It’s a common tale for most collectors and there’s no small bit of joy found in the oddballs of the vintage watch world – watches which were often designed for niche activities, rendered with a more adventurous design language than anything the major marques ever dared to released, and that could be had as a cheap thrill in an exceedingly expensive market. Many of these brands fell victim to the quartz crisