Exclusive: Interview with professional watch writer Elizabeth Doerr

Tom MulraneyInterviews9 Comments

Elizabeth Doerr
© Ralf Baumgarten

Depending on your level of watch aficionado-ness (yes I just made that word up) you might be familiar with the name Elizabeth Doerr.

In my opinion one of the best free lance watch writers in the world, Elizabeth writes for a number of publications including International Watch and Tiempo de Relojes. More recently she has also started writing on-line for sites like World-Tempus.com and is also working on book projects.

Her forthcoming book on a dozen unique watchmakers is entitled 12 Faces of Time, and will be available from February 2010. She speaks to us today about her career as professional free-lance watch writer and her experiences working in this ever changing industry.

TWL: How did you come to be writing about watches for a living? Was it always your intention to become a professional watch writer?

ED: It was never my intention – like most people who have professions they love, it was something I just sort of fell into. I majored and did grad work in German language and literature and Romance languages, after which I moved to Germany.

At that point, my interest was mostly for foreign languages, and I had never really thought about the English language much, which seemed more of a means to an end or a tool at that point. Needless to say, I ended up working for a publishing house in Germany where I ran magazines (circulation, sales, marketing, things like that).

While I was heading that department in 1991, the publisher decided we were going to put out a watch magazine. As I was, of course, in charge, I headed down to the Basel Fair that year to learn about the world of watches and I never got back out! I seriously turned to writing the year my son was born (1997), going freelance. I started out with Wristwatch Annual and International Watch, which was back then called International Wristwatch.

I think if you had asked me that question before 1991, I would have replied that writing about music or tennis would have been my dream job, maybe an editor at Rolling Stone or something (which, back in the day, was a very serious mag). Today, I would probably have writer’s block if I tried to write off topic!

TWL: What do you enjoy most about your job? I’m sure many of our readers would kill for the chance to spend all day thinking and writing about watches but surely there must be more to it than that?

ED: What I enjoy most about my job is the variety! Every day is different: some days I sit at my desk writing and researching in relative peace (until the phone rings, that is), while about half my time is spent on the road in some form with appointments, factory visits, trade shows, interviews, events, and networking. In my line of work, the old adage “who you know” is exceptionally important, and before social media there was no other way to get to know the watchmakers, technicians, and company heads that you need to know to be “in the know.”

Being the social creature that I am, I really enjoy both sides of my job and love nothing better than running over to Pforzheim about 20 km away to have dinner with watchmaker buddies and talk shop all night long over a delicious glass of German wine.

Naturally, the occasional exotic trips for the introductions of new timepieces are a major perk, especially since that gives me the opportunity to hang out with other like-minded people from all over the world.

TWL: In your position you have had the opportunity to attend a number of special events and interview many highly successful people in the luxury watch industry. Are there any particular individuals or experiences that stand out for you and why?

ED: I have so much respect for the independent watchmakers that I have become friends with over the years! They are so courageous having taken the hard road to meet the needs that their art drives them to. Many of them have tried to work in big watch companies, but couldn’t handle the restrictive atmospheres of “corporate life.” Setting out on their own to create their own brand of art and try to make their businesses viable at the same time is the hardest thing to ask of anyone—and so many of them make it work on so many levels.

I have undying admiration for all of the members of the AHCI. Some other independents that stand out on my list are Max Büsser and François-Paul Journe for taking their ideas to an entirely new level and becoming role models for other independents.

Of course, one of the people who has impressed me most over the years is Philippe Dufour, who is one of the kindest, gentlest, most humble and intelligent people I know. I truly believe Philippe and those he inspires are people who create their art for the greater good of watchmaking, not worrying about furthering their own names or brands and selflessly contributing to the pool of mechanical creativity that comprises high watchmaking. His view is a global one, without forgetting his roots in the Vallée de Joux.

On that subject, I can relate a funny story about how I met Dr. Ludwig Oechslin about ten years ago.

International Watch had asked me to go to Ulysse Nardin’s factory in Le Locle and interview Rolf Schnyder and Ludwig Oechslin. I did so with some trepidation, for Ludwig’s reputation as one of our world’s modern geniuses naturally precedes him. My interview style is very relaxed; I prefer to “converse” with people, and in few instances do I have a prepared list of questions. Trying to put together such a list for Ludwig beforehand, I gave up, thinking to myself, “There is nothing I can ask this man that isn’t going to make me sound like an idiot.”

Rolf took me through the factories all morning, and we chatted about many things (particularly my favorite subject: watches!), and I relaxed a little. Then we headed back to his office to wait for Ludwig, where we were going to meet and walk to the restaurant for lunch. Ludwig came in, and he and Rolf chatted for a quarter of an hour about this and that in Swiss German dialect – they are very old friends. In the middle of this, Ludwig suddenly turns to me and pointedly commands, “So, ask!”

