INTERVIEW WITH TERRY RUSSELL

Terry Russell has been a participant on the IWC Forum since it’s inception. He’s passionate about watches, and especially loves the history underlying them. But Terry especially has a charming sense of humor, which reflects itself in the many intriguing articles that he’s contributed to the forum over the years.

 

MF: Michael Friedberg, Moderator, IWC Collectors Forum
TR: Terry Russell

MF: Terry, I understand you're a "Southern gentleman". Could you tell us a bit about yourself —where you grew up, your family, your work, and so on?

TR: I grew up in the 60s and 70s in North Carolina in the city of Winston-Salem, famous in those days for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and the brands Winston, Salem, and Camel cigarettes. My grandfather was a tobacco farmer. I had numerous relatives that worked for the company and its influence touched everything.

When I was 5, my parents built our first home on land given to them by my grandfather so essentially my brothers and I grew up in a very nice rural area only 10-miles from the center of a major city. I very much appreciate today that places like this no longer exist. I probably didn't appreciate so much working in the tobacco fields as a kid, but no doubt it inspired me not to take up farming as a profession.

As for the “Southern Gentleman” part, I believe it basically means that I was raised to have good manners and be respectful of others – a trait that doesn't seem as important today as it was when I was a kid. When our son came along it was important to us to teach him the same traits – the “yes ma’m, no ma’m” thing.

Of course one musn’t forget the seersucker suits, bow ties, and straw hats. As the official uniform of a “Southern Gentleman” it can be quite troublesome dressing this way in a tobacco field or on a golf course!

 

MF: And I hear you recently changed jobs —to a company with headquarters in Switzerland. What was that like?

TR: Yes, after 30-years working for the Italians at Magneti Marelli, I slipped across the border and joined ranks with the Swiss, starting a new chapter with the Buhler Group headquartered in Uzwil. Since I was sending all of my money to Switzerland for watches anyway, I figured I'd just make the process more efficient.

 

MF: No way; really, why did you do this?

TR: Having never intended to stay with Marelli 30-years, I made the change simply for a new adventure. I turned 60 this past December, putting me pretty far to the right of the career curve so perhaps the change was as much a self-test of my own mettle as anything. I just needed something new at least one last time. Buhler provided that opportunity. It doesn't hurt that headquarters is only a short distance from Schaffhausen. 

MF: Well you’re sometimes close to Schaffhausen now, but when you started getting interested in watches, there couldn't have been many watch dealers in North Carolina. How did your interest get started?

TR: My fascination for watches started around the age of 10 when I received my first watch. Soon thereafter I managed to get it open and it was just one of those OMG moments. I don't recall who made it but I assume it was a cheap pin-set Timex, popular back in the 60s because they “took a licking and kept on ticking”.

The little gears and springs fascinated me so much that I disassembled it, ruining it forever. I would go on to disassemble others as well. By age 14 I would receive no more watches as gifts until I graduated from high school.

In those days ordinary people often bought their watches from watch repairers who worked inside of pharmacies. If my mother dragged me into a jewelry store, which wasn't very often, I would spend time at the watch counters admiring the inventory, but no one in my world knew watches as anything other than a functional object.

I had a neighbor who was a watchmaker and I would sometimes visit with him when I played with his son. When I asked him once what was the best watch made, he told me Vacheron but I only recalled this years later when the watch bug bit.

 

MF: And how did you get interested in IWC?

TR: My interest in watches just lay dormant for a long, long time – until 1986 actually, when I saw my first IWC ad in an airline magazine on a flight home from Chicago. It was the original Da Vinci Perpetual ad, very stark yet showing the little century slide in a glass vial. I was certain it had to be the finest watch ever made and despite another decade passing before I would start collecting, I never forgot that ad. Years later I was pleased to learn that IWC was indeed an important part of the Swiss watch industry and it still amazes that I became friends with the very man who created that watch.

 

MF: Was the Da Vinci Perpetual your first IWC?

TR: It wasn’t. My first IWC was a Cal 89 made in 1956 and I still enjoy owning it. It was the subject of my very first Internet article on TimeZone. The photo I used was made on a flat bed scanner with a horrible result but it was to be a while longer before digital cameras were available – at least to me. 

My interest in watches just lay dormant for a long, long time – until 1986 actually, when I saw my first IWC ad in an airline magazine on a flight home from Chicago

MF: Can you tell the story of buying it?

TR: Well, sometime around 1996 I discovered TimeZone and this guy named Michael Friedberg who had a great appreciation for the brand, and from him I gained the inspiration to learn more about IWC.

 

MF: I didn’t know that; thanks.

TR: I realized fairly early that I was more interested in the art and craft of the movement than the watch itself. The Cal 89 was generally recognized as one of the best movements of its time. I would go on to co-author a piece about the Cal 89 with John Davis with me writing the historical preface and John doing the actual heavy lifting.

 

MF: That article had an historical emphasis, as do several of your other articles like The Watch That Never Grew Old and The Patina of Time. Could you tell us about that interest of yours?

TR: The fact that my Calibre 89 IWC watch was also vintage was important to me too. There was always this thread of historical fascination I attached to watches and I viewed them as markers of the times from which they came. This was very important to me but I can't say exactly why. I just enjoyed imagining where they might have been and who might have owned them.

