Nick Harris of Orion Watches
This Small Brand’s Watches Aren’t Cheap. But They More Than Justify Their Price
In 2015, we wrote that Nick Harris was “modding his way into American watchmaking.” Four years later, Harris has leapfrogged from Seiko modding to crowdfunding his first original watch, to completing watchmaking school at Seattle’s Watch Technology Institute, to continuing his work as an independent watchmaker with his brand, Orion Watches. “I’m trying to bring watch manufacturing back to the United States, using supply chains as a means to an end, to make a difference in the watch world,” he told me recently.
Harris’s most recent watch, the Calamity, is a dive watch, with colorful accents in blue, green, or black — but that’s where the microbrand dive cliches end. It’s thin, at 10.5mm thick minus the curved crystal; Harris designed a curved case back for comfortable wear; and inside is the ETA 2892, a thin, premium-priced movement. Then there’s the cost: at $1,495, it signaled a major step in Harris’s watchmaking, namely, taking on the big-boy boutique brands like Oris, Monta, Oak & Oscar, Doxa and others.
“People were telling me, You can’t do it, it’s too expensive, the market won’t bear it. But I did it anyway,” he says.
But the Calamity was just the start. Harris has big plans to break new ground in the microbrand segment. His work at Orion signals a new generation of watchmakers born and bred in America, and taking, for the first time in a long time, a look at what it’ll take to bring watchmaking fully back to the country. We sat down with him to talk about the momentum behind American watchmaking, Seiko modding, watch school, his own designs and what’s next for Orion.
Q: What did modding Seikos teach you about the watch business?
A: It taught me to value my stuff fairly. For a lot of the time I was selling Seikos, I was undercharging. It also taught me a little bit of the psychology of who’s buying a watch at what price point, and how they approach watches. People who generally approach watches from zero dollars up are gonna look at value differently than people who approach watches from thousands of dollars down. As I’ve slowly increased prices on my watches, I’ve learned all about that, and what people expect depending on where they’re coming from.
Q: Did modding help you develop your design aesthetic?
A: It let me explore a lot of materials and design aesthetics. When I make something now, there’s a minimum quantity of like, 500 pieces. So when I was doing all one-off stuff, it let me explore any idea that I had, as opposed to being locked into a certain design. Exotic materials, I love that. I love engraved stuff. And doing mods let me explore those as a form of watch design. You have to be more patient when you’re producing things at a higher volume, in terms of how crazy you’re going to get with your watch designs.
Q: What inspired the style of the first watch that you made under your own brand, the Orion 1?
A: I was inspired by vintage watches. I have really tiny wrists, and that automatically bars a lot of modern watches from me. So I’ve always loved vintage watches because of the funky, risky approaches to design — and because they’re just a lot of fun. But the big drawback is that they’re often more fragile, delicate, not very water-resistant.
Orion was born out of fun, whacky vintage styles, but funky with modern components. The Orion 1 was this dressy, tough tank of a watch. Someone described it as an undercover field watch, and that’s exactly what it was.
Q: I’ve always been impressed by your design sense, which is always unique. How did you develop that?
A: I was going to go to school for industrial design, but I dropped out. I’m pretty critical of a lot of things, in a design sense.
When I got into watches, with the Orion 1 and Seiko mods… I don’t wanna say I was ignorant, but I didn’t delve into the culture of [watch design] too much. So I was isolated.
[When you’re not isolated], there are expectations and certain design senses and genres that you can get locked into. It’s a weird headspace. Because it’s like, you get inoculated by things. That’s reflected in your design sense. If you grow up around Rolexes, and you love Rolexes, and you design a watch, it’s probably going to be very influenced by Rolex. Or if you have some preconceived notion of what a pilot’s watch is supposed to look like, then when you go and design a pilot’s watch, it’ll have some resemblance to what you think a pilot’s watch is supposed to look like, which is based on pre-existing designs.
So with the Orion 1, I was pretty isolated from all these notions of what design was supposed to be. I had this weird fusion of dressy and field watch, even though I wouldn’t have given it those names. I tried to bring that to my design.
Q: How have you evolved as a designer since watchmaking school?
A: At watchmaking school, I definitely learned to appreciate a lot more of the technical stuff. There are certain technical challenges and designs that arise that I appreciate now—mostly different types of finishing and techniques used on movements. It helped with becoming more and more familiar with design language in the watch world. So when I design new watches, I’m trying to find a medium between what people expect or recognize, versus my own wild card ideas that aren’t too influenced by the status quo of the watch design industry.
Q: It seems like one of your themes is subverting expectations for a style, and pairing design elements that haven’t been paired before.
A: I try to introduce something new design-wise now. The Calamity is a super-thin dive watch, because that’s something that’s pretty limited in the watch space now. Especially at certain price points, there are watches that don’t exist.
Also, I like giving things a little bit of flair when it’s not expected. You see this in the Calamity, the ones with the matte bezel inserts. They’re pretty low profile, but then you’ve got small little accents and polished bezels and applied indices that are all shiny. It’s like a little treat. It’s like a little bit of sugar on a savory dish. It makes it like, mwah. [finger kiss.]
As opposed to when you have something and the entire case is polished and you’ve got this super glossy dial—it’s like having a drink that has too much sugar in it, and it doesn’t taste good.
Q: Do any specific watches come to mind?
A: The new-ish Omega Seamaster 300 pops into my mind. A wonderful design, but too many polished surfaces, polished bracelet center links and faux vintage lume just break a good design that would have been exceptional with some restraint. In fact, some people have even sent me their bracelet to brush the polished section out.
Q: What microbrands do you admire right now?
