Crispin Jones came to watches as a sculptor with a quirky take on presenting time. He speaks to Rachael Taylor about the surprise success of his brand Mr Jones Watches, discovering a love of horology and his plans to move more production to the UK.
One of Crispin Jones’ first watch designs was a functioning lie detector, something that doesn’t seem too out there for a designer whose bestselling watches bear messages of death on the dials.
As you might have guessed, Jones is not purely driven by turning a profit. Despite this, his brand Mr Jones Watches has now been going strong for six years, has an international following, plans in the pipeline to bring more production in house to its facility in the capital’s Camberwell and a shop in London’s OXO Tower.
As Jones spreads out his life’s work in watches on a table in his tiny but very well ordered shop, he explains that he never had aspirations to get into the watch business.
After studying sculpture as an undergraduate, Jones went on to complete a masters degree in computer-aided design at the Royal College of Art, and then fused these two loves together to work on a series of special projects for exhibitions that centred on electronic designs that altered the behaviour of their users.
The project started out with a set of ingenious phones designed to improve the etiquette of their owners. One would give an electric shock if the person on the other end of the call was speaking too loudly, therefore encouraging quieter conversations, while another made the user play the phone as a musical instrument to dial out in order to make people think twice about whether they really needed to make a call.
After the phones came a series of watches, each with a purpose. One watch sped up or slowed down time in correlation to its wearer’s stress levels, measured by their pulse, while another would flash LIES if it detected higher levels of sweat on the skin.
Within this collection there was also a watch that communicated the time by sending electronic pulses through two inward facing speakers, with one pulse for hours and another for minutes. Just like a minute repeater, I ask? “Exactly,” laughs Jones. “Except I didn’t know anything about watches.”
Jones was enjoying his work, but his bank balance was not. “All these watches were made for exhibitions and were one offs but I’d been working for five years and it was a frustrating existence,” he says. “If I’d waited 20 years I could have made a good living, as collectors would have bought them, but I needed to pay my rent and I didn’t want to spend the next 20 years living off Pot Noodles.”
While money was coming in from design consultancy work for companies such as Casio and Philips, Jones needed something more stable and viable and in 2007 inspiration struck on a market stall. “I saw some watches on the market selling for £5 and they all just looked like fake Rolexes,” he recalls. “I thought to myself, I’ve made watches, why don’t I make something more exciting?”
The exhibition watches that Jones has made were, in his own words, “quite crude” and he realised that he would need to bring in some expertise so he emailed all of the Chinese watch factories he could find, settled on one and placed an initial order for 500 watches.
That first batch of watches was a huge gamble, both financially, as Jones ploughed all his savings into the project, and aesthetically, as the designs were not entirely commercial.
Jones had a clear vision for the design concept of his watches, which was to create unique and captivating dials using rotating stacks of clear discs decorated with illustrations. It is a technique usually reserved for children’s watches and allows Jones to create experimental, moving designs and do away with the need for traditional hands. This simple system of stacking delivers some complicated results and a never-ending mine of possibilities.
One of the first five watches he created, each in a limited run of 100 pieces, was a follow on from one of his conceptual watches created for the exhibition collection. The original watch was a square face that alternated the time, displayed on an LCD screen, with the message Remember You Will Die. The reincarnation of this watch in The Accurate was a round case and the same message was split in two to create hands.
Much to Jones’ surprise, The Accurate was the first of that series to sell out. “I was quite surprised with how it sold, as to me it seems quite uncommercial, and for me that’s important,” says Jones. “I would wait 1,000 years before Swatch called me up and said ‘Would you make us some watches?’.”
Despite its deathly overtones, the watch is not supposed to be negative but is designed to resurrect the momento mori and remind us to live every moment. “It is not for goth kids with a death wish, it’s about the finite nature of life,” says Jones.
And it would seem that everyone got the message. After the initial 100 sold out, Jones was flooded with emails from potential customers asking when it would be back in stock. “It was a limited edition but I saw no reason why I couldn’t reissue it [in a slightly different way] and that has been our business model ever since,” he says.
Mr Jones Watches releases five designs every year in limited edition. The ones that sell out are reissued with slight tweaks and added into the permanent collection for a period of time, and the ones that don’t aren’t. A fairly sound plan, and one that has proved its merit.
