Nick Federowicz is in the watch business, but not in the way you'd think.
While he does wear watches, he doesn't really collect them, and he certainly doesn't sell them. What he does do is source the best midcentury watch advertisements from vintage magazines, frame them, and then sell those.
That's it — that's the whole gig. Easy, you say? Well, not really. Not at all. Nick makes it look easy due to his skill set, which he's refined over many, many years (though his Chicago-based business, Ad Patina, is just a few years old): he knows where to find the best ads, he waits patiently for great examples of those ads, and he works with a talented local framer to design the perfect frame and matte combination to make each piece sing. (You can buy his ads unframed as well, but unless you have a favorite local framer, it would seem a shame not to take advantage of Nick's taste and knowledge.)
Nick works with each client individually to source exactly what that person is looking for — even if it takes months or longer — then continues the process over a series of texts, emails or phone calls (his preferred method) to perfectly frame the ad according to the customer's preferences. Sometimes a watch boutique or vintage dealer will purchase an entire wall's worth of these ads and decorate a shop with them, and once you've seen a few, it's not difficult to ascertain why. (Check out the design process below, with video courtesy of @josuatoday.)
Vintage ads speak to a bygone era — an age in which GPS hadn't filled out every corner of the map, and when the average salaried employee could, with a few month's hard saving, actually afford (and find) a steel Rolex sports watch. While that time may be long gone, the ads — and the feelings they inspire — remain.
We spoke with Nick about his business, how he got started, and of course, what it is he loves so much about watches.
Q. I understand that your teenage bedroom was a shrine to watches, filled with watch ads you found and framed. Where did this fascination with watches come from?
A. I was a teenager in the 1990s, so when it came to learning about and being inspired to own a watch, like a Rolex, I didn’t really have the same resources and diversions as we do today. I became more aware of Rolex models through magazine advertisements. But it was a more personal encounter that ignited the fire that still blazes…
Some of my favorite memories growing up were visiting friends of our family — a successful husband/wife with a beautiful home filled with objects that always caught my eye and fascinated me. For some reason the couple’s watches always captured my attention most. Most notably, the lady of the house’s solid gold Datejust laced and encrusted with diamonds and emeralds. But also, her husband’s watches struck me — both Rolexes. He rotated between a stainless steel Oysterquartz and gold Day Date “President.” When I really think about it, these particular watches were the origin of my love affair with watches, Rolex in particular.
Q. What sort of watches were you attracted to at a young age, and what drew you to them?
In addition to the Rolex-wearing family we knew, I actually had a high school teacher who owned several Rolex models, including a “white face” Daytona (this is what we called it back then). He took me under his wing and definitely was a strong influence getting me hooked on the brand.
Of course, magazine advertisements also did the trick, making me fall hard for “The Crown.” Probably the first time I took notice of a Rolex ad was at the dentist’s office — flipping through magazines in the waiting room. One of the reasons I dreamed of owning a Rolex was to have an object that could be with me through thick and thin — that would last. The advertisements sold me on a Rolex being up for the task of being a lifelong watch. I must have reasoned, if it was good enough for the various professionals, artists, adventurers and athletes featured in the advertisements of those days, it was certainly good enough for me.
In my junior year of high school, I had enough money saved up from working long hours at a grocery store. I had the opportunity to attend a class trip to Paris. And long story short, that’s where I bought my first Rolex, a stainless steel Datejust, which I still proudly own and wear to this day.
Q. What did you study in university, and what do you do professionally? (Or, if Ad Patina is a full-time gig, what did you do before then?)
A. I graduated college in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in finance. I actually never ended up looking for a job in that field. Instead, along with two college buddies, I started immediately down the entrepreneurial path. I remember spending my post-college days working on a business plan to launch a retail clothing boutique. To aid in my research and get some real-world experience, I got a job working at a department store selling women’s shoes. Our startup never started up, but fortunately, I was enjoying steady employment, which provided a much-needed paycheck at the time.
My career in finance never took off. Looking back, I don’t think that was my calling in life. I actually ended up sticking with fashion retail and enjoyed many successful years as a salesperson.
At the beginning of 2019 Ad Patina had some momentum carrying over from the interest during the holiday season. This uptick in my side business combined with a slow period in my retail gig presented a "now or never" opportunity.
So, in March of last year I made the decision to quit my job and pursue Ad Patina full-time to see where the business could go if I had more time to dedicate to it . . . Without a doubt this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Q. You hunt for vintage ads and sell them either framed or unframed. What gave you the inkling that this might form the basis of a successful business?
A. I started to rekindle my relationship with watch advertisements several years ago. Mainly I got back into them because the ads were a stand-in for the actual watches. As you know, collecting and buying vintage watches can have its challenges — such as the cost to acquire (especially if you’re after vintage Rolex sports models). Ads were much less expensive to collect, yet offered potentially a very similar level of enjoyment and fulfillment. Searching for and acquiring the ads quickly satisfied my desire to hunt old watches and have a collection of them. To this day I honestly get a huge thrill unearthing a beautifully preserved advertisement from a magazine.
