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 Leo Padron, the man behind the Kickstarter success story, Padron Watch Company. Read on to see what the first watch he broke was, and what drives his designs, and a surprising Downton Abbey reference.
WristWatchReview (WWR): Before you became a watchmaker, what was your intended career path in life?
Leo Padron: I was very lucky in that my first career actually found me. I was getting my undergraduate degree in political science at Rutgers around the start of the dot com boom. During college I used to spend time in the computer lab writing simple web pages – back in the really early days before Google and Amazon even existed and Yahoo was still a Stanford University project. I soon began making websites for local businesses which helped me pay for school. When I graduated Rutgers, instead of going on to law school I ended up going into the online industry. I did applications design and development all the way up until 2012, when I quit Target Corp to run Padron Watch Company full time.
WWR: The more people I talk to, the more I see overlapping interests between the IT and watch worlds. How did you come to watch making?
Leo Padron: My grandfather passed away many years ago and I received a wristwatch that had belonged to him. It didn’t work, so I put it away with the idea of repairing it one day. I’ve always been a tinkerer since I was a kid. I was always tearing apart and rebuilding things or building my own. I would build hi-fi vacuum tube amplifiers, got into bicycle building, messed around with robotics, etc. So I had some prior experience working with delicate parts. But watchmaking as you know is insanely difficult. It’s no surprise that the day I decided to finally examine the watch, I botched the hairspring within minutes of uncasing it.
I realized how out of my depth I was and that spurred me to be better. I read out-of-print watchmaking textbooks that I found online and acquired more tools. I bought estate sale watches by the pound and burned through a bunch working on them. It wasn’t long before I was actually fixing quite a few of them. And it’s really neat thing is, you’re working on a watch that often times last saw service before the moon landing, and suddenly the balance wheel starts swinging and it’s like watching life return to something that had been dead for a very long time. It encouraged me to keep developing my skills, and eventually go back and unbotch that very first repair attempt on my grandfather’s watch. It works beautifully today and I wear it for special occasions.
Ultimately I had acquired so many project watches I couldn’t possibly wear them all, so I started selling them off online and reinvested the profits into more equipment – and watches. I was getting some nice attention in collector circles; what had started as a hobby soon felt like a steady business. I incorporated in 2011, launched my first website, had an arrangement to sell through a couple local stores. Then in 2012 I had the idea to create my own line of mechanical watches. That came to fruition in my first successful Kickstarter which brought in nearly $100,000 in orders and got me into Wired Magazine. I had so many orders to deliver that I quit my corporate job to devote to the business full time. This was five years ago, and i’ve had several successful product launches since.
WWR: No looking back now! Past your grandfather’s watch, what is your history with wristwatches?
Leo Padron: I’m probably one of the last generations that had a mechanical watch as a first watch. I was about seven, and my dad bought a Mighty Mouse character watch for me and taught me how to set and wind it. I actually took a look at one not too long ago and even for a juvenile watch, it’s a pretty interesting piece. It was made during that time when watchmakers were experimenting with plastic. Plastic plates, plastic pallet fork, plastic escape wheel. For having an all-plastic escapement, it actually kept pretty good time!
Later I had the classic 80’s calculator watch. I had my first “nice” Wenger Swiss dress watch as a college student. I had a couple questionable department store watches in the mix too.
WWR: No shame there – we’ve all had those watches at one point or another. Do you feel right now is the right time to become a watch maker? Is there any such thing as a “right time”?
Leo Padron: Worrying if there is ever a correct time for anything is an invitation for paralysis, and believe me, the more you study a problem, the more you will find objections or create your own. I had a very lucky first product launch with Padron that let me devote to my business full time. This happened despite plenty of reasoned objections from many against even trying. Conventional wisdom would have had the wrist watch dead and buried under a pile of electronics decades ago. Instead of that happening, it’s a $40 billion dollar industry today, because it’s a great big world and people like having choices. That means that if you make something that somebody wants to buy, you’re in business despite all of the disruptive forces out there. The best way to find out if it’s a good time to do something is to do it and see what happens. Then you’ll know.
WWR: As they say, fortune favors the bold. Speaking of bold – why this watch line?
Leo Padron: I had two goals when I started my own line: (1) Change the entire thinking around what a wristwatch is supposed to look like and (2) make the most well engineered, well made, highly water resistant, high quality timepieces at an attainable price band. That means high grade movements, sapphire crystal as a standard feature, and excellent build quality. The most common feedback I get from my customers is the compliments they get on the looks of the watch and questions about it, because the designs are so uncommon and stand out. The other feedback I get is how special the watch feels.
WWR: Admirable goals for any watch, for sure. What’s been the biggest manufacturing or engineering challenge you faced so far?
Leo Padron: For such a deceptively simple looking 3 hand watch, the Hennepin was a bear to pull off. You’re trying to create a seamless effect with dissimilar materials, while having them assembled in a specific order that has enough clearance to allow several different movements, high water resistance, and a thick sapphire crystal – all while keeping the case height very thin. But it’s these kinds of engineering challenges are what I enjoy the most about my work. I do all my own CAD design, so much of the thought is already done before an engineer looks at it. That means the remaining conversations are mostly about how to refine and adapt my work for the best production result.
