Welcome to 2020’s first installment of TickTalk. In this interview, I’m chatting with my local Denver buddy and renaissance man of the online watch community, James Smith, aka @TheJames80. James first reached out to me about four years ago after realizing I was posting Instagram pics tagged from Colorado’s Front Range. The two of us joined forces and, with the help of Terry (@toxicnatos), formed the MileHighWatches group for the Denver metro area. Over the last few years, we’ve bonded over our love of vintage chronographs and divers, and had our fair share of exciting mid-week meet-ups to orchestrate deals over coffee or to show-off our newest ticking treasures. From the early days on the dive forums, James has been a champion for the newly emerging micro-brand diver market, and that’s where we begin our conversation.
RWG: Thanks for joining me, James! We have some juicy watch talk to get down to. You’ve been a big advocate/supporter of the micro-brand companies. How would you define a micro-brand watch to a newbie? What sets micro-brands apart from the more established brands?
J80: To me, micro-brands, or independent brands, are smaller companies owned by an individual or small group, who usually make unique watches. These watches are personal to each brand, which is the best part - there’s something for everyone. Most focus on value and individual design expressions. There are some brands on Kickstarter (you know the types) who would also be considered micro-brands, but they are essentially making fashion watches. These brands tarnish what most micro-brands are trying to do since they aren’t bringing anything new to the table.
I follow a few brands closely, and I like seeing the small details that they carry over and share among their various lines. Details like the three moons logo on the Halios watches or the Monta sword hands.
RWG: Speaking of micro-brands, what model is your top pick in this category?
J80: Tough to choose just one! Halios has been a favorite over the years (imagine there were six models before the now famous Seaforth). I’ve had my white Tropik for over five years and it was one of my first micro-brand purchases. Nodus has been releasing a bunch of great watches, and I’m currently considering which Sector to get. Choice overload sometimes paralyzes the decision making process!
RWG: It’s fun to see such great designs emerging from these small companies, especially when you’re friends with the guys who run the brands. You’re on a lot of construction sites with your job and I gotta know: which watch in your collection handles jackhammers like a boss?
J80: As much as I’d like to say I use my mechanical watches as tools, when it comes to actual work I always play it safe and go Casio. My white G-Shock or retro Surfing Timer can handle anything I’m able to throw at it. Luckily, my hammer swinging days are behind me, so I now wear all my watches to the construction field office and site inspections.
RWG: I’d like to think your 70s Seiko Yachtsman “UFO” could take a blow from a shovel and keep on ticking. Speaking of, is there a brand besides Seiko that you’re partial to?
J80: Yep, you nailed my favorite brand - Seiko. They have such a great history and variety of watches - most of which are still relatively affordable as the vintage market continues to heat up. Other than Seiko, I don’t have many duplicate watches from brands within my collection. I need to love any watch that’s holding down a spot in the collection since I try to limit my total number of watches (“try” is the key word). Any new watch displaces another watch’s position. Divers are my soft spot - vintage and modern both soak up most of my wrist time. Quirky features might be another favorite of mine - uncommon movements (Lemania 1341, anyone?), front-loading cases (movement being loaded through the crystal), and vintage bracelets.
RWG: Haha...so your answer to your favorite brand besides Seiko is...Seiko. Well played! It’s pretty hard to argue with this notorious brand from Japan, although I think we both have a soft spot for vintage Citizen. How would you describe the watch scene out here in the Mile High city?
J80: In my early days of collecting, there wasn’t a local watch community in Denver. I think that you and I connected in 2016, and along with Terry from ToxicNatos, we started a meet up that became MileHighWatches. Those first few meetings were great - connecting with other collectors in real life made this hobby seem a little more legitimate. I still organize the group for this reason - with the hope of connecting like-minded watch enthusiasts and collectors.
RWG: From my experience, our MileHighWatches community is such an approachable and laid back environment where you’ll see everything from Seiko Mods to classic Rolex Explorers, and everything in between. I think it really captures the Colorado spirit. I have yet to check out the Denver Red Bar group, but I’ve heard it’s cool, albeit a bit upscale for my personal collecting budget. Besides being active in our local scene, you’ve been to Worn and Wound’s Windup NYC multiple times. Why make the trek?
J80: 2019 was my third year making this trip. It began as a way to see all the brands at the show (as intended), but has turned into more of an Instagram convention/guys trip that revolves around watches. Having a reason to spend time in Manhattan is also a plus. As a family man with small kids, this is my one solo trip for the year and I don’t foresee that changing.
RWG: That’s such an awesome yearly tradition. My goal is to accompany you and some of our local friends next year so I can wear a trench coat full of vintage watches to flash to attendees. Is that weird? So, let’s get back to watch talk. What’s more satisfying: having a custom leather strap made for a specific watch or hunting down a vintage bracelet?
