Wesley Kwok and Cullen Chen started their indie watch brand, Nodus, just two years ago. Since then, they’ve doubled their production and released a slew of successful — and fast-selling — tool watch models. You could credit this success with the tenacity of their business model, which rejected Kickstarter, relied on their own life savings, and required the two to build a strong supply chain among Asian parts producers. You could credit their excellent design, and their eye for what watch enthusiasts want (quality finishing, tool watch-utility, American-based assembly and highly regulated and accurate movements).
Or you could say the success was destined from the moment the two middle- and high-school buddies simultaneously gifted each other their first automatics.
“I got an SKX007, for him,” Kwok says. “And then he turns around and pulls out an Orient Ray for me.”
“Yeah, the perfect first dive watches,” Cullen says.
“I would say that’s when it really went downhill for us,” says Kwok. “Or uphill, depending on how you look at it.”
Uphill seems right. We recently sat down with the two near their home base in Los Angeles to talk about their inspirations, the challenges of starting and running a microbrand, tool watch design and more.
Q: How did you both get into watches?
A: Cullen Chen: I guess how everyone else gets into watches. You have one watch, and then you have that personality where you wanna dig deeper, and you start obsessing over it. I’m a very naturally obsessive person. It started out with computers and then guitars, and then I got my first watch, and it was downhill from there. This was back in college.
Q: What was your first watch?
A: CC: It was my high school graduation gift. It was a department store brand, a $200 watch. The first watch I ever wore in my life. I broke that when I was skateboarding. I got a Seiko quartz chronograph after that, and that’s what started my passion. I started modding Seikos, and that’s how I got into assembly.
I love Seikos. That was my first favorite brand. They’re so moddable. The community’s all out there. It was a fun thing to do in the side.
Wesley Kwok: And then for my high school graduation, my dad got me a Tissot quartz sport watch, the PRC200. Not really that special, no watch enthusiast would know what it is.
CC: It’s a department store brand.
WK: Yeah. But I loved it. The size was good, comfortable bracelet, the counterbalance on the seconds hand was the Tissot logo. You look deeper and deeper and find all these layers. I started peeling the onion back, and I never got to the bottom of it. There was always something new you could see in the watch.
So we got into it at the same time, but totally independently. We went out for dinner and I noticed he was wearing a watch. Then we ended up gifting each other our first automatics.
Q: And when did you decide to start your own watch brand?
A: WK: Originally we didn’t have plans to start a business. I moved out here to LA after I graduated college. I was working in the music industry. As a kid, I always knew I wanted to start something with him. I thought it was going to be a coffee shop, or something for fun.
Over I’m sure way too many beers, instead we decided to design a watch. We were like, it looks pretty good — think anyone would buy it? Then we wondered how much it would cost. So we went to Asia to visit these factories, and then put all these things together. It just started happening.
Q: You’ve been going for around two years now. And the number of watches you’ve put out already is phenomenal. Usually, with microbrands, that growth is much slower. I’m curious how you’ve gotten such a quick start out of the gate.
A: WK: As soon as we put the first one out — it’s since been discontinued, but it was called the Trieste — we’d already started work on the Avalon, and then as soon as that was done, we started on the Retrospect. So while we work on production and shipping and QC and that stuff, on the back end we were still working with our engineers to develop new stuff.
In everything that we do, we want to do it at least an order of magnitude better than the average. And one of those things, like you said, for all microbrands, is moving pretty slowly. So we wanted to show people that this is a real thing for us — we’re not just a mushroom brand. One way we did that was not going through Kickstarter. We put our own savings into this. But also to churn models out, to show that we’re serious about this.
Q: I’m curious about that discontinued watch, the Trieste, since it was your first. Why did you discontinue it?
A: WK: It was called the Trieste. We wanted something that was not offensive in any way — no cushion cases, the size has to be modest, 41mm, in terms of styling, we didn’t want it to be too vintage. It had to be no-nonsense, just a dressy diver. We used good movements: the STP111 as well as the NH35. Sapphire crystal, sapphire bezel insert. Colors were just burgundy, blue, and black. So it was very conservative. It was our way of testing the market, just to see if there was a demand for our design language, and for a watch that was designed and assembled in Los Angeles.
The idea was that if it didn’t resonate and sales were horrible, we’d close it all up. It was our low-risk way of burning through our life savings.
CC: It’s better than gambling it away.
Q: And how much did it cost?
A: WK:It started at $300 to $500.
CC: $500 for the Swiss movement. So obviously our focus back then, to answer your question about how we grew quickly, was that we targeted first and foremost the watch enthusiast community. I was on the forums like every single day for three years before I started Nodus. So I knew what people wanted. So we targeted them. And we’re still a very watch enthusiast-exclusive brand. But we have seen a lot of growth toward first-time watch buyers. It’s all been organic growth, through penetrating that watch enthusiast crew, and then growing outside of that.
