William Massena has been around the horological block. Several times, actually.
From moderating TimeZone during the early days of the internet to becoming the COO of famed auction house Antiquorum, Massena has been — and remains — on the cutting edge of the watch industry. His collection (or part of it, anyway) is now internet-famous, having been featured in an early episode of HODINKEE's Talking Watches. But it's his latest venture, which he dubbed Massena LAB, that has this seasoned watchaholic most excited.
Massena LAB is more than just a boutique watch brand — it's a sort of horological think tank, a place where Massena and his partners and friends can explore the "what ifs" of industrial design, horological history, and art. From affordable collaboration watches to high-end haute horlogerie, the LAB has turned out some of the most compelling watches of the past few years.
But don't let me talk your ear off — let's hear from the man himself as he explains his origins, his journey through the watch industry, and his latest horological venture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where were you born and where did you grow up, and where did your interest in watches come from?
I was born in the south of France and went to School in Switzerland. So I spent my summers on the French Riviera and my winters in Switzerland — not the worst places to grow up. I was very lucky. I received my first watch at 7 and I was immediately hooked. My first watch was followed by digital Seikos of the early 1980's. I bought a Rolex with my first job and from there started my collector journey.
You were the managing director of TimeZone (a prominent online watch forum) for many years. Was this something you fell into alongside a full-time job in another industry?
In early 1995 I was a banker working for a large investment bank in Manhattan. I had a Bloomberg terminal at work and my employer got me an internet account with a 14.4kbps modem at home. The first search I did on Alta Vista was "Rolex Sea Dweller" — TimeZone.com was then a single web page on a Singaporean Rolex dealer website. I started participating in asking and answering questions among two dozen collectors — this was the prehistoric ages of watches on the internet. It was just a fun place to learn about watches for me.
At what point did you decide that perhaps watches were going to become your full-time gig? How did you come to be in the sales/auction side of the business?
After I left banking, I started a real estate company with two other partners. I was traveling extensively in the USA and Europe, and I was getting tired of it. In 2001 I decided to sell my shares to my partners and I opened a small watch store in Miami which was an authorized dealer for a few brands such as Hamilton, Bell & Ross, and Breitling. A few years later I opened a vintage store on Madison Avenue. I was still involved with Timezone, first as a moderator, then as a Director of Strategy. In 2006, I had an offer to buy the store in Miami and I closed the store in New York. TimeZone had just been purchased by Antiquorum, the watch auction house, and I became TimeZone Managing Director. A year later, Osvaldo Patrizzi, the founder of Antiquorum was ousted by its board of directors. I was asked to join the company and became the company COO and moved to Geneva while remaining at TimeZone.
Can you explain a bit about Massena Lab and how it began?
In 2015, TimeZone was celebrating its 20th anniversary and I wanted to celebrate by releasing a limited edition of 20 watches. I approached Habring, the Austrian watch company, to make a monopusher chronograph — it was a very successful edition. We followed up in 2016 with the TZ21, a deadbeat 39mm watch that was even more successful. Both watches were my idea, and I had a few more ideas — I also wanted to work with a few more people. Massena LAB was born.
Massena LAB has partnered with diverse brands at very different price points. How do you decide who you’d like to work with, and on what type of project?
Massena LAB's philosophy is centered around the concept that we are enthusiastic about an idea we have or that has been pitched to us. I feel that my job is very similar to (that of) a movie producer: I pitch an idea of a watch (script) to a watch brand (director) — they talk to their watchmakers (actors) and we decide if everyone likes the project. Massena LAB then finances the project and makes sure that the watch (movie) is as per the idea that we had. We then do the distribution and sell the watch to collectors. You have famous producers who are also movie directors, and finally you can have a huge stable with your own directors and actors, which is a studio. I'd rather produce small indie movies than large studio blockbusters.
If there is a unifying “theme” to a Massena LAB collaboration watches — from a sub-$1K watch to something costing many thousands of dollars — what would it be?
I follow my gut based on my experience as a watch collector. I also think that I have a sense of aesthetics that people will perceive in the offerings over the years. I am a stickler for small details that most people don't notice but that are important to me.
The Uni-Racer, your first standalone watch, is an extremely faithful recreation of a particularly rare Universal Genève that’s prohibitively expensive on the vintage market. Do you intend to pursue other such projects that rethink rare vintage references?
To keep the analogy to movies: The Uni-Racer was a remake of the famed Uni-Compax — I needed to start with that watch to see if I could handle a watch project by myself. The script was written for me and that was difficult because I could not go along and say, "Well, I cannot surmount this problem, therefore my watch will look like this." The blue hands of the Uni-Racer are really tough to reproduce and that challenge was important for me to achieve. Will I revisit other rare vintage references? I hope so, because it is something I really enjoy and it makes me appreciate the original even more, but I will do it with the original brand involved.
You’re a noted collector and have been featured on HODINKEE’s Talking Watches, in which you showcase a wide variety of pieces, from military watches to haute horlogerie. What informs your collecting these days? Are you focused on any particular theme, or is it more about the individual watch?
My focus is on Massena LAB. I make the watches I want to put on my wrist and I am taking 250 or sometimes 200 collectors along with me on that ride.
You’ve accumulated an enormous amount of insider industry knowledge in your career and have truly “seen it all.” What’s exciting to you in watches right now? What do you look forward to going forward after the upheaval of 2020?
COVID has flipped the script in watch collecting. The last ten years since the financial crisis, we saw the rise of vintage watches in general and vintage Rolex in particular. With COVID, we are now back into modern watches. Rolex is there again, but also the independents and modern sports watches from makers such as Audemars Piguet and Patek. If this holds for a while we may see a new generation of independent brands from younger watchmakers. This is really exciting.
Are there any new projects — whether at Massena Lab or otherwise — that are on the horizon that you’re excited about?
We are about to launch a project with watchmaker Luca Soprana — this will be an exclusive Massena LAB movement made by hand. We called this project Old School and I am very excited about it. I literally call or text him every day to get updates. I cannot wait to wrap that watch around my wrist.