There are now few traditional designs in the Mr Jones Watches range; one is a single-hand watch that tells time in a more relaxed way through a circle that travels over a set of coloured dot hour markers, another has a satellite-inspired dial and some display the time on the teeth of a skull.
“The generation under 40 have grown up without wearing watches so people respond to watches in a way they didn’t 50 years ago when they wanted something functional,” says Jones. “Now people can relearn telling the time, as long as it is consistent.”
The Mr Jones Watches customer base is varied, according to Jones, but has an upper limit, and not because of a desire for functionality or straight time telling. “There is a certain cut-off point as the dials are quite small,” he explains. “We can only do a 25mm disc so the text can only be a certain size and eyesight in the over 60s drops off.”
TWO HEADS ARE BETTER
A key element of recent collections has been collaboration. “In 2012 it was the fourth year that I had been doing the cycle of five watches and it became a bit of a grind and I lost enthusiasm for the process, so I thought I would do a collaboration with people who had an affiliation with time,” says Jones.
Those people have included artist Brian Catling, cyclist Graeme Obree, author Iain Sinclair and comedian Adrian Willard, who created the brand’s current bestselling lines Last Laugh and Last Laugh Tattoo, two watches that have skulls on the dial.
“A lot of the collaborations were a discussion,” says Jones. “Adrian told me that when he met people they would say to him ‘You’re so brave to go on stage’, but he thought there were much worse jobs to fail at.”
With the business rolling along nicely – which is split between direct online sales and wholesale, mostly international – Jones’ attention has shifted to how he can move it forward. “The company turned five last year and it was a time for me to reflect,” he says. “I needed something for the next five years to focus on, so what I thought is I will do more production in the UK. All our product is made in China, and the price and quality are excellent, the only problem is the lead times are enormous.”
PRODUCTION IN THE UK
This transition to the UK has already started with the company investing in a pad printing machine that allows the team at Mr Jones’ Watches facility in Camberwell to print the discs used for the watches in house and, as such, turn a sketch into a watch within a week. “It is an investment, but it will pay for itself,” says Jones. “We’ve already used it for limited editions and there is not a huge premium on those watches. I think we can do our current price points made in the UK within the next five years.”
While Jones might not have known anything much about watches when he first started out, he certainly knows a lot now. While his watches all use quartz movements – outside the made-to-order The Every Day Special that has a date of the buyer’s choosing on the hands -–Jones now has a fairly in-depth knowledge of mechanical watches after signing up to a watch repair night course at Epping Forest Horology Club.
When we meet, Jones is wearing a smart early 1960s steel Smiths Everest Automatic that he bought on eBay and repaired himself. Repairing mechanical watches has become quite a passion and his Mr Jones Watches blog is now littered with videos, photos and descriptions of his work.
“When I first started doing watches I wasn’t interested in the watches themselves, I thought it was pretentious,” he says. “But there is something magical about a mechanical watch. I thought for good karma I should learn as much about watchmaking as I can.”
These studies have led to more complicated watches being introduced, such as its Sun and Moon watch inspired by British watches from the 1600s, which sold out as a limited edition and will now be rolled out this month as part of the permanent collection. Another new watch in the pipeline is a 24-hour version of its world timer, the Time Traveller, which uses famous landmarks to point to the correct time for that country.
When quizzed about future plans, Jones flips the question off with a line about not thinking anything through ahead of time, although he does pinpoint his new venture into clocks as a viable vehicle for growth and will be taking them to the New York International Gift Fair, a show he has been exhibiting at for many years.
In short, while his aspirations of setting up more production in the UK will keep him driven over the coming years and he would, of course, love to see the business grow, mostly he’s fairly happy with his lot, and about letting things take their natural course.
“The business is growing each year and to me it seems sustainable,” he says. “Most of our business is not thought through ahead of time. At the start I got 500 watches made and I thought that five years down the line I’d have 455 left, not still be going.”
But going it is, and much in line with the spirit of his most famous watch, it seems that the real Mr Jones is seizing every day.
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of WatchPro. To read a digital version of the magazine in full online, click here.