Dan Spitz Voted #1 Watchmaker Interview of 2012
Interview: Meet Dan Spitz, Anthrax Guitarist Turned Master Watchmaker
Monday May 20th, 2013
HODINKEE is one of the most widely read wristwatch publications in the world. Launched in 2008 by then 25-year-old Benjamin Clymer, the site quickly gained notoriety for earnest looks at some of the industry’s most interesting, and occasionally forgotten timepieces.
Founder & Executive Editor
“When it comes to a watch’s quality, the truth is that the movement sucks ass or the movement kicks ass. With me, you are going to get the heavy metal answer from the heavy metal dude.”
Dan Spitz, former lead guitarist for thrash metal band Anthrax, has sold more than 15 million albums, been nominated for 3 Grammy’s, created over 10 studio albums – and now he is recognized as one of the best watchmakers in the world. After leading one of the greatest metal bands of all time, he abruptly departed Anthrax and pursued numerous courses of study to master the art of watchmaking.
John Reardon: You suddenly lost interest in playing guitar in 1995, ripped the stereo equipment from your cars and house, and gave all your guitars to Hard Rock Café. Why the sudden lost of interest in music and how sudden was your awakening to the call of watchmaking?
Dan Spitz: It was kind of a long process. I had been living on a tour bus since I was 14 years old and played in bands with others of equal skill set, but they were much older than I was as a young musician. I excelled at what I was doing… and Anthrax soon hit and was playing sold out coliseums for years. By the time ’95 rolled around, I was the first one in the band to have children and I missed then while I was on the road. We would do an album and tour for years at a time, and then start the cycle over again – time at home was not there. It’s a story you see everywhere: it became mundane and more like a job. I needed a break. It’s easy to go on stage and play… that’s the anger, the love, the connection with my fans, who are like family. The fans are actually in the band, on stage, slam-dancing. But when it was time to write new music, this came from within, and you need to have an extreme love for it. At the end of the day, I just needed a break. I have extreme OCD, I do things either full-on or full-off, and I like to do things that others have not done before. I need that drive and that ambition. That’s why I decided to commit to learning the higher levels of watchmaking beyond what I did as a kid.
Please share the story how you were introduced to the world of fine mechanical watches?
My Pop-Pop (what I called my grandfather Eddie Spitz) owned one of the largest antique jewelry stores in the Catskills that sold extremely high-end antique jewelry and watches. My grandfather was simply the greatest guy ever and a jeweler and a watchmaker from an early age. At 8 years old I was sitting with him and we were taking apart Patek Philippe watches. That started early on in my life, and both Patek and Vacheron Constantin (now my favorite) were always part of my life. I had the opportunity to go to my grandfather’s store and rip things apart that I really shouldn’t have been inside. My mechanical abilities started at a really young age.
You broke a 53-year-old record in completing the watchmaker’s course at the Bulova school. Can you tell us more about that?
My mechanical ability comes from my non-traditional background. My room looked like a small NASA station growing up – tons of stuff. I was always building and taking stuff apart my whole life. I am a problem solver as far as mechanical and electronic things go… a self-taught problem solver. That comes into play in a large role in watchmaking. When I arrived at Bulova school, I had a background in problem solving that ensured my success. Soon after Bulova, I got a notice from WOSTEP, back when the only place to do the program was in Neuchâtel, and I won a scholarship to go there and continue my focus on complications.
Getting a gig at WOSTEP is like winning a free ride to an Ivy League school. Was this something that you worked to obtain or were you completely surprised that you were asked to attend?
I worked to obtain this. I am a businessman and I had my sights set high from the beginning. I wanted to see how far this could go before returning to music. At Bulova, my goals were mastering really complicated watches, including chronographs combined with other complications. Before school, I knew all the vintage watch calibers. WOSTEP proved to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The school is open 24 hours a day for you. The process of learning there is extremely unique – basically it’s on you to catch up to the fastest student in the class. Other students were working on hairsprings their whole life and if you are just learning Breguet overcoil for the first time, you are going to be left in the dust. You need to try and catch up. You are engulfed in it. It’s like recording an album – you go into military mode and do nothing else and you need to produce. My teacher was Antoine Simonin, one of the founders of the WOSTEP course. That’s who I was taught by.
What type of watches do you most like working on?
My favorite stuff to work on is older watches because of how they are made. These watches were way overbuilt so that they would never come back for repair. Just look at the mainplates… They were built at a time before computers were checking everything. If you’ve been working on modern stuff all day, there’s nothing like getting a vintage watch to work on, and when you open it up, you say “Ahhhh, look at that, this rocks!” Like an old muscle car, it’s so basic, so perfect, so overbuilt. It just rocks.