A: That list is always changing. Lately, Holthinrich watches out of the Netherlands. He’s doing really cool 3D printed metal pieces. Great finishing, a lot of really great, honest horology in his watches. And it’s beautiful, original design. Those watches are gorgeous, and I think his goal is good. There’s also Brellum watches. He’s out of Switzerland. Sebastien is doing wonderfully designed watches, working on bringing out new movements. It’s original design, quality work, and he’s selling direct from his website to keep his prices competitive for what he’s offering.
Q: The cool thing about your world is that a lot of people seem to be doing interesting things like that.
A: I love seeing it when people try to go above and beyond in some capacity, and do something different. Because I think there are a lot of brands out there that are kinda making a watch to make a watch, I don’t think it answers any design questions, or is something that’s innovative at all.
Q: How has the Calamity sold? What have you learned?
A: I knew it was gonna be a challenge. I essentially started Orion with no money, and that was a challenge too. With the Calamity, people were telling me, You can’t do it, it’s too expensive, the market won’t bear it. But I did it anyway. I knew it was going to meet an entirely new demographic, because the people who would be interested would only have a little crossover – generally the people buying 500 dollar watches aren’t the same people buying 1,500 dollar watches. It was a lot of work to get those watches out. There was a totally different buying personality at that price point. That was a completely new experience.
But it went really well. I had such a positive overwhelming response from customers with the Calamity. Usually when you get an email, it’s like, Oh no… but people were getting these watches and were really happy with them. I wasn’t expecting it.
But it was a lot of work and continues to be a lot of work.
Q: What can you tell me about upcoming Orion watches?
A: I had a new manufacturer for the Orion 2, and I wanted to up the quality and do Swiss made. Make a really exceptional entry-level luxury watch, you know? But I had some issues with that manufacturer, and I wasn’t happy with the prototypes. So I’m redoing those and finding a new manufacturer to execute that to my vision.
Then there’s the Hellcat, which is like a pilot’s watch. It’s already designed. I got a friend started on that. The 2892 movement in the Calamity, it’s super expensive, but it’s also super thin and accurate and helped me make an awesome watch. The cheaper the movement, the thicker things get. The Miyota 9015 is going to power the Hellcat. That’s kind of the thin affordable movement. It’s going to have a curved case back. The case is going to look like the Calamity without the crown guards, and it’s going to have a smooth bezel. It should be 10.5mm thick, 39mm, and it’s got a big ole crown, fun dial colors, and should have some gilt on the dial. Some sunburst dials. Talk about too sweet—these watches are gonna be excessive. For the people who are like, I want chocolate fudge cake with chocolate mousse on top. It’s gonna be gratuitous and excessive, but hopefully in a really enjoyable way. Not in a diamond-encrusted way.
Q: I frequently hear you talk about designing a watch that wears really well. How do you do that?
A: Case design is one of my favorite things to do. Kyle Rymarchuk helps me a lot, and he’s off doing some of his own stuff now too. But we both love case design. Case design is often forgotten in favor of hands and dials, but it’s important. It’s a wonderful canvas to design on, with a lot of space and angles. And it’s the part of the watch that interfaces with your body. That’s super important.
What makes a watch wear well? That’s gotta be lug length and lug profile and then something like thickness. A thin watch isn’t inherently comfortable. The taper of the lug and length of the lug are both big parts of what makes a watch comfortable. There’s a lot of different wrist types out there. A lot of men’s watches are designed for between a 6.5- to 7-inch wrist, and all the outliers are left with watches that might fit them weird. The original Black Bays, they look amazing from the top down, but they are all slab-sided monstrosities. They don’t have much downturn in the lugs, and the lugs will stick out and they wear weird if you’ve got a slightly smaller wrist. If you’ve got the right sized wrist, the watch sits on top of your wrist, on a plane almost, and you won’t be bothered by it.
NOMOS, on the other hand, the Tangente — it’s got a super thin case, like 8mm thick. But that lug length is super long and super flat, so again, unless you have a like 6.75 inch wrist, that watch is going to sit weird on your wrist. Also, if you’ve got a bony wrist, it’s going to sit weird on your wrist. So flat watches are not very comfortable. You have a thin and flat watch, it’s not very comfortable. Thin watches are more comfortable because they’re less top-heavy. A thick watch that’s top-heavy tends to fall to one side or the other. You become aware of it when it moves around. And some people like that. But in terms of comfort, having a watch that doesn’t’ yank around too much is a good thing.
There can beautiful watches, that when you go to put on a watch you don’t grab it because you don’t like how it feels. And that was a big driving influence for a lot of my designs as well, because I’d be drawn to these watches, and I’d buy a watch or almost buy a watch, and it would just feel terrible on my wrist, and to me that was a huge problem. And I also have a tiny wrist. But that was a problem that I wanted to help solve with some of my designs. I became hyper aware of what makes a watch comfortable.
Q: What’s next for Orion Watches?
A: I’ve been talking with Josh Shapiro, who’s making a lot of stuff in America. We’ve been talking, and might try in the future to machine a lot of stuff here in the States, starting with dials, and approaching cases, which are more complicated than dials.
Q: What’s your favorite watch of all time?
A: I’m really into Grand Seiko lately. Some of their new watches, like the SBGK005, are just super spicy.
Q: What does that mean?
A: The finishing on Grand Seiko is incredible. It punches way above its price point. In photos they look kinda ho-hum, but when you see in person you’re just like, Good lord! The dials, the hands, the cases, it’s all immaculate and wonderful. I respect it because it’s technically challenging and good work.
Q: Any other favorites?
A: I don’t know… I don’t think about watches that much. [Laughs.]
A young American watchmaker explains his craft. Read the Story