J80: Another tough one, but I would have to go vintage bracelet here. The thrill of the hunt is more satisfying, especially when you land a model-correct, brand-signed bracelet. Case in point - landing a NOS Titus signed riveted bracelet for my Calypsomatic. This bracelet was on eBay and the auction turned into a last-second bidding war. With 10 seconds left on the auction, I placed my planned max bid, but that still wasn’t enough to secure the bracelet, so I quickly hit the automatically increase bid button. Thinking I had lost due to running out of time, I tossed my phone down. Only later did I pick it up to see that my frantic last second bidding paid off. I ended up the winner, though I greatly exceeded my original maximum bid. But it was worth it to secure the proper bracelet for one of my favorite watches.
RWG: It takes a ton of patience to wait for the right bracelet to show up on eBay, and things can get a bit irrational when it comes to trying to win the bid. However, I understand the psychology of, “Will this bracelet that’s a perfect fit for my rare watch ever come around again?” Let’s get back to the topic of Instagram, which is where you and I met. How did #bluewatchmonday get started? What’s the secret to its success?
J80: The creation of new hashtags was a phase in 2016, but #bluewatchmonday was the only one that generated any interest from the rest of Instagram (see #watchboxwithlume for a failed hashtag, lol). #bluewatchmonday was actually created by Eduardo (@watches_es) in early 2016, but it wasn’t being used by anyone else. I had several blue watches at the time and had been using #bluemonday to post blue watches on Mondays, but that hashtag wasn’t watch specific, so I looked up #bluewatchmonday and saw it was already created. I reached out to Eduardo to see if he was interested in promoting his hashtag and ever since then the hashtag has been in use. At first it was just enthusiasts that used the tag, but now even some of the big brands are jumping in on Mondays. Pretty cool to see the widespread use, but Eduardo is due most of the credit here. I think his continuous dedication to the hashtag has made it a success.
RWG: For me personally, it’s given me a reason to get out of bed on Mondays. Blue is also one of the more variable dial colors which can range from the pastel on the Halios Seaforth to some dark blue faces which almost look black…and don’t get me started on sunburst blue dials. In your opinion, what’s the ultimate blue dial watch?
J80: Of watches that I own, my current favorite blue watch is my vintage Omega Seamaster 176.007. The blue dial, orange hands, and white tachy ring make it a keeper for me. Grail-wise, a blue vintage Tudor Snowflake would be a personal favorite.
RWG: I love that 70s Seamaster you’re speaking of, and it’s one that has been a rock solid survivor in your collection. When it comes to your personal collecting philosophy, it seems to be a 50/50 mix of flipping pieces and holding on to really special ones for a long time. Some pieces are mainstays, but you’ve also parted with your fair share. Any pieces you regret selling?
J80: Flipping watches is part of collecting for me. Total collection numbers have roughly been the same for several years, so to keep new pieces coming in, watches have to leave the collection. I don’t usually regret moving watches along, though there was one particularly nice Nivada Grenchen Chronomaster Aviation Sea Diver that I wish I had kept. That was before I was comfortable having vintage watches serviced and I got a ‘break even’ offer on it, which I accepted. Nowadays, it would have been an easy service, but there are enough of them out there that I would be able to grab another if I was so inclined. Sometimes it’s just nice to own a piece for a bit and then move it along to the next guy to enjoy. The watches I keep are watches that I truly enjoy owning or collecting. Each is holding down an individual niche in my collection.
RWG: That’s generally my philosophy regarding collecting. If it doesn’t inspire excitement when I take it out of the watch box, it’s time to move it on. And no, James, I haven’t lost that “loving feeling” for my Bulova Surfboard (for the record, James jokingly asks me if this one is up for grabs every time we talk). Before the days of Instagram, I believe you and I were both lurkers on the dive watch forums. Do you still frequent the forums or are they a thing of the past?
J80: I pop into WatchUseek on occasion. The forums were a great place to learn about watches and I still use them when tracking down watch-specific information.
RWG: The forums are like an online encyclopedia to help us learn about the obscure watches we run across in this esoteric hobby. Speaking of hobbies, living in Denver comes with a dose of outdoor adventure. What’s your go-to watch for a rugged weekend in the mountains?
J80: Hiking is tame enough that I can wear just about any of my watches. Snowboarding is more demanding, so I leave the mechanical watches at home for that activity.
RWG: I’m always looking to pick up a “beater” to do outdoor stuff with, and then end up with something I’m utterly unwilling to get scuffed up. What watch (or watches) are you seriously considering investing in at the moment?
J80: I don’t consider watches to be real investments, but it’s been hard to ignore the ever-increasing prices on Rolex and Tudor pieces. Like I said, I would like to see a Tudor Snowflake in my collection someday. Prices have jumped on these so much recently that they’re probably out of my comfort zone for a single watch. I do turn 40 in 2020, so maybe it’ll work out (like a milestone birthday is an excuse to buy an expensive watch, lol).
