Interview: Chris Vail of Janis Trading Co.

Today, The Time Bum sits down with Chris Vail, owner of Janis Trading Company, which includes the brands NTH and Lew & Huey. You can meet him yourself tomorrow in the Janis “Voodoo Lounge” at the District Time watch show, 421 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm on Sunday, September 30. Until then, enjoy our exchange.


TB: We’ve got some history. I launched The Time Bum in late 2013, right about the time of your first pre-order. In fact, the Riccardo prototype was one the first watch I reviewed that didn’t come out of my own collection. Since then, Lew & Huey has grown into Janis Trading Company and NTH. What has that trip been like?

CV: You’ve seen the movie “Vacation”, right? Long journey, lots of mishaps along the way, you might get a little irrational at some point, and punch a talking moose.

We passed the five year anniversary of our first sale this past April, so that was a time to look back and reflect. Whenever you do that, it’s a mixed bag of pride and embarrassment.  If you’re asking me, “was it worth it?”, I’m not sure yet. I think I’m playing the long game, and we’re somewhere in the middle of it, so, maybe ask me again in another five years.

It was great that our paths crossed when we were both starting out, and it seems like you’ve also covered a lot of ground since then, so I’m sure you must have a lot of the same feels.


TB: You have participated in every watch event I have hosted and you signed on as the primary sponsor for District Time. First of all, thank you. It has been great having you on board. Second, why do you do it? Your business is entirely internet-based and rather successfully at that. What benefit do you get from schlepping down to DC from Philly every year? 

CV: Well, when you put it that way… DC is two hours away from Philly. I have friends down that way. I’m used to the drive. 

Yes, most brands selling in this mid-market price range are doing most of their selling online, but that leaves customers struggling to assess quality and fit, and all the other things you can do in a store. I think it’s a good idea, for micros especially, to take advantage of every possible opportunity to get their product in front of its intended audience. 

TB: I’ve met quite a few microbrand owners and while all of them take their watches seriously, very few have made their brands a full-time endeavor they way you have. Do you think that affects the way you approach this business? 

CV: It has to. When you have a full-time job that pays your bills, that’s your focus, and your business is just a side-hustle. 

When your business has to pay your bills, it forces you to think more, to be more deliberate, to learn more quickly, to react more quickly, to see around corners. I know a lot of my part-time peers, and it can be hard to respond when they ask how to achieve the same results. 

It’s like asking how to run a marathon when you never run more than a mile or two per week. How do you wrap your head around the training you need to do to be able to run 26 miles nonstop? The best times are clocked by people who ran 38-44 miles per week. It takes commitment. 


TB: Everyone with a product to sell has some engagement on social media, but looking at your activity on the forums, Facebook, and Instagram, you seem to live in it. How do you maintain that level of activity and how has it affected your brands?

CV: I eat a lot of carbs. 

It really only makes sense if you know me personally. I grew up being the overlooked underdog, and I figured out early on that I was only going to get where I wanted to go if I was willing and able to out-think and out-work my competition. 

Social media is just a digital/global playing field, where I’m just doing what I’ve always done. It’s been good for the business, obviously, but I’ve had to accept the nastiness which comes with the territory. You run your business in full view of the public, expect some heckling. 

I try not to take it all too personally or let it bother me too much, but the only way I know how to do that is to just turn the receiver off. But then, of course, it becomes obvious to everyone that you’ve tuned out, so you lose your fans. I don’t know how to stay connected AND be immune to the BS. 
TB: From your public posts - particularly the Watchuseek chronicles of your Hong Kong Watch and Clock Fair trips - it is clear that you share a genuine sense of camaraderie with many of your fellow microbrand owners. What’s that like, considering that you are also rivals aiming for the same slice of a niche market? 

CV: The only comparison which comes to mind is having friends who play Poker. They’re your friends, you like them, they like you, you root for each other when you’re not playing against each other, but when you’re together in a hand, you want to destroy them, and they, you. 

The only way to stay friends is to balance selfishness with selflessness. If you can do that, it’s great. I learned from my Poker friends. I learn from my microbrand owner friends. And when we see each other, we have a great time. 

I don’t always say it, but when I see a bunch of people posting wrist-shots of some newly-delivered model, from any of my friends, I think, “that’s awesome; he made a bunch of people happy; he should feel good about that.” But at the same time, I wonder, “how am I going to top that?” 

