Podcast Peers Inside Watchmakers’ Minds
WARRENPOINT, Northern Ireland — In March 2020, Dan Spitz, an American musician and watchmaker whose timepieces start at $158,000, contacted Johnny McElherron, editor of The Watch Press, an online publication based in Northern Ireland, to discuss a new watch.
“Dan asked me to write about a watch he’s developing, the J11.13,” Mr. McElherron recalled during an interview at his home in Warrenpoint. The mechanical timepiece had been five years in the making by then. It is now poised to be presented later this year.
“Usually you’d chat to a watchmaker for 10 to 15 minutes about the watch,” Mr. McElherron said. But their conversation, amid “roars of laughter,” continued for 90 minutes — digressing into anecdotes about Mr. Spitz’s years as the lead guitarist for the heavy metal band Anthrax.
“The craic we had!” Mr. McElherron said, using Irish slang for having a good time. “We had a chemistry. I said to Dan, ‘Why didn’t I record this, it’s pure gold.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do a podcast!’ And that was it!”
A month later, on April 16, 2020 — with parts of the world in lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic — the men started a YouTube channel, “In the Metal,” with Mr. McElherron, now 57, hosting from Warrenpoint, and Mr. Spitz, now 59, from Gun Barrel City, Texas. “Dan and I are the most unlikely pair you could ever imagine,” Mr. McElherron said, “but it works.”
Broadcasting from his living room, Mr. McElherron organizes the technical side of the program, typically spending three days uploading photos and graphics and contacting on-air guests from the world of watches.
The programs average 90 minutes in an unscripted chat-show format. “It’s cool and edgy, not stuffy,” Mr. McElherron said. “There’s a bit of garage about it.”
In the more than 50 episodes, notable figures from the watch world — including Vianney Halter, Jean-Claude Biver, Laurent Picciotto and Rebecca Struthers — have discussed their careers, inspirations and philosophies.
The program’s structure is informal, but the shows frequently turn into master classes. Celebrated watchmakers explain the highly technical methods they use — often their own inventions — to create their designs.
“We’re creating micromechanical art,” Mr. Spitz said by video from Texas. “We don’t have to fit in with the masses.”
The first “In the Metal” episode featured an Irish watchmaker, John McGonigle of Oileán watches. The German watchmaker Eva Leube, now based at Lake Zurich in Switzerland, was featured in the fourth episode talking about how she created the Ari, a curved mechanical watch.
“I enjoyed myself immensely talking to Johnny and Dan,” she said by email. “They have a charming and endearing style and I soaked up every one of the other episodes. The show is unique as it lets us get to know our favorite watchmakers on a truly personal level.”
Mr. McElherron and Mr. Spitz said they had never met in person, though Mr. Spitz said he had been to Northern Ireland: He performed with Anthrax in Belfast in 1986. In the years that Mr. Spitz toured the world with the band, Mr. McElherron “was trooping around Belfast” selling beer for his father’s company. In 2005, he was on the brink of introducing his own beer distribution company when he abruptly changed course. Returning from a holiday in Spain, he fell in love with a TAG Heuer Monza watch he had seen in an airport duty-free shop.
After discovering a passion for fine watches, he founded Chronolux Fine Watches in 2005 and began trading watches online. Initially, the company sold established, well-known brands. But as Mr. McElherron traveled to watch fairs around Europe, he developed friendships with “incredible” independent watchmakers. “Back then,” he said, “no one knew their names but I latched onto them. They are the real artists, the rock stars of the watch world.”
In 2008, he started The Watch Press, a website covering independent watchmaking. Both he and Mr. Spitz are now members of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève Academy, a group of experts who propose and vote on nominees for the organization’s annual awards, widely considered the Oscars of the watch world.
Mr. Spitz said he came from a family of watchmakers and that watches “are in my blood.” He recalled sitting on the lap of his grandfather, a watch restorer, when he was 8 and lifting the back off a Patek Philippe.
After tiring of the touring life, he quit Anthrax to study watchmaking at the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking in New York City and later at the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program, known as Wostep, graduating in 1998. He said he worked as the head of watch complications (meaning functions other than displaying time) at Chopard North and South America and later at Leviev, a Swiss maker of jewelry and watches. “I am a master of complications,” he said. “I work on some of the most complicated mechanics ever created.”
From 2005 to 2008, Mr. Spitz returned to Anthrax for a reunion tour but then went back to his workshop. He likes to compare the disciplines of music and watchmaking. “You have to have the highest level of O.C.D.,” he said referring to obsessive-compulsive disorder, “to be able to practice that riff for 20 hours a day and still be defeated. Months later — suddenly — you have it! It’s exactly the same with micromechanical mechanisms. It’s pretty cool to be a rock star, but being a watchmaker is badass cool!”
In his Texas workshop, Mr. Spitz has built a collection of restored vintage watchmaking equipment and top-of-the-line technology to allow him to make every component of his mechanical watches. He said he had worked for five years on his J11.13 prototype, which, in the United States, would be the “first ground-up caliber in over a century which features the world’s first miniaturized titanium single impulse, zero draw oil-less escapement.”
He said he hadn’t yet set a final price for the watch. Its name honors his oldest daughter, Julia, 30, an intensive care unit nurse in Boca Raton, Fla., whose birthday is Nov. 13. “She’s been running the ventilators since Covid hit,” he said.
Mr. Spitz said he wanted “In The Metal” to celebrate independent watchmakers and encourage a new generation. “Indie watches blew up recently,” he said. “We’ve been in the shadows too long that it’s fitting we bring in the greatest watchmakers in the world.”
Each podcast episode has attracted 500 to 1,000 viewers, mainly industry insiders, collectors and watch fans, Mr. McElherron said.
Thomas Brechtel, a watch enthusiast and Instagrammer from Cologne, Germany, who runs a communications company, said he hadn’t missed an episode. “On ‘In the Metal,’ you meet the kings and the queens of the watch universe,” he said by email. “Johnny and Dan create a magically pleasant and funny atmosphere. It’s weird, crazy, innovative and fascinating.”