A couple of years ago, through the powers of Instagram, I came across an online vintage watch business known as Analog Shift. This past December, I had the good fortune of visiting their offices in New York City, where I sat and talked with one of its founders, James Lamdin. We discussed watches and cars, both new and old, as well as the ins and outs of starting a business. Before I knew it, two hours had passed and I had to wrap up my visit due to (drinking) plans with friends. James proved to be one of the most straightforward, insightful people I’d met for quite a while, so naturally, I had more questions for him. Late last month, James took the time to answer those questions, including why he feels buying a “birth year” watch isn't all that it's cracked up to be. For those reasons and more, I invite you to read the first installment of my CONVERSATION, CONTINUED…with James Lamdin.
Just as a start, can you share with us how watches came into your life, and a little bit about your background?
I've always enjoyed gadgets and devices in the house as far as I can remember. I've always been interested in watches, though I was fairly ignorant about them until probably about the time I was 20 or 21. At that time, my grandfather passed away, and we were very close, but I realized there were large portions of his life that I didn't know much about. I began exploring his watches, and became instantly caught up in the watch industry. He was a purveyor of nice things, and as I learned about his collection, I wanted to know why a man of good taste would come to buy a particular watch, so I began exploring it, and became smitten very quickly.
I grew up in New England--so, you know, about ten years behind the rest of the country in terms of progress--so I had an "analog lifestyle." I had to chop wood in order to stay warm growing up, and I had a manual transmission in my first car. I think my parents still have a rotary dial telephone with a cord.
The first watch I can ever remember owning was a cheap, National Geographic Junior Explorer's digital watch. It had a yellow case with a blue rubber strap and a red buckle. I can remember being particularly excited because it had a light on the dial. I could push a button and a single LED would illuminate the back and you could see the dial.
Over my childhood, I was always interested in diving watches and explorers' watches. I had a lot of Timexes, Casios and calculator watches, as well as the Ironmans, the Expeditions, and all of that. In my college years, I got a Luminox Navy Seals watch, which I wore for a very long time, as well as a few Victorinoxes. The first vintage watch I purchased was a Seiko 6105 diving watch. At the time I was looking for a Doxa and I was advised, given their obscurity in the market, that I should look at other similar diving watches from that era that might be a little easier to find. I ended up with a Seiko, and that watch I still have. I think I bought the watch really in honor of my grandfather, even though he never had a Seiko.
What is Analog Shift and what drove you to start the business (and in what year was it)?
analog/shift is our company where we buy and sell vintage watches. We do consulting, editorial, portfolio management, and we do appraisals. Ultimately, we tell stories.
I started out in the outdoor equipment and apparel industries, and I worked professionally in the luxury automotive industry for a long time. I worked for BMW Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Audi and became disillusioned with working for a large company. I liked the products, but working there was never really that fulfilling.
In 2011 I decided what I really wanted to do was get into the watch business. I explored the idea of working for an auction house only to find that you needed to work in watches before they'll let you work in watches! As a result, with the guidance of some good friends, I decided to go into this business professionally as “a gentleman dealer”--buying and selling watches a few at a time for beer money. Over the years, I had done this on the side, but in 2012, I made the decision to “go pro” and do it for a living.
In what ways is analog/shift different today than it was in its first year?
When I started in 2012, I had two partners, and we were running it out of my apartment in Harlem. I really wasn't sure if it was going to be my full-time thing. It was just a more professional way of doing what I was already doing. But as it's grown, we now have a staff, we have facilities in Manhattan, and we're sort of globally recognized.
We have a very robust Instagram following. Social media's very big for us, and I've always gotten a kick out of the fact that we really do sort of espouse the analog or vintage ideals, yet we operate online which is an ironic element to our business. Needless to say, our business has grown exponentially, so looking back on the early days, to know that the vintage watch community is as robust as it is, has grown as much as it has, and to not only to be a part of it, but also to be a market leader in that regard, is very humbling.