RWG: I, too, am turning the big 4-0 this year and I think you just gave me a justifiable excuse to buy myself a nice watch. For those who follow you on Instagram, they know you’re one of the standout watch photographers. In your opinion, what’s the hardest watch you’ve ever tried to photograph?
J80: Seiko has made several watches with tricky double-domed crystals (Tunas and 6159-7001’s crystals are similar to each other). My Citizen Crystal Date has a flat-top crystal with an inner dome that requires atypical mitigation for reflections. I think this was a common crystal among vintage Citizens. All-time most difficult crystal goes to my previously owned O&W Caribbean 1000. I believe it had a 5mm thick acrylic crystal. Awesome vintage diver, but every photo had a reflection on the tall domed crystal.
RWG: I could have sworn you were going to say that 1970 Accutron Deep Sea 666 diver I loaned you a while back with that bubbly acrylic. I remember your venting to me that it was unphotographable.
Speaking of awesome divers, if someone wants to pick up a good entry-level dive watch (besides the cliche answer of Seiko SKX), what would you suggest?
J80: Any sub $1,000 Seiko would be a good suggestion in my book. The Mini-turtle (still not thrilled with that nickname, but it seems to have stuck) would be my suggestion for an entry-level diver. Black dial on a bracelet would be a classic diver that would handle about every strap you would put it on.
RWG: I still think the Seiko Sumo, while a bit polarizing, is one of the best ‘bang for the buck’ divers out there. Is there a style of watch that just doesn’t work for you?
J80: As nice as they look, I still haven’t come around to dress watches. I had a nice Grand Seiko 4520-8000 years ago but this style just doesn’t feel right on my wrist. Tastes change though, so maybe one day I’ll come around to enjoy this genre.
RWG: Either I’m more mature or simply more refined than you, but I just love a good dress watch. It’s probably because I have daintier wrists than you. What movements/complications do you avoid when hunting for watches?
J80: I’ve had good luck with vintage movements until recently. I’ve tried my luck on eBay with a cheap Lanco Barracuda, and that one has presented a few challenges. It has a Langendorf 1146 movement which was an in-house movement, and I’ve had to buy a donor watch to produce some movement parts that were not readily available. It’s amazing to see how many vintage parts are still out there for this defunct brand (it was absorbed by Swatch group in the 80s). Stick to common vintage movements and you shouldn’t have much trouble getting them to run smoothly.
RWG: Oddly enough, I had to hunt for the exact same movement for a Lanco Seaborn 3000 a few years ago. Back to Instagram. Who are your favorite IG watch accounts to follow (besides @retrowatchguy, obviously)?
J80: Really tough to narrow this down, as I follow several hundred different accounts. I usually like to follow accounts that have the best watch photography. This is to inspire and challenge my own photos. Beyond the established accounts that I assume most are already following, some of my more recent follows are @faceless_watches, @strixpixmix, and @achickenwristsdelight. These guys are doing great photography.
RWG: I’ll have to check those guys out! Any healthy obsessions besides watches?
J80: Watch collecting has spurred an interest in cameras (the two seem to go hand-in-hand for instagramming). My first standalone camera was a Sony RX100 mk2, which I used for all of 2017. I then moved up to a Sony A6000 in 2018, using the popular 30mm macro lens. Even though this camera body is getting to be a few years in age, I’m thinking of keeping it and expanding my lens collection. I’m eyeing a Sony 90mm macro lens at the moment, and I’m watching for a nice deal on a used one.
RWG: You and I have discussed my trying to pick up a used Sony A6000, but honestly, my trusty iPhone camera seems to get the job done. What’s the most finicky watch in your collection?
J80: It hasn’t made its debut yet, but I have a vintage Lanco Barracuda project in the works (reference question #17 above) and it has been giving me more problems than I’m used to. It came in non-running condition, which my watchmaker (@art_of_the_watch) diagnosed as missing teeth on the barrel. This Langendorf 1146 movement still has parts available, and luckily new barrels were among them. Uniquely, this oscillating weight has ruby ball bearings and a few were damaged or missing. These parts are not available, so I had to track down a ‘parts watch’ to supply the needed parts. A bit of a gamble too, so hopefully it pays off and the parts fit. Additionally, I’m trying to source a replacement crystal since the current crystal leaves a gap between the bezel and the crystal, which drives me nuts. Several G-S Diver Tight crystals have been purchased in hopes of achieving a proper fit.
It’s been a lot of work, and hopefully it pays off. If it wasn’t for this project, I would have grabbed that sweet Tavernier Diver that was on your website. It looks to have the same case and even better patina than my Lanco.
RWG: Well, James, you snoozed too long on that Tavernier because it just went to one of our local MileHighWatches friends right after we chatted for this interview!!If you’ve enjoyed my interview with James and would like to check out his fantastic watch photography, make sure to find him on Instagram @thejames80. He was great fun to bounce questions back and forth with, so maybe James will make another appearance with a watch review from his killer collection. As always, keep posted for the next interview.