Hi JD, for those who don’t know, who are you and what do you do?
Initially, I dreamed of sculpting the shapes of amazing cars, but have ended up in a waterborne version of my dream, designing large custom yachts, but that has opened new doors and allowed me to collaborate with heroes of mine like Neil Ferrier and David Levy, working on other sundries, from insane custom furniture to vehicles for future movies that I’m not allowed to talk about!
How do you like to unwind?
Again, time with those people, often with a bit of golden Scottish liquid, and sometimes in unexpected corners of the world. The last year or so has had me in India, China, Iceland, about a third of the US states, lots of Europe, and repeated visits to the ‘Yacht Capital’ of the world, Monte Carlo. Often that unwinding will involve some form of transportation device, as that passion never really wanes.
Mountain bikes on the east coast, cars in California, trains in India, and, of course, the big boats in Riviera-flavoured places. However, despite (or perhaps because of) all the travel, I have a special love for merely unplugging with friends and family at undisclosed pristine beaches in the Carolinas, where my family is, and enjoying time near (and in) the ocean — what Iggy Pop called “the end of complications”, and I don’t think he meant watches.
Let’s talk watches. What’s your daily watch and why?
For years now, it has been one of those funny Swiss-American hybrids, a Luminox Colormark 3051 with the poly/carbon case and the signature tritium elements. I wore it for a while with the standard strap but found it uncomfortable and somewhat brittle, so I transitioned to a NATO/G10 in a grey stripe, and sometimes a black 4-ring ZULU style.
My dad works with law enforcement and military types and gave me the watch as a gift many years back. Part of the reason it became my daily is that the TSA wouldn’t fuss at me to take it off since it never tripped ye olde metal detectors, and that, combined with the comfort of the G10, made it a natural choice.
What else is in your collection? Have you got a favourite?
A few sundries in my very novice collection: the Luminox mentioned above being my initial and modest foray into a semi-Swiss sourced piece, then made the jump to a 16610 Submariner from 2003. Later on I added a few autos that shall remain nameless for my dignity’s sake but that I have enjoyed nonetheless, and in the last few years I added the more than slightly Monaco-looking Certina Podium DS Square that has a bit of a tale behind it. On the “normal human” watch front, I still have a badass all-titanium Fossil chrono that my family sprung for when I graduated high school and was the watch that really woke me up to analog cool back in the day. I just picked up a couple of interesting Great George models, with CH movements, but built in NYC, and fun for a weekend away; and I may have a nice raw leather strap on a sacrilegious machine from Cupertino that I wear from time to time …
You mentioned you had some interesting stories surrounding the pieces you do own; would you mind sharing those?
I’ve got a couple of stories attached to the Rolex and Certina, and I’ll share the Sub story first:
Finishing design school back in the early ’00s I took a summer job as a valet at a brand new five-star hotel, and I was there working with some interesting characters. One of the guys was always driving nice cars, and had a fascinating family history in Brooklyn, with some Italian flavour to it. One particular day he had this beautiful Sub on his wrist, but it was a rough day, with lots of VIPs coming in, and events we were juggling across multiple entrances, and we were being run ragged. At one lull in the action, I noticed something rather shiny in the bin and saw my friend’s naked wrist. Upon inquiring, he said he’d had a row with his father, who’d given him the watch, and also in all the action of the day, the bracelet pin on the watch had broken, so he had just tossed it in a rage. I gently offered to retrieve it, but he was adamant that it stay in the bin. But upon pressing him, he finally said he’d let me “buy” it from him for any cash I had. I promptly emptied my wallet, and there wasn’t all that much in it, and he gladly handed over the watch. The Sub has since been around the world with me and breathed the air of four continents. The bezel pearl has decided to leave me and go on her own adventures, and the Sub itself is in serious need of a tune-up soon!
My other tale revolves around my accelerated launch into the world of yachts. I was in the process of being pursued in an accelerated way to take a “design lead” role at a prestigious and award-winning yacht design firm in Europe. There was added pressure on the conversation because the firm was being pressed by a yacht building shipyard in the midst of being acquired by one of its clients. This client had insisted that his project was offered not only to the firm engaging me but also the most prolific yacht designer on the planet, in a rather heated “design shootout” for what would become a nearly $100 million project. A fairly novel process, yet the firm engaging me was the incumbent. There was a distinct scent of the threat to the partnership in the air, and hence the speed at which they sought to install me in the process. I had to come over to Europe well ahead of my official hire date, to fast-track the development of the design for the looming pitch date. I had to extend my initial stay by double, to complete everything needed for the presentation and even lost my girlfriend back in the US.
During this intense, jetlagged period, working long hours, the founder of the firm and I went for a walk into town well after everyone else went home from the studio. We strolled down the high street of this small western European town. As all the shops were already closed, we took to some window shopping. On our way, we passed the local jeweller, who had some very sharp Swiss pieces in the window. Of course, we began chatting about watch design and played the boyhood game of choosing favourites. My favourite was a square, black-faced Certina, with a warm leather band, and a polished bezel. I eventually exclaimed I’d better not stare too long, lest I come back and buy it … to which my boss then quickly responded, “If you help me win this design shootout, I’ll buy it for you!”