You have had several different competitors pop up over the last year or so. What makes analog/shift different?
I think that anytime the market begins to blossom, you inevitably attract people who feel like they can make a buck. Some of these guys know a little about what they're talking about, and a lot of them don't. I think that's where the biggest dangers are in any industry, and watches are no exception.
A lot of the guys who have popped up with flashy Instagram profiles (and a couple with even nicer-looking websites) don't have experience, they aren't doing it full-time, they aren't authenticating their watches, they aren't servicing their watches, and they aren't standing behind their watches. I’ve seen more of these guys come and go in the last 10 years than you’d think, but not to say there's nobody doing a good job.
We recently partnered with one of these guys who’s doing a good job. His name is Nick, and he runs a company called 10:25 Vintage. Admittedly, he came to us and told us he liked what we were doing and wanted to emulate it at a different price point. We really liked what he was doing: we liked his attention to detail, that he was getting everything checked out and serviced, and that he was standing behind his products.
His clients were happy, and we actually brought him in, and he’s sort of operating our entry-level products at this point which is great. So, I do believe there's room for everybody, though I would encourage anybody who's thinking about doing it to strongly consider the liabilities involved, especially dealing in vintage.
I'm obviously a big fan of your Instagram feed. What significance has social media played on your business?
Instagram and social media have been huge for us. I think that I got very lucky. I'm somewhat of a troglodyte when it comes to technology. I never had Facebook or MySpace. I had Instant Messenger back in high school, but that was the extent of it.
So, technology for me, individually, has always come a little bit slowly. But Instagram, I picked up on it right away, and I think it was simply because it was a picture, a comment, and do you like it or not? There's no status updates, it's not who you're dating, or where you are, it's just look at this. It's cool, and I think for watches, and why the watch community has such a robust following on Instagram, in general, is that watches are very tactile and visual things, and if you can't hold onto it, or put it on your wrist, the next best thing is seeing it outside of the catalog.
When you’re seeing these pictures of watches on wrists, you get a real sense of what that would look like in the real world. And it's also roughly the same size when you hold the phone and get an idea of what it might look like on your wrist. Very early on, we decided that our presentation wasn't going to be antiseptic.
It was going to be real life. We weren’t going to touch up blemishes. We're just going show the watches in cool environments being exactly what they were. So, we’re over 60,000 followers now, and I think that puts us at the top of the pecking order in terms of vintage watch dealers globally. We have one of the larger followings in the community, as well, so we're very fortunate to have developed that at an early stage, and we'll continue to use that extensively until, of course, Instagram gets replaced.
analog/shift's Instagram hosts Omega Speedmasters as well watches made by Doxa fairly frequently. What's the appeal of these two brands for you?
Omega, of course, is a massive brand and the Speedmaster is without question their most important watch. In fact, it's been suggested that it might be the most important watch ever made for the simple fact that it went to the motherfucking moon. I think that there's something brilliant about a tool that wasn't designed to do something, but was picked to do it because it was the most capable.
Obviously, going to the moon on the Apollo 11 mission has put it into a category that is untouchable by any other watch, not to mention that it's incredibly well-made. It's a beautiful watch, and it's got a great history, both before and after the space program. So, Omega Speedmasters are definitely a key component to what we're doing, and I don't think we'll ever be analog/shift without the Omega Speedmaster.
Doxa is a far lesser-known brand. It's about 10 or 11 years older than Rolex, so it has some serious history, but the Doxas that we're most frequently posting about are the Sub 300 series from the late 60s and early 70s. What I like so much about these watches is they were the prototypical divers watch built for divers. It's important to know that they aren’t the first divers' watches. That honor usually goes to Blancpain with the 50 Fathoms, or Rolex with the Submariner.
