Interview: Novelist Gary Shteyngart Talks NOMOS, Collecting, Writing, and, Er, Turkeys
Following his turn as guest speaker at the NOMOS Glashütte Forum this fall, the author and satirist sat down with Watchonista to discuss his passion for the brand, customer-retailer relationships, and how watches inevitably inform his writing because they’ve become “a weird part of life.”
Since the demise of Baselworld, NOMOS Glashütte has been holding its own annual event – its so-called Forum – at its Glashütte HQ, to which the German brand invites retailers, journalists, and influencers to go hands-on with its new releases, discover its manufacture, and explore industry talking points.
Held in the fall, this year’s Forum centered around two themes: service (either by the watchmaker or its retailers) and customer experience. To help give an insight into the complex psyche of the type of customer that has emerged over the past decade, NOMOS’ guest speaker was award-winning novelist and satirist Gary Shteyngart.
Shteyngart famously – and humorously – chronicled how he caught the watch-collecting bug in his mid-forties in his now widely-shared article “Confessions of a Watch Geek,” published in The New Yorker.
The Russian-born, New York-raised writer has also regularly woven watch-related references into his fiction, most notably his best-selling novel Lake Success, whose road-tripping protagonist uses watches and their backstories as a way to connect with the world.
Authenticity and Levity
Shteyngart’s own journey as a collector began in earnest eight years ago, first with the purchase of a Junghans Max Bill, then a champagne-dialed NOMOS Minimatik.
His collection has now exceeded the 25-watch mark and features a mix of contemporary and vintage pieces from a Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 3445 and Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 to an Anordain Model 2 and a 17.09 MING x Massena LAB Honey.
Shteyngart was a smart choice of speaker for NOMOS. For one, he is a brand evangelist – in addition to his multiple NOMOS Minimatik models, he owns a Club neomatik and NOMOS x Hodinkee Club date, whose virtues he regularly extols publicly.
At NOMOS’ Forum, he brought authenticity and levity to the topics he tackled. Plus, his presence allowed NOMOS to expand its reach: There were media at the Forum representing current affairs magazines and literary supplements whose readers might not – at least not yet – know much about watches, “civilians” as Shteyngart calls them.
At the end of the Forum, we sat down with the author to talk about watches, collectors, retailers, and writing.
Gary, you just finished a turn as guest speaker at the NOMOS Glashütte Forum. Could you have imagined all this when you bought your first mechanical watches?
I had no idea. I really thought I was just buying a timepiece to keep the time. I’d always had a timepiece, but not a mechanical one or a beautiful one. But I’d never had a hobby before. I don’t golf or sail. I hate sports. I own a car but hate cars. I never thought I’d be an object-oriented kind of guy.
But since I bought those first watches, I’ve ended up presenting about watches at all kinds of places. It’s now almost like a sideline for me!
You’re not monotheistic, horologically speaking, but NOMOS has played a significant role in your watch-collecting journey. How does this brand stand out for you?
I think a lot of it involves people. When I meet someone who owns a NOMOS, I know they’re going to be interesting and curious and have good taste because, in my experience, NOMOS appeals to graphic designers, architects, museum heads, people who work creatively and have a great sense of fashion. That’s not always the case with other brands and watches.
And then there are the people behind the brand: There’s a fun to NOMOS. They used to publish this NOMOS Encyclopedia. It’s brilliantly written. It’s hysterical. I never expected a watch brand to have a sense of humor and whimsy, but these guys do. And they also show it through the color palette they sometimes engage with. NOMOS is not a staid or boring place.
At the Forum, you read passages from your celebrated article “Confessions of a Watch Geek.” What does it say that more than six years later, this piece of writing still resonates with people?
I’ve gotten so many compliments from it. People used to stop me on the street to ask about my novels, and now they ask me what I’m wearing! So it’s definitely made an impact.