WWR: That definitely seems like a boon, having those technical drawings down to begin with. Where do you think the wider industry is moving?
Leo Padron: It’s worth talking about how crowdfunding has impacted the industry. It’s also dear to my business as the Padron Vuelta 25 was the very first automatic watch in history to successfully fund on Kickstarter. So it’s part of my own story as well as the story of an entire market.
Kickstarter of course, has since blown up to the extent that it’s a pop culture reference, and the crowdsourced watch is practically its own industry now. It’s a very beautiful thing and every project owner should be proud, because all these new watch projects can operate outside traditional market demands and push the broader marketplace in a more experimental direction. Today, you can walk into a department store and see the kind of timepieces you wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. Consumer choice is the big winner here.
Then of course, there’s smartwatches, and the press loves to play this zero sum narrative and pit smartwatch vs. traditional timepiece, which is amusing because we’ve been here so many times before. The Casio F series is a perfect watch. It’s multifunction, incredibly accurate, sold globally, costs $12, you can probably get one at your local drugstore, and it really should have put everybody out of business years ago. But when people dream they don’t dream about a digital sports watch. My customers are smartwatch owners and Padron owners because any watch aficionado will tell you that the perfect watch is in fact, all of of the watches.
WWR: Collect all the things! How do you see your company moving forward, where smartwatches are present and Kickstarter is flooded with new watches?
Leo Padron: Time will tell. My goal is to continue to be as fresh as possible, make the strongest timepieces possible, and overall do my own thing.
WWR: How do online communities play a part in what you’re doing?
Leo Padron: It’s been interesting watching what watch companies are doing with Instagram, which only recently turned itself into a selling platform. Some brands have taken wonderful advantage of it. Obviously crowdfunding spaces like Kickstarter will continue to play a huge role as well. Watch forums tend to be the most professionally minded, and I think it’s where much of what’s out there gets to be chewed on a little bit and where opinion takes shape.
WWR: How are you engaging with the watch community – and how has that impacted what you create?
Leo Padron: Kickstarter gave me a very valuable space for understanding what customers appreciate in real time, that helped me develop a stronger product, where everybody is a contributor to the success of your project and part of an entire dialogue that shapes the end result. It makes everything more meaningful for me and my backers.
And then of course, I am a highly local business. My workshop is located in Downtown Minneapolis, and I sell directly to many customers in person. This is good because I have that face to face relationship and it’s one of the advantages of being a small business. You learn instantly what your customers like, what they’re looking for, and you get to answer their questions, and explain your product really well. And because my customers know me, they’re more apt to give me word of mouth business.
WWR: That is great you can have that face-to-face interaction. How do you define your ideal consumer? Who is it, in your mind, that wears your brand’s watch?
Leo Padron: I would like to think that Padron is not a lifestyle brand, but a watch company, and my focus is making the strongest possible timepieces that outcompete anything in its class. In my view, you make the greatest product you can and your customer base makes itself.
WWR: Build it, and they will come… what characteristics of your watches are identifiably “Padron”?
Leo Padron: A highly individual look. An emphasis on fit and finish. An economy of lines. Wonderful build quality. Above the crowd.
WWR: A solid punch list for design. What are your guiding principles when making design choices?
Leo Padron: I strive for universality in my designs, overall trying to avoid the trap of genre. A couple reviews referred to me as minimalist, but I don’t consider myself one. More of a pragmatist trying to see if I can get one line to do the work of two. I actually like ornamentation, but I think ornamentation should always be used to honor, never to embellish. Above all I try to avoid clutter.
WWR: Yes, leave the frivolity off of the dial! How do you think about design and its role in your life?
Leo Padron: I treat design as a means to clarify my work and give my products both an identity and a sense of presence. There’s all kinds of ways to accomplish this and every brand has their own idiosyncrasies. My big thing – and I can’t stress this enough – is that I want anything that I sell to just feel engaging and to be accessible. To me, that is what good design should do in life.
WWR: What would the crowning lifetime achievement be for you and your brand as a company?
Leo Padron: Great things have already happened that I can feel plenty proud of. I have lots of happy customers, I’ve been able to do what I want, I’ve had incredible exposure, and the feather of the Padron Vuelta being the first automatic watch in history to ever be successfully crowdfunded.
Just the same, I’ve always been taken by the extraordinary longevity of a good timepiece. Not too long ago, I repaired a English pocket watch that was so old Downton Abbey could have been a science fiction series in its day. I think of all the Padron watches I have sold in the past five years. And I have no illusions that over time some will be forgotten, tossed, or end up in a drawer. But I also know others will find their way to new owners, much like my grandfather’s watch which I use to this day. To think that my watches might still be enjoyed a hundred years from now or more is plenty for me. padronwatchco.com