Both, of course, are icons of design, as well as incredibly important, historical diving watches, but, Doxa was purpose-built from the ground up to be a divers watch for both amateur divers and professional divers, and they came out at a time when scuba diving was really beginning to blossom into an international sport. Doxa, despite the fact it’s been under the radar for most collectors, has developed some of the key components that go into a modern diving watch: the unidirectional rotating diving bezel with the U.S. Navy “no decompression” dive chart engraved into it, high visibility dials--many other watches are bright colored, but orange being their original color, and that came out at a time when most watches were black--and also they pioneered the divers extension in the bracelet so that it fit over a wetsuit easier. These are things that are required to be dive watch certified by the ISO today, and Doxa did it first.
Doxa has been on my personal radar for most of my life. There's a character by the name of Dirk Pitt who's the primary protagonist in Clive Cussler’s line of escapist fiction novels I've been reading my entire life. Cussler had previously been a diver and worked at a dive shop, and had been given an orange dial Doxa Sub 300, and he wrote it into his books. I've been reading these books since I was in elementary school, so somewhere in my subconscious, I knew I always wanted one, and it was the first watch I went looking for after my grandfather's death when I decided I was going to get into finding watches for my own collection.
Aside from the model's historical relationship with space travel, why do you think the Speedmaster models are so great?
I think there's a beauty that comes in a form-follows-function design. I think there's a number of incredible movements they've used in these watches over the years, so they're robust and they're beautiful. I also think the evolution from the original 1957 models up to about 1968: 11 years of development to nail the perfect watch, which adds to this element of study. And it's important to note that from 1968 to the mid-1990s, and really beyond that, the watch really never changed that much. Even today, when you go buy one, all of its core roots go back to those early days, and I think that’s the true meaning of an icon. You will never confuse a Speedmaster with another watch.
When we met, I shared that I had thought about buying a "birth year" Submariner. You actually talked me out of it. Can you again share the ins and outs of why people shouldn't be hell bent on buying a watch from their birth year?
I'm a vocal advocate of avoiding the birth year thing. Unfortunately, this is a confusing topic. And a number of other dealers are less likely to give you the whole story. The idea of buying a birth year, or special commemorative year, watch of any variety is a good one, but the problem is that during the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and really, even in the early 80s, most of the big brands we know of (Rolex, Omega, TAG Heuer, Longines, so on and so forth) were mass-producing watches in a batch manufacturing process.
What that means is they weren’t building a watch from point A to point D, in a linear line, and then putting it all together and sending it out. They were building a whole bunch of movements over here, a whole bunch of dials over here, a whole bunch of cases over there, then throwing them into bins by the batch-full, and then assembling them and shipping them as needed. So, what you’re going to get is often a case with a serial number that roughly dates to, let’s say, 1970, the movement comes from 1968, it was assembled in 1971, and then sold in 1972. So, what year is the watch? Ultimately, it becomes a very subjective topic that you have to decide which way you're going to age it. Are you going to age it based on what years the papers were signed? Are you going to age it on what year the serial number on the movement of the case brings it to?
Secondly, and this is also important to note, most of these big brands will not disclose in what year the watch was made. All of the dating tools that you see online are put together by collectors or by dealers. So again, it’s subjective at best. My recommendation is always: buy a great watch from an appropriate era. Don't get hung up on that particular year, because we may never know. You may never know if that watch was made in ’81, or ’82 or ‘83 or ’84. Just buy a watch “from the early 80s” and you’ll be much happier.
The vintage market is obviously at an all-time high; prices are arguably out of control. Why do you think this is, aside from supply and demand characteristics?
I don't think it's out-of-control. I think that it’s easy to look at it that way if you’re just coming in and seeing some of these huge numbers certain models are bringing, or certain brands are bringing. I look at it as a two-pronged effect. I see it as a return to values, and I think that people who are luxury buyers--people who are well-heeled luxury buyers--are sick of the spin and the hype that are being perpetuated in the luxury industry.
