In Conversation with Don Cochrane, Owner of VertexBy Tracey Llewellyn
In the past year, few watch lovers could have missed the name Vertex and, in its wake, avoided learning a little about the British military watches dubbed the “Dirty Dozen” – the group of 12 companies that provided watches made to the specifications of the UK Ministry of Defence. Commissioned in 1944, about 4,000 of the watches were delivered in December that year and others throughout 1945, meaning that some certainly saw service during the Second World War, a factor that has helped the “Watch, Wrist, Waterproofs” to gain traction among military collectors.
In late Spring 2017, Don Cochrane, the grandson of the final owner of Vertex, revived the family business and launched the M100, the first new Vertex since 1972. A near replica of the “Dirty Dozen” original, the M100 is a 40mm stainless-steel watch (an increase of 5mm) with a double-curved, anti-reflective sapphire crystal (as opposed to acrylic and 100m of water-resistance). Powered by a hand-wound, ETA-7001 movement, legibility is key thanks to the black dial and white numerals molded in Super-LumiNova, large sub-seconds and essential arrow indicating military issue. The watch is supplied in a Pelican case with two straps — a black leather and a nylon over/under strap in regulation Admiralty Gray.
Made in a run of just 600 examples, the watches were available to buy through invitation and referral — the initial 60 buyers being able to invite five others to join them and so on. And, thanks to the generosity of two of our editors, Revolution has joined the Vertex party with 10 exclusive opportunities to invite our readers to buy one of these limited-edition timepiece
We first met in 2016 when you showed me a prototype of the M100. Today the 600 pieces of the watch are selling fast. Tell me about the past 12 months?
Everything has gone according to pretty much the way I planned it, which is amazing. I went in to this very naively – I didn’t know the watch trade and I didn’t really talk to many people about what I was doing. I was quite sure in myself what I wanted to do and I was concerned that other people might make me doubt myself, which could have resulted in me not having the balls to do what I wanted to do or stalling and saying: “Let’s take six months to think about this.” But as you know, everything is about momentum and once you start a project, it has to be consistent and have a message that people keep reading and keep believing. It may be easy to sell a bunch of watches at launch, because there is a lot of chatter in the beginning, but it is much more exciting a year down the line, because it shows that we’ve got it right.
When you say “right”, you mean in terms of design but also your referral system for ownership?
Yes. It’s a really exciting and organic way to sell watches, but it’s also very random and I have no control over it, which can be a bit frustrating. One week I may not sell any and then in one day I can sell 10 pieces.
I decided to go with the referral method for a number of reasons. Firstly, I wanted to be disruptive and to do something different. I’ve been selling things in one form or another all my life and I decided I wanted to do something where I could value the relationship, making it more than just a financial transaction and turning the buyers and owners into part of the story that we are now telling. It’s strange how people react to the recommending of friends. Some clients very much want the watch to be their thing so they don’t refer anyone. Others are really excited by it and want to talk about it and share it. Would the success have been as great if I’d market it differently? We will never know.
And you are happy with how well your sales are going?
Having sold more than half of the watches, we are completely on target. This is exactly where I hoped we would be, which is really cool. And everyone likes it. People haven’t bought it because of the marketing campaign. A lot of people who are owners [of Vertex watches] are watch collectors but they are now wearing their Vertex all the time, which is amazing and very flattering. Although Revolution has supported the project from the outset, there were a few journalists who, in the beginning, were very anti this whole idea but have since become real advocates for the project because they now get it.
What is it that they get?
Beyond our marketing, they get the whole Vertex story. If you go to market and tell the same story as everyone else, nobody is going to care about you. So, it’s important that you go in there with something that stops people – a lot will stop and think: “That’s ridiculous, go away.” But others will stop and think: “This is so cool.” The most important thing with Vertex is that it has integrity and authority from its heritage, which makes it a lovely thing to be a part of. Everyone has the right to return the watch if they don’t like it but so far, we’ve not had any sent back.
This type of marketing is new to the watch world. How did people react to the referral method?
I think at first, no one really cared about what I was doing. So, I was surprised when some people started getting cross that they couldn’t just buy an M100. It’s been an education for me because my only intention was to make a great watch. I didn’t have a huge corporate budget for marketing so I decided to give the opportunity to own the brand to the buyers. But it seems that a lot of people believe if they have money, they should be allowed to have whatever they want.
