In the early 2000s, Crispin Jones, a graduate of the Royal College of Art and Design, spent his days building pieces for exhibition. These pieces, he says, were “neither high art nor design”. So what were they, exactly? Well, one was a robotic arm designed to achieve a perfect score in the 1980s arcade game Track & Field. Another was a table that answered a question card — but only if you held the card in place in a slot while it became hotter and hotter to the touch,.
But tables that burn your hand tend not to pay the bills steadily. Jones had dabbled in watch design in his studies, so in 2005, he decided to make a small production run.
“I thought that there are loads of inexpensive watches out there, but generally they try to imitate the high-end brands (which I always thought was weird — I mean, inexpensive cars don’t try to look like they’re Ferraris),” he wrote in an email. “My initial thought was simply that I could use some of the inexpensive manufacturing and combine it with interesting design to create a new kind of product.”
The result of this work — after a few years of tinkering — was Mr Jones watches, a line of alternative, inexpensive, and thoroughly intriguing wristwatches. If you pay attention, you may see someone wearing one at a coffee shop, or an art show, or a concert, your eye caught by the trap of its clever hand-printed design. We asked Jones about his outside-the-box approach to time-telling, what smartphones mean for wristwatches, and more.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Q: I’m curious about this quote on your website: “Today, everyone checks their mobile phone to see the time. This liberates the watch from being a purely functional object and means that we can be a bit more playful with it.” I’ve always thought about this the other way — a watch would help me not look at my phone as much. It doesn’t always work my way, though — I often find myself looking at both my watch and my phone. And it seems like a lot of big mechanical watch brands are in denial about smart phones and what they mean for watches. Can you explain a little bit more about your theory on why smartphones make “playful” watches more relevant?
A: I think what’s instructive is to compare the situation today with fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, time information was limited to a few places: at a railway station for example there would be a single central clock. Or of course you had your watch — everyone had a watch 50 years ago!
Today at a railway station every digital departure board has a little clock on the bottom of the screen; you have the time on your cell phone, it’s on the ticket machines and of course on your watch (if you have one).
With this abundance of access to time information, the watch is not so vital as it once was, so it can be more playful. It can perhaps be less a precise communicator of the time and more a portable, beautiful, interesting object that tells people something about you and also happens to show the time.
Q: Do you think this trend of the watch as something fun will grow as smartphones become more and more a part of everyone’s everyday life?
A: Definitely — if you’re no longer limited by the conventional displays that the watch movements require, then there’s much more scope to reimagine how we show the time.
We think that a short hand pointing the hour with a long hand pointing the minute is something fundamental, like grass being green or the sky being blue, but it’s not: hour and minute hands are simply a convention that we use to visualize something fundamentally abstract like time.
Q: A lot of your watches tell a story, or have a little moral to them — “The Decider” and its point about decision-making, The Cyclops and its effort to force its wearer to tell time in more human terms. Can you talk a little more in depth about a specific “moral” of your choosing that has to do with a specific watch?
A: This links back to my time at the Royal College of Art — essentially the pieces I was making were under the umbrella of “Critical Design,” which is design that functions to question or draw attention to values in society. I’m most interested in that tension between the things we desire and the things which are good for us. The watches are just a way of expressing this fundamental human duality or conflict, but in a playful or humorous way.
For example, The Decider is about the tension we feel between wanting to be “free” on the one hand, yet at the same time not wanting to make decisions. The watch is a playful tool for allowing something else to make decisions and so it is perversely liberating (you’re freed of the burden of having to make decisions!).
“If you’re no longer limited by the conventional displays that the watch movements require, then there’s much more scope to reimagine how we show the time.”
Q: What was the first watch that made you realize watches could be “outside the box,” in the sense of style and design?
A: It was a watch called the Chromachron designed in the 1970s by Tian Harlan. I brought one that I found on eBay around 2001. This watch was the direct inspiration for Cyclops: it has a dial with 12 coloured wedges and a disc hand with a cutout the size of an hour. What I thought was really cool was that you quickly learnt to read it and interpret the position of the wedge relative to the colours on the dial to understand if it was 5 past the our or 10 past (or whatever); and once you saw the time in this way it became hard to translate it back into spoken time if someone asked you what the time was.
Q: Why mechanical movements? It seems like many of your competitors probably use quartz, and obviously some of your watches use quartz.
A: I think on a fundamental level the mechanical watch feels warmer and more human — it’s alive and has a tiny heartbeat! On every technical aspect the quartz watch is obviously superior, but the moving parts and ticking noise of a mechanical watch movement appeal to some other part of the human sensibility that I don’t think I’m qualified to define.
“On every technical aspect the quartz watch is obviously superior, but the moving parts and ticking noise of a mechanical watch movement appeal to some other part of the human sensibility that I don’t think I’m qualified to define.”
Q: Your watches fall within a very affordable price range. Why is affordability important to your business, and to your ethos?
A: This is fundamental to us. Right from the very start I wanted to make something that I would be comfortable buying, something that I could see my peers buying and not just catering to a rarified, wealthy ‘elite’. It seems to me like there are plenty of watch brands out there who cater to the very high price point, but I always wanted to be more democratic and to see our distinctive designs in the hands of as many people as possible.