[For instance], I’m based in the countryside in upstate New York half the year, and I was buying a turkey from a farmer. A young kid was working on the farm stand and said to me, “Oh, you’re Gary Shteyngart.” I said, “You read my books in high school?!” He was like, “No, I just saw you on Hodinkee Talking Watches.” And then he showed me his watches!
[My article] became almost like a movement. And that surprised me because when I was writing it, my idea was: I’m crazy. This is my personal midlife crisis. But now, a couple of years down the line, it seemed like millions of people had the same problem.
Your presence at NOMOS’ Forum has given the brand’s retailers food for thought about what constitutes a typical NOMOS customer. How do you feel about that?
In the last ten years, the customer-retailer relationship has become inadvertently conflictual and emotional. That’s always been true in any kind of retail relationship because each side is trying to get something from the other, but now it has gone on steroids. And there’s a lot of ugliness to it.
You know the stories: I’m going to buy my wife a $70,000 bracelet so that eventually I can save $30,000 on a watch. It’s become a financial shell game.
NOMOS has never played this game, and it doesn’t need to. So, that alone elevates them as a brand.
Sure, there are other brands who don’t play these games, but I would never want their watches because there’s so little imagination in what they do. Brands where it’s clear that someone with an MBA is sitting around saying, “Oh, men seem to like being pilots, so let’s just put airplanes on everything.”
When it comes to other brands, we can all think of certain references that have come to be seen as watches for people who want to broadcast above their place in the world. You know, the car salesman watch – nothing against people who sell cars – they are the opposite of what a NOMOS is. There’s definitely more sophistication to NOMOS.
While at the NOMOS Forum, you visited the brand’s Glashütte workshop and Berlin design studio. Have you ever been embedded like this in the inner workings of any entity?
When I wrote “Confessions of a Watch Geek,” I spent a few days at NOMOS and at A. Lange & Söhne. So, I got to see both manufacturers. It was very interesting and very complimentary because there’s definitely a Glashütte feeling to both of them.
On this trip, I went to the German Watch Museum in Glashütte, where you see how the history of watchmaking dovetails with the history of Germany, for good and ill. I’m very happy I did that.
I hear that you got some experience with movement assembly during your visit to NOMOS’ watchmaking workshop. So is a change of career on the cards?!
Ha ha! I posted on Instagram: “Switching from book writing to becoming a watchmaker’s apprentice. Will be paid in watches and wurst.” I loved it, it’s fascinating. It’s like a Tetris game, getting all the pieces in. But then I realized I was destroying the three-quarter plate with the screwdriver.
I needed some help with the pièce de résistance, which was getting the balance in and oscillating, making the movement come to life. But boy, what a great feeling. I even include a passage about that – giving life to the movement of a watch – in my novel Lake Success.
So, has your experience here provided you with any creative fuel for future fiction writing?
Possibly! It’s funny because Lake Success had so much watch content. So much so that I remember one critic commenting: “Enough with these watches!” I get it. But I couldn’t stop because I was so deeply into watches at that point, and writing “Confessions of a Watch Geek” wasn’t enough. I needed a 330-page book to soak it all up.
But watches always show up in my work. So, absolutely, it does pop up in creative context because it has become a weird part of life: The choosing of a watch, what it says about you. Our sartorial uniforms are all becoming sneakers, pretty thin jeans, and some kind of t-shirt, but then what goes on your wrist is the surprise.
You’ve written about the therapeutic quality of watches and watch collecting. Have watches provided any therapy or escape for you recently?
For me, watches are a recollection of incredible things. My NOMOS Minimatik is very emblematic because it was one of the first serious watches I bought. Plus, I’ve traveled with it to a whole bunch of countries: [Germany], Italy, Israel, and Austria. Another watch spent a lot of time in India with me. So, it will be hard to give these watches up; they’ve seen some of my happiest moments.
Right now, in terms of numbers, Rolex tops my collection, but it will soon be tied with NOMOS as I am getting my fourth NOMOS, a Metro date power reserve. It has this perfect asymmetry and simplicity. I still absolutely love purity and simplicity in watches, and that’s what NOMOS represents to me.