What do Ben Stiller, Viggo Mortensen, and Tobey Maguire all have in common? Besides solid acting reels, they’ve all spent time in Iceland, and left the country wearing one of Gilbert O. Guðjónsson’s watches. But only after taking a photo with the island’s most famous watchmaker, of course.
In fact, one of the walls at JS Watch Company, a little shop in downtown Reykjavik, is entirely covered with photos of celebrity clients – Tom Cruise, Quentin Tarantino, and Jude Law are also there, amongst others. Naturally, it’s what most shoppers want to talk about. "He was in Iceland?" they ask. "You met him?" and "Was he nice?" are also common questions Gilbert answers several times a day.
And he’s very happy to entertain these inquiries. "Sometimes it’s impossible to work there," says Gilbert’s son, Sigurður Björn Gilbertsson. He is also a watchmaker, but he prefers to work down the road, where he and the company’s designer Grimkell Petur Sigurthorsson have set up an office inside a raincoat shop run by their wives. "My father likes getting up to chat with anyone who passes through the store, but I prefer to work here," he says emphatically – from behind his workbench.
Most of the people Gilbert meets have traveled to Iceland for adventure, and he has a way of taking them on one, so long as they have the time to listen to him.
"I made several watches like this for players of our national team," he says, pointing to a picture of the EURO MMXVI, a special edition made for the country’s football players after their qualification to Euro 2016 in Paris, France. Did the watches help them on their historic run; did it give them the boost needed to upset England in the Quarter-Finals, I ask jokingly. "Of course!" he roars – and then his face softens into a grin.
Gilbert set up his own brand in 2005, having found little joy selling and repairing watches made by others. It was one of his customers – a collector who had left several pieces in Gilbert’s care – who backed him, helping him finance the purchase of some equipment.
All of the watches are designed and assembled by hand, although Gilbert is the first to say that all of the parts come from suppliers in either Germany or Switzerland. This includes the cases, movements, and dials, all the way down to the straps. The company uses Top Grade executions of Soprod moments, adjusted in five positions, to a maximum rate deviation of +4/-4 seconds per day.
Most of the watches cost between $2,200 and $3,500, with the exception of the company’s chronograph and special editions such as the Anniversary watch – that one is €10,950 (approximately $11,600 at time of publishing) – or the Frisland Goð, a watch with a dial made with volcanic ash collected from Iceland’s most infamous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull. With an engraved case, that model is the most expensive in the collection, and retails for €15,170 (approximately $16,200 at time of publishing).
Gilbert’s clientele is mostly international, but then again, so is the population of Iceland. There are, on average, five tourists on the island for every Icelander, and since they’re eligible for VAT refunds on several products when leaving – including Gilbert’s watches – these are even more appealing.
There is no pretension in Gilbert’s voice when he talks about his watches, only genuine excitement. He’s in it to have fun, and just wants people take a piece of Iceland back with them. He’ll never compete with the likes of Patek Philippe or A. Lange & Söhne, though he likes to point out the German manufacture and his little company are two of only three watchmakers mentioned in Raw Bible, a coffee table book (and website) that focuses on things made in small quantities.
Still, these are well-designed and fairly-priced watches. The most popular watch in the collection, the Sif N.A.R.T. 1948, is powered by a Soprod M100 Date automatic movement, features an Incabloc shock protection system, and is adjusted to five positions. The watch is water resistant to a depth of 1,000 meters.
Presented in a 40mm brushed stainless steel case, it was made in honor of the Icelandic Coast Guard and their role in the unarmed "Cod Wars" against British fishing vessels which took place from 1948 to 1975. "The only war Iceland has actually waged against a foreign power, and it ended in no casualties and a full Icelandic victory," notes Gilbert.
Like their maker, the watches often have stories to tell. Take the Islandus 1919, for instance, the company’s 44mm pilot’s watch. You won’t find any airplane parts inside, but the date is a nod to the country’s first ever air show, held in 1919. It was actually just one aircraft, flown by a pilot hired just for the occasion and who stayed on the island for three weeks after arriving via ferry.
Then there’s the black dial SIF N.A.R.T. 1948 and its bright green SuperLuminova indexes. Gilbert jokes that these are Iceland’s only guarantee of seeing green lights at night, an obvious reference to the Aurora Borealis for which many travelers come to the island.
But the best story is the one told by the Islandus 45 Years Anniversary Edition, which was designed by Gilbert’s son with the help of the JS team, to honor his father’s non-stop commitment to his craft.
For this special piece, JS went with a custom Unitas movement with a three-quarter bridge featuring Geneva stripes, and special engravings on the mainplate and swan neck regulator, and picked a guilloché dial for the front of the watch. Another first for the team, who intend to broaden their offerings despite the company’s small size.
During my short stay, Gilbert often said I was standing in "probably the smallest watch company in the world," and while that’s probably true, what rang truest to me, while I was being watched by some of the most famous actors in the world, was that I was speaking to the most well-liked watchmaker north of the 65th parallel.
For more, visit JS Watch Company online.