Interview with James Dowling
James Dowling has been an active member on TimeZone since the beginning, he is considered a world authority on Rolex and has co-authored the successful book, “The Best of Times: Rolex Wristwatches”.
|RP: Richard Paige – TimeZone.com
JD: James Dowling
RP: We’ve known each other for many years now, and I’ve always wanted to ask you this question: What is it about Rolex that you find so seductive?
JD: Please understand that my interest in Rolex started with the earlier watches, the Bubblebacks, Oysters and Princes.
Well, perhaps I should start at the beginning and explain my whole interest in watches. I have always liked fine machinery, when other kids were looking at locomotives, I was looking at micrometers and admiring the precision. So it seems obvious that at some point I would become interested in watches. And I did, firstly with vintage (pre World War 2) watches; before long I began to specialize in collecting early automatics. You know the sort of thing, Richard; Harwood, Wig Wag, Rolls all that kind of thing. Obviously anyone who collects that kind of watch is going to buy a Bubbleback too and when I did, I discovered that it was the only one of the bunch that actually worked properly. So I started to collect the early Rolex stuff, and as I did I began to research the company and I discovered a watch company unlike all others. Immensely successful yet intensely private and closed. So in many ways it was the challenge of discovering what made the company ‘tick’ that kept me obsessed. I wanted to find out the truth behind the legend, just as much as they wanted to keep it quiet.
RP: Rolex is a very popular watch on the TimeZone, but Rolex’s attitude regarding the Internet borders on the absurd. What’s your take on this policy?
JD: Like I said above, they are a very private company. I have lengthy chats with many people in senior positions (but always outside the company, and always OFF the record) and usually at some point in our discussion I will raise some point where I think that Rolex have got it wrong. When I do, I am usually rewarded by an askance look and I usually reply ‘Well I wish I could be as wrong as you guys’. Richard, the awful truth is that we see small things (in Rolex’s view) like price control and the Internet and we KNOW what we would do in their shoes. Well, the company looks at them as part of a global marketing strategy and knows exactly where they fit. Whatever success Rolex has, is as a partner with their dealers, and it is not to anyone’s advantage to destroy that relationship. Well certainly not as far as Rolex see it.
RP: Congratulations on the success of your book, was it a labour of love, or just a very tedious experience?
JD: No one can work on anything for four years if it is tedious. It was, and IS, my own small obsession; I have not stopped the research or even the writing so when the publishers decide to put out a second edition I will be ready, In the interim some of the research can be found in the TimeZone “archive” section. The funny thing was that I started collecting information on Rolex because I was hearing so much contradictory crap from the various watch dealers I ran into. I knew they could not all be right, so I thought I would find out for myself.
RP: I know from our past discussions that you’ve done some archaeological digs in Israel, opened restaurants in England, and traveled extensively…what “do” you tell people when they ask you what you do for a living?
JD: It depends who they are; essentially I have 3 full time jobs; I run my restaurant consultancy company, I buy and sell watches and I write for a number of magazines. But on the other hand, some people see me as semi-retired in that I have the great luxury of only doing things I enjoy. I was at a dinner party, not long ago, and was sitting next to a famed film director, on discovering what I did with my life; he asked me if I was interested in trading places. I consider myself VERY lucky.
RP: Most people on the Internet see your name as synonymous with Rolex. What other watch companies are you enamored with?
JD: No other companies, per se, however I do collect early automatics, early electro mechanicals and significant quartz watches. I also still buy and keep watches that I just like; so in my ‘regular wearing’ group there are only 2 Rolex watches. I wear a COMEX Submariner or a Milgauss on a daily basis, but when I wear a suit I always wear my Patek 2526 and when I wear a tuxedo (perhaps 2 or 3 times a year) I wear a very early Cartier tank.
RP: What was the first Rolex you ever bought?
