Forces behind the Sources: Quill & Pad’s Ian Skellern
Editor’s note: We all love to read about watches, and from a variety of sources. The reason so many watch review websites co-exist is that different voices, different opinions help broaden our horizons and understanding about the watch industry. So while everyone is in some stage or format of a lockdown, we at WYGDAI figured this was a good time to interview some of our leading industry figures that are the faces behind the leading review websites. While we are dealing with this lockdown in our own way, besides simply covering new releases and watch reviews, we also wanted to find out from other industry professionals what they were dealing with amidst the global crisis. We approached a number of experts in their own rights, people that matter, voices that make a difference in the watch world every day. We are calling this series of interview articles: Forces behind the Sources. We are essentially unmasking the forces behind your favourite watch review sources, putting them under the spotlight. Our introductory one was with Frank Geelen, Publisher & Executive Editor of Monochrome. For our previous interviews, please head to our dedicated interviews page here. Today we are offering the insights from another master of this field, Ian Skellern, Co-Founder Quill & Pad.
There is a quote by John F. Kennedy, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try”. From his humour to his frankness and to his words of wisdom, Ian Skellern bowled us over in our recent interview.
This article and his opinions may or may not leave a dent in your thinking about the watch industry, but they sure gave us a hell lot to think about.
Skellern’s tryst with watches spans nearly two decades — we are seeing a pattern here as in our interview with Frank Geelen from Monochrome we found that he has been pioneering this industry for two decades as well — therein which besides becoming a leading voice in this industry, he has also been sharing his passion for watches and independent watchmakers with watch enthusiasts. Starting with the ThePuristS forum and making his way through to co-founding Quill & Pad in 2013, he has forged an incredible journey into the world of watches with stops at iW (International Watch), Robb Report, Revolution, Vanity Fair and others.
In this interview we find out a bit more about his first watch(es), what makes him upset and happy, the journey to establishing Quill & Pad, and also how Covid-19 is shaping the present watch industry. So without further adieu, we present our second Force behind the Source, Ian Skellern.
The Antidote to Snobbery
Emily Brontë in her definitive work Wuthering Heights says: “You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into… it is as much as you can expect from a poor man’s daughter”.
Whenever I encounter the disdain and snobbery from luxury watch boutiques or representatives, or I hear about the waitlist for certain steel sports watches, it makes me think of this quote. Now to begin this article, allow me rephrase that a little bit for you.
You could not see a steel sports watch at this AD that hundreds on waiting lists have not looked into… it is as much as you can expect if you were a poor man’s son.
Snobbery and watches go hand in hand. The more expensive the watch, the more popular it seems to be. And a lot of folks in this industry give in to his belief. But not Ian Skellern, co-founder of Quill & Pad, fellow Aussie and fellow lover of all things horology.
“… we all want what we can’t have. There’s no bigger motivation than not being able to buy a watch (or anything else) that you can afford,” he says.
And while the world is full of those who pander to mine-is-bigger-than-yours syndrome, there are also lots who actually appreciate the beautiful world of horology.
“And don’t get me started on Rolex collectors screaming about not being able to buy the ‘rare’ model they desperately want, when the only reason they want it is because they can’t get it and retailers shelves are full of nearly identical models,” he adds.
Meet Ian Skellern. The voice of reason.
The ‘this-really-gets-on-my-nerves’ part
I think there’s a fair amount of wisdom in Skellern’s words. That said, on a personal note, I would say that consumers need to look beyond just the few watch models that are scarce. True, Rolex wears the crown. And I think I can safely say that. In it’s 115 years long history, it has earned that much. But the Submariner is not the only watch they make. Has anyone on those waiting lists even looked at say a Cellini Moonphase in person? I know it’s a dress watch from a brand primality known for its exceptional steel sports watches, but damn it’s a beauty. The point is, there’s more, much more to brands like Patek, AP and Rolex than just their steel watches. Call it a personal pet peeve but when people dislike something purely based on what others are saying about it, it’s just disheartening.
One incident that comes to mind is last year’s bashing of AP’s Code 11.59, by people who hadn’t even seen the watch in person!
Anyway, this leads us onto the topic of pet peeves.
We all have our pet peeves in life, and the watch industry is no different. Now while mine might be the snobbery attached to the industry, Skellern has a few of his own.
“I’ve too many pet peeves to list here, but the generally appalling standard of press releases is right up there.
