Conversation Time: Dan the Electric Watch Man
Today we are delighted to interview a seasoned collector of early electric watches and other fascinating timepieces. When’s not fixing up these old classic timepieces he’s out skateboarding, hunting cool vintage clothes or refurbishing vintage scooters. We are delighted to introduce Dan Cushman, a serious electric watch collector, and talk about what makes him tick!
Dan, please tell us a little about yourself.
Well, I grew up in Colorado here in the U.S., in a fairly small town just outside of Denver. Pretty early on in life I developed an affinity for the outdoors and really got into skateboarding and snowboarding. I Went to college in Denver where I received my B.S. in Industrial Design. Right after that, a girl I had been friends with since middle school had moved to San Diego and we started dating. Next thing I knew, I had moved out to Southern California to be with her. It just so happens that SoCal is where a majority of action sports companies call home, so with a little luck, I ended up with my dream job at Vans doing product development. I’m still there, and that middle school crush is now my wife.
When did you first develop an interest in watches?
I’ve always had some sort of interest since I was a little kid. I used to make my dad buy me the $10 Casio watches that they would sell at the grocery store as often as I could. Then when I started skateboarding in the late 90’s, there were a lot of weird trends popping up in my small town, and one of them was having a pocket watch! So of course I had to follow suit and buy one and actualy, I still have it. It’s a cheap Remington quartz piece with skateboard company stickers still on it. Luckily that was a short phase, but around the same time, Nixon was getting traction so I ended up buying more than a few of those over the years before getting into vintage. They were actually one of the reasons I went after an industrial design degree – I had hopes of combining interests and working for a skateboard focused watch company. That didn’t quite pan out, but it still led me to a great hobby and education.
Tell us about your first watch purchase.
That depends on how far back we go. I guess the Remington doesn’t really count, so my first wristwatch purchase with my own money would have to be a Nixon. I don’t remember the exact model but I do remember it had an internal fixed bezel which promptly came loose, but that didn’t stop me from wearing it until it was dead. In terms of vintage, my true first was a 1970’s red LED watch that I found at a swap meet, followed quickly by a Tenor Dorly jump hour from the same swap meet. I think it was even the same day, so let’s call that one a tie!
We know you have a particular love of ‘electric’ watches. Tell us more about where this came from.
Funny enough, that LED watch was a catalyst for everything. As some people might be aware, they are temperamental because of their “new” technology so wearing one is a game of patience and determination. I started buying one after another which meant I had to start fixing them if I actually wanted to wear them. At the same time, I was also nursing other beat up cheap mechanical watches back to health as well as starting a serious collection of jump hours. A coworker at Vans (@ethokin) turned out to be a major WIS and he noticed the little seed that was planted in my brain. He actually ended up with a desk next to mine and became my sounding board for all the weird purchases. One day he walked in with a vintage repair book he had found on early electronic (quartz) watches and in it, they had mentioned the earlier electrics like Lip (see above picture). One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had won an eBay auction for a pile of parts for a Lip Nautic Ski with the Lip R184 movement.
Once it was in a wearable state, it really triggered something inside me. I came to realize that these early electro-mechanical watches sprung to life during a flash-in-the-pan time for innovation. They were created when everything in our daily lives was being looked at with space-age eyes and needed to be upgraded to be modern. Wearing one is like traveling to a time where anything was possible. This is especially true when considering one of the pioneer pieces like Lip, Lord Elgin or Hamilton, where the stories behind their creations bring up the desire to be a fly on the wall and hear those early conversations. “Imagine, gentlemen, a mechanical watch that is powered by a tiny battery instead of a main spring. The future is now!”. I have an original proof ad for the Lord Elgin Electronic, and the sense of wonder is visceral. The watch is second to the magical battery that is going to change watches forever.
It’s this same train of thought that makes me so surprised they aren’t valued more than they are. When you open up the heart of one of these things and see the little contact wires twitching with every balance swing, it’s like a worm hole straight into the 1950’s. Multiple teams of very creative people all over the world, came up with a solution to a problem that no one cared about, all at the same time, and then they raced to be the first ones to bring it to market. And thanks to that desire to fix something that wasn’t broken, we have little pieces of history and design that we can wear every day. And as far as I know, it was a dead end for history as well. You can still wear some modern version of the first manual wind movement ever made, but you can’t just walk into your local shop and pull a new electro-mechanical watch from the shelf. If you want to experience that little “spark” of happiness, you have to go directly to the original. (And just hope that someone didn’t try to pull those little hairs that are always near the balance).
Tell us about a couple of your favourite watches in your current collection.
I have to say the black dial Electro-Chron and skeleton dial Electro-Chron, since they are just so beautiful and uncommon. Everyone always loves the crazy lightning bolt hands on the Electro-Chrons, and they always get so many complements when ever I wear them. On the less pretty side of things, I love the Lord Elgin Electronics since they are in the book of Genesis in the electric watch bible. That watch specifically has so many stories behind what happened to them and how they fell into obscurity. They flopped so hard that only the first edition of The Electric Watch Repair Manual has any info on repairing them, after that they removed the movement entirely from the book. Plus they are as rare as hens’ teeth and should be in a museum instead of on my wrist, but that just makes them all the more fun to wear.
You mentioned other, non-electric, watches earlier. On a wider scale, what are your current favourite pieces that you own and what are you hunting for next?
I recently picked up one of my grail watches which is a Valjoux 72 Benrus Sky Chief, and have been wearing that as much as possible. Otherwise, I’ve really been on a diver kick lately, so my Titus Calypsomatic 7085, Calendar Auto Orient Diver, and Polerouter Sub have all been heavy in the rotation. In the last year or so, I’ve jumped on the Enicar bandwagon so I’ve also really enjoyed swapping between the Super Divette and the Diver 600.
Number one on the hunt list is finding parts for watches I already own but want to actually wear. I have a Gruen Ocean Chief that is so naked without a bezel. I’ve also always wanted an original Certina Ph200M and ever since one of my friends grabbed a Speedmaster, I’ve been slowly starting to think I should really consider adding one to my collection too. Oh, and I don’t think I have every version of the Electro-Chron…. So I’m always looking for those.
What other interests do you have?
I’ve always been very mechanically inclined, so there’s always a good chance something with wheels is being worked on. Right now, I’m in the middle of restoring a vintage Puch Maxi moped for my brother. I also have been refinishing vintage wood machinist toolboxes like Gerstner and Union, and using them to store all my watches, tools and parts at my bench. Otherwise, I still skateboard when I have the time, and also dabble in vintage clothes hunting and resale. It’s almost as addictive as watches with just as many rabbit holes for research!
Check out Daniel on Instagram for more cool content – @moclovflop