I’m sure you can imagine the stultified look on my face! However, I learned a lot of things that day about Ludwig and the history of watchmaking. My respect for Ludwig grows every time I see him – a fact that most recently became clear to me at the Nice Observatory, where he presented his latest oeuvre: Ulysse Nardin’s Moonstruck. He probably doesn’t remember that snowy day in Le Locle and my frequent gasps for air – hopefully anyway. He is the subject of one of the chapters of my forthcoming book on a dozen unique watchmakers 12 Faces of Time – as are Philippe and François-Paul.

Another person I have an immense amount of respect for is Walter Lange. His lifetime has been filled with so many tragic elements so beyond his control, yet he comes out of it all with a positive attitude that only reinforces the culmination of his burning goal of restoring his family’s legacy and allowing the mythical brand Lange a chance to find enthusiastic new followers. I wish I had had the opportunity to have known his great-grandfather, a man who fairly selflessly looked to bring industry to a region infested with poverty. If he was anything like Walter, he was doubtlessly someone worth knowing and respecting. We would all do well to remember that even in the face of so many obstacles, Walter successfully re-founded Lange & Söhne – at what would normally be retirement age!

TWL: How long does it take you to write a piece? Do you find yourself doing several drafts or have you perfected your craft now after years of experience?

ED: After all these years, I pretty much write one draft and then go back through it once or twice to catch any awkward places. Depending on the length, that one draft usually takes about a day – naturally, not including all the research and any interviews or travel associated with it! That one day is only the actual writing process.

TWL: You write for a number of magazines around the world, does your style change depending on the target audience or do watch lovers speak a universal language?

ED: I think my style remains my style, but I certainly do write for the audience of the publication in question. To be really honest, I prefer writing for specialist magazines like International Watch and Tiempo de Relojes because the assumption is that the reader already has a certain level of knowledge, and I can really dig into the technical side. When I write for broader magazines like Elite Traveler and Cigar Aficionado, I have to assume that the specialist knowledge is not there, so my use of the technical jargon will be different. That is perhaps the greatest difference.

I have just begun writing for some Internet publications like world-tempus.com, and I am excited to see the difference! I keep looking for some feedback….!

TWL: You have been involved in the international watch industry in one capacity or another over the years in your role as a writer, what changes have you noticed during that time and what do you think the future holds?

ED: Twenty years is a long period of time, you are right! When I got into watches, the mechanical renaissance was just underway and everything was on the upswing.

Mechanical watches were once again something special, so the movements weren’t all that important and almost everyone was using some form of ETA. Then it became important to find more exotic movements to attract more interest, so we saw a lot of new-old stock movements and vintage specialties alongside some less widespread modern movements. As mechanical watches became more of a mainstream luxury object, the need to make wildly complicated pieces to appeal to collectors also grew, giving birth to companies like BNB and (the revamped) Concord, which are totally legit and a real addition to the industry.

However, I think the very recent years and most especially the tourbillon craze were a bit detrimental to high watchmaking, and the much-needed correction caused by the world economic crisis was necessary to put everything back into perspective. I am hoping the future holds a return to true creativity and reliable movements.

Personally, I don’t think the world needs something like the Concord C1 Quantum Gravity, which for me has nothing to do with watchmaking anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love what Concord has been doing these past few years, but that step too far was highly indicative of the entire high end of the industry. I hope that artistry is the way of the future.

TWL: Finally, what watch are you wearing right now and why?

ED: Surprise, I don’t have a watch on right now! Jewelry on my hands and arms disturbs me when I’m trying to seriously write. The watch I wear always matches the activity…

Tom MulraneyExclusive: Interview with professional watch writer Elizabeth Doerr

9 Comments on “Exclusive: Interview with professional watch writer Elizabeth Doerr”

  1. Marton

    No watch while writing, and yet on deadline…. Elizabeth, you have literally incorporated the watch. I guess you dance to wind it up?

    Great interview… ;-)

  2. Ryan

    Great interview. Nice question selection. She seems like a great person to be around. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: New Book: Twelve Faces Of Time – Horological Virtuosos | The Watch Lounge – the Online Watch Lover's Magazine

  4. Christine Blackman

    What a fantastic interview! She sounds brilliant! And yes, she is a great person to be around!

  5. Don

    Elizabeth is as knowledgeable, honest, and charming as she comes across in Tom’s interview. I had the pleasure of working with her during nearly a decade as a distributor of fine watches in the U.S. Elizabeth’s writing has always been among the best in the marketplace, so I’m certain that her book is a gem.

  6. Jim Sobe

    What a pleasure to come upon this great interview and new (to me) timepiece blog! Elizabeth’s passion for the many faceted world of timepieces, especially the personalities (my favorite) is crystal clear in her responses to some great questions from an interviewer who also clearly is passionate about this wonderful world of timepieces! THank you Mr. Mulraney!

    FYI, I’ve been a passionate timepiece admirer since I read a great advertising supplement on timepieces in the WSJ (another favorite passion of mine!) in the Fall of 2007, and I haven’t been the same since! ;-)

    I look forward to spending a lot of my free ‘time’ on this website in the future! Thank you again!

    Tempus fugit!
    Jim Sobe

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