“The texts are too often just self-congratulatory pap devoid of substance: don’t tell me what you think is great about the watch (we know you love it), just give the me the information to make my own conclusions. I have the impression that many of those writing press releases are trying first and foremost to impress the brand paying them rather than the people buying the watches,” he says.
Getting into the watch designs themselves, he says: “and then there’s tiny date indications that are unreadable without a loupe and usually break the harmony of a beautiful dial, and date wheels that are a different colour to the dial.”
While we are on the topic of pet peeves, let’s dive a bit more further into the mindset of Skellern and how he sees the watch collectors’ habits evolving over time.
“I think that there are three broad categories of watch collectors, or collectors in general. These categories overlap and are not mutually exclusive,” he begins.
“One, those that collect, or perhaps more accurately, buy, if something takes their fancy and they can afford it, with no defined strategy (I count myself here). Two, those that buy to signal (perhaps unconsciously) social/economic status or belonging to a group. These collectors look for well known (in their social circles) brands and easily recognisable watches, e.g. Rolex, Hublot, and Patek Philippe. (And) Three, those we might term serious collectors with a defined strategy. This group is after rarity in whatever genre they have settled on, with the ultimate goal often being a unique piece,” he details.
The Australian Market
Talking about collectors, since Skellern is Australian, we only found it right to ask him how he perceives the local watch market here.
As of end of 2018, the AFR reported that the Australians were paying more for luxury watches than previous years and the global brands were also paying more attention to the collectors here than before. This they reported reflected in the number of brands wishing to establish their own boutiques in Melbourne and Sydney.
And despite the pandemic, Skellern believes that the Aussie watch industry will continue to boom.
“I think Australia has fantastic potential and will become a significant market, especially for indies that only need to sell a few watches rather than tens of thousands. Australia has many things going for it, including a well-educated population hungry and curious for horological knowledge – (the more you know about anything, the more you appreciate it); English language (or thereabouts as I’m often told); and proximity to Asia/China, Singapore, Hong Kong and China are already the watch world’s powerhouses and while there will be bumps along the way like COVID-19, I don’t see them going anywhere but up,” affirms Skellern.
He is right. This indeed proves to be true as in the recent months brands such as Hublot and A. Lange & Sohne have established their roots in Sydney. The industry here is booming, and so is the reviewing community that includes the likes of the well established Time+Tide.
But at the same time, it’s hard to ignore the impact of Covid-19.
And it seems but natural that the pandemic might change how the industry will function for the worse from now on. But Skellern sees a silver lining and reckons this is not all that bad for the industry in the grand scheme of things.
“I do not think that COVID-19 will make any changes that were not already gradually/glacially happening already, but it will (always a silver lining) speed up the transformation that the industry needs and should have done years ago. These changes include updating the regionally based sales/distribution network that limits progressive retailers from marketing and selling to an ever-increasingly international clientele; enabling authorised retailers to sell online; more regional fairs and events closer to collectors; and more focus on education (for both sales staff and collectors),” he explains.
But lots of big brands did exit from Baselworld during this pandemic. Was this a coincidence? Not really, as Skellern explains.
“I think that COVID-19 certainly hastened Baselworld’s demise, but even without the virus the fair had a lot going against it. We should bear in mind that all big international exhibitions, e.g. cars and electronics, have been on a downward trend for many years, and it has long been difficult justify two major fairs (Baselworld and Watches & Wonders (ex-SIHH) in Switzerland.
“I think that the main reason Baselworld will struggle to survive in anything but a much smaller form is that both the fair and the cities hotels and restaurants failed to generate much (if any) goodwill among brands and visitors.”
That said, we wanted to find out more about his opinion on how the smaller or let’s say independent watch brands would fare in and post the current global economic state.
“Small brands and independents will succeed or fail on their merits just as larger brands do,” he says.
“To succeed you need to be at least competent, or work in partnership with somebody competent, in all of the following, and excellent in at least one: watchmaking, design, business acumen, communication/marketing. Medium to larger brands have an advantage in that they can hire the best talent in all categories, so they profit more in the good times, but the downside to that is they have high overheads so suffer more in downturns.
“One thing I can’t stress enough regarding indies is that by and large, collectors buy the watchmaker not the watch. If you like and respect the watchmaker, you are very likely to like their work. If you are a great watchmaker but an arrogant arsehole, you will struggle. That’s why so many of the successful indies are not only world class watchmakers, they are genuinely extremely nice people to hang out with. There has never been a better time to be an indie watchmaker as with social media and ever cheaper professional-looking websites, it’s easier than ever to reach potential clients directly. On the downside, because it’s easier (not easy), there’s more competition. The strong (and the lucky) will survive, the weak (and unlucky) will fail, making room for the next generation. T’was ever thus.”
