A Man to Watch: Ariel Adams And The Transformation Of The Watch Industry
Simon Schneider5 April 2023 | 10 min read
In this blog, I had the fantastic opportunity to chat with Ariel Adams, the founder of aBlogtoWatch. Ariel has been at the centre of watch Journalism since creating the site in 2007. He has grown his business into becoming one of the most prominent and authentic voices on the web and has inspired my approach to watches.
Below is an edited version of our interview. The topic ranges from Rolex to Apple, the past to the present, and tips Ariel can share for new collectors. Please enjoy the interview and make sure to check out aBlogtoWatch!
Do you miss Baselworld?
I’ll tell you a story that best answers this question. I was doing an interview yesterday with a retailer in India. He told me of his first visit to Baselworld during its heyday, 15-20 years ago, and being completely amazed by the world of luxury watches: the large booths and the energy. Baselworld was a destination that showed you how beautiful and emotional Luxury watches are. It made you feel like you were part of something truly big.
It’s nice to feel that this industry is bigger than any one person, country, or region. It is an international love of this thing that is almost like a religion. Baselworld was a Mecca not just for people who love watches, but it allowed you to transform if you weren’t into watches going there. That was the value; that emotional experience is hard to replicate.
I remember the first few years going and seeing all the money, the size, and the grandeur. I asked myself: who’s buying all these watches that I have yet to hear of in the USA? That’s so many extremely expensive watches. We all miss the incredible sense of optimism that came with it.
Talking about some crazy watches where you wonder who buys them, I saw you were in France recently, and you reviewed the new Louis Vuitton opera watch. With these wild watches, you’ll always have some people in the comments who will say: this is a silly watch. I can’t even read the time, unlike with my G-Shock! Is that a valid argument to say this is not a real watch, or do you feel that misses the point?
The problem is that they’re right and wrong at the same time. If you compare it to a G-Shock, yes, you’re right. It’s not as legible.
The beautiful thing about wristwatches is that there are many different types of products that we like to put on our wrists. If you only want something that is a practical tool to tell the time, there are going to be a whole lot of things that seem silly and superfluous to you. Yet, on the other hand, some people exclusively want wristwatches to be lifestyle statements. For them, a G-Shock makes no sense because all it does is tell the time practically.
What is interesting is its argumentativeness of it. When you see something that isn’t for you, oftentimes, consumers get upset. It goes back to the selfish nature of watch collecting. It is the celebration of the self. You buy and wear a nice watch, essentially to celebrate yourself. They need to be okay with there being other flavours and options out there. To an extent, it’s a bit of a maturity thing.
On the topic of the popularity of specific watches. I scrolled through your Instagram and didn’t see a single sports Rolex watch in the last few years. If you believe the algorithm, that is all people want to see. Is that a conscious decision on your end?
I remember one of the last ones I did was a shot of the new Submariners. The caption I wrote was a limitation that this otherwise lovely watch is so difficult to get and there’s so much negativity around the process. I did not want to promote watches that are hard to get. I felt like it was adding to the problem.
The algorithm wanted to hear it, but I don’t care about the algorithm. If all my business was on Instagram, I wouldn’t do well. The available watches and the individuality that comes with wearing something that other people don’t have is interesting to me.
Let’s move on from one huge watch company to arguably another one; Apple. I saw you talked about the Apple Watch Ultra and that it captures a whole new demographic. Who is that demographic?
Brands like Apple, which make smartwatches, have readily understood what it is that consumers want. But the one problem that the Apple Watch had was it didn’t offer a lot of personality. You wear the watch and you look like everyone else that has an Apple Watch.
With the Ultra we finally saw the personality that we like to associate with sports watches. It gave you that sense of an outdoors or utility watch. Many people who like watches love the idea of wearing a tool instead of a piece of consumer electronics. Finally, they see it as “cool enough” and are willing to try it.
Smartwatches and mechanical watches can live side by side. The gap of emotions between why you like mechanical watches and why people like smart watches is closing. So you’re going to see less of a distance as opposed to more of a distance in the future in my opinion.
