Interview with Watch Maker – Mark Carson

Welcome back to our recurring “Interview with a Watch Maker” series.  In this series, we’re talking with a variety of folks from across the industry, and get insight into their background, what drives them, and why they’re coming up with the designs they’re creating.  Today, we’re speaking with Mark Carson about all those things and his eponymous watch brand.

WWR:  What is your history with wristwatches?

Mark Carson:  I got a Timex when I was around 10. My first grail was a Pulsar (mentioned in my “Grail” interview) in 1975. I had Casio calculator/memory bank watches during the 80s and was only really bitten by the “watch bug” in the 2000s. I came up with my Ka La watch design in 2009 and decided in 2010 to produce it. My first customer deliveries were in 2012.

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WWR:  Why is now the right time to become a watchmaker?

Mark Carson:  Despite a lot of young people not wearing watches, the mechanical renaissance which started in the 90s still seems strong overall (even with the Asian markets cooling off a bit the last couple of years). So there are getting to be more mechanical watches out there that will need to be serviced than there are qualified watchmakers to do that service. I often hear that people are looking for good independent watchmakers to service their watches, be that simple battery changes or servicing and fixing mechanical watches.

WWR:  Before you became a watchmaker, what was your intended career path in life? How did you come to watch making?

Mark Carson:  I’m not a watchmaker strictly speaking, rather I’m a watch designer and a (micro) watch brand. My background was in air freight for 15 years (with a brief stint as an air traffic control trainee in 1982) and as a software engineer since 1989. I came into watchmaking with a single drawing of a watch that I wanted to produce for myself.

WWR:  Why did you want to make that watch?

Mark Carson:  Having a watch you designed on your wrist may be the greatest luxury (or the greatest vanity, I don’t know which). It’s just very satisfying to make a dream come true and a vision become a reality.

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WWR:  What’s been the biggest manufacturing or engineering challenge you faced so far?

Mark Carson:  My background in software engineering did not prepare me for designing a watch (which is a down to the tenth of a millimeter exercise). However I come from a long line of engineers and I probably have the right critical thought processes in place plus an attention to detail work ethic. And writing software is an example of “deferred gratification” in that I usually work for months or years on something before it becomes a product for others to use and hopefully enjoy.

That means the multi-year process (from 2009 to 2012) of bringing a watch to life was a challenge, but a rewarding one well within my threshold of pain. The engineering challenge was that is a lot to learn and the manufacturing challenge was finding good suppliers for my custom components and also finding qualified watchmakers to do the actual assembly.

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WWR:  Where do you think the industry is moving?

Mark Carson:  I think the watch industry is becoming bipolar. Not in the psychological sense, but as a bipolar market distribution. For convenience, I will call them commodity watches and luxury watches without regard to the price of either. The commodity watches are often inexpensive, nearly disposable and generally under $500 (and will dominated by smartwatches and other quartz timepieces).

And then the luxury watch market where a watch is not something you need, rather it is something you want. And it accomplishes so much more than just telling the time. As a reward, a gift, an inheritance or a commemoration of a special event, a luxury watch often has meaning that a simple commodity watch rarely has. Plus, a luxury watch says something about its owner while a commodity watch says nothing unique about a person (except maybe that you are a conformist or you wear a watch strictly for function).

The upgrade and dispose cycle will dominate the smartwatch segment for a few years until designs and functions mature to the point next year’s smartwatch won’t be much different from this years model (and sales will then stagnate). This is already happening to smart phones and their market growth is about to taper off in the same way that PC sales already have. And tablets will come to that point soon also. Once you have a mature electronic product, the pressure to upgrade to a newer model, with no real improvements, is a hard sell.

In contrast, luxury watches as items of desire (not just pure function) will continue to offer designs and enduring value that people seek when they are spending real money on durable (rather than disposable) goods. Fine art, Italian super-cars and yachts never really disappear from the market – even in lean times. So while the market for luxury watches will go up and down, it will never disappear so long as there are some people who appreciate the finer things in life and are willing to pay for them.

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WWR:  I’ll call that a realistic view from the inside of the industry.  Where do you fit within that future?

Mark Carson:  Early on, I had to decide where any watch I produced would fit into the ecosystem. Unless you have tremendous volume, there is no point being in the under $500 price segment as you have to work just as hard to produce and sell a $500 watch as you do a $1000 or $2000 watch. Even with constant profit margins as a percentage, the profit in dollars per unit on a $200 watch is just too small unless you are able to sell them with virtually no effort (on a man-hour basis). And the big guys will always kill you at cost and distribution efficiency, so you are already at a disadvantage.

Of note, the $100 Kickstarter watches can be produced because the “Brand” just has an entire watch made overseas and they can even pay a service to distribute the watches for them. Do you think they will have in-house service or parts down the road? Frankly, most of them don’t qualify as a real watch brand in my view.

Ever notice that start up car brands start off in the low volume, high price range (even Telsa did this) rather than trying to crack into the sub-compact car market with their first car? So starting with a budget watch was out for me. I also realized that without the name recognition of Rolex or Omega, I would also have a hard time cracking into the $5,000 to $10,000 market. The $1,000 to $2,000 segment seemed like the right place for me to start and so far it accounts for 95% of my business. I plan to remain as a small, independent brand concentrating on unique designs and personalized customer service. Plus, I enjoy being involved in all aspects of my little watch business. I certainly don’t do everything myself, but everything is designed, organized or contracted directly by me. So I have the responsibility as well as the satisfaction of being the last word on quality control.

