Sometimes it’s the unexpected turns in life that set us on the right path.
For the Detroit-born Elizabeth Doerr, those have included winning a scholarship for graduate studies in Germany, where she would meet her future husband, raise a family and be introduced to the world of high-end mechanical watches.
Now, as co-founder and editor in chief of the seven-year-old website QuillandPad.com, she focuses on independent and high-end makers, working in a suite on the top floor of her home in Karlsruhe, Germany, with a view over the rooftops and rock music playing in the background.
Ms. Doerr, 54, recently talked about covering the industry and what the near-future may bring. Her comments, made by email and phone, have been edited and condensed. — SUSANNE FOWLER
What drew you to watches?
It was not a conscious decision. My interest developed through my job with a German publisher who was launching a magazine in 1991 about watches, called ArmbandUhren. The more I learned, the more I became hooked. There was a real sense of community that I loved, too.
You have handled some of the world’s most complicated and most expensive watches. Do you remember your first one?
It was a gift from my mother, but it went missing in college and I can’t remember if it was a name brand. It was certainly quartz and inexpensive. My first watch of any note was the Movado Museum Watch I won as first prize in a tennis tournament in 1990. I later bought a “beginner automatic” by Oris, widely recognized as a steppingstone into the world of mechanical watches.
You and your business partner, the journalist Ian Skellern, took Quill & Pad live in 2014. You’ve said that’s “like 800 in online years.” What was the industry like then?
The watch world has gone through a couple of what I’d consider extreme makeovers. When I started in ’91, it was very intimate. You could walk into the Patek Philippe Basel fair booth as an unknown and actually talk to people. As a first-timer I was even allowed to handle the rarities. Today even I don’t get to touch the really rare items. The interest in mechanical watches was tiny, really of no global note.
The progression from then to now was greatly changed by the conglomeration of brands — a majority of historical brands are now parts of bigger luxury groups with goals that supersede just making a great watch. This, however, has really allowed the independent scene to come forward.
Have you also seen an increase in women working in this male-dominated field?
When I first started, there were next to no women in watches except for the P.R. sector. But I see more coming in, which is fantastic. There are now a few high-profile female C.E.O.s and more women in important design, marketing and sales positions.
But while the majority of the watchmaker force at a given factory is often made up of women — 50 percent or more in general — they are mostly in very basic jobs. There are a few female watchmakers and technicians inching their ways up the ladder, but these are few and far between.
Others have built businesses from the ground up. These include Kathleen McGivney, chief executive of RedBar Group, the world’s largest organized collector group. And Livia Russo, the less-extroverted partner of the star auctioneer Aurel Bacs, who together run the watch auction section of Phillips.
Now for the crystal ball. Predictions?
I think the major groups will continue to deepen a commitment to e-tailing, which they have been very slow to adopt, and have suffered for, during the pandemic. The independent brands have done much better largely because their online boutiques were already in place.
Last year, the auction houses did great business as people “shopped” online. I suspect that the continuing interest in vintage and pre-owned, combined with the need to safely shop online, will continue.
I won’t be surprised if some brands hold back very complicated or very expensive pieces in 2021 until buyers are again able to touch and feel them first. And I think that sporty casual will continue to be a big theme in high-end watchmaking.
Like most online entities, we have experienced an uptick in traffic. But I see that we really need the touchy-feely side of meetings to understand watches. At least I do. So I hope the fairs aren’t dead. A watchmaker’s enthusiasm for a project or a technical element can really ignite a fire in me. Inspiration is contagious.