You called yourself probably one of the oldest millennials. I am probably one of the youngest millennials. When you started out in watches, the watch landscape was quite different. Do you remember what the hot pieces were back in the day?
Back in the day, it was a different social experience. Today you know what the hot pieces are because you see them posted a lot. Back then, while there was a discussion about things, it was slightly more egalitarian.
People were having just as much conversation on forums about small independent brands as they were big brands. You as a consumer just had to decide for yourself what you liked. It was based on your budget and what was available for you to buy. Only later in social media did this notion of popularity come in, and I don’t think for the better.
What ends up happening is people buy what they think they should buy instead of what they want. When you are within that echo chamber some people struggle to even know what they like or don’t like. If you’re one of several people wearing a Rolex, let alone the same Rolex, you might feel validated or that you’re part of the club, yet no one comes up to talk to you.
So I found a lot more personal satisfaction in having something unique because it’s a fashion approach. You want to come into a room and your watch to say something unique about you. More people have satisfaction when they wear watches that are an extension of their specific personality rather than this generic luxury watch experience.
You said you feel like the hobby has shifted for the worse due to social media. Can you elaborate on that?
Sure. I’ve suggested that if you’re just getting into watches, the best thing to do for the first few years is to be alone. If you don’t look at other people’s opinions, you must become comfortable with what you like.
Whatever it is that interests you, those interests are going to help you gravitate towards the products and brands and stories that you like. So my suggestion is to become confident as a watch lover, know what you like and what’s out there, and only then when you have that maturity and experience enter the social conversation.
If you go to those groups to educate yourself, as many novices do, you find that they’re not learning about the watches they like. They might be spending a lot of money on products that don’t bring them joy. The communities are obviously valuable and it’s a beautiful thing but if you’re just getting started as a novice you might want to wait a while.
Talking a bit more about the current market situation in one podcast, you said, “Friends, don’t let friends buy above retail”. Can you elaborate a bit?
When you ask somebody who is charging more than the retail price on a watch, the justification is that you want it now. When people have to pay these high premiums, the expectations they have about that ownership experience tend to be equally high. That’s where I see a lot of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
If you feel compelled to spend above retail, you should be advised to say, maybe you should think about that. That watch will be available in the future. If not, there are plenty of other good watches out there that will make you happy. So in order to best protect your finances, as well as your emotions, friends don’t let friends spend over retail.
In one of your interviews, you said that the one influencing factor on your liking watches was probably your passion for Japanese toys as a kid. I would like to know what kind of watches excite you nowadays personally?
One of the more formative experiences I had was in the 1980s when in movies wristwatches were given a fantasy character. There was always a wristwatch that did something in a movie that you couldn’t do in real life. Subconsciously, I incorporated a lot of this into my mind. To me, the wristwatch was this cool gadget. It was never about luxury, status, design, or craftsmanship.
It was always about these cool gadgets that could do interesting things. Japan, for me, is the king of gadget culture and they’re constantly experimenting. Maybe it was just because I grew up around that, but the focus on utility, novel features, and the ability to do something they weren’t otherwise able to do resonated with me.
The most interesting watches were the power devices, meaning you had this tool and you could do more. I love that. So while I have a dual interest in art watches and craftsmanship, I tend to gravitate towards those what I call power watches that let the wearer do something that they wouldn’t be able to.
What have you taken from your law studies into your current job?
The most important thing is my understanding of intellectual property as someone who runs a media company. We have avoided a lot of pitfalls that other media had when it comes to not disclosing advertising relationships or improperly using other people’s intellectual property. When I first started there would be other blogs that would copy and paste entire articles.
Knowing the rules is what has allowed us to do is have an audience that understands our goal. We don’t deviate from it. We disclose what is an editorial and what is advertising. If you don’t do that audience isn’t going to trust you. Some of those basic ethics entering the business have translated really well into not only the community and the operating principles, but the health of the business and the integrity of being a magazine.
