This interview with Crispin Jones, founder, director and designer at Mr Jones Watches, was conducted via email on 31/03/2020. The interview has been edited, but it faithfully reflects his views. We thank Crispin for his extensive answers. We also want to thank Emily Weston, branding and marketing manager at the firm, for helping set up the interview.
How did Mr Jones Watches start? Where did the idea come from?
OK, this is a bit long winded, but I think it’s useful to give you some context…
I have an undergraduate degree in Sculpture and I graduated in 1996. For sculptors there is a really close link to the practice of photography, as you generally always have to photograph your work to document it. In the photography department at university, I learnt to use Photoshop (this was 1995, so Photoshop was a real game changer). I started using Photoshop to manipulate images and basically create sculptures that didn’t exist (as you were assessed on the documentation, it kind of made sense to me to cut out the time-consuming part of the process, which was making the sculptures).
After I graduated, I had to find a job, so I started working as a graphic designer and continued making artworks digitally in my spare time.
After two years in the real world, I wanted to get back to studying further, so I applied to a course called “Computer Related Design” (CRD for short) at the Royal College of Art. CRD was concerned with any creative use of technology, which was very forward looking for the late 1990s. I graduated from this course in 2000 and spent around five years making one-off pieces for exhibition. These were neither really fine art, nor design but some intersection between the two disciplines.
Some examples of this kind of work:
ZXZX: a device I made that was designed to achieve a perfect score at the 1980s arcade game, Track & Field.
An Invisible Force: a table that answers questions – you place the question card that you want answered in the metal slot on the left and press it down. As the answer is revealed, the metal slot gets hotter and hotter, so you have to endure a level of pain in order to see the whole answer – if you take your hand away, then the table resets.
Social Mobiles: this was a set of one-off mobile phones, which were designed to alter the user’s behaviour to make it less disruptive to those around them.
In about 2005, I started to look at ways to change my practice to make it more sustainable for me. Making the one-off pieces for exhibition was rewarding in many ways, just not financially. I started to think about ways in which I could produce products that shared the same creative approach, but which I could also sell. I’d made a one-off set of watches for exhibition and I thought about making a small production run of these.
The original Mr Jones Watches series:
I thought that there are loads of inexpensive watches out there, but generally they try to imitate the high-end brands, which I always thought was weird – I mean, inexpensive cars don’t try to look like they’re made by Ferrari. My initial thought was simply that I could use some of the inexpensive manufacturing and combine it with interesting design to create a new kind of product.
I started off googling watch manufacturers and emailed them a bunch of questions about minimum order/if they could make my case design/if they could print hands on transparent discs; things like this. Quite quickly, there was only one factory writing back to me: they said the minimum order was 500 watches. I could make my own case and as many different designs within this 500, as long as I paid the set-up fee for each design.
I thought, with my fine art background, that I could do five watches, each in a numbered edition of 100 pieces. I ordered samples, tweaked them and, in spring 2007, I had the first watches ready, which I presented at the Milan Furniture Fair (which is less a “furniture” fair and more like an annual festival of design). I actually sold a few of the samples in Milan and overall the watches were well received. In July, I received the main delivery and launched Mr Jones Watches with five designs:
You can also see the first website here:
Wow, that blew us away… But let’s move on… How would you sum up the essence of what a Mr Jones watch “is”? What kind of person do you want to see wearing your watches? What sums up a typical Mr Jones fan? What are they looking for in a watch?
Hmm, this is a tricky one. Honestly, I don’t have preconceived ideas about who I’d like to see wearing our watches. The people who find their way to the brand tend to be naturally quite curious and looking for something a bit different, so I’ve genuinely never met anyone who wears our watches who I found in any way disappointing!
I think the majority of our customers are simply looking for something that speaks more to them as an individual. There are so many watch brands out there who are happy to imitate other more established brands (basically to make something that looks like a Rolex). I find this kind of odd – Rolex are phenomenal at making Rolex watches, so why try to imitate that? I just think, literally, why bother? We’d never be able to compete with that. At the same time though, there are a massive number of people for whom a Rolex, real or otherwise, doesn’t speak to their personality/taste/aspirations, etc.. We try to carve out our own little space for these people.
