What's Ticking

12 Questions with the Founder & CEO of Hemel Watches

Published on May 29, 2018

Many of us dream of designing a watch or starting our own watch brand; today
we are talking with Marvin Menke, Founder & CEO of Hemel Watches. Marvin
Menke is a New York City based designer and branding expert. A graduate of the
Fashion Institute of Technology, he has over twenty years of design experience,
including for high profile brands like Nautica, Donna Karan, and The Gap.

1. Marvin, what’s your horological origin story? What got you into watches?

My entrance into the world of watches is not an uncommon story. My father gave
me my first watch which was a hand winding Timex. A typical seventies kid
inauguration. In my earlier teenage years, Swatch just exploded onto the scene,
and I was very interested in their overall aesthetic. Not just in the product design
but also marketing which was around the time that I began to formulate my own
design sensibilities. There was a lot of excitement around that whole clean, bold,
and graphic look that I was also finding in a lot of album cover design by the likes
of Peter Saville and Mark Farrow. To me, product development goes hand in hand
with branding which is eventually where I wound up right after I graduated from
the Fashion Institute, here in New York. As I got older, I became aware of better
fabrications and movements as well as more vintage looks. So I always had a fairly
clear idea of what I wanted to do with Hemel and how to do it.
All the years of going through GQ and other style magazines beginning in my
formative years just helped shape my perception of the wristwatch. When you
look at how central a proper timepiece is to a man’s wardrobe, the gentleman’s
uniform if you will, and how celebrated watches have been in popular culture, it
just made complete sense to me that I should be wearing watches. In those days,
during the eighties, we hung out at malls. So we were always around style,
branding. All of this made up a lot of youth culture. I had a watch that I wore with
my motorcycle jacket, one for wearing with a suit, one that I would swim with,

2. What was your first watch?

My first watch was the hand winding Timex I mentioned before. I kept it all this
time and actually passed it down to my son some years ago. I still have a lot of
love for Timex and wound up buying a bunch more vintage mechanical ones off
eBay just to have. I was one of the first to get the Marlin reissue and I hope we
see more reissues in the future.

3. Many of us dream of making our own watches, but you’re actually doing it.
What made you decide to start a watch brand?

Hemel was originally the name of my design consultancy and I wanted to develop
a gift for my better clients around the holidays, birthdays, or just to mark the end
of a project. I wanted to create and design something that demonstrated my skill
set and make for an interesting portfolio piece. Around this time, a good friend of
mine finally succeeded in seducing me to the horological side of the internet:
blogs, discussion boards, Facebook groups…and I fell hard! I was obsessed. My
instincts as a designer quickly surfaced and I began to observe trends in this
product category like how one of the main points of discussion is the cost of this
hobby. I was already researching value for dollar, just as a consumer anyway, and
I identified a white space opportunity around the $400-$500 dollar area.
I decided that my creation should be a watch and the more I shared the concept
with my colleagues, the more they encouraged me to bring it to market. By this
time, the internet had already given the entrepreneur so many gifts with which to
sell, market, raise capital, etc. so going forward was a no-brainer to me. Being a
creative, the barrier to entry was relatively low as I was able to do myself so many
of the things that other small business owners have to farm out and spend so
much money on. My greatest investment would be my time, and when you love
what you do, it’s not too hard to dip into this sort of capital.

4. Did you have any experience in industrial design or manufacturing prior to
starting Hemel?

I did. I spent many years in product development for the apparel industry, and it’s
related licensed / lifestyle categories. During this time I communicated a lot with
factories and had gone to the Orient a few times over the years, so the process
was never completely foreign to me.

5. How did you decide on the name Hemel?

I grew up in a bilingual household, Dutch / English and I wanted to pay homage to
my heritage while coming up with what would sound to an English-centric ear as
something unique. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do so the name couldn’t
really be product specific. I decided on Hemel which is the Dutch word for sky, a
constant source of inspiration to me. I love meditating and connecting to nature.
Since feeling a sense of ease and fulfillment has always been so important to me
in my work, I wanted a word that could embody that whole vibe. It just so
happens that the sky was very likely the first way we were able to note the
passage of time so connecting such a name to a watch brand was really a match
made in heaven.

6. Hemel has a very militaristic feel; what was the inspiration for the HF and HM

When you begin to research the history of watches especially in the last century,
it doesn’t take very long before you realize that nothing has driven horological
innovation more than military need, so as a purist, I am compelled to have that
identity at the core of everything that Hemel does. Whether it’s shatter-resistant
glass, water resistant cases, NATO straps, hacking movements, luminescence, etc.
you can thank some military from around the world. The very fact that watches
migrated from our pockets to our wrists was because American G.I.s needed to
overcome the problem of watches falling out of their hands and into puddles
during the trench warfare of the Great War, for example.