But that first watch was more of an homage than anything, compared to our other watches. It looked kinda like a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. That was one of our inspirations. Since that model, we’ve gone more toward our own original designs.
Q: Your watch designs are extremely versatile, and they seem to appeal to a wide audience. What would you say are your design hallmarks?
CC: We talk about this a lot: What is that unifying design element? Because it’s not like one concrete thing.
WK: When you think Rolex, you think Mercedes hands; Tudor, the snowflake hands.
CC: But we’ve had people say, ‘Oh, that’s a Nodus watch.’ But I don’t know what exactly [defines our watches].
WK: There are certain things that do guide us in design. For example, having a clean, minimalist dial. We try to make a lot of the nonsense out of a watch. We want it to be clean and focused, as opposed to being flashy. We just want it to be functional.
There are a few things that I would say are the pillars of Nodus. One is that it is designed and assembled in L.A. Part of the reason it resonates with customers, I think, is that in the watch industry, especially the older brands are notorious for having terrible customer service. Certain big brands, I hear so many horror stories about how slow their turn-around time is. So having US-based operations allows us to do it within a week.
There’s a bit of romance behind it, that this was built down the road. And everything’s regulated in four positions, which I think is something people in the watch community like. Take someone off the street and they probably don’t know what that means. But one of the reasons the watch community latched on so closely to us is because we understand the things they want in a watch.
CC: And functionality. We wear our watches. Our designs are reflective of that.
Q: How do you get the word out?
CC: Selling direct, one of the downsides is that you don’t have a brick and mortar store that people can visit. So we try and go around the country every year with this “mothership” [Ed. Note: A Pelican case full of watches]. We go to watch get-togethers in major cities and try to meet people.
WK: We try to hit up the RedBar groups in each city we visit. We’re actually leaving in a few weeks, to go to Buffalo, Trenton, Toronto, and Ottawa.
CC: We just had one in LA a few weeks ago.
Q: I want to talk about price point. Some young American brands that were previously in the $500 range are doing Swiss movements, and other extras, that get the price up above $1,000. You haven’t done that yet. Is that part of the plan?
A: CC: There’s multiple reasons for our price point. We’ve been creeping up our prices the past few years, slowly. Because we’ve been upping our quality. But there is a sweet spot for these types of watches. That is the under $1,000 range.
WK: The word “Nodus” actually means “node,” or intersection, in Latin. It encompasses what our values are and our mission is. We wanted to offer the best of both worlds, whether that’s between vintage and modern design, whether that’s about quality and accessibility. Having this price point for us is a good way for us to show that we can still deliver all the quality that you want in a watch. We don’t wanna go over $1,000, and I don’t think we ever will.
At the beginning I think we under-priced ourselves, because we didn’t factor in the built-in-America part of it. And that adds to the cost. But now, I think around $400 to $700 is where we comfortably sit, and I don’t think I see that going up anytime soon.
A lot of small watch brands talk about cutting out the middle man, meaning brick and mortar operations. But the middle man we’re talking about is not that, it’s in the production side. All the big companies, even the Rolexes, they don’t go straight to the production facilities — they all go through these project management companies. That can add 50 to 70 percent of the total cost of the watch, and we cut that out.
That’s one benefit, but the other benefit is that we have a bigger idea of how the industry works. So we can come in and say, how do we try that a little bit differently? We’re not limited by the scope of operation of these middle men. So most of our investment last year was to really work out our supply chain so we can do this sort of stuff.
Q: How many watches a year are you making?
A: WK: It’s year two, so it’s hard to say, because it’s doubled every year. We’re working our way toward a thousand, though.
Q: And it seems like you’re selling out of everything.
A: CC: That’s also a challenge for us.
WK: You’d be surprised how stressful that is.
CC: Because we always wanna have inventory for people. And sometimes it’s not a good look to never have anything in stock. People wanna buy it when they see it.
Q: When you go out on tour and show people your watches, what sort of things are they saying about them?
A: WK: One thing we hear a lot is that it’s not an homage. I think the watch enthusiasts are getting a bit tired of the Sub homage. We personally have nothing against homages — I actually own a Sub homage, a Squale 1545 Heritage. I love it, it’s a great watch. But we saw this as a way to let our creative juices flow a little better. It felt more us to do this. And I think a lot of enthusiasts love that we’re able to take a risk with a design that’s not been tested or seen for 70 years.
Especially when we do tours in the US, they really love the whole American spirit behind it. Bringing as much of the work as we can back here without sacrificing the price or quality.
Something we talk about after every get-together, is that the people at that get-together gravitated toward one model but not the other ones. In Texas, everyone loved the Avalon, but the Contrail didn’t get much attention.
Q: This watch looks new.
A: WK: This is a prototype that comes out in December.