I think smaller brands have a bright future, but new watch companies pop-up every day, so there is a lot of competition out there. The onus is to not be just another “me too” brand or else you probably won’t have any staying power. I’m so bored with all of the minimalist, bauhaus quartz watches on Kickstarter. And equally sick of Submariner knock-offs. If somebody wants to make them and somebody else wants to buy them, fine by me. But that’s not what interests me in the least.

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WWR:  I can’t speak for everyone out there, but we are definitely tired of the minimalist watches on KS as well.  With how verbose things can be on the internet, how do you see online communities influencing what is made, or even your own brand’s direction?

Mark Carson:  I’ve made a comment or two on aBlogtoWatch which along with having a few banner ads on the website  hopefully gives me some credibility and visibility within the community. I post to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but probably not often enough. I don’t participate in online forums as I’m not really a collector in the traditional sense. But love it or hate it, a social media presence is just as required these days as having a website.

WWR:  Agreed – that presence is important.  What are you doing to develop a strong community feedback loop? How does that community feedback change the watch business?

Mark Carson:  Hopefully small and independent watch brands are always close to their customers and have direct communications with them. If I was better at marketing, I would no doubt have greater sales. But I’m an engineer at heart so it’s an uphill battle I guess. These days, customer engagement is essential and the point is not how you do it, but THAT you do it. Big brands might be able to get away with being faceless corporations but smaller brands live and die by each sale and satisfied customer. The Internet has made it easier to engage your customer but the challenge is to find your customer in the first place. Zillions of page views or likes don’t necessarily translate into sales.

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WWR: As you search for that customer, how do you define your ideal one?  In other words, who is it, in your mind, that wears your brand’s watch?

Mark Carson:  My ideal customer is anyone who is willing to buy one of my watches!  Typically, it’s a male over 25 who already has other more mainstream watches and is looking for something distinctive at a fair price. And who demands quality and attention to detail. Even though my Ka La watches have 43 mm cases, about a third of my customers are from Japan along with a few from other Asian countries where smaller wrist sizes generally make selling larger watches a challenge.

So while some potential customers feel that a 43 mm cased watch is too big for them, others appreciate the bold look and are on board with the current global preference for watches over 40 mm. My Japanese customers are primarily a function of having a retail presence in Hawaii where we have a lot of Asian visitors. But by far, the U.S. is my largest market with only a few direct/website sales going to customers in other countries.

WWR:  What is it that defines your watch? What characteristics are identifiably Mark Carson (the brand, not the man)?

Mark Carson:  Unique design without question. My cases, dials and hands are all my designs. And I have even designed unique straps (the “Infinity Straps” on my Ka La Sport watches). Nothing I produce is “inspired” by other some other brand’s watches. I use the best components possible within my price segment (Elabore movements, sapphire exhibition backs, etc.) as I want to deliver the best lasting value I can to my customers rather than just the cheapest possible watch.

WWR:  Along that line of questioning, What are your guiding principles when making design choices?

Mark Carson:  I like clean designs where the harmony and balance of the unique design comes through. In software there is a saying, “It’s not done until there is nothing left to remove”. This means you eliminate the superfluous and only keep what is necessary to make your design work. All elements need to have visual interest and (hopefully) the closer you look, the more there is to discover. But randomly adding extraneous crud to a watch makes it less desirable to me. You have to know when to stop!

WWR:  A solid stance on designs, one I cannot argue with.  How do you think about design and its role in your life?

Mark Carson:  Design, good or bad, is all around us all of the time. Consciously or not, we all respond to design on both  functional and pleasurable levels. Bad designs are “frictional” in that they impede our use or enjoyment of an item. While good design often resides in objects that we simply enjoy or are pleased with. Personally, I design software, design watches, had a one-off BMW M6 made to my very particular tastes, designed the extension to my house (which doubled its size), created marble stands for artwork in my house, etc. So, I’m always interested in the design of things that intersect with my life.

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WWR:  What would the crowning lifetime achievement be for you and your brand as a company?

Mark Carson:  To be able to produce every crazy watch design that I come up with. Well, that and being successful enough that I could concentrate on just watches. I’ve been writing software for what seems like a very long time!

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  • Nelson

    I love his design. Unique and nice! I love reading his articles on ABTW. I am also fed up with minimalist design. But I don’t agree with his opinion that it”ll be better to start off in the low volume and high price range. Dw is so successful eventhough I don’t like their watches.

    People may not be convinced enough that your product is worth the price if you sell it expensive. Most people tends to try or feel the quality of the watch before they decide to buy expensive watches. If you only sell the watches online, your customers won’t be able to feel the quality. Most people only shop online for affordable products or expensive products they are already familiar with. And to sell expensive products, you need to deliver luxury shopping experience that customers cannot get when they shop online. Can Rolex or AP only sell online eventhough people has already known their quality?

    Unless you can convince a lot of brick and mortar retailers to help you sell the watches, it will be hard to sell a lot. You need to raise capital to expand so you need to sell a lot. I think it all depends. If your design is exceptional, It may be fine to start off in the price range of $1000-$2000. Sevenfriday is the example eventhough it’s not my cup of tea.