Skellern certainly knows this industry inside out. After all, he has had years of experience covering it. And for someone who once cleaned dishes in restaurants, becoming such a figure is no mean feat.
The Origin Story
“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will,” said Stephen King.
Quill & Pad is a well respected watch review online magazine. But like all good things, it took it’s own due course to get to where it is at today. This is something which we also found resonating with Frank Geelen’s interview on how he started Monochrome.
“I was fortunate to have the opportunity to write for a few respected magazines, but because of my start with The PuristS and then Revolution’s Horomundi forums (forums were the first social media before the term existed), and running a small digital communication company, my horological experience was predominately online,” explains Skellern.
“I wanted to create my own blog and living as I was then in Switzerland (I’ve recently moved to France), I knew I had a few advantages. I had a fairly clear idea of the type of blog I’d like to run, but I also knew that I neither had all the skills (especially the writing), nor the time necessary to manage the type of high quality platform I had in mind.
“So it remained just an idea in my head until one day Elizabeth Doerr (co-founder and editor-in-chief of Quill & Pad), who was then mainly a magazine journalist at the time, asked me if I’d be interested in joining forces in an online platform because her print work was slowly running down. Elizabeth had both the writing/publication experience and good relationships with large brands I lacked, and I had the online experience she lacked. I told her what I had in mind, she agreed, we tweaked the concept and voila, Quill & Pad.”
But why Quill & Pad?
“Regarding the name: many blogs at the time had a fairly basic standard of both writing and fact checking, and we wanted to offer the quality of traditional print articles on an online platform. So we came up with Quill (tradition) & iPad (digital), which we then shortened to Quill & Pad. It was just supposed to be a working name during development until we came up with something better, but we didn’t so the name stuck,” he explains.
“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” said Abraham Lincoln.
Quill & Pad is a leading online magazine that features high-quality, long-form journalism with in-depth reports and exclusive photos and videos that reaches millions of connoisseurs, budding enthusiasts and serious collectors of haute horlogerie in print and online.
So what direction does he see Quill & Pad heading from here?
“I’m not somebody that likes standing still and I like challenges. Elizabeth and I are fortunate to have attracted a fantastic team and have a created a relatively solid and successful platform. What our future looks like is something you will have to wait and see.”
One of the many things we admire about Skellern post our interview is the genuine love for watches that seems to be abound in his views.
I think all watch enthusiasts would agree that there’s always one brand or particular watch out there that sows the seed for our love for this beautifully convoluted world of horology.
For Skellern, it all started with the brand Chopard.
“My first serious watch, and the watch that got me into the watch world via The Purists (no PuristsPro) was a Chopard LUC Sports 2000. I knew nothing about high end watches and used to see a small photo/advert in my weekend newspaper and liked it the look (the name Chopard meant nothing to me). I eventually Googled it (or whatever we did pre-Google and dial-up internet) and discovered that it cost over $4,000 and thought that’s crazy, how can a watch cost thousands of dollars?
“Curious, I investigated further, found a review on The PuristS and was hooked. I knew nothing so brands meant nothing to me and I quickly gravitated to the indies because the watches often looked much cooler.
“I don’t consider myself a collector, I’m more than happy to appreciate watches owned by others, but through extreme good luck and circumstance (the story of my life really), I’ve acquired a few watches that are very special to me including a Jean Daniel Nicolas Two-Minute Tourbillon, a Grönefeld One Hertz and a De Bethune DB28. If I won the Lotto I’d treat myself to a Kari Voutilainen (any) and an Akrivia AK-06.
“While I now appreciate many watches by big brands much more, my heart still rests with the independents.”
We have managed to cover a lot of ground in our interview with Skellern. And some of it has been on heavy topics like the Covid-19. So before we wrapped this up, we figured it would be nice to talk a bit about something lighter.
We asked Skellern if a watch could do anything at all, what would your ideal fantasy watch do?
Here’s what he had to say: “Make me smile! I don’t need more that hours and minutes, but seconds are handy for setting and seeing if the watch is running, and I want a watch to be comfortable on the wrist. I don’t need any more than that. I’m very fortunate to have a De Bethune DB28 and, while it has more features than I need, it has everything I want and makes me smile every time I strap it on. If your heart doesn’t sing when you put a watch on, keep looking.”
Like we said at the beginning of the article, “one person can make a difference, and everyone should try”.