I was having fun collecting ads and sharing my treasured finds with close friends I’d made in the watch community. It probably crossed my mind to sell them, but I was hesitant . . . Mainly, my fear was, if I sold a rare ad, what if I couldn’t find it again? Eventually I was encouraged by a friend to make my discoveries available. He said something to the effect of 'there’d be plenty of watch enthusiasts out there excited to own an original ad to go with their prized "grail watch."'
I felt I had a strong following of members of the watch community and I was knowledgeable enough about watches to know which ads would be in demand. This strength and opportunity, plus my passion for ads and some other intangibles and soft skills I had, put me in a unique position to test this business idea. Ad Patina started around April 2017. Right away there was interest. Of course, there’s so much more to the story of Ad Patina — how it’s become what is today. But in a nutshell, it’s been the most-amazing experience putting these ads in the spotlight, participating in the watch community from a business standpoint and creating a strong market for watch advertisements.
Q. You obviously have a special affinity for Rolex. What is it about the brand that draws you in? Do you feel the modern brand still has the same spirit?
A. My taste, knowledge, personal circumstances and the market have changed a lot since I bought my first Rolex in 1998. But I still very much feel the same at my core when it comes to Rolex.
A lot of the same reasons I was attracted to the brand long ago are the reasons I still feel strongly about it today. First and foremost, when I handle or fantasize about owning certain Rolex models, they still evoke a feeling of toughness and being a great companion. The robustness and versatility of Rolex appeals to me so much, because deep down I’m a one-watch-man and Rolex makes a watch that is up for that task — something that can do it all and last a lifetime. Additionally, today, because of the Internet, Instagram and the watch community, I’m drawn to the design aspects and model history.
For me, compared to newer models, the neo-vintage and vintage references offer more, especially the way they connect me to the past. I’m a very nostalgic person and love nothing more than reminiscing about the past. The 5-digit references or older models represent a bygone era I wish still remained — like the buying experience and the motivation behind buying or collecting. This is part of the reason I enjoy the vintage ads so much. They speak to and remind me of a time period that I cherish.
This all being said, it’s hard for me to feel the same about the brand as I did in the 1990s. Today, the aesthetics of current offerings, the marketing, the buying experience and ownership intentions are so different.
I know there’s so many people that become first-time Rolex owners today and cherish their 6-digit Sub or GMT as much as I do my early Rolex purchases. I’d love nothing more than Rolex to introduce a model or redesign a reference that speaks to me — from the fit to the look. But so far, nothing has given me that feeling, tangibly or emotionally. I think if Rolex went back to their roots a little with marketing (long-form advertising, less celebrity-endorsed) and actually had all the models available for sale in shops — that would do a lot for fans like me to embrace the modern lineup with the same affection we have for the older pieces.
Q. Which brands besides Rolex do you feel designed the most compelling ads and why?
A. Just about every watch brand has a standout advertisement or two, Rolex among them (consider their, “If you were . . . ” campaign run from 1967 until 1970).
When it comes to watch brands other than Rolex, the first one that comes to mind is IWC. Perhaps no brand that has caused more of a commotion with their ads . . . I’m not sure how effective their advertising campaign was in the 1990s/early 2000s when it came to capturing market share or driving sales, but certainly their ads back then caused a stir and are still talked about today. Many of the ads in this series have racy headlines printed across the top of the page in bold, black font against white background. Whether you’re a fan of IWC watches or not, it’s likely you know of these ads.
Another brand that I’d say has very compelling ads is Land Rover. Their vintage ads always had headlines that were well written and witty. In addition, these ads have a visual element/styling that ties in perfectly with the headline. You may or may not prefer the vehicle, be it a Range Rover, Discovery or Defender. But you’re sure to find a headline that hits home — that makes you smile or laugh a little.
Q. What is the process like for sourcing ads, and once you have one, for deciding how to matte and frame? Can you walk us through this?
A. First, let me first say, it’s not just about finding ads, but rather it’s about finding quality ads. Ads that are in-demand, in very nice condition and able to be framed.
When I’m searching for ads, the bulk of my time is spent replenishing “sold out” ads or sourcing ads that have been requested. On that note, there’s a number of ads that do have a waiting list (I keep good notes on who wants what). I’m always asking people to be patient. It can take considerable time to locate a lot of these ads. I love to surprise people with a message that I found their ad or their turn is up for a popular ad. Of course, I’m also always hunting for fresh inventory — ads that I’ve never had or that I never knew existed. Honestly, for me, the thrill of finally acquiring a mythical ad or discovering something new is like the feeling of getting a new watch.