Your women’s range is unusually extensive. This sets you apart from most watch brands. What explains your seeming success with female buyers? (Or maybe you don’t want to share the secret…)
God, I don’t think we have any secrets! Also, I’m not sure our women’s range really is that extensive; it’s grown and shrunk back over the years. We are trying to produce some more new designs, just for the women’s-size collection during this year.
I think we’ve worked with some incredibly talented designers, some of whom happen to be women and they’ve created some designs which are more aimed at women. I guess, like I was saying above, a lot of women feel under-catered for in the world of watches and we’re producing something that looks a bit different and maybe fills a niche for them…
In the current world of watch making, there are few willing to take risks. Have you found any inspiration within the industry and have any other brands led the way for you?
I’m honestly not that au fait with the current watch world, and I’d really struggle to say I find any inspiration whatsoever there. As you say, it’s a hugely conservative industry and one that doesn’t really look beyond its own past. I really wish there were more interesting/diverse brands out there and I kind of thought that Smart Watches might be a way that this could happen (people could create their own way of displaying the time, without the mechanical constraints of a regular watch). What actually happens is that people, on the whole, seem to make digital watch faces that look like analogue watch displays, which is bizarre if you think about it.
I guess, because this new format to display the time is in its infancy, maybe there will be more interesting developments along the line – I think it’s like early television, where the only model people had to base TV shows on was theatre. So a lot of early TV looks really staged and pedestrian because it’s basically theatre being filmed. Over time, of course, people get more comfortable with it as a medium and that’s when innovation can take place.
Not that this is a guarantee – a new medium doesn’t always deliver new ways of seeing things. There’s a fascinating essay called “In Search of the Telephone Opera” by Peter Lunenfeld, where he argues that a communication medium doesn’t always result in new art (his focus at the time he was writing was on the nascent question of whether there could be artworks created on the world wide web). You can read the essay here.
You have consistently produced limited editions. Will you continue with this approach? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
The limited editions are a way of making a virtue out of a necessity – they’re a way for us to test the popularity of a new design without over-committing to expensive stock. They allow us to be really experimental in our approach, as each limited edition basically covers all the development costs and the initial fee for the designer (they receive a royalty payment if the watch is reissued, but they get paid for the design whatever). All the designs sell through eventually (so far they all have anyway!), so even if it sells slowly, we’ve never lost anything by producing one.
We’ll certainly continue the approach because it also gives a rhythm and structure to our working life. We have the sampling phase, the refinement and then the production leading up to the release of a new watch (along with all the associated work around marketing/communication, etc.). This is good because we have the sense of a deadline and then the happiness of the day of release, which is always exciting no matter how many watches we release!
For you, should a watch be mechanical or quartz-driven? Does it matter to you, or is the design more important?
Honestly, it doesn’t matter hugely to me. I prefer mechanical watches, but I’ll happily wear a quartz watch. What we produce is more about the concept and the design than the little engine that powers the thing…
The brand is defined by its collaboration with artists and designers. Do you have an initial idea that you commission an expert to implement or do they come up with the ideas and designs and you work out how to turn it into a watch?
No, we are either approached by designers, or we see someone whose work we like and then we ask them if they’d like to work with us on the design of a watch. We are always quite hands off in the initial design idea stage, because we feel that this is how you get the most creative ideas – asking an artist or designer to dream up a new watch design. We explain to them some of the technical constraints – e.g., hands have to be stacked in a certain order, on the jump-hour watches, the hours can only be a certain size and in a certain position etc., but we actively encourage them not to worry too much about the technical aspects of how it’ll be made.
Once we have their initial idea, we’ll then have a process of back and forth refinement. Some parts of this could be technical (if the designer has proposed something that’s impossible to realise) and sometimes it’s more fundamental, reworking how to present the basic idea.
This phase can last for quite some time. We’ve had some designs going back and forth for nearly a year before being ready for release (not non-stop, which would be exhausting all round, but basically periods of intense work and then reflection before revisiting again).
Equally, we’ve had some designers who we’ve worked with who’ve basically delivered something that’s more-or-less ready to go.
Could you give us any specific examples of either, to illustrate how the process works?
