Robert Lighton New York: Everything Old is New Again

April 2003

If you know designer furniture, the name Robert Lighton must be familiar. Lighton is well known for high-end English Colonial furniture and being predisposed to vintage, classic designs, he recently got hooked on collecting vintage watches. As soon as he realized how popular vintage watch collecting was, he decided to make his own vintage-looking watches with the finest materials. Robert Lighton New York was born.

All Robert Lighton watches are Swiss Made (retailing from US$2,500 - $11,500), and Lighton plans to make a splash at Basel this year. In the US, Robert Lighton watches are already in fourteen doors (retailers) and Lighton is looking for a total of 25 to 30 doors in his first year.

“Watches today have become 'more is better' and you don't see the simple beauty of the old watches,” Lighton said during an interview in his offices in New York City. “If you look at home furnishings and furniture, Ralph Lauren, Armani and other designers have all paid homage to what has come before. Ralph Lauren has done it so well, sometimes you can't tell what is old or new. This hasn't happened in watches, maybe because the industry is run by manufacturers, not designers.”

Lighton is out to change all that with his elegant designs that evoke a bygone era. “I wanted automatic mechanical movements, because there is a wonderful elegance to the idea of the 'tick-tock,' and I wanted the dial to have a large sub-second dial,” Lighton explained.“You have to have a long diameter between the hour hands and the second hands, and it took two years to get this movement produced. The movement we use is a 25 jewel, based on a 2892, and it works very well. This movement is in the majority of our men's watches, while there is a different movement used in the smaller watches, and on a couple of the ladies watches, we use quartz movements.”

The watches come in 18 carat rose gold and un-lacquered silver, with the Hudson model being the most popular so far.

The project was a long one and Lighton is very pleased with the results, as are his customers in the USA. “I worked with one case maker - we gave him angles to work from, we worked on drawings, and the length of time it took to finish was compounded by the fact that I was new to watches and doing so many things at once,” Lighton explained. “It took about two years to get the project done. The watches are all three-part cases, the dials are engraved silver or faux enamel. I worked very hard to get exactly the right patina. We have blued steel hands, all the components are Swiss and extremely high quality. We use only the best American alligator straps with gold or silver buckles.”

Even the boxes evoke a more elegant time. They are handcrafted out of mahogany - there is a six sided box for the ladies watches and a rectangular box for the men's. “At the turn of the century, pocket watches would have come in a mahogany box with purple velvet and purple satin, with a beautiful hand made brass closure and a piece of ivory on top,” Lighton details. “I've recreated that in our boxes, because I am in the furniture business and I have the connections to get it done. The boxes are a real labour of love for me - in some ways the boxes were more complicated than the watch and they were very difficult to make. I have twenty suppliers just for the box!”

Lighton approached the challenge of creating a watch line as a design exercise. “There is only a very small area to work with on a watch, which made it quite a challenge,” Lighton explained. “Everybody loves antique watches, but the problem is that real antique watches are often too small to be practical, and they often don't work well enough, aren't reliable enough, to be an everyday watch. I think there is a following, a market, for vintage-looking new watches. This isn't a little tiny niche market either, but a real category that current watch manufacturers aren't aware of.”

According to Lighton, the response has been very good. Truth be told, just to get the watches in stores here in the US, with all the competition in the industry, is a real accomplishment. Lighton is looking for exclusive distribution in the US and the rest of the world.

“The line is curious in that it accommodates both men and women, no matter the size,” Lighton added. “The watches are really catching on. What has helped my company is that people know who I am because I've been around in the fashion scene for so long. Our watches are designer watches and people like to associate names with products. There aren't many designers associated with watches.”

Lighton will be showing at Basel this year, hoping to sell the company's line of watches into retailers in Europe, Japan and other areas of the world.

In an industry that so often trumpets the new, the ingenious, the cutting edge, Robert Lighton is making vintage watches new again.