Do you collect watches? What are your favorites?
I’m not a collector at all but my favorite watches are old Pateks since I spent so much time restoring them for a good 5-7 years, hitting the lathes on daily basis. I got to create parts that are no longer available. So I have a basic love for Pateks from this time period. I love Cristophe Claret movements – some of the best watches made today, and I love to find ways to improve them. Also, I have a huge respect for old and new Vacherons.
Why did you design a watchmaking bench?
I brought over a few benches from Switzerland, since I wanted a bench with my specific requirements, but they were $10,000 or more. So I designed something out of raw ergonomic design – I spent 3 years designing the bench in CAD and making prototypes. The result was the best bench I have ever used. Watchmaking is an ergonomically horrible job, you are hunched over, your arms are falling asleep, and you are just asking for carpal tunnel syndrome. The first thing new watchmakers should save for is not tools, but a really good bench. My Spitz benches are also good for a tinkerer at home. You can keep them in your basement on fold up legs, and if the wife yells at you, you can easily fold the bench up and store it for later.
Anthrax broke all the rules of music. Has your work in the watchmaking world broken any tradition rules?
I don’t give a crap. I’m not in this industry for a job. With modern watches, anything that is mechanical is not going to be perfect and a watchmaker’s responsibility is to report it back to the manufacture. I have no boss and could care less. If you ask me a question, you are going to get a direct answer. When it comes to a watch’s quality, the truth is that the movement sucks ass or the movement kicks ass. With me, you are going to get the heavy metal answer from the heavy metal dude. I need to be truthful and honest, and that’s the way it should be.
Have you come across other artists in the music world with a comparable passion for mechanical timepieces?
There are collectors, but I am the only one who has gone fully overboard. There’s Eric Singer, the drummer from Kiss, a very old friend of mine with an insane collection. He’s one of the craziest watch collectors in music.
I am always amazed when visiting Genevan watchmaking factories at how many people listen to their iPods when working on watches. What are they listening to?
Funny story, actually. I was working as a watchmaker in Geneva and thinking I would never go back to music when Dave Mustaine from Megadeth called me and said “Dude, what are you doing? Stop messing with watches. You need to come back and start writing music again. You are one of the creators of our genre, thrash metal. You need to stop tinkering around with these million dollar toys and get back to music.” This lecture led to the end of my solitary confinement as a watchmaker. I looked down the bench and saw another watchmaker working on a crazy watch but obviously also headbanging. I walked over to him and saw that he was blasting Slayer. He was working on a multiple fly-back, jump hour, chrono, perpetual calendar, moon phase, tourbillon and he’s blasting Slayer! I looked at him and thought, “That’s it, I’m done. I’m going back to music.” In the end, most people in Switzerland are blasting while working on watches, anything from Barbra Streisand to Slayer.
You sound like you are a philosopher in your free time. In general terms, what does time mean to you?
Time has always been part of my music. Consider the song “Got the Time”… Time has always been part of my life and it will never go away since it is a wonderful remembrance of my Pop-Pop. Sadly, everyone has the time on their phone today and timekeepers have shifted from a need to an extreme luxury.
As a father with autistic twins, a master watchmaker, and a musician, my life revolves around time. Everything I do is related to time. Time is everywhere for everyone. It is part of our makeup, life, and creation. However, there must be something wrong with our brains if we want a luxury piece of equipment that pushes the limits of mechanical aptitude. A luxury watch is an expression, just like your car, or your house. It is an expression of your being.
Is there a correlation between music and watchmaking?
I am the only one that could answer that question. It so similar it’s not even funny. Learning to play a heavy metal guitar is a never-ending skill. It is painful to learn. That’s what’s cool about it. Same for watchmaking– it’s an unending skill to learn. How good do you want to be? Can you go beyond the 50% and become one of the best 1%. When you are at a school like WOSTEP, you will quickly see who the 1% is. In music, you see the 1% too. Reaching the top is something that can’t be taught and can’t be bought. You have to be an artist to be the best– either in watchmaking or music. You need to do it for the love.
Dan Spitz is a leading voice in Autism awareness and was recently featured in Rolling Stone magazine for his dedication to the cause.
Check out Dan’s recent video Puzzle Box from his band Red Lamb, a song that outlines his family’s daily life bringing up identical twins who are both Autistic. The video is packed with statistical data on Autism and includes the founders of Autism Speaks, Suzanne and Bob Wright.