If you want ultimate exclusivity, you have to go with something that no one else can buy. Even if it's a limited edition of five watches for a million bucks each. Well, you and four other guys who are millionaires can go buy that watch. That's not truly exclusive. It's special, and maybe even a great watch, but if you want something that's truly unique, you have to go with something that’s aged in a unique way that’s had that story and makes it truly one of a kind.
I think more people are getting into that mentality which expands beyond watch collectors. It goes into fashion-driven people, and it goes into people looking at the organic movement. By that I meant the organic, authentic, homegrown, bespoke, quality goods. Buy it once and keep it. Even if you’re only wearing one watch--we’re having plenty of people coming in wanting only one good vintage watch.
Of course, then there are the financial markets, which have been shaky, to say the least, so what we're looking at are finance guys looking to diversify their portfolios by moving into physical commodities. Now, I personally like to see watches going to people who are going to love and enjoy them, and aren’t going to get stuck in a vault for speculation purposes, but it doesn't hurt the industry to see watches that were once thrown away being saved and enjoyed. Supply and demand is part of it, but it also goes into financial reasons, into emotional reasons, it goes into fashion reasons, and I don't think it's going anywhere. I think the vintage watch market will continue to grow.
With an obvious limited supply, for how much longer do you think the price climbs of these vintage pieces will hang on?
I think that you've got some micro bubbles within this larger market growth segment, and ultimately, there may be drops or leveling out, but I think that overall vintage watches as a marketplace are only going up.
What's your opinion of the current state of the new model watch market?
The numbers for the high luxury industry have been dropping significantly over the last few years, which is interesting. But I don't think it means that new watches are out. What I think it means is collectors and consumers, in general, are far savvier, and are demanding more from the manufacturers. So, I think where you're seeing the areas of loss are in the hyped goods that really aren't that high quality. They’re packaged, they’re hyped and they’re pushed out there, and they may be the meat and potatoes for some of these big brands, but people want more. They demand more, and are educated more about the product than they’ve ever been. So, I think that it's kicking a lot of these brands in the ass to realize that for the last 20 or 30 years, they've been living off this luxury high. I think that most of them knew it wasn't sustainable and now that "other shoe" is beginning to drop.
Are there any modern watches you're completely stoked on? What are they and why?
There are modern brands that I love. There are a few brands I think continually knock it out of the park. I'm a huge fan of A. Lange & Söhne, which makes a few pieces that are really brilliant, high horology, and then you know there's IWC, which has a great new pilots collection I think is really well-done. LeCoultre is a perennial favorite of mine, and even a few Rolexes that I think are pretty great, even though I don't care for many Rolexes made after 1983.
Are there any re-issues/tribute watches being released these days that peak your interest? Re-issues seem to be fairly divisive at times...What are your thoughts on them?
I think that the Reverso line is fantastic. I think that the Deep Sea Alarm Collection is fantastic. Tudor’s new collection of heritage models (the Black Bay, the Pelagos, the Ranger and the Heritage Chronograph) are really great. I think that any luxury brand worth its salt is realizing that what customers care about is story, and this is the same thing we're talking about with vintage. So, by offering these pieces that are vintage design and modern execution, I think they're hitting the nail on the head.
Much like the modern editions, it seems the most sought after vintage watches have been Rolex Submariners, GMT's and Explorer's along with Omega Speedmasters as the go-to buys, especially under $20,000, though rare dial versions are in excess of $20,000. What do you anticipate being the next big craze in vintage watch collecting? Are there any modern models out today you anticipate being more valuable than another in the next 20, 30, 40 years?
I think you’re getting into something interesting here. I think the higher the market value these “go-to watches” get to, they do put it out of range for a certain level of consumer, and those numbers are prohibitive as a cost of entry. I think there are brands out there that offer similar looks with excellent quality, construction, and good movements that could conceivably fill that entry-level market. Let’s say the $5 to 10 to 20,000 market values. We’re seeing that already with brands like Universal Geneve and Heuer. I also see room for brands such as Gallet, Eberhard, and a few others.
What advice do you have for those making their first vintage watch purchase?
