Interview with Thang Vo-Ta

Thang is not only a collector of contemporary IWC watches, but also represents the quintessentially modern entrepreneur. Having lived throughout the world, he considers other collectors as “fairly driven and passionate” persons. Thang is the perfect example of that!

 

TVT = Thang Vo-Ta
MF = Michael Friedberg, Moderator, IWC Collectors’ Forum

MF: understand you're from Vietnam, went to school in Singapore, attended MIT in the US and ended up in London. That's a lot of travel! Can you tell us a bit about your background?

TVT: You’ve got a good memory Michael! I was born in Montreal, but at the age of 3 moved to Singapore where I was raised until I went to MIT near Boston, Massachusetts. But indeed I’m from Vietnam by virtue of my parents, my first language, and the heritage I was brought up with.

 

So when someone asks me where I’m from, I do often have to ask first - do they mean where I was born, or where I live now, or where I was raised, or what ethnicity? I still by second-nature consider Singapore home, but I guess I should really start reconsidering that as I’m now approaching 15 years here in London (where I moved from New York post college).

 

MF: You originally had very challenging jobs in the U.S. and the UK. Please tell us what you that.

TVT: My job in private equity brought me here from New York, where I was part of the investment team executing leveraged buy-outs and venture capital investments for Goldman Sachs. It was a phenomenal learning experience, but I found myself wanting to be more like the entrepreneurs and CEOs that I’d regularly meet then my senior-most colleagues.

 

I therefore left finance and after a break traveling throughout Europe (during which I also met my wife Joanna – who I know loves me for who I am as I was effectively a bum at the time!)… switched careers to the most bricks & mortar of industries possible.

I spent over 10 years in London property development, primarily on luxury residential but also unique commercial projects such as the redevelopment of Ealing Film Studios (where the TV series Downton Abbey is currently filmed), and prominent hotels like the Chiltern Fire House and St Pancras Chambers.

 

Despite this, I still longed to be more entrepreneurial and develop my own business. Over the years I had been part-time developing an innovative new feminine hygiene product with a well-respected gynaecologist friend. Despite a $15 billion annual market and 20% of women unhappy with the performance of their product, it’s been over 30 years since there’s been any meaningful new product for women. Last year we finally received US patent grant, to go with 25 other countries – so I left to become full-time CEO of our feminine hygiene start-up with a product we’ve named Callaly.

 

MF: Were you scared you'd go broke without a real job?

TVT: Absolutely! That fear constantly remains in the back of my mind whether many years of time and money already spent developing this product will be worth it. Start-up entrepreneurs are usually fresh out of college with few obligations. On the other hand I’ve got three young children, and all sorts of important responsibilities. But the opportunity to build a socially responsible company with a disruptive yet beneficial new product – is very significant motivation.

MF: And you also have an unusual landscaping business —what's that like? (please tell about the Chelsea show and what the papers/TV said)

TVT: During my property development days, I befriended a very talented garden designer called Fernando Gonzalez. As an avid art-collector with a finance background – it’s always been fascinating to see what makes artworks more valuable than others. Combine that with the fact that there’s a dreadful lack of contemporary and captivating design in garden spaces (most consist of prototypically boring straight-hedges and bright flowers and an awful sculpture/water-fountain), so we set up a garden design business that will only ever complete a handful of unique projects each year.

 

We’ve been fortunate to showcase Fernando’s talents at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show, winning a medal for each time – most recently with a garden the Financial Times called ‘Extraordinary’ and the BBC ‘Spectacular’. This has led to very interesting commissions for some discerning clients. With a lot of luck it would be fulfilling to enhance some special residences in unique locations around the world.

 

MF: Given all this, I'm not sure you have time for watches. But when did you get interested in them?

TVT: My fascination for watches started at a young age. My father had a handsome Longines quartz watch that I admired, and when I had made enough money to buy one myself – I discovered there were automatic ones that even worked without batteries! And then I learned about complications, and in particular about the perpetual calendar; as a teenager I found this mind-blowing (still do) and told myself that one day I’d own one.

A few years later, I spotted my first IWC watch — a Portuguese Chronograph on a family friend. I thought it was gorgeous knew I had to get an IWC one day.