One of the first steps to sourcing ads is knowing where to look . . . For almost three years I’ve been researching where to find advertisements. That is, what magazines to look in — from genres to publications. From here it’s about pinpointing the exact issue a particular ad is in. But knowing the issue and date of a magazine that contains a specific advertisement isn’t enough. I then need to be able to locate the magazine. And then hope the ad inside is in nice shape. I know of the whereabouts of so many amazing ads, but the magazines are so scarce. There’s a number of ads I’m lucky if I find once per year . . .
As far as actually getting the magazines and ads, at this point, they come to me all different ways. I’m always on the lookout for magazines . . . From locally at resale shops to scouring the Internet. I’ve had followers of my Instagram account, @adpatina, reach out to me with ads they’ve collected over the years and are willing to let go. Also, as I’m sure many watch dealers do, I’ve developed relationships with “pickers” all over the world who know what I like. In the end it comes down to researching magazines, incessantly searching and buying. It’s a grind, but a process I truly enjoy, especially every time I’m able to secure a great ad that checks all the boxes — a beautiful ad through and through: style, condition, high framing potential.
Regarding framing, I work closely with a local, professional framer (Therieau Art and Frame) who has decades of experience. Every week I visit his shop, design projects and pick up completed work. I oversee all decisions and my framer, Paul, does a masterful job executing. Throughout the week we’re in constant communication about production. Often we’re calling or texting each other back and forth — he needs clarification or approval or I’m changing the plan.
No two framing projects are alike — even if I’m framing the same ad. Each ad has its own unique challenges ultimately driven by the paper. The first decision is the overall design. Whether to frame “classic” or “floating” style. Sometimes the ad dictates this decision, for example if crucial imagery goes right to the edge of the page or text is printed close to the edge. In this case, I would definitely float the page (Editor's Note: i.e. frame without a matte), so as not to cut off or crowd. Before framing starts, I always have some level of discussion with the customer to make sure we’re on the same page and the project comes out great.
Then it’s time to choose the materials and decide on dimensions. The most time-consuming and often critical juncture of framing is choosing the matting. The “matting” is the border around the ad. For example, it’s not as easy as selecting white matting. It’s all about choosing just the right shade of white or cream that best compliments the tone of the paper and enhances the ad. As you can imagine each paper can age to a slightly different tone. I typically scan through twenty to fifty different shades to try and get it just right.
After selecting the matting, the next step is deciding on the dimensions of the matting. After years of framing, I have my preferences on the various widths to go with depending on the size of the ad page or framing style chosen.
To help give you a sense of what takes place during the design phase and then ultimately the framing process, watch this video!
Q. What ads are the most popular with your customer base?
A. To no one's surprise, Rolex ads are the best sellers. Among the hundreds of different Rolex ads I sell, there is one that is consistently demanded: the 1966 “top of the Matterhorn” featuring the Explorer Ref. 1016.
Another Rolex ad that is right behind the “Matterhorn” in terms of popularity and demand is a particular Submariner ad with a woman’s hand reaching for a tuxedoed man’s Submariner (also from 1966). The big difference between this and the “top of the Matterhorn” Explorer ad is that this Submariner ad is much harder to source. At one point I went for a six-month stretch unable to find one, despite always being on the lookout. But, I do find them and slowly but surely I fulfill the waiting list. I certainly encourage people to inquire about it — I love to make wishes come true!
Outside of Rolex, I’d say the black/white Patek Philippe Nautilus ad from the late 1970s is a top-seller. It’s always cool to have what is likely the very-first ad for a model, especially a model like the Nautilus, which has endured and become quite possibly the flagship model for Patek Philippe . . .
On the topic of first advertisements, the 1965 Porsche 911 ad is another popular one. It may be the first full page ad for this iconic car . . . Again, it’s probably no surprise, Porsche ads are the most popular non-watch ads.
Q. Do you have any other projects coming up that you’d like to discuss?
A. Plans are in the works to launch a third Pop-Up Shop on Analog/Shift’s website...We’ve collaborated once again to curate a selection of framed vintage advertisements. This time, not just watches, but also vintage airline, car/truck and camera ads. When we launch, you’ll be able to view, read about and purchase these directly on Analog/Shift’s website. Stay tuned . . .
Q. Do you collect watches today, or are the ads enough to feed the horological obsession?
A. The ads are not enough! But, in a way, they do satiate my craving for hunting and collecting watches. About my watches . . . I don’t consider myself a collector, but rather a wearer of watches. Sometimes I feel like collecting implies someone is owning to own. I own to wear. And when I mean wear, I mean really wear. Not just on special occasions or when conditions are perfect. I have a few watches and all of them I wear in month-long rotations. The first day of each month I select a watch and wear it every day for the entire month. Morning, noon and night. Doing everything — the dishes, playing rough with my son, chores around the house, riding a bike, you name it...At this point, any watch I own or plan to “collect” will be worn this way.
I have a strong affection for Rolex, going back over twenty years when I bought my first. I’ll always love this brand the most and plan to have more . . . My favorite model is the Explorer II. Currently I have three, including a vintage Reference 1655, which I was fortunate to get a few years ago, locally, from the grandson of the original owner.