TB: After 5 years in the business, what do you know now that you wish you knew then? 

CV: There are a lot of things it would have helped me to know back then, tips-and-tricks type things. More than anything, I think if I just knew how things would be today, five years down the road, it would have made it easier to go through everything I went through to get here. There were a lot of days when I felt hopeless. Just knowing that I’d make it this far, eventually, would have been enough to prop me up when I most needed it. 


TB: You’ve never hidden the fact that your watches are made in China. Many watch nerds have strong feelings about this, not all of which strike me as being terribly informed. As someone who has put in the legwork, worked with the suppliers, and visited the factories, what do you think are some common misperceptions about the Chinese watch industry? 

CV: I don’t see the industry as divided that way, into the “Swiss” industry, “Chinese” industry, and whatever else. I just see it as “the industry”. There’s exponentially more happening in China than the industry is ready to admit, or the market is willing to accept. There’s very little actual “manufacturing” happening in Switzerland. Assembly, sure, but the real dirty work is mostly done in China. 

I think the things people say betray their own biases or motivations. When the arguments about this stuff happen, it’s common for someone to play the racism/Sinophobia card. People call others snobs, idiots, liars, conspiracy theorists, and lunatics. I’ve been called many of those things. 

You know, I’ve gone there and toured the factories. I’ve posted pics and videos. I don’t like to reduce it all down to semantic questions, like whether or not a factory in China is a “sweatshop”. What does that mean, exactly? It’s hot in Southern China, and I was sweating just walking through these places. I wouldn’t want to work there, but I didn’t see any child/slave labor, or unspeakable conditions, or any of the usual clich├ęs people invoke. 

When I was there this past May, I had a moment of clarity, wherein I realized that the lifestyle people enjoy in developed economies has always been the result of using cheaper labor in less developed economies. The irony or hypocrisy we all share in is that we all want to see ourselves, our children and our neighbors living well, earning as much as possible for the time we spend working, and enjoying nice things, etc. But everything we buy and every service we use has to come from someone, somewhere. The more we want, and the cheaper we want it all to be, the more we’re fooling ourselves if we think that’s all possible without people working for lower wages and in worse conditions, in places like Southern China. 

So, there’s a lot of effort put into maintaining the illusion that we can get nice things cheap from people working for healthy wages in nice, clean places like Switzerland. Meanwhile, the luxury brands are happy to charge us extra to make that illusion seem more believable. 


TB: When we were doing the roundtable at the Philly Get-Together this spring, one of the livelier topics was that of American made movements. I noted that it’s clear we all want them, but wondered if anyone really needs them. You laid out a pretty compelling case for why such a movement would benefit American watchmakers. How about rehashing that here? 

CV: In my view, it's not so much that we want or need an AMERICAN movement, we just need more choices in movements, period. It’s the single most important component, the most expensive, the hardest to get, and has the fewest suppliers. 

We don’t have the space or time to get into the whole history of ETA and all the other alternatives but to understand my view, you need to understand that the tiny number of truly viable movement suppliers is the most destabilizing factor in the industry right now. It allows a few large companies to run rough-shod over most others, big and small. ETA can literally move the entire market with a one-page press release. 

Of course, in the USA, we want to see more manufacturing being done here. But it’s a global market for watches, which means outside the USA, the “American” label may not mean as much. So I see it as a global issue, and it’s about taking some control back, and democratizing the situation somewhat, for everyone’s benefit. 

A lot of brands are based outside the EU and China, where we’re all sourcing our product. It’s difficult for many brands to enforce contracts or protect IP when dealing with suppliers in these other countries, where the regulators look after the interests of companies within their own borders first. 

Beyond the contracts and IP, there are the basics of business culture and practices. For many brand owners, it’s just impossible to reconcile how business is done here versus how it’s done there. Add a language barrier and a huge difference in time-zones, it makes the idea of domestic production seem more necessary, less pie-in-the-sky dreaming and “bring it back” rhetoric. 

Many brands are based in the USA, or in countries where we have good trade agreements. I think it would benefit many brands to be able to source that one critical component, and then, down the line, maybe all components and assembly, from within the USA, where contracts and IP law can be enforced, and we tend to put profits ahead of perceived prestige, where we speak the same language, work the same hours, etc. 


