Long read: A week in Sydney with Aldis Hodge – Hollywood’s only watchmaker Pt 2Andrew McUtchen
If you missed Part I of the Aldis Hodge interview yesterday, you can find it right here. In Part 2, we get to the core of it. What is Aldis Hodge doing in watchmaking? How did he start? And where is the journey going? Lastly, perhaps most importantly, WHEN will see watches with ‘Aldis Hodge’ or some such variant, on the dial? Settle in, put the kettle on, or decant a bottle of good red. Here is your Tuesday-long-read. Enjoy.
So many questions, all orbiting around a central one; how the hell did Aldis Hodge get so deep into watches? It turns out it’s a hard one to properly answer; It starts with his mother, and one of those sayings mothers say: “‘I remember my mom jokingly saying that the mark of a good businessman was good shoes, a good suit and a good watch’”. I thought, I can get the shoes and a suit, but I can’t get the watch. My mentality for certain things, because money wasn’t always available, was that if I like it I would have to make it in order to get it. This is why I started designing my blueprints for my first house when I was 12. I was an Intern at an architecture firm from 13 to 15 years and then I went to a college eventually for that.
“I wanted to be an architect. But I would have had to quit acting to be an architect. I said I’m not going to do that. I just want to be able to build a company that I can pass down to my kids one day. I want to be able to give people jobs. I want to be able to create something that I can use as a conduit for charitable contributions. Watches was an answer. It was a solution to a problem. I could wrap architecture and engineering all in one.
“I started designing watches randomly. And I was like, ‘This is it.’ And at the end of the day, the nerd in me just wanted a label that said engineer because I was dealing with the superficial stereotypes of how people saw me and I thought being able to say, ‘I’m an engineer’ would help me prove them wrong. These stereotypes are something Aldis continues to rail against in his acting career as well – where roles as “thugs or athletes” were plentiful when he started out, while more complex or nuanced characters were harder to come by.
Aldis’ first steps as a watch designer were naïve to the point of being almost unbelievable. He contacted Hamilton and said he had some designs to show them. They were interested. He jumped on a plane with his design book. They looked at them with what must have been bemusement and said words to the effect of ‘for us to make these designs we’d actually have to produce in-house movements, and that’s not what we do.’ “They told me that, based on my designs, the best way to get my work produced was to become an independent. And that’s what set me on the path to building an independent horology brand.”
So, schooled by Hamilton on the basics, Aldis decided to play the game. He reverse-engineered some designs to work with existing ebauche movements and employed the services of a manufacturer that didn’t turn out to be that great. This is an era that the man does not like to revisit. There are some prototypes in existence. They will NEVER see the light of day. Never ever. In the cab on the way to Hacko’s place he says it again, “No man, no. Never will I let you, or anyone see what I did back then.”
The past – and this prototype era – is dead and gone. But the anecdote reveals a lot about this pretty incredible human being; the passion, the pro-active approach counterpointed with a complete obliviousness about how watchmaking worked when he started out. All of these things heralded Aldis’ tentative first steps into the game – this is no son of a watchmaker, or third generation watchmaking family heir, this is a kid from New Jersey, coming from nothing, self-funded, self-powered dropping in on watchmaking from out of the big blue yonder.
All told, it was the next thing Aldis did that truly set a course for the future. He started studying the watches of one of his absolute favourite independent brands (whose name he prefers to keep under wraps): “I learned how to design movements based off their openwork movements. They don’t make skeleton movements, they make structural architecture. That taught me the associations of where things go…. I started to apprentice with a few people. I got the George Daniel’s watchmaking book, but I still couldn’t understand certain aspects of his teachings because I’m practical and I needed to be able to apply what was being taught in the book. I was like, ‘Damn, I’ve got to go get some machines?’”
“So, now I have an 18th century guilloche machine. I have an early 19th century straight line milling machine. I also started designing base plates, dials, things like that at a jewellery factory that was interested in watchmaking. So I started working with some of the machines I’d bought. And I started learning off friends in the process, like Joshua Shapiro. He is guilloche-ing the heck out of dials, that boy is insanely gifted! I was actually seeing what was going on. It gave me a different understanding for how to manipulate the metals and what my real options were.”
The next breakthrough is where the serendipity starts to kick in. Seven years on from his first Hamilton foray, a watchmaker, who is the top of the mountain as far as Aldis is concerned, took an active interest in his work: “The first watchmaker that actually paid attention to me and gave me some real respect on my work was the same watchmaker who inspired me to become a horological designer in the first place. I was 29, and I was like, I’ll just shout out to him on a whim because I was striking out with everybody.”
Everybody? I push him on this. Who, exactly. “Let’s just say a lot of people advised me not to jump into it. They said don’t bother, there’s no money in it. They were not willing to talk to me. I know that as a celebrity, an actor, other people can see you as a gimmick; ‘Here’s yet another entertainer who wants to just use his face to put on a watch or whatever.’ But this watchmaker who saw my potential was different. He was receptive to my design work and told me that I’m a good designer. He said, ‘You understand watchmaking.’ And for me that was a very high compliment.
“Remember, this is a man whose work I’ve been studying for the last 10 years. Let’s not be cavalier about it, he is easily top three in the world in terms of manufacturers. So at that level, for someone like him – who represents the fulfilment of my personal dreams and aspirations – to be able to say that I had even some decent talent. For me, it was the ultimate motivation to keep going. That was it.”
As for the watches Aldis Hodge wants to make? Well that’s a story we can only partially tell in this story. “I have three things that I’m working on right now that are going to take me some time. But three things that I think if I perfected them, I would absolutely achieve my goal in watchmaking.”
Which is? “I want to be able to contribute something that hasn’t been developed within the watchmaking world by another watchmaker. I want to answer my own question which is ‘How can I elevate the craft of horology’?”
The next steps in the life of A. Hodge watches, which is likely to be the name of the brand when it drops, are major ones. A presentation developed of his final designs. A prototype. And a series launch.
“I have a wonderful manufacturing partner that I’ve been working on designs with for four years. I don’t want people to buy just to buy. I want to build a customer base which is as passionate about me and what I do as I am about giving them something of great quality.”
So, we circle back to a recurring theme over my many conversations with Aldis Hodge: adversity.
“For me to be American, and to take on the idea of wanting to start a whole watchmaking company from scratch in this particular generation? It’s absolutely insane. It’s near impossible. It doesn’t make sense. I know it literally doesn’t make sense. But I’m attracted to impossible things. That’s just how my mind works.
“Impossible has been my life since I can remember, and before that. My life has been impossible and so has my mom’s. I don’t really understand ease. I understand having to hustle for things, having to work for things, and having to manipulate the world around me. I don’t manipulate people, I don’t believe in that. But manipulate and exercise your options in order to create the reality you want.
“I’m attracted to hard things naturally just because that’s normal for me. I have an analytical brain. Everything is a puzzle to me. So if it’s too simple, I’m usually cautioned against it. if it’s naturally difficult, my mind is fixed to look at that and say, ‘I want the challenge.’”
“I’ll be satisfied if I just make one watch, regardless of whether it sells or not. It doesn’t matter, I just want to accomplish bringing to life the vision I see in my head. Then I will honestly be a watchmaker. Right now I’m a watch designer. I haven’t fully earned the right to call myself a proper watchmaker yet. But soon, very soon. Just wait and see.”