Recently, the sporty Swiss watch brand Alpina announced that actor William Baldwin (Backdraft, The Squid and the Whale, TV’s “Gossip Girl”) will be the celebrity brand ambassador for its new line of Alpina Divers watches. The brand welcomed Baldwin in a gala press event at New York’s Maritime Hotel in late June. At the event, WatchTime sat down with the actor — a fan and collector of fine watches — for a candid chat about timepieces and the role they’ve played in his life and career.
WT: How many watches do you have in your collection?
WB: It’s not really that extensive… I have about 25 watches, which is more than most people have but not more than most collectors have. I don’t know if you could call it “eclectic,” but it’s got a a little bit of everything.
WT: Do you remember your first watch?
WB: The first watch I ever owned was a Timex that my father got for me when I was about 12 years old. After that, I got a great Kermit the Frog watch, a gift from a friend who worked for Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. And I got this great “Chairman Mao” watch, which I still love. My brother bought me this beautiful black, dress Movado, and my wife purchased a great Rolex for me. Over the years since then, I’ve collected several other watches. I have a few other Rolexes, some Cartiers, Breitlings, Baume & Merciers and TAG Heuers. And, of course, I’ve got several Alpinas.
WT: What is it that motivated you to acquire all those watches? Did you become a more serious collector after you had become successful and had more cash?
WB: Yes, of course. When I was a kid, my father was a teacher making $19,000 a year and he had six children. We never owned a car that worked, we never went on vacation, we never ate in restaurants. At one point, the phone company was threatening to turn our phone off, our mortgage lender was threatening to throw us out of our house. After I graduated college, and started modeling and eventually acting, I started becoming more successful — traveling in circles that were far more sophisticated and cultured. I worked in Africa, Europe, Asia and the West Indies and I was around lots of dynamic people. But I still always look for deals. My wife [singer-actress Chynna Phillips] used to go shopping and spend $25,000, $30,000 buying clothes. I would say, “Why would you do that? You have a publicist; if you call the publicist right now, she can make three phone calls, and those clothes that you bought, you could have gotten for free.” She said, “I don’t want to deal with the hassle.” I said, “If you’re going to be married to me, you’re going to start dealing with the hassle!” [Laughs] You just have to learn how to play the game.
WT: Was that the case with most of your watches?
WB: No, I’ve purchased many of them, but many others have been given as gifts, either by studios or by my wife, or my brothers. My wife actually has a watch that she stole from her mother. Her mother is Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, and she did a movie called Valentino with Rudolf Nureyev. When they wrapped the movie, Nureyev gave her a Rolex, and now my wife has that watch. So, besides Nureyev’s Rolex, we have one that that was given to Michelle from a former lover who was a Spanish bullfighter in Mexico. They spent a few months together back in the early ’70s and he gave her his Rolex. We’ve stolen that watch, too!
WT: That is a rather eclectic collection… of watches and stories.
WB: We do have lots of stories. When I proposed to my wife, she wanted to have a gift for me. So she purchased this gift, gave it to my assistant and said, “I know Billy and I are getting married. I don’t when he is going to propose, but when he does, and he gives me the engagement ring, I’d like to have this gift there to give to him.” My assistant, of course, knew when I planned the proposal and was in the loop. So after I proposed to my wife — got on my knee and put the ring on her finger — about a half hour later, I was at the Carlyle Hotel in New York and the staff brought up a gift from the hotel. It was caviar and Champagne along with a little box with a love letter from my wife. Inside the box was a Rolex watch, and on the back of the watch she’d removed the caseback and replaced it with a flat platinum plate with “YES!” engraved in bold capital letters. That was a lovely gesture.
WT: What do you remember about your father’s watch?
WB: When he wore a watch, it was a Timex. I remember he was a big, hulking man, arms three times the size of mine, but for some reason, he would always wear his watch in the middle of his forearm instead of down on his wrist. It had one of those expandable metal bracelets, and he would stretch the hell out of it. Then I would put it on and it would fall off my hand because he stretched it out so much.
WT: How did you discover Alpina and how did you become associated with the Alpina team?
WB: I was already familiar with Alpina. I owned one Alpina watch that was part of my small collection. It was given to me as a gift from my attorney. The brand approached me about being the ambassador for its new Diver collection, and since then, I’ve learned so much more about the very interesting history and heritage of the brand. If I wasn’t the ambassador, and they told me the story, I’d still be sort of rooting for them. Alpina had this great tradition from the ’50s and ’60s and then had sort of a fall from grace, if you will, and now the Stas family has invested a lot of time and resources into rebuilding the brand. To hear that the watches were in 2,000 points of purchase and now they’re only in 300 is both daunting and challenging, but very appealing at the same time. I think, because of the quality of the product, and the price point, that it’s going to continue to be a great success story. I want to work with them through my friends who are magazine editors and, of course, through product placement with television networks and movie studios. I want to try to see what I can do to raise awareness for the brand.
WT: When you do a movie or a TV show, how much control do you as an actor have as far as what watch you wear in your role?
WB: It depends. If I’m a series regular on a TV show, I can’t walk in every day with a different product, for example. But if we’re doing 22 episodes and I want to work one of my own watches into it, they would most definitely be open to that. If it’s a film and I’m producing it, most definitely. But if I’m doing a $150 million Warner Brothers film, that’s their decision. If I ask them to wear something in a scene and they say no, I’ve got to respect that.
WT: And if it’s a really big movie with product placements, they’ll put a watch on you, right?
WB: Of course. I can only hope that what they choose is consistent with the character I’m playing. I’ve had problems before with producers wanting me to wear watches that I felt the character would not wear, and I’ve had to go to battle, like when I did Fair Game with Joel Silver and Cindy Crawford and I was told to wear a watch that I thought wasn’t right for that character, as well as a couple other product placement things that just weren’t right. Most actors are sticklers for authenticity.
WT: [Alpina CEO] Peter Stas told me that he didn’t know that you were a diver when he approached you about representing the Alpina Diver collection. When did you get into diving?
WB: Right after college. I went on a graduation trip with all of my college buddies in which we all got certified and went diving. That was in ’85 or ’86. I don’t do it much anymore. It’s difficult making the time for that now, because I have three children.
WT: Do you ever give watches as gifts?
WB: Of course, watches are wonderful gifts. In fact, the watch that my wife gave me 21 years ago, when I’m gone I’ll leave to my daughter or to my son. Then they’ll have the Rolex that their mother gave to me when I proposed to her, with her answer stamped on the back. That’s a great piece of our family history.
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