There are a few prongs here. One: buy with your heart. You have to buy something you love. Don’t buy something someone tells you to buy. Buy something because you love it.
Secondly, make sure you buy it from somebody you can trust. There's an old adage, which is, “Buy the seller, not the watch.” There are plenty of shadowy figures in this business, and you want to make sure you buy a watch from somebody who is going to stand behind it and has a good reputation. More than that, buy from someone who can offer you some real advice. Anybody that tells you what to buy is probably not your ally, whereas someone who can guide you into some of these watches that are off the beaten path a little bit, but offer good value, great looks, and high quality construction, I think that's key.
I think the tendency for a lot of new buyers is to go with a name brand, and there’s a peace of mind that comes with it. But, also keep in mind, it’s the name brand stuff that gets knocked off and will become Frankenwatches before anything else. It might seem safer to buy a Rolex, but it's only safe if you’re buying a good one. Use your head, use your heart, and buy something that's really great. And that doesn't mean a lot of money has to be spent.
What are some sources people can use to cross reference potential watch purchases to ensure they're not buying a fake or getting taken for a ride? Any ones, in particular, you stand by?
People more than anything. There are buyers’ guides and charts and websites like Speedmaster 101, On The Dash, but I think the best resources are always people. I think there are really good people in this industry. There's more terrible people in this industry, but there are great people like those at the Phillips and Christie's auction houses. The people at Hodinkee, the people at Worn and Wound, and the people in the On The Dash community. These are resources of passionate people, who've done a lot of hard work because they're passionate, and they're interested, and those are the best guys. Books are great, but they can't talk with you. They can only show you stuff. So it's all about the people.
When I was in your office in December, I noticed a really unique poster on your wall. Can you talk a little bit about Red Bar Group? How it started, what it's all about, how often you meet, topics discussed…things like that?
Red Bar Group is a community of watch enthusiasts that started here in New York about a decade ago, and it was a few guys who met at a place called Red Bar, which no longer exists. It evolved into a massive, international social gathering club of watch enthusiasts who meet as frequently as once a week, though another chapter may meet once a month. We have chapters in dozens of cities worldwide. It's an online, social media-based community, and it's really to help grow the watch community. It's based on those traditional values of getting together over a pint of something boozy and talking about watches.
Today it’s now grown into an LLC, of which I'm a member, and we are using our community to raise awareness about the watch community. We work with brands, but we also do some fundraising for charity events locally, and are encouraging our chapters to do the same. Red Bar has evolved dramatically in the last few years from, really, just an unstructured gathering, consisting of a very low-key meet-up to becoming huge numbers of people coming out every week to hang out and talk about watches. Great friendships have been formed and, yet again, it's all about the people. We talk about watches, we talk about anything to do with watches, from vintage to high horology, and even Swatches and things that are purely design-based, to have a great time. That's really the purpose. There are other communities in this industry that are a little bit snotty, or a little bit more exclusive. You have to have X-dollars on your wrist to be invited to their meetings, or they have very structured and formatted gatherings, but that's not what we're about. We’re about loving watches, having some drinks, and perpetuating the love that this industry has a tendency to create in people, and then giving something back.
STANDARD H has used watches as inspiration for design as well as somewhat of a metaphor for our overall branding. Clearly, cars have also played a role. You're a car advocate, as well. Tell us a bit about the types of cars that you like, you own, or care to own. What's the dream car (assuming you don't already have it)?
Boy, another can of worms here, my friend. I've been a car guy longer than I've been a watch guy, and growing up in New England meant room for cars. Living in New York City: not so much. I've owned a lot of cars, primarily vintage European cars from the 70s and 80s. I've had a lot of BMWs, some Land Rovers, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and a couple British things in there. I currently drive a 1967 Porsche 912. I have a couple 1980s BMW 5 Series, as well, and I'm in the process of trying to purchase back my grandfather’s 1938 Packard, which I suppose, for the moment, is my dream car. It’s probably not a car I would otherwise be interested in, but that connection, that story to my grandfather is sort of overriding everything else. Aside from that, I have pretty diverse taste from a 1959 Cadillac, to early 2-door Range Rovers, to a Ford GT. I have a real appreciation for automotive design and automotive history. I love to drive, and getting on a racetrack whenever I can, but whether it's cruising or racing these days, anything with four wheels puts a wide smile on my face, and it preferably has three pedals.