I told him he had a deal, and we marched back into battle. Weeks later (perhaps months), we were in the throes of bringing the prize we’d won to life — the design had been decisively awarded to us — and the boss lit up one afternoon, and exclaimed: “I owe you a watch, don’t I?!” I sheepishly told him he might. He generously even had the watch upgraded before delivery. I wore it proudly in Monaco when the yacht was finally finished a couple of years later and was awarded “Queen of the Show” by Prince Albert himself at the inimitable Monaco Yacht Show.
As you can imagine, I have travelled everywhere with it ever since — until, through a strange twist of circumstances, I was staying on the old Meriwether Lewis family property in Virginia, of Lewis and Clark fame, ghostwriting a memoir for a captain of industry on a break from the world of yachts, when I had the Certina go missing somehow on a particularly intense week of work. As you can imagine, I was very sad to see such a hard-won touchstone disappear, and later made a eulogistic post on Instagram in the memory of the watch and its story. Cue a hero named Sam, who messaged me from the other side of the country, who shared with me that he had been given the exact watch as a gift in the past, and was moved enough by my story to want to ship me his mostly unworn watch, just as a gesture of kindness (I have since done some work with Sam, and hope to do more in future). So, the spirit of my treasured Certina Podium Square lives on, and many times I even forget it isn’t the original prize for winning that first and epic yacht battle.
So, let’s talk yachts. How did you end up designing them? It doesn’t sound like the type of job that gets advertised online.
It is quite an unusual adventure to be sure. As mentioned, I was initially dreaming of being a car designer (and fighter pilot, as you do). However, several factors didn’t line up, and I didn’t end up going to any of the three viable car design schools in the world. Instead, I landed at a top public design school here in the US. I stayed fairly stuck on transportation design, and I think that was recognised when one of the alumni walked through my senior studio and said, “I like your work, you should work with me some.”
I asked what he designed; his response: “Superyachts”. That was when the lightbulb came on. I didn’t work with him very long, but I’d seen behind the curtain, and I knew there was more than was possible, and so despite the recession being in full swing, I kept poking at the industry, and at possibilities within it, until one day, I got an email from a firm in Europe, and you’ve already seen how that story went! More than 12 years in now, and still excited about all that is possible — both for having other industries influence the world of luxury watercraft and vice versa.
Can you tell me about one of your current projects that you’re working on?
The world of custom superyachts is never a predictable one, and it’s also almost invariably a very long-game industry, as you can imagine with the scale and scope of projects like these. We have about 15 projects in various stages and varying scales at the moment, from a 40-ft yacht tender for a new Italian builder partnering with another ally of ours in the US, to a full-on 132-metre ‘Gigayacht’ in development for a client with a family that already has one family member with a similarly sized vessel.
One of my favourite projects so far this year is a 48-metre yacht we have been developing with a European shipyard that has had its form and function informed by the ethos and legacy of the 21st century version of Marvel’s Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. The yacht has a very aggressive design, a severe amount of power, and a cornucopia of features beyond even what the superyacht world often sees. We are working with members of the actual design team behind all of the fantastic Iron Man suits you’ve seen in the films, and have even been speaking with UK’s Richard Browning, creator of the ‘real world’ Iron Man suit, with his ironically monikered company Gravity — worth checking out if you haven’t.
Also working with Discommon Concepts on a new project that should have horologists smiling before the end of the year. Stay tuned.
Cars, boats, watches … what is the common denominator in your opinion?
I could rant on that for some time, but you can already see that all of these topics are major passions of mine. In brief, I’d say that there is something nearly primally magnetic about any purpose-built machine, weapon, or toy … especially when carved out of any hard, metallurgical substance. I’m reminded of the line from Jurassic Park: “Is it heavy? Then it’s expensive, put it down!” I think there is a metaphysical draw to power, complexity and substance intrinsic to humanity, and it is something we seek in other human beings, but in some ways can be most easily found, understood and experienced in the tools and toys we are discussing here.
I would almost call the pursuits and experiences of all of these aspects in the outside world an educational experience for what we seek in each other. Is that a sufficiently non sequitur answer? Bet you’ve never gotten that one before.
From a design perspective, is there a particular watchmaker you’ve noticed lately that is at the top of the game? And are there any specific designs you love or are drawn to?
Well, I’ve been more exposed of late to the “horology tailors” like Discommon — and badly want a Discautavia — but, to your question, I don’t hold one yet! I have been fascinated by the lengths covered by Neil and George Bamford (of Bamford Watch Department) to fine-tune machines that are already filled with legacy and story. It’s been intriguing to see these tailors come in and carefully adjust that DNA for the bravest adventurers out here on the bleeding edge. I’ve enjoyed watching Mr Bamford evolve from disruptor/watch tailor to something new, with the highly savvy LVMH group, who I have worked with in several of their superyacht holdings. I now have begun to appreciate the watch side, thanks to some events I joined Neil at this year.
I know this isn’t an answer (or question) for the purists, but I’ve seen the same nascent potential in both the watch sector and the yacht sector — I believe we have been riding a wave of passion and innovation from the 20th century, and we are now in an era that is ripe for a coup, and I’m eager to see how the mainstream sector responds to fascinating and disruptive movers like Max Büsser, and Urwerk — movers that have an appreciation and understanding of what has come before, but eager to pull us all kicking and screaming into a new chapter.
Lastly, I’m a sucker for tourbillons and love that one of the tourbillon masters, Jaquet Droz, has been playing with past and future with their signing machines. Someday!
What’s your number one design rule that can never be broken?
Never make a move without passion and vision. You need both.