NOTE: This article was written for a publication that, for whatever reason, ultimately didn’t publish it. It’s an interview with Matt Hranek—whose then-new A Man & His Watch remains a must-own men’s style book, and whose now-new Wm Brown magazine is already earning pride of place on coffee tables everywhere. For the interview below, he talked to me about JFK, Paul Newman, and why Sly Stallone is “a sweetheart.”
If a man’s wrist is naked without a watch, then any watch-lover’s coffee table is naked without A Man & His Watch. The lavishly illustrated (and appropriately titled) tome tells the intimate stories of men and their watches, beginning with one of the most iconic timepieces ever: Paul Newman’s famous Rolex Daytona. (A second Daytona belonging to Newman recently sold at auction for a record $17.8 million.) The book also includes touching (if lesser-known) stories like those of the Nate Berkus, the interior designer whose Patek Philippe Nautilus was originally a gift from his partner, the photographer Fernando Bengoechea, who died in the 2004 tsunami.
The book is by Matt Hranek, the photographer, director, and former men’s style editor at Conde Nast Traveler (and the man behind the negroni-soaked @wmbrownproject Instagram feed). His own love of watches began early on, a passion he inherited from his father. “When he died suddenly—I was only eighteen—I was given his watch,” Hranek writes. “Or maybe I just took it.”
Here, Hranek talks about how the book came together, which watches he had to leave out, and what’s next.
Congrats on the book. It’s a stunner, full of great stories, great photos. How’d you come to love watches?
I was always watch-obsessed. I always loved them because my dad loved them. He loved well-made, well-crafted things—things with meaning, things with emotion.
And how’d the book come into being?
I’ve been covering the watch market for Conde Nast Traveler, and started hearing these great stories. And I felt like wow—these are great stories to be told, and this is a great excuse to look at this inventory of amazing timepieces. And I pitched that book to Artisan, and they loved the idea, I think because it was driven by the stories first, and not watch porn.
It might not be watch porn, but the timepieces do look amazing. I love seeing all the scratches on Mario Andretti’s Tag Heuers—it gives you a real sense of him actually wearing the watches.
That was always the approach photographically: [Me] selfishly coming in as a photographer, and unselfishly having my friend Stephen Lewis photograph it, just because he’s better. We both came into it with the understanding that this is not a catalog. This is about showing patina, age and the experience. And if you think about Mario Andretti, that gold Heuer, there’s burn marks on the bottom of the case from the heat, from the engine that he was racing with Ferrari.
That’s awesome. The book has stories like that, which are badass, but there are also stories… the Nate Berkus story, for example, had me tearing up a bit, which I didn’t expect.
When I ran into Nate sometime after that whole thing, he told me the story, which was very touching, and also very inspiring. It was one of the stories that I just knew I had to have in the book. There were a couple key players that set the tone and momentum. Nate was one. The Paul Newman watch obviously was one. And I kind of see the book within the parameters of those two stories. And I didn’t really think about it, but they’re the beginning and end of the book. That was pure coincidence.
Was there one specific watch that got away, something you really wanted to have in the book?
I really wanted the Martin Luther King Timex.
Oh, wow. Yeah.
I wanted it for a couple reasons. I wanted him to be represented as Kennedy was represented, in terms of two historical characters of like mind, and like pursuit, and from the same time period. [JFK’s inaugural yellow-gold Omega was photographed specifically for the book]. I got this great bit of information about how, during his early days, his early struggles with civil rights, that was the watch on his wrist that he watched time pass on. It’s such a sweet story, such a poignant story. And I very, very aggressively pursued it, and it was yes, yes, yes until the final [stage], then there was a legality issue. There was some lawyer who said no. I couldn’t appeal to the emotions of legalese, you know? So that one slipped through the fingers. But it would’ve been a very nice addition, particularly next to Kennedy.
And I also wanted Jay-Z.
Yeah. I have this vivid memory of Jay-Z with a big gold Rolex President, or maybe it was a platinum one. He’s a big watch collector, but I couldn’t break through there, though again I aggressively pursued it. He has probably the most patient assistant I’ve ever met. And he’s a busy guy! I get it. I get it.
One thing that struck me is that, some of the men had unexpected connections to their watches. Stallone being inspired by Gregg Allman. Ralph Lauren buying Andy Warhol’s Cartier Tank Cintree.
The Stallone story was surprising to me, too. Because I thought he was gonna talk about Panerai. He was quite influential in the promotion of that brand early on. Rambo’s wearing a Panerai. But he sends this magical, beautiful, Tiffany-branded Submariner in gold. And I was just like wow. I didn’t know anything about that. And when he tells the story [Stallone spotted Allman wearing a similar one during a flight in 1976, the same year Rocky came out], I think it’s kind of charming. Stallone is just a sweetheart. The fact that he just put that in a FedEx box and sent that out to us is just a miracle.
What other stories surprised you in researching the book?
Well, I loved the Dimitri Dimitrov story with the Timex given to him by Bill Murray.
Ha, I was gonna ask about that.