TB: We’ve seen an explosion of watches from NTH, including Devil Ray and what seems like dozens of Subs variants, but nothing from Lew & Huey since the Phantom. Is Lew & Huey officially dead? 

CV: Aaaannndddd…there it is. I guess we’re done with the softballs? 

Only to appease my OCD – since revealing the Phantom in April 2015, we did the Orthos II & Commander 300 project for WUS in late 2015/early 2016, a 25-piece “Ghost Rider” version of the Phantom in 2017, and the Spectre II was revealed late last year, and delivered earlier this year. But, yeah, I haven’t done as much with it lately, for sure, not nearly as much as I’ve done with NTH (there are 28 versions of the Subs so far, by the way, and more to come). I didn’t do much to promote the last couple L&H branded projects. 

Is L&H dead? I dunno. I keep thinking there’s that one model I still want to do under that L&H brand, and maybe more, but NTH has been keeping me too busy to go back and do it. If I could manufacture more time, it would be easier. I thought I’d be able to manage having two brands better than I have. If I’m forced to choose one horse to ride, I gotta choose the one that’s been running the fastest lately, and that’s NTH. I’m not sure I have to choose, though, do I? It’s like the rock band that cuts its last album – do they know that’s going to be their last album? The Eagles reunited and went back out on the road, after years of saying it would never happen, so don’t start planning the L&H funeral just yet. 


TB: Do you plan on adding more brands to the Janis stable? 

CV: Given the fact that I’ve completely failed to run two brands simultaneously, I should say no, but…maybe? 

The last 2-3 years, I’ve been toying with the idea of adding other people’s brands to the Janis Trading “store”, which was one of the reasons I had a “Janis Trading” store, as opposed to just one L&H or NTH brand and a single (or two) brand website. But, if I can’t run two brands at once, maybe I shouldn’t be thinking about running one brand AND a multi-brand store at the same time. 

I have a couple ideas about how that might work, if we did it slightly differently than how others are doing it, but…I just haven’t had the time to pursue those ideas, and I’m not sure when I will. 

When I was in Hong Kong again a few weeks back, I started thinking about a second brand, again. But it was only because I saw some stuff I could just re-brand with a new logo, get it made in smaller quantities, and sell it much more quickly than our usual design-to-delivery cycle, which involves coming up with a new design from scratch, and larger production numbers. I could maybe make my life easier if I ran a new brand that way, but again, I have too many other things going on right now to pursue the idea. I can’t even believe I’m even thinking about it, much less talking about it, when I realize I’ve also been talking about trying to get some manufacturing going here, which I think would require my full attention and all my time. 

TB: I have reviewed a few of the NTH Subs, loved them, bought one for myself, and have marveled at the way you squeezed an automatic movement into an 11.5mm case while maintaining 300m water resistance. You have also managed to create dozens of variants on this platform. Given this model’s success, do you see it as a permanent fixture in the NTH line? 

CV: Yeah, I feel like I found the golden Wonka ticket, so why not? 

A lot of this goes back to the lessons learned doing this the last five-plus years. Most micros are killing themselves trying to maintain a high level of creativity in coming up with one or more new models every year, each made in what are comparatively small batches of 300-500 pieces, yet with way more variations than most big brands offer. It’s exhausting, and inefficient, and risky, when micros need every new model to be a hit. 

If a micro can come up with a recipe they can repeat over and over, and find a way to add variety without having to completely re-tool, and it’s a consistent crowd-pleaser, it makes life a lot easier. No more creative exhaustion, less prototyping, fewer questions about quality, fewer production delays, etc, etc, etc. Instead of killing 18 months on every design-to-delivery cycle, just to make 300-500 pieces for sale, it’s much better if you can rationalize production of 1,000 cases to get you through an entire year, turn that basic foundation into a diverse range of products, and just wash, rinse, repeat. 

We’ve done 28 versions of the Subs to date, with half a dozen more designs waiting to go into production. It looks like that foundation is going to be a flexible platform we can use for new model creation for years to come. We can continue to explore what else we can do with that basic design, and also continue to go back and make more of the crowd favorites when we see enough demand. 


TB: So far, NTH has produced watches inspired by Submariners (Subs), compressors (Tropics), and the clamshell case Certina DS (DevilRay). What’s on the drawing board? 