JD: I have only been collecting for around 15 years, but I have been traveling for almost twice that period; so the first Rolex I ever bought was a GMT Master which I bought around 25 years ago. Looking back on it, I realize that it was also the last time I bought a new Rolex. Since then every one I have bought has been used (pre owned, is a better word). This attitude is helped nowadays by the fact that all current Rolex watches have sapphire glass and I hate the damned stuff. It reflects, it marks too easily with fingerprints etc. and they stand too high off the bezels. So I confine myself to the ‘plastic’ crystal watches nowadays but as that covers 80 years of the company’s history it is not really a problem.
RP: What is your favorite (for lack of a better word) Rolex model, and why?
JD: It is usually the last watch I got. However, if I were to be honest I would have to say the early Oysters, the cushions and the octagons. If you go to the collection page on my website, http://www.ukwatches.com/index.html, you will see a very early pink gold cushion with enamel dial; that would probably fill the role of my only watch (if I had to be so restricted). It is slim enough to slip under a cuff, it is waterproof enough (20 feet or so, how much more do you need in your REAL life?) and it looks beautiful.
RP: Is Rolex the kind of company that will be more or less relevant in the new millennium?
JD: That is a tough one; I have great difficulty in forecasting anything. However I think that the great success Rolex has had has been due to its decision to leave fashion behind. They go their own way, and if people want to follow that way then that is fine with Rolex, but the difference between them and many other companies is that Rolex have no interest in what any other watch company is doing. Whilst almost every other company is interested in what Rolex is doing; Rolex have never made a ‘me too’ watch, where they have made their own version of some other company’s design; yet the shops are full of other watches styled to look like Datejusts, GMTs and Submariners. So, bearing all that in mind, I do not think Rolex will be at all changed or affected by the millemium.
RP: Are you a watchmaker?
JD: Not in the least; I am one of the least competent people I know. In fact I am dangerous with any kind of tools.
I know this is not normally the place for philosophy but this is mine; ‘knowing what you are good at is important; but knowing what you are NOT good at and staying well away from it is much more important’.
RP: After all these years of playing with watches, is the passion for collecting still strong with you?
JD: Yes, and I am fortunate in that I have chosen Rolex as my metier; because there is so much stuff out there, and so much of it still to be uncovered. Only last week I found one of the earliest known Explorers. Not a 1953 model, as everyone (including me) thinks but from 1944. Made for sale in Canada, it is a model 2784 in gorgeous condition; it was one more proof that it is all out there waiting to be discovered. In truth, this thrill of discovery is one of the things that still keeps me going.
RP: Any interesting inside information that you’d like to pass on the TimeZone audience regarding Rolex.
JD: I have one rule about buying watches ‘You buy the man, not the watch’. In other words there are so many bad watches and bad people out there, that the source is more important than anything else.
RP: Do you have another book in the works?
JD: Oh yes!!!!!!
However I am not at liberty to discuss it here, sorry. Until everything is signed and sealed I am not able to talk about it. However when I am free, have no doubt that TZ will be the first to hear.
RP: You and I have been playing on TimeZone since it’s inception. After all is said and done; do you think TimeZone is relevant?
JD: Of course it is; if nothing else I have made dozens of friends through the Zone. It is a wonderful forum for the exchange of information and I think it is by far the most interesting medium of intellectual interchange I have ever come across. What distinguishes it from most of the other forums is the amazing diversity of the participants. Not just geographically but also intellectually, where else can you find discussion of number theory, or the molecular properties of metals and all this done whilst remaining on the topic at hand.
We take two vacations a year and on one of them, the summer one, I do not bring my computer; it usually takes me only 2 or 3 days before the withdrawal symptoms set in. Last year I had to be physically dragged away from a cyber cafe in Siena, sad really, isn’t it?
In the end, Richard, I would like to thank you very much for asking me these questions and giving me a chance to respond. But I would like to thank you much more for keeping TZ going and giving all of us a home in cyberspace.