An outsider looking in on the watch world is usually met with perception that those who govern it, from design to dealing, are carrying the legacy of history – more often than not hereditary – and that years of dexterous training and schooling, piecing together all of the delicate minutiae that makes up a watch, has enabled them to become fluent in this nuanced discipline. For the most part, that still rings true, but of course, there is always an exception to the rule.
Bolt by name, Bolt by nature, the British watch dealer, designer and enthusiast Tom Bolt found his way into the field fascinated with time rather incongruously. Aided by his self-proclaimed addicted nature, “I was a bit of a wild child as a kid. My parents were in show business and lived all over the world from LA to Bora Bora. I went off the rails pretty quickly,” he reflects. “When I was 18 years old, I stopped drinking and taking drugs and got myself a job in a warehouse lifting boxes, and during this time I bought myself a Rolex because my Dad had one. I bought a second hand Air King for £300, but I couldn’t afford to keep it when the bill came in.”
Much like the jagged flash of lightning, instilling speed and surprise into the atmosphere, Bolt immersed himself whole-heartedly, without knowing this to be the first pathway into his career. Recalling an advert for second-hand watches, he met with the dealer and sold his Rolex watch for £335. “I’d made £35 profit and thought that was great,” he laughs. “He took me under his wing and in effect, I started to get contacts and could get hold of Loot Magazine [one of the United Kingdom’s leading free classified advertising publications] and Exchange and Mart. I could see all the watches being advertised but I didn’t have any money. So I used his money, set up these deals and he would give me a cut.”
“At the time I started, no one wore a nice watch in England. If you were in a restaurant and you saw someone wearing a Rolex, you’d notice and point it out.”
It didn’t take long for Bolt to work out that the deal wasn’t so remarkable after all. But much to his own effort to on alone and start fresh, echoes of early childhood reared their head. “I couldn’t open up a bank account because when I was younger I basically robbed Coutts,” not that he had any to put it anyway, “so I borrowed £1500 from a loan shark at 10% a month 31 years ago.” He laughs. “The rest, as they say, is history.” Note the irony, some years letter when Bolt received a letter from Coutts, now framed in his home, requesting he move bank accounts from Natwest and join them instead.
Perhaps the more conservative watchmakers and aficionados, born and raised into a horological home might think Bolt a maverick, but he’s proof that the watch world has long been misconstrued as a place for insiders alone. “At the time I started, no one wore a nice watch in England. If you were in a restaurant and you saw someone wearing a Rolex, you’d notice and point it out,” which only furthered his hunger. Why was there such exclusivity?
“Actually,” he cuts off his own sentence. “The real reason I got into watches is because being addicted by nature, throughout my progression as a human being I’ve fallen victim to whims that come into my head. I want this today, I want that tomorrow. I really got it into my head that I wanted a Rolex.” At the time of his craving, Roger Moore was in cinema screens for his iteration of Bond in Live and Let Die. “He frees himself from a shark tank with a buzzsaw bezel and on my 9th birthday I was so obsessed with it my Dad got me a Time with a rotating bezel. I thought it was wicked, pretending I was James Bond, but as we were driving back through Richmond Park I noticed that mine said Timex on it and his said Rolex,” Bolt smiles. “Funnily enough though, 20 years ago, I ended up buying the Live and Let Die watch from auction. I turned it back into a functioning watch, took Roger Moore out for lunch, he signed the back of the watch and I gave some of the money to UNICEF. I traded it for a 1967 Shelby GT500 Mustang.”
It’s fitting that Bolt now, with years of experience under his belt, has knowledge and appreciation for the headlining horologists from Patek Philippe to Audemars Piguet, yet he aligns himself with the more rebellious thinkers in the industry, causing disruption from the offset. “Watchmaking has become so much sexier today. All of these new brands like Richard Mille, they’re revolutionary. Even Early Franck Muller was a genius. He was one of the first newbie brands that came in and thought, ‘you can fuck all your history.’ There’s a new kid in town. He turned water into wine, he turned garbage into cool stuff.”
What is it that makes the Richard Mille’s of the world so pioneering, particularly when the price tag is so staggeringly high? “The biggest problem with a complicated watch is its fragility, and Richard Mille is a true sports watch. You can drop it, you can bang it and do whatever and it will work. That’s what sports watches are for,” he shares, but noting his preferred. “The RM 67-02 is the best high-end sports watch made in history.”
“Watchmaking has become so much sexier today. All of these new brands like Richard Mille, they’re revolutionary.”
The masterstroke of Bolt’s career, from the boy who simply awed a Rolex to becoming an internationally regarded watch dealer and expert, is his experience in designing watches under the tenure of Dunhill. “I was designing for Richemont for three years after I was called by Simon Critchell, the CEO of Dunhill. He got me into his store and wanted to retail really high-end watches from his flagship stores with my assistance.” Bolt, never one to shy away from his honest opinion, saw the opportunity to translate a line of banal watches into the first sapphire case watch ever in history. Not bad from the Timex kid.
The crux of Bolt’s work in the watch world is that anyone can understand and become a part of the watch world, provided you bring your own individuality to it. CEO’s and senior teams might sit at the top, but the gatekeepers to the industry are the people who choose to fasten these engineering artefacts to their wrists, be it analogue or digital, quartz or mechanical. “The fact is, watches are about having enough knowledge to recognise what real quality is despite what the trend of the market dictates,” notes Bolt. “That is why the watch world is so utterly fantastic. It caters for anybody that’s willing to learn and is passionate.
“If you want to join the rat race and the instant buzz, the quick fix? Then go out and get the iconic Batman and that kind of stuff. But if you want to be more discerning and learn, it’s all about progression. I took off someone 3 weeks ago, about 67 watches. 48 of them were all modern Patek’s, in exchange for 8 watches. What they soon realise is that if you go into a shop and spend X grand on a Patek, that doesn’t just make it exclusive. If you really want to learn, go to auction houses, hold them, look at them. It speaks to you. Go get your catalogue and work out why the pieces you love go for the price they do and what you think they should go for. I recently sold this Piaget ‘Toblerone’ for around £3800 and it gave me as much pleasure as the Cartier Crash I’m currently wearing.”
He finishes on a sage sentiment that cuts through the veneer of status-obsessed jargon in the watch world. “People often ask me, what’s your favourite watch?” But there’s no such thing. Watches are, at their simplest about moods.” Beating emblems of our extended body. Which mood are you in?