Alex Hofberg

Withstanding the Test of Time

WORDS David Bentley  PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Sugden

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From a chic pocket business, to having a retail presence catering to the burgeoning market of vintage timepieces, WatchWorks has evolved. Watch design has gone from the mundane to unimaginable; once designed for a day at the opera, church and the board room, watches are now being taken to great heights. Sir Edmund Hillary ascended Mt. Everest with a Rolex on his wrist, and Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel in 1927 sporting the “Rolex Oyster.”

Alex Hofberg felt the call to adventure when he abandoned his college education, left Upstate New York, and emigrated to Oregon in 1986. Looking for a creative and constructive space, he landed in a communal home by the Good Samaritan Hospital. One of his roommates had been a watchmaker, and together they decided to fill the large home with interesting objects and collectibles. By 1989, Hofberg had his own retail space.  

When did you make your way to Oregon? 

I abandoned a college education in Upstate New York in 1982, and spent some time chasing a technical degree in recording engineering in Manhattan. I wasn’t being creative or constructive, so I moved to Oregon for a change of pace in 1986. 

Why Portland?

I have a sister who lives here. When I got here, I established a communal home over by Good Samaritan Hospital. One of my roommates who had been a watchmaker in a prior life, had a big old drafty house with very little furnishings or comfort. We decided that the thing to do was to start filling it with interesting objects and furnishings. In that process, we went to every garage sale, estate sale, flea market, and dumpster and started bringing things home. We brought back Mixmasters, toasters, blenders, furniture, artwork, pinball machines, and musical instruments.

Art, form, and function, as well as the mechanics had your 

mind going? 

Yes! Furnishings of every kind. We started accumulating stuff and liked selling it. If I found a Rolex, I would hop on my bike and pawn it off somewhere in town. We’d also host open houses and garage sales, having the buyers come to us. We would sell what we accumulated, and then do it again. We were like the “American Pickers.”

When did watches start coming into the picture? 

My friend who helped me “pick” had been trained as a watchmaker earlier in life. While we were picking, we started running into estates of various watchmakers who were dead or dying. Watchmakers were trained post World War II, or post Korean War as part of the G.I. Bill. It was a way to put soldiers back into trade work, and by 1990 or so, people were reaching the end of their careers or had already passed. By accident, we ran into three or four basements full of stuff. Some of it was machinery, some of it was books, some of it was parts, some of it was complete watches.

I was also taking classes at PSU in business systems and quantitative analysis, working for Arthur Anderson, so this was just pocket money. I was wandering through the Smith Center on campus and noticed on the community bulletin board that there was a Rolex for sale. I pulled off the little pull tab and called the fellow. He was turning a watch that had been given to him by an uncle into dollars. I bought it from him and took it down to Alder Gold and sold it. I bought it for $200 and sold it for $600. I thought I had died and gone to heaven! 

Is this business more about relationship building or making money?

One of the interesting things about this business is that we are fraught with decision making, fairness and moral equations all day long.  It can be easy to let dollars be your compass and forget how to be fair, when the dollar signs are looming in front of you. And Lord knows, I like a bargain as well as the next person. But people will find a way to figure out when they’ve been fucked. They may or may not make your life miserable about it, however…you can sheer a sheep every spring, but you can only slaughter it once. 

Tell me little history of the watch?

There really was no market for collecting wrist watches. There had been expensive wrist watches born as a result of WWI, because pulling out a pocket watch in the trenches wasn’t convenient. In the 1930’s we started to see high grade and complex watches. Hans Wilsdorf, who founded Rolex, theorized that a wristwatch could be far more functional and impervious to dirt, moisture, dust, heat, and cold.  In a way, Hans Wilsdorf could be credited with inventing the tool watch. In 1985, anyone who was interested in collecting timepieces collected clocks or pocket watches. Mostly low-level Hamilton, Gruen, Bulova, tank watches, pocket watches, and not necessary so much in modern high-grade. The market evolved.

There is always a leader, but then followers in the industry. Who were the fast followers behind Rolex?

That’s an interesting question that you ask because ‘fast’ isn’t the word I’d use. It took the industry decades to conclude that the tool watch was making a lot of what they were producing superfluous, weak, and not competitive, just because of the way the case was sealed. Using the word “oyster” combined with the way that a Rolex is closed, is a very clever and useful engineering feat and marketing ploy. It took a long time for the competition to realize that their watches need to have locking crowns, threaded case-backs sealed on to a gasket, and needed to be made in a robust manner. 

When you opened WatchWorks, how much repair versus selling of the collection that you had already amassed took place? Did you sell more by word-of-mouth, or were people discovering you from your retail presence? 

The repair business at the time probably represented about 15% of the gross sales in a year. Not far into the early stage of WatchWorks I hired a watchmaker, Paul, who was far better trained and far more skillful than I was. He is still with me after 26 years. The double-edged sword of what I do is that the repairs are frustrating, and tedious, warranties are challenging, watches are complex, and tiny parts are easy to damage. Any speck of dusk inside the casing could stop them or have them run poorly and their utility is gone the moment that they hiccup. For instance, if you are repairing somebody’s car, it is still transportation if the brakes squeak, it’s still transportation if the radio doesn’t work, it’s still transportation if you have trouble rolling up and down the window. The moment a watch hiccups, the whole utility is useless. If it doesn’t work reliably and accurately, it’s not a watch. 

The profitability of repair and its frustrations are tragic, challenging, and awful. However, it builds foot traffic ethos and pathos like you wouldn’t believe. The success of WatchWorks has a lot to do with our being recognized both by collectors and enthusiasts and other jewelers in the Pacific Northwest as being experts in maintaining integrity, and therefore we have the street cred to also be trusted to sell things. Very Important.

That’s the glue of the relationships as well as the expertise?

We could send our watches out to be fixed elsewhere but the fact that my watchmaker is visible as you walk into the store is not an accident. It is unusual in this industry to see a watchmaker. The French word for watchmaker is “cabinotier” because they worked in small enclosed areas. You never saw them. Some of the most beautiful and important watches of the late 1800s did not have the manufacturer’s name on them. They’re blank. Why is that? It was the jeweler who had the important relationships with the king, with the Admiral, with the General, with the Mayor, with whoever. Often their name would be on the dial, their name might be on the covet, the inner cover, and the watchmaker was silent. 

Why do people buy complicated fancy watches?

People buy complicated watches because they are sending a message to those around them that they lead complicated, technical, complex, sporting, adventurous, scientific, luxurious lives. We’re not in the business of need. We sell want. There are some people that need to have the time displayed on their phone or their wristwatch and those people may or may not buy a fine watch. But on the flip side, I personally also believe that technology is frustrating and quickly obsolete. So, I think it’s a good thing in general, because it will keep my business viable and clients interested in returning for something different.