was working on a building site at the time - it was the closest I could get to architecture - and paying back the money would have taken me years. So I decided to try and make it work. It didn’t, and after a disastrous year or two I restarted it as a mainstream audio company and when I left 5 years later we had 60 odd people and a pretty healthy business.

JH - What drew you to the watch business in the first place?

LH - I’d had this idea that making watches in the Highlands would work, based completely on an un-researched hunch when I was 18 or so, but the idea stuck and I began to think of it as what I was going to do in the long term. My old audio business was all Asian manufacturing, and I loved visiting places like Zhuhai - the food and people were just amazing - but as a designer, working with a factory on the other side of the world, half a day ahead and speaking a different language is frustrating at best. The ‘designers and makers under one roof’ ethos at anOrdain probably stemmed from that.

JH - What was the spark that moved you to create anOrdain?

LH - It was a gradual thing, it’d been on my mind for so long that in the end I just wanted to get on with it. I’m glad I didn’t do it earlier as I’d (hopefully!) got most of my mistakes out the way and had a feel for what a good business to be a part of should be by then.

JH - What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced?

LH - The very slow, painful ascension from complete horological ignorance!
There are a lot of British based watch companies, but there’s really no industry to speak of, so starting anything here from scratch which involves manufacturing is difficult. I probably have more fingers than there are watchmakers of working age in Scotland - so we were incredibly lucky to find Chris (our watchmaker), he was distance learning through the BHI by evening and working as a picker in an Amazon warehouse by day. The local horological chapter recommended him and he’s brilliant; he’s qualified, won a load of awards and is now training up Euan, our apprentice. But he was the first and only watchmaker we could find, and that took 2 years or so!
Enameling was really the big challenge - it’s done by a few Swiss companies and Grand Seiko in Japan - I doubt if there’s anyone still alive in the UK who was employed doing it, so there was nobody to ask and no books to learn from. Back in 2014 I’d gone to see the Jewellery Dept at Glasgow School of Art to ask if they knew of any graduates who might be interested in a job working out how to make an enamel watch dial. One person got in touch and we rented a small studio for him in January 2015, and that was really the start of anOrdain.

Small to medium sized watch brands generally have a manufacturing partner - normally a Swiss assembled/Chinese parts setup, and those guys deal with the subcontractors - the case maker, hand maker, dial etc. We did look at that route, but decided to deal directly because it gave us more freedom and meant we could get a lot better quality for the same money. But that was also a steep learning curve, and I think the original Model 1 was ever so slightly clunky for that reason.

JH - What have been some of the most unexpected successes?

LH - People liking and actually buying the watches was a big one - I really didn’t know if that was going to happen during those years before launch, so that was a great relief. But for me, and hopefully none of them will read this, it’s the team. When we started there were two of us and we didn’t even know how a dial joined onto a movement. Today there are 11 very talented people - most of whom are under 30 - who have gained a huge amount of knowledge and skill and really take pride in what they do, and quite honestly are, in terms of watchmaking, doing something world-class in a city where you’d otherwise struggle to get the battery in your Swatch changed.

JH - For most "out of towners" Scotland typically means either Edinburgh or the Highlands. I have always been a Dundee and Glasgow fan myself. So a two part question - what should the naysayers know and appreciate about Glasgow? And what motivated you to set up in Glasgow?

LH - There’s an old saying which one of our customers from the US reminded me of lately - “You’ll have more fun at a Glasgow funeral than an Edinburgh wedding”. Edinburgh is beautiful, and Glasgow is friendly - I’ve lived for many years in both and there is a lot of truth in that. Although my evenings are taken up with kids these days, Glasgow has the best nightlife and music scene in Scotland, and there’s a thriving creative community - due in part to the great art school here.

JH - What is your biggest market for anOrdain?

LH - The US of A.

JH - What is "right" in the watch business? What needs to change?

LH - I’m a great fan of interesting, off-beat indies like Fiona Kruger (her chaos series is the most underrated piece of horological design to my eyes), MB&F, I always loved Alain Silberstein, Ochs und Junior - people with imagination and talent and the courage to use it in a watch really.

In terms of change, I’d like to see less duplicity when it comes to ‘Made in’. When I first went to a sourcing fair in Switzerland and saw how little was actually made there it really changed my perspective; it kind of killed the watch consumer in me! Seeing a £10k watch from a respectable Swiss brand whose only real selling point is their hand-made Swissness - a watch which the week before I’d have been excited to see in a boutique back home - actually has a dial made in Thailand, Indian hands and a Chinese strap and case just completely disillusions you. I’m very passionate about what we do and what a lot of other indies are doing, but these days when I’m on a watch website I find myself skipping articles on 80% of brands.

JH - If you weren't doing this, what do you think you might be doing?

LH - Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time trying - with mixed success - to make saucisson in a big oak chamber I built in my study. The smell of decomposing meat is never far away in this house - I have a very tolerant wife. Hopefully people continue to wear watches though and I don’t need to turn pro.

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

LH - There are some people in the industry who manage to put out a great product single-handedly - I’m always impressed whether it be Autodromo, Halios or Fiona Kruger. But if you’re anything like me the important thing is to be really self-critical, realise you’re mediocre at best when it comes to probably everything which needs to be done in the business, and make your priority finding people who are really very good at what they do.

No comments:

Post a Comment