 

But it wasn’t until another 15 years that a friend showed me a photo of his brother’s recent acquisition– a contemporary Da Vinci. When I saw that picture of the watch I was absolutely smitten, and it immediately rekindled my fascination as a teenager.

 

MF: What was your first IWC?

TVT: My first IWC was a Da Vinci Chronograph with ardoise dial. I was completely drawn to the large tonneau shape, the wonderful details (inverted curve, symbolism) and Renaissance design cues inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s works… the watch is exquisite. 

 

We buy and wear our watches for the stories that they represent and remind us of. For me, it was of a young boy who to this day remains amazed that something so beautiful on a wrist could also require no date adjustments for 100 years. And it also reminds me of the crazy adventure with my forum friend Arne Müller – we dropped every commitment one day to travel together and jointly obtain our grails.

 

MF: Do you have a favorite IWC?

TVT: As with many other collectors, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a specific answer to this! But I guess I will say that one of special significance is the perpetual watch I promised myself I would get. That grail watch is my Big Pilot Perpetual made as a special limited edition for Zegg & Cerlati in a charcoal dial with raised markers.

 

MF: When did you discover the IWC forum?

TVT: About 4 years ago while intently researching the brand. It was and remains to this a day a wonderful resource of knowledge about IWC – not just about the many different models, history and heritage… but I particular enjoy reading people’s reasons for what they love about their latest IWC acquisition.

 

MF: Did it totally corrupt you?

TVT: Hopelessly. As I tell my wife, if I had spent all the time on the forum learning a language instead I’d be fluent in Russian, Mandarin and probably Arabic!

So when someone asks me where I'm from, I do often have to ask first — do they mean where I was born, or where I live now, or where I was raised, or what ethnicity?

MF: It certainly got you to go to Schaffhausen and to visit SIHH, too.

TVT: I’ve been really fortunate to have experienced both Schaffhausen and SIHH, both times as guests of IWC. To this day, I remain surprised that I got the invite to SIHH within a year of joining the forum.

 

MF: Also, you often attend get-togethers of forum members in the UK. How did that come back, and what do you like about them?

TVT: It’s my view that there’s a certain type of gentleman that acquires an IWC – one that clearly appreciates beautiful design and fine craftsmanship. But one that also seeks to understand more of what’s beneath the surface, caring for what’s ‘under the hood’ and for heritage. And by nature of these being luxury timepieces on our wrists – to be a collector, entails being a successful person, and this in turn generally doesn’t happen without being a fairly driven and passionate person.

For these reasons, I’ve found that the majority of collectors who chose to share their passion and the stories behind their IWC watches on the forum are very fine men cut from a very similar cloth. Many have become good friends in the shortest amount of time. It’s a pleasure therefore to meet forum collectors from around the world whenever I travel, and whenever they come to London.

 

MF: Has IWC changed since you bought your first IWC?

TVT: The biggest change I’ve seen in the few years that I’ve started collecting IWC is the growth in IWC-own branded boutiques. It has enabled collectors with a place to share their passion, to achieve exceptional customer service, and also to uniquely liaise directly with an on-site watchmaker. The customer experience is an integral part of a luxury purchase so I believe that’s been a real positive direction from IWC.

In regards to new products and models from IWC, the introduction of an in-house annual calendar complication was a great recent addition to the rich family of complications (as was the outstanding constant-force tourbillon). As a relatively new collector of contemporary IWCs – I don’t have the fervent passion of vintage purists. Although three of my favourite models – the Da Vinci, the Vintage Collection Ingenieurs, and Mission Earth Ingenieurs are all no longer available at boutiques. I hope we haven’t seen the last of these!

 

MF: Do you have any plans for your next watch?

TVT: Ironically, despite being first drawn to a Portugieser I still have yet to acquire one. Part of that is because of my obsession to first further my modest Big Pilot collection– I’m pleased to already have a few special editions BPs… but to ‘complete’ this I’d really like to one day acquire an original 5002 from the limited edition of 500.

 

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

It’s a rare hot & sunny day here in London – and on these occasions I like to wear my Mission Earth Ingenieur Plastiki with bold blue dial and matching rubber strap.

 

MF: Thank you very much!

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