Also having gone to law school allows you to develop a vocabulary that best explains things. I mean lawyers are great communicators at best and discussing a watch is difficult. Watch content when I first started was not written for the mainstream. If you weren’t part of the club of people that already knew this terminology and were familiar with the established concepts it was unpenetrable stuff. So I tried as best as I could to discuss these weird esoteric concepts in terms that hopefully, most people could understand.
Let’s imagine you get sent in your watch. How do you go about reviewing a watch?
So I’d say there are two phases. There are my immediate reactions when I’m evaluating it from the perspective of a skilled person who’s seen thousands of watches. Then I give it a go. Sometimes I will wear a watch for close to a year or more before a review. Sometimes It’s just a few days or weeks and I’ll have plenty to say about it.
I take the process seriously because I do think that these items should be meant to be worn. Watches that are not worn because they’re not comfortable or legible get taken off and put in a drawer somewhere. That doesn’t help the industry. Watches that people like to wear and are kept on the wrist are what’s best for business.
How do you feel about negativity in reviews?
The brands hate negativity. The challenge is that there are essentially two constituencies to satisfy when you’re running a watch website. One is the reader, and the other is the brands. Brands are crucial, not just because of advertising, but because of access. If we don’t get invited to see these watches we can’t just go out there and buy every luxury watch to test it on our own. So we have to maintain diplomatic relations with the brands.
I’ve become a lot nicer but I don’t think that I’ve stopped giving negative feedback. I try to have at least something critical in every review. There are no perfect watches. But I’ve tried to offer more constructive feedback. Any publication out there that doesn’t say anything negative is just trying to play it safe.
Watch brands don’t know our businesses. If you just listen to the advice and directive that watch brands want to give you, you will probably fail. You have to find some way of giving them what they say they want, but also giving your audience what they want at the same time.
You talked a bit before about how brands don’t know your business. What is something you see brands doing wrong or misunderstanding about the current market? Can you think of a brand that is doing things right?
Brands have the responsibility to create demand. Retail has the responsibility to satisfy demand. Demand is a combination of two things, a fantastic product and a fantastic brand that makes that product. You have to have both.
Rolex is a good example of a brand that has a desirable brand and products. Brands today are systematically putting too much effort into only one side. German brands for example are always the proudest of their products. They assume because their products are so amazing, people will know about them and gravitate towards them. That may work in the German market but not around the world.
Brands that see themselves as these big international players, will have to grow their competencies in marketing and branding to remain truly competitive in the future. These are products that are supposed to be sold in these diverse places around the world.
It’s hard because to make a quality Swiss watch, for example, you have to think about those local principles. What are the values here in the Jura mountains that coincide with making great watches? People need to recognize though that when it comes to telling people around the world they may need to ignore local standards for a little bit.
My last question today is about what you have learned in building up aBlogtoWatch and managing the team?
One of the things that I’ve learned is that when you hire someone for creative work, you must give them a sense of ownership over their process. They must have the ability to see an entire project from the beginning to the end and execute it the way that they would want to execute it. You need to teach them, here’s what a finished house looks like. Now I’m gonna trust you to build a house from start to finish.
If you give them rigid instructions there’s gonna be so many variables that weaken those instructions. They may not create the house that you would have created, but they will create a house you can live in, and that’s gonna be more efficient in the long run than making sure everyone builds your house.
Running a creative team has its special challenges. Another thing is I’ve run an entirely remote company since the beginning of the pandemic. One of the important things, when you have a remote company, is making sure everyone is on the same page. They need to know what are the goals of the company, what are the challenges of the company, how can they help, and maybe what are they doing wrong.
If you give people a bigger picture they will tend to make good decisions for you in terms of how they can help.
Many thanks to Ariel for taking the time to answer our questions. It was a fantastic insight into what goes into creating a review from arguably the most experienced person in his field and how he thinks about the creative process.
We hope you will have as much fun reading this blog as we had putting it together. Let us know in the comment section or by contacting us directly about who you would like to see us interview next!
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