It was never intended to be elitist, in fact quite the opposite – we wanted to do something good that would seduce people. It was never about “give me your money”. It was about building a community and allowing people to talk to each other and share experiences, and this is something we are looking to expand going into 2018 with owners’ events and get-togethers. We have a very diverse community from doctors and lawyers to soldiers and musicians, artists, scientists and teachers, and they all came to Vertex through a shared understanding.
Perhaps surprisingly for such a British story, the watch has been popular internationally.
I know, that is so nice. I haven’t pushed it anywhere else really because I don’t have the finances to do it. But people have read about the story and want to be a part of it. I would say about 70 percent of owners are in the UK, with maybe 20 percent in the US and the rest in all other parts of the world.
And as you know, two Revolution editors – one in the UK and one in Hong Kong – are M100 owners.
Yes, it is very flattering – even more so that they genuinely like the watches. I have huge respect for Revolution and its editors so I am delighted that these two have chosen to become Vertex owners. They didn’t come to me because they had discussed it or read articles by each other. They both came individually and that makes me feel like I’m doing things right.
And you have allowed both to give their five referrals to Revolution, allowing us to offer 10 of our readers the chance to buy an M100 too.
I honestly believe that the decision of who to refer has to belong to the owners and they should not be influenced by me or anyone else. If and when we start the events, anyone coming along will want to be among people who are passionate about Vertex and watches in general, and I imagine that nowhere are people more passionate than among Revolution readers. I don’t see any issue with it at all and in fact I’m rather thrilled that Revolution‘s founder, Wei Koh, wants to do this.
With more than 50 per cent of the M100s sold, the obvious question is: what comes next for Vertex?
The M100 is still the major story so I don’t want to talk too much about the future but rest assured, this first model is just the beginning of our story. People are already asking about special editions, but it is too soon to think of that. There really can only ever be 600 pieces of the M100 – I’m not going to do another run with two yellow/red/purple dots added and call it a different watch, I don’t think that is okay. With the Revolution collaboration, for example, we will provide a beautiful and specially-sourced additional strap, but the watch itself will remain exactly on brand.
The watch that we are currently looking at developing is based on another early Vertex design from the Second World War. Designed for the British Navy, the war ended before it went into production and after 1944, Vertex no longer specialized in military watches as rationed importing prevented it from being practical. We were only allowed to import a certain number of watches into the country, so my late great-grandfather and grandfather decided in their wisdom to leave military supply to Omega, Lemania and the likes, choosing to make gold and platinum pieces that they could sell for more money instead. So, the second contemporary Vertex will be a modern version of an original design and will probably launch at the end of 2018.
How much was the Vertex re-launch a business proposition and how much a matter of family pride?
It’s very exciting to be a part of something like this, to start growing a brand and have something of yours out there in the world. And I’m definitely not finished – there’s still more of this story to tell and I think there’s a place in the market for a company like Vertex that is not hyper-commercial and sells 600 to 1,000 watches a year. We are making lovely things for people who get it and we are not trying to make 40 different watches with different iterations that are sold in 3,000 shops around the world. There’s a place for small companies and their products don’t have to be super expensive.
Of course, the company has to be commercially viable. I don’t want investors because then they have an input and I don’t want to compromise on my vision. I wanted to bring Vertex back and tell the story but I had to make enough money to take the company to the next stage. We’ve done that and now I get to write the next chapter. Obviously, every step forward is another gamble but I am confident that we have good odds.
Do you think the new Vertex would make members of the old company proud?
My uncle who worked for Vertex in the 1950s finds the contemporary watch industry incredibly confusing because it has changed so much. The passion we see today didn’t exist 60 years ago. I do wish that my grandparents were alive to see what we are doing, I think they would be bursting with pride. It has been so fulfilling and it is exciting to think what could happen in the future. In two to three years, the business will be a lot more sustainable and then we can really have fun playing with it.
Then there is a big future ahead for the brand?
It is all about moving on with a purpose, and without that purpose, I would be lost. I want to work on the fun side and I don’t need to be part of a big group to do that. But I also appreciate that I am not a fully faceted machine, so next year I need to expand. We are definitely here to stay.