If you’ve ever purchased or been interested in purchasing an Anonimo, Ball, MeisterSinger, or Mühle in the United States, there’s a good chance you interacted with Jeffrey P. Hess in some way. In fact, if you’ve followed the watch industry over the past three decades, you’ve likely come in contact with the man himself in some fashion. Not only is he the CEO of Ball Watch USA and Duber Time, he also owns Old Northeast Jewelers and Hess Fine Auctions. With his multi-faceted approach, Hess offers a unique perspective compared to the typical industry executive. We recently had the opportunity to catch up with him for a brief conversation about his career and the industry at large.
Collector, historian, author, newsgroup moderator, watch designer, auctioneer, CEO, distributor, and retailer – which of your roles came first?
My hobby and passion for horology and design has become my vocation. At first it was collecting, then researching/writing, then design, and, only then, distribution.
Today, you’re the U.S. distributor for Ball, MeisterSinger, Mühle-Glashütte, Anonimo, and Marvin – what makes these brands so interesting to you?
Historical aspects. Ball has a story that is, as the former U.S. President of Seiko once told me, the most “pristine” story in horology. He was being polite, but there is some truth. Mühle is equally as historical, it’s family-owned and goes back to the 1860s. Anonimo’s story of Italian design is legendary. And MeisterSinger? Just a “cool factor.” Add to this the people behind the brands, and there you have the appeal.
In the age of e-commerce, why is it so important to have a dealer network?
The dealer network idea has been called dead for years. And yet, it thrives. My dealer network is mostly “mom-and-pop” or “mom-and-pop on steroids.” They live and breathe horology. All of them. We also have Barneys and Tourneau, of course. As the saying goes, “You are not a watch brand unless you are in Tourneau and Barneys.” Something about MeisterSinger just makes them giddy with excitement. Youthful style and grace, I guess. I shop online all the time, especially for vintage Rolex, but there is something special about discussing movements and base calibers with a hometown jeweler. And something marvelous about buying a new suit at Barneys and finding a funky but cool watch to go with it. Barneys and Tourneau (and mom-and-pop) co-exist with online sales now. They have to, or they will perish.
Being a collector yourself, what makes a watch collectible to you?
First is historical significance. Second is innovation. My interview with Hamilton’s Richard Arbib in the ’80s led to my first published research in Ed Faber’s book. There was no greater innovator in mid-century modern design (movements and cases alike) than Hamilton. My love and research of the Rolex Daytona is a 30-year commitment. The variants are mind-boggling. Designers/thinkers from Hans Wilsdorf and Richard Arbib, to Jack Heuer, Hans Pfeiffer, and Willy Breitling, and living-legend Vincent Calabrese are folks we all aspire to be.
What watch are you wearing today, and why?
I usually wear one of my brands every day to “represent.” My five go-to watches are my Anonimo Bronze, my MeisterSinger Benjamin Franklin, my Ball 18k Heritage BRT, and my Mühle 29er. Today, truthfully, I am wearing a 1976 18k Rolex Daytona.
Your advice to somebody who is new to collecting wristwatches?
Buy what you will wear. And the most expensive you can afford. Every two years, trim the herd. Dump the ones getting no wrist time and replace them.
What similarities do you see to collecting art?
They are one and the same. The engineering “art of horology” and the “fine art” of case design are an art collector’s dream. Meistersinger’s movements win Red Dot awards, not just their cases.
What would you describe as the most emotional/exciting moment in your career in the watch industry?
Tough one. Either my first Basel in the ‘80s when I was essentially kidnapped by Gabriel Tortella and Carlos Dias while delivering expensive Pateks to Osvaldo Patrizzi or seeing the first galleys of my Rolex book finally published after two years of work.
What do you see as the industry’s biggest challenge(s)?
1.) Exploiting the newfound millennial idea of wearing something on their wrists! We are already seeing them come around to entry-level luxury watches. I see more and more of them wearing the plastic on the right wrist and a mechanical on their left. 2.) Getting Swiss and other Europeans to really understand just how vast the U.S. market is and that without more advertising, you will likely fail.
We currently see a growing number of brands that are located in the U.S. Do you think we’ll ever see the return of one of the larger brands like Hamilton or Ball actually start producing watches here?
Movements are being made in the USA today! Not just by my old friend and colleague Mr. [Roland G.] Murphy, but by Kunal Naik in Arizona. And many others. Baby steps, yes, but all grassroots. Herr Muller of GO once asked me if America could tool up with only 60 million dollars like Glashütte Orginal did 25 years ago. I said absolutely!