I just love that story. To me, the fact that Bill Murray wears an Indiglo watch, we get this impression of him that’s not materialistic, very practical. The fact that he takes it off his wrist and gives it to Dmitri because Dmitri can’t tell what time it is in that dark restaurant [the Tower Bar at the Sunset Tower Hotel in Los Angeles, where Dimitrov is the longtime maitre’d], that’s really funny. And the fact that he calls Dmitri up in the middle of the night and says “Hey, Dmitri. What time is it?” To me that is my best impression of what I think Bill Murray is really like.
Exactly. And telling Dmitri that his high-end Baume & Mercier is “garbage.” Only Bill Murray can get away with saying that.
[To Murray] it’s garbage because it’s not practical. Like “what the hell are you wearing that for, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do?”
The book represents a real range of watches—it’s not all high-end stuff. Was that intentional?
I didn’t want it to be just an homage to expensive watches. At the end of the day, I didn’t have a lot of control over that—people wanted to talk about the stuff that they made connections with.
Also it didn’t matter to me if it was a fake Rolex. Some of these watches, you know, maybe the dials are not factory-correct. My friend Gabriel [Vachette, founder of Les Rhabilleurs], his father had his watch dial refinished, and that’s frowned upon in the watch world, but that’s not what this was about. There’s some watches in there with refinished dials and funky restorations. But that’s not the point.
I have to ask: Is any watch worth $18 million?
I always have these conversations with my wife [Yolanda Edwards, former creative director at Conde Nast Traveler]. Or with vendors at flea markets. Which is always: What is it worth to you, and what is it worth to me? So say I’m negotiating for something at a flea market. I say “Look, I don’t want to offend you, but this to me is worth X. Yes or no?” Right? I know that the material of [the Newman watch], it will never be worth that. But the weight of what it is, and who owned it, and all those layers, create what the value is. And the value for whoever bought that thing is close to $18 million. And it makes my interest in vintage watch collecting almost practical.
Ha, that’s true. You can justify any watch purchase by saying at least it wasn’t that.
I mean, you can look at art the same way. Is a Basquiat worth $115 million? I don’t know. When I went and saw Ferraris made in the Ferrari factory, I was like “Wow, OK, I get it. That’s a $250,000 car, all day long. That’s worth it.” Right? But when you start getting into all this ephemera, who knows?
It certainly sounds like holding Newman’s watch was an experience you can’t put a price on. You phrased it well in the book: “Paul Newman was a legend, but he was also just a guy who wore a watch to keep time.”
Yeah, and that’s the impression when you talk to the family, and you talk to Mario Andretti—they were really good friends. I think the issue of time in its relativity was very important to Paul Newman. But the objects? No. The watches were tools.
And that itself is very interesting when you think about the money and value that’s been put on that watch. You think about Eric Ripert with [his Vacheron Constantin driver’s watch from 1921], and what that watch means to him. It was this very generous and thoughtful gift by his business partner, but more than the monetary value, [by] wearing this watch he becomes the driver in the kitchen. He’s the one that’s in control, wearing that watch every day under almost war zone-like circumstances. The watch was designed to do this, and for purpose, and unapologetically so.
It’s like the cliche about a suit making you stand a little straighter. Certain watches give you extra confidence, or swagger, or whatever you want to call it.
Wearing a watch, not unlike your choice of shoes, tells the world a little bit about who you are, I think, or who you want to present to be.
Exactly. Going back to Newman for a minute. Obviously, he’s an icon in the watch world. Steve McQueen, same thing. I’m curious if there’s anyone you think is slept on as a watch icon.
[Pause.] That’s interesting. Maybe Peter Sellers. I always thought Peter Sellers had such awesome style. And he had great taste in cars, and great taste in women, it seems.
For sure. I gotta ask: What’s a great starter watch for a guy on a budget?
I mean, I love Rolex because my dad loved Rolex. You know? And I always think that a Rolex Datejust, if it appeals to you aesthetically, it’s just something that everyone should have in their arsenal of watches. It’s a great, timeless piece. They’re reasonably affordable. Tudor is one of those brands, too, in terms of new watches that are being made.
[But] in general, it’s sort of like falling in love. What’s the thing you look at where your eyes dilate, and your heart beats a little faster, and you realize you could look at it every minute of the day? Buy the best version of that that you could possibly afford, that’s my advice. Buying the mediocre version of that thing, you’ll always be disappointed. Put your money away, save up. But don’t compromise. Don’t go to the second-tier level of the thing you want. Fall in love with the thing you fall in love with. Pursue that. If that’s a G-Shock, that’s a G-Shock.
Right on. So what’s next?
A Man and His Car is the easy—not easy, but natural—next version of this series. The connections are almost identical. Except I think probably more marriages are ruined by cars than by watches.
I’ve seen it in my own family. But I think guys who are watch guys are often car guys, and there are very similar obsessions and emotional connections that happen with that. I mean, I’ll be honest with you: I’m already working on it.
And I have thought about A Woman and Her Watch, too. I’ve run into it less, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not more out there. Guys just love talking about their damn watches.