7. What was the movement selection process for the lines?

Much of the Hemel concept was shaped around the Miyota 9015. I had read an
article about it somewhere and I just loved the caliber. A Japanese 28.8 bph
hacking movement at a very wallet-friendly price point that competed with what
the Swiss were doing? I loved it. I had to do something with it. Again, this goes
back to my mission of value for dollar and putting it squarely under $400 within a
surgical grade steel case with sapphire, C3, and signed components was my
solution for a “most watch for the money.”
Same thing for the NE88 in my HFT20. 28.8 is a bph that I am enamored with and
how Seiko does it at their prices is just remarkable especially when you consider
that this is a column wheel chronograph. There is no doubt in my mind that what
Seiko and Miyota are doing with their movements is a big part of this flowering
we’ve seen in the microbrand world.
I do understand though, how the cost of mechanical watches is still out of the
range of some consumers, so I’ve begun to adopt some quartz into the
assortment. The VK64 incorporates a mechanical module atop the quartz
movement, so while the chronograph is running, you do get a sweep. That’s
important. For that reason, it has proven to be very popular among watch guys
and reviewers.
For my second generation HM series, I did a full on quartz interpretation to get
the brand within reach of even more people who believed in the brand and
wanted to support it. I figured if I did something quartz, I’d just have it totally
done in Switzerland. All of the other specs are identical to what I’ve done in the
past. The great thing about quartz movements is that they’re solid state and their
stability really serves the concept of an outdoors, field and sports watch, which
would obviously get bumped around quite a lot.

8. What was the strap selection process like both the HF and HM lines?

For the HM Series, we looked at classic field watches from the 60s – 80s. We saw a
lot of nylon, so if it was good enough to meet mil-spec standards, then it was
good enough for us. We updated them with more contemporary colors and mixed
them up between one and two piece straps for good measure. The HF series
looked at classic aviator’s straps, especially from the 30s-40s German Luftwaffe,
but also earlier in the century. Lovely leathers that would deepen in color and
form around your individual wrist shape over time. In every case, we come up
with unique buckle designs and ways of putting our logo on them. It’s important
to remember that nothing about a Hemel watch is “off the shelf.” I draw and
oversee every part of the design. I have no interest in using the same parts that
another company already has.

9. What is one of the biggest misconceptions about starting a watch brand?

That it’s easy. A watch brand is no different than any other brand fighting for
market share, defending its niche. We’re surrounded by brands. We’re a culture
made up of people that define themselves by the brands they buy. So if you’re a
new kid on the block, you’ll have to constantly communicate your brand’s core
messaging and make sure that they align with consumer expectation while
differentiating from all the established brands. Making a product is one thing but
putting it into a market niche that makes sense, and that isn’t very crowded and
marketing it in an authentic way, takes a lot of perseverance. Now try doing it
scrappy and on a tight, little budget. This isn’t something you can just throw
money at either. Much of this is art and nuance, not totally science, so be
prepared to be consumed by your work.

10. Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of starting their own watch

I would say that you really need to love what you do because the demands that a
new brand requires for gaining any traction is going to take up a lot more time
than you may think. You’ll come across ups and downs and be doing a lot on the
job learning too. All of this is going to take up a lot more than a five day, forty
hour work week. It’s the love of the work that’s going to get you through all the
time it’ll require of you.

11. What does the future hold for Hemel? Any models we should be on the
lookout for in the future?

Hemel has been boots on the ground and wings in the air, so it’s not hard to
figure out where we’re going next. We’ll still continue to revisit past collections
and reinvent them somehow, but we will still have our eyes on the future and are
always looking to expand. I’m personally so inspired by all the incredible watches
from throughout the decades that I will always want to do something new.

12. What was the last watch you purchased or received?

I wanted a vintage Marvin watch for a long time, and I finally found one that’s
36mm which is relatively large for a 1940s era timepiece. I really like 1940s
Marvin watches because they made a lot of models “oversized” at 36mm which
makes them feel a bit more contemporary and more wearable today. They’re not
terribly expensive to collect either. Besides, how could a guy named Marvin not
have a Marvin watch?

Thanks, Marvin for sitting down with the Urban Gentry crew and answering our
questions! Discover more at HemelWatches.com
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: Hemel_Watches

Author Bryan Braddy
IG: @SirWatchesRaleigh
Training consultant by day, horophile by night; Bryan has been obsessing over watches since he was gifted his first watch back when he was a child. Bryan’s passion for watches is fueled by the stories told through the battle scars in a case and the faded aluminum of a bezel.