Sure – there’s a pretty comprehensive play-by-play on the blog of how Number Cruncher was developed:
This was the first watch we’d worked with Onorio on and we really liked working with him because he took feedback really well – he was always prepared to try suggestions out and refine his ideas and I really like to look at how far it came from initial sketch to actual product.
You have a lot of memento mori themed watches. Is there a reason for this? Has the current coronavirus crisis affected sales of these, either way?
Well, my background is in Fine Art and there is a very long tradition of the memento mori in painting and sculpture; the watch is fundamentally adapted to expressing this message and, indeed, the hourglass or clock was generally used in morality paintings to symbolise death and the transience of life.
I’m not sure the watch today has any particular new advantage on this score and, indeed, there is a long tradition of watches that feature symbols of death. In fact, we have a clock in the studio that I bought at auction some years ago. The clock is really quite ugly, but what drew me to it is the message above and below the dial: below it reads “Look upon the hour and remember death” and above it says “The hours spent can never be recalled”, which is not exactly subtle…
Coronavirus has maybe seen a small drop in sales of the memento mori type watches. To be honest though, all sales are down, so it’s difficult to judge really…
Any hints about future collaborations?
Hmm, we don’t really like to discuss this ahead of release, partly because a proportion of designs never see the light of day (we’ve become a lot stricter in our editing process over the years and really don’t release anything we’re not 100% happy with).
What post-sale customer service do you offer, considering the brand is still quite small and online?
We are happy to repair any of our watches that we’ve ever produced. If it is more than twelve months since the watch was purchased, then we make a small charge for this to cover the cost of parts and time etc., but we do really charge very little – we’d much rather see the watch out in the world than try to make more money from the repairs.
The brand HQ is in London. Is promoting the fact that the watches are ‘Made in London’ important and, if so, why?
Well, I was born in London and have lived here all my life. For me, it’s a great place to live and create because it’s a true melting pot of different cultures and ideas – there’s so much diversity and energy here. I don’t know how important this is in terms of promotion; for us, it’s more simply a statement of fact – this is where the watches were made.
Have you ever had an “exhibition” of your watches and their designs?
Well, 2017 was the 10th anniversary of Mr Jones Watches and we had a little pop-up exhibition in a gallery space near to our shop. We did gather together a sort of history of Mr Jones Watches for that event and for me, personally, it was lovely to be able to reflect on the whole journey. Really though, I’m more interested in our future, so it’s probably not something we’ll revisit for a while – maybe for 20 years in 2027!
What are your opinions of the current state of the watch industry?
Way too conservative and derivative, boring and obsessed with the wrong things. Like trying to refine the lever escapement – to me it’s just uninteresting, the precision question has been resolved with the digital watch…
Are you familiar with Relojes Especiales, where our mention of the article devoted to the Sun & Moon had some 2,000 views? We also saw a lot of commentary on that thread, mostly positive. Have you seen any noteworthy interest from Spain after this?
Honestly, we didn’t notice an increase in traffic, so I have just checked our websites stats, and we had around 50 new visitors from Spain after your mention of us, but no new sales. However, I don’t think many people are looking to purchase non-essential goods at the moment.
And finally, what watch are you wearing at the moment? What is your favourite Mr Jones watch?
I’m wearing the first production piece of a design we did with Edward Carvalo-Monaghan. We actually finished the design last summer, but I wasn’t happy with the case, so designed a new case especially for this watch. We hope to be in a position to release it in July – we’re still awaiting delivery of the cases. I have the pre-production sample case, and so the only one of this watch in the world!
To be honest, this is probably my favourite Mr Jones Watch – it’s got a number of refinements and new elements that we’ve brought together for this piece and so it stands as a sort of pathfinder for our future direction in my mind (sorry, you’ll just have to imagine what it looks like for now – it’s still a while off being released…)
We do not want to miss this opportunity to highlight the company’s latest launch, the All This Will Pass. It was designed as a response to the coronavirus pandemic: it’s a reminder to stay positive and look to the future. The two hands are printed with the phrase “All This Will Pass”, and the dials are individually hand painted making each watch unique. The case back is engraved with a quote from Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going”. As highlighted on the website, launching this piece has been a challenge as everyone is working remotely, but we definitely like the spirit and the style. We also appreciate that 10% of proceeds will support the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.