Last Fall, you were here in Southern California with Ben Clymer from Hodinkee. What was the purpose of that trip, and what were the cars you were driving up and down the PCH every day?
Well, I was actually in California with Ben twice over the last quarter of last year. One was actually all about cars, as it was a press trip with Cadillac. We went as guests of the brand to the Quail Motorsports gathering, and, of course, the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance. We did a whole bunch of cool stuff with Cadillac while we were out there. We also managed to have a little watch get-together at Fourtane Jewelers in Carmel, as well. Then, I was there again with a brand that was hosting an opening ceremonies for their new boutique. We then met up with a buddy, Ted Gushue, the "Chief Honcho" over at Petrolicious, and we took his 911 out for a spin on the PCH which was good fun.
Why do you think watch guys and car guys are often one in the same?
I think they're one in the same due to the parallels of those stories, and those designs, and the mechanical elements that get guys excited. There's pros and cons to that, because just like in watches, there are car guys who are about the flash, who are about the price tag. They’re about the exclusivity, the luxury elements, which are fine, but they're not really what we’re looking for. We’re looking for the guys who just love cars, and love watches. So, there’s crossover, for sure, and substantial crossover, but it's not a guaranteed thing.
I would actually say watch guys are more inclusive than car guys. Having spent a lot of time in car culture, what I've found is that car cliques can be a little bit elitist, and a little bit standoffish to the other guys. So, you’re a Ford guy, or a Chevy guy. You’re a Porsche guy, or you’re a Ferrari guy. You’re a BMW guy, or a Mercedes guy. There are fewer guys who are just car guys.
What I have found in watches is, while there are people who are an independents-only, or Patek-only, or Rolex-only, if you’re the type of person who appreciates the craftsmanship of mechanical watches, which don't even do a great job of telling the time as compared to your $10 quartz watch or your iPhone, you're more likely to appreciate the watches that somebody else might own. And even if it’s a brand that you would never yourself own, you’re probably going to be drawn to it. You’ll want to figure it out, and you’ll want to understand it, and that just doesn't happen in cars.
If you're a Mustang guy, you’ll never look at the Camaro and see its virtues. And that's a little bit of gross generalization there, but it's just something that I’ve picked up on in my time not only working in, but also spending time in the collector communities for both cars and watches. I think the watch people are really accepting of other watch people, and I love that.
I'll be honest, I don't quite know how to finish this interview because I could seriously talk for hours about all of the above, so I'm putting the ball in your court: You're driving off into the sunset. Where are you, what car are you driving, and what watch is on your wrist?
Wow, I think this is a scenario that could change any number of times given my desire to do that pretty much every day. (laughs) Right now, I think I'll go back to that 1938 Packard 110 convertible that belonged to my grandfather. That's the car that's firmly ingrained in my mind right now, and I'd love to be sitting in that car; probably on Cape Cod, which is where he spent his last days. It's not my favorite place in the world, but it was his, and I'd love to be driving his car around Cape Cod. I think I would probably be wearing, and it's a very contrasting issue, but it's an A. Lange & Söhne LANGE 1, which is a 38mm platinum model that I've been lusting after for some time. It's very, very modern, very, very new, and very, very German, whereas the car is pre-war American, and couldn't be more different. But, they are two things that I love. There's a little bit of story, some great design, and real quality. I think that scenario of driving out to Nauset Beach in Cape Cod in my grandfather's Packard 110 with that beautiful watch on my wrist would put a pretty big smile my face.
Find out more about Analog Shift HERE.