CV: More Subs, obviously. Maybe some repeats or revised versions of those other models. I love the Tropics and the DevilRay, but we could have made more people happy if we’d scaled back on some of the features they had in order to sell them for less than we did. We might dip our toes into more expensive waters with something like an auto-chrono or a Swiss GMT, or maybe go the other direction, and come up with a meca-quartz chrono or something similar for sale at a lower price point. 

There’s been a “basic 3-hander” in the development queue for well over a year, but the DevilRay cut the line, and then we ran out of Subs, so it got put on the back burner. I’ve been thinking about a revised version of the Phantom, probably as an NTH model, not L&H, but when I get to thinking about it, there are so many changes I want to make, it morphs into a completely new model, nothing like the Phantom, except for the connections in my own mind. 

All of that – I’m not really thinking much about any of it right now. We have a big batch of Subs coming in October. I brought four retailers on in the last 18 months, and am in discussions with a few more. I don’t have the bandwidth to stop everything and focus on new model development yet, but it’s something I’ll get back to soon enough, maybe before the end of the year. 
TB: I recall you telling me a couple years ago that you were clearing out your watch collection and only wearing your own brands’ watches. How’s that working out for you? 

CV: Hah! Not well. When was that? Feels like two or three years ago? 

No matter how many watches I own, it’s too many, and more are always being added. I did sell off all the stuff we didn’t make, as much as it hurt to let some of those pieces go. I was able to keep my collection focused on my own stuff until earlier this year when I broke down and bought a couple of Seikos in a two-fer deal that was just too good to pass up. Then Helson released their ‘67 Omega Seamaster 300 homage, the Sharkmaster 300, and I had to have one. I went through a big sell-off recently, getting the collection down to 20, from a little over 30. 

There are still 3-4 I want to sell, but haven’t put enough effort into it. The Helson got flipped with a bunch of pieces from my own brands, stuff I just wasn’t wearing often enough to justify keeping. The Seikos are still around, mostly because I think I’ll want to look at them when I get back to designing some new model. Their case designs are really excellent. 

TB: What is in your personal collection these days? 

CV: Well, there’s those two Seikos, the orange-dialed Samurai re-release on an awesome fitted rubber strap from Crafter Blue (shout-out to Steve Chan from CB!), and the 62MAS-inspired SBDC053, with the most amazing stock rubber strap I’ve ever felt (uhm, shout-out to Seiko?). There are 3 DevilRays, 2 Tropics (1 Antilles, 1 Azores), 2 Acionnas, 2 Cerberus, 2 Orthos, and 7 Subs, but I’ll probably be adding at least one or two from the new batch. 


TB: What’s your next purchase? 

CV: Uhm…if some uber-wealthy fool swooped in to buy my business, and I didn’t feel like owning those 20-ish watches anymore, I figure I could get maybe $10k for the whole collection, which is five times more than I see myself possibly spending on a single piece. 

I’ve played this “what-if” game, and looked at all my own past “grails” – the Planet Ocean 2500, the Sinn 857, the SMP 2254.50, the Milgauss, the Pelagos, some rare-ish vintage stuff, and I realize I’m too far gone as a watch-geek to really love any of them enough to spend the money. I always find some little nit-picky thing I just can’t live with – an aluminum bezel insert, a date window, the wrong diameter, too thick, a stupid helium valve jutting out, can’t pick a color…that’s when I realize I’m fine owning what I have, and don’t really want for anything, at least not at the moment. 

I’ll probably add a few pieces each year, of our own design, and sell a few pieces, maybe more, just to keep the collection size from being any more ridiculous than it already is, and if I want something badly enough, I’ll make it. 

TB: Where Chris Vail and Janis Trading Company will be when I interview you again in another 5 years? Obviously, we all want our endeavors to be as successful as possible, but what does that success look like to you? 

CV: Corny but true – I’m not doing this because I need to make a lot of money, I do it because I need to do whatever I want, when I want, without fear that I’ll be fired. It’s a lifestyle choice I’ve made. But, I’ve never worked this hard in my life, so I’m hoping I can get the business working such that I can do more for and with my family, and have a bigger impact on the industry. 

I don’t mean that in a grandiose way. I just mean, if I had a hand in getting a new movement supplier set up, or getting some more manufacturing going in the USA, that’s going to mean more to more people than just building up my own business. ⬩
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