My stories flow first from my fascination with history and secondly from the romantic notions I tend to conjure up trying to put a watch in its own historical context. If I can know just one thing about a watch’s provenance, it inspires me to dig deeper and to understand the times from which both the owner and the watch came. For me, it transforms the watch from being just an object to something of an oracle of another man’s life, thus making it more special. In The Patina of Time, I was able to know something of the history of all of the men through whose hands this one watch passed, and for me it made the watch more special.

 

For me, it transforms the watch from being just an object to something of an oracle of another man’s life, thus making it more special. In The Patina of Time, I was able to know something of the history of all of the men through whose hands this one watch passed, and for me it made the watch more special.

Not too long ago I acquired a pocket watch that had been purchased by Ernst Homberger himself that was given to one of his employees at the Georg Fischer Company as a service award, and I was able to learn something about this man, even yet today, by contacting the company. For me this brought an otherwise old watch back to life by restoring its lost history.

 

I can't really explain why this is so important to me other than to perhaps hope that someday my own history follows my watches into the future with my son.

MF: One story — The Night Before Yet Another IWC Christmas — was even a poem. I can just imagine you writing that one. What was that like?

TR: Well, as I recall, the very first one was probably a function of too much egg nog on Christmas Eve. I don't really know where it came from but it just rolled out in a matter of minutes. The ones that would follow took a bit more thought as I tried to capture something of that particular year’s theme. They were fun to write but I've just about run out “Yet Again”s so I'm not sure where it goes from here.

 

The one poem you reference came during a time when celebrities were playing an ever larger role in IWC’s marketing and it was a means to get in a playful jab on behalf of all of us old hardcore collectors who believed the company should have remained under a rock. In the end I was at least supportive in the context of their survival, which companies don't do if they remain under rocks. A financially healthy IWC is much better than no IWC at all. I just secretly wish they considered me a celebrity. I know I've sewn more of their brand seed than many who line their red carpet.

 

MF: My favorite article of yours, though, was your story about the original Portuguese  —an extraordinarily clever piece. That one just spontaneously came to you?  

 

TR: You mean the KaviRama Jubilee? Why does no one believe this story?

 

I risked life and limb making this stuff up! Yes, like most every other thought I've ever had, this one just spontaneously popped into my head and I managed to trap it on paper before it disappeared. Had I waited only 5-minutes, it would have been lost forever. Some have said this would have been my best 5-minutes ever. What do you think they meant by that?

MF: Any other good stories about finding and getting IWCs?

TR: Like most collectors, there is tremendous enjoyment in the hunt, so these past years have been scattered with trophies that were quite exciting to acquire. Perhaps my most exciting find was the 5251.

 

One morning in June of 1999, I received an email from a gentleman in Chicago alerting me to one of these on a site in Germany and I immediately contacted them to reserve the watch until we could work out the details. I can't recall who emailed me - wait, it was Michael Friedberg – and this watch remains one of my most prized IWCs. It was the subject of my first major article – a giddy rant actually- about a watch.

 

MF: You mean, back in 1999 knowing me cost you money? How about your most recent IWC purchase —what’s the story there?

TR: My most recent purchase was the CF3. As you may recall, I actually waited a bit beyond the deadline to make up my mind but I'm glad I got it. I did not start off as a great fan of pilots watches, failing miserably to appreciate the pureness of their design and functionality, but slowly they grew on me.

 

By the time the CF3 came along I had a couple of Big Pilots and the original UTC, and I was actually pursuing another watch, so it was a bit of a struggle, but it is a special piece and I have worn it more than any other watch I own. I even posted a little piece on the Forum making a bit of fun of myself for even hesitating to buy it.

MF: Terry, you’re a guy with an incredible sense of humor  —at work and with your family too?

TR: Feedback indicates that my family enjoys my sense of humor. My wife Bonnie and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary in March and I'm most proud of the fact that I can still make her laugh. Our son Michael looks like his mother but acts like me. This was God’s way of making sure I wasn't outnumbered.

 

At work, I'm probably the funniest guy my employees ever hated. I'm pretty serious about the work at hand and I'm quite honest and straightforward but I'm also fair, so there’s fun to be had by those with commitment.

 

MF: But there's a serious side with you as well. When you buy a watch, do you have particular objectives?

That’s a tough question. I'm much more an accumulator than a collector in some regards. I don't have an overriding theme that I pursue. I like examples and many different things might capture my eye, but I'm also very patient and frugal. I'm excited if can find a vintage piece with some provenance, but these are too hard to find to define them as an objective, and for some reason I don't often like new stuff immediately. I guess watches have to grow on me for a while which probably explains why I still have 95% of everything I've ever acquired. When I decide I like something, I really like it.

 

MF: I understand that your son  —now a student at Clemson University in South Carolina — once gave you an amazing painting. I'd appreciate it if you'd share that story here.

TR: Michael took an art class during high school and discovered some talent that he definitely did not inherit from his father.

 

One day I jokingly asked him to paint a picture of one of my watches and he asked for a photo so I gave him one I had made of my 5251 Portofino Moonphase. He surprised me with the painting last year for Fathers Day.

 

I can't even express what that painting means to me as it delighted me on so many levels. It is certainly one of my most prized possessions, representing not only my love of watches but more importantly my love of being his dad. I was 41 when he was born so his arrival at all was a tremendous blessing, and we could not have asked for more in a son. So for me this painting is, just like him, simply extraordinary.

 

MF: One last question that I always ask: what are you wearing today?

TR: Funny you should ask. I just returned home this morning from a trip to China and my go-to watch was the CF3. I would have selected the KaviRama but no one believes it exists.

Continue reading