CC: It’s our dual-crown, an internal bezel that rotates.
WK: It’s called the Duality.
Q: What can you tell me about it?
A: CC: The whole idea was duality, so having two sides. So an overarching theme for this watch is things in pairs. Two crowns, two colors, two uses. It’s a dive watch, but it’ll also have a twelve-hour bezel variant, if you want to travel. This encompasses everything we’ve learned in the last two years. Every watch gets better. Because we’re constantly learning. Whether it’s finishing, a certain part that needs improvement. We’re always improving. This will be a culmination of what we’ve learned.
Q: How many millimeters is the diameter?
A: WK: Forty.
Q: Nice. It actually seems a little smaller. I was gonna say 38, 39.
A: WK: We actually have a 38mm watch coming out. There are three new models coming out this year. The Duality is one of them. The other two are part of a series we’re calling the Sector series, which is kind of an artistic demonstration on the versatility of a well-designed case. It’s gonna be a shared case, but a field or a dive variant. We see somewhere down the line doing a pilot and a dress watch, with the same DNA.
Q: It seems like we’re creeping toward fully made-in-America watches. But it also seems like that’s going to get expensive. Do you guys ever think about doing a fully American watch? How could you get it done at your price point?
A: WK: For us it’s less about where it’s made, and more about quality. In an ideal situation, yes, we’d bring as much as we can back to the U.S, just because it’s easier for us to have a handle on what’s going on when we can go into factories and have some part to play in the finishing, or whatever. The only problem we’ve found is that of all the CNC machines that we’ve found in the U.S, that can do what we want, the only thing they can do is cut the metal — the finishing really isn’t up to par, unless we can go to companies that already have U.S. operations. But then there’s another cost, not just because their wages are higher, but also because they’re a middle man. That takes away one of the pillars of Nodus, which is delivering value.
I guess the best way to look at it is, if we can do it by ourselves, if we ever have enough cash we can invest in some kind of machine, then we’d consider it. But only if we can guarantee that the quality will be as good as the stuff we are currently getting.
CC: It’s difficult. Because China’s been doing watch metalwork for 30, 40 years. And in America, there’s no one. They’ve had 40 years of experience doing that one thing. [In China] they can do it way better, for way cheaper, and way faster.
WK: What’s missing in the U.S. is really the skill set. There’s no one that can brush as well as the Chinese. Even the Swiss are outsourcing to China now because of that specific skill set.
CC: Seiko, for example, all their cases are made in China, or at least somewhere in Asia that’s not Japan. And it’s phenomenal case work.
Q: What watch brands, big or small, inspire you?
A: CC: We like a lot of them. Before we started this, we loved so many of these microbrands, who are now our quote-unquote competitors. But they’re really just friends. Brands like Helios, from Vancouver. Everyone knows them because they have phenomenal designs and quality. MKII in Philly.
WK: Bill Yao is, I don’t want to say a mentor. But he’s one of the original microbrands. He trail-blazed ten years ago. We were fanboys way before Nodus. So when we eventually got to meet him, beforehand we were so nervous. What are we gonna say? We idolized this guy for so many years.
We met up with him at Windup, and then met up to collaborate on something, and after the meetup we went out for dinner. And instead of holding his cards close to his chest, he was really open about everything, gave us pointers. Now I regularly get on the phone with him just to do a recap on what we’ve done, and he gives his opinion on what we should and shouldn’t do. He’s an incredibly gracious guy. He gets a bit of a bad rep sometimes because of the lead time on a lot of his watches. End of the day, if you don’t wanna wait, then don’t buy it. But he just gave us information that we couldn’t have gotten unless we’d done this for ten years.
Q: Are you collaborating with him on something right now?
A: WK: No, not now. Maybe we will someday down the line. I think he’s way too busy and we’re way too busy. But it’s something I’d like to talk about with him eventually.
CC: What’s your perception of collaborations. Do you want to see that more in this industry?
Q: It’s a super interesting idea, and it’s not happening right now. I understand why. I’m not running a microbrand, and I know how much work there is. But I do think, as a watch fan, yes — when you mentioned the word collaboration, my ears perked up. The combination of you guys and Bill Yao would probably come up with something really damn unique.
CC: We see so many collaborations in other markets, like beer, clothing. Why not these small watches?
WK: It’s something that’s been on our minds. We want to be one of the small brands that pushes collaboration. We don’t see being an independent watch company as trying to take down everyone else. Legitimacy is all we need to be a real business — to take it from where we are now to serious brand. To us, the only real way to get that legitimacy is if the entire industry, us and all our so-called “competitors,” get that legitimacy. Orion, Halios, MKII, Raven, EMG — all these brands are amazing. We all have to rise up together and try to get legitimacy, rather than trying to shit on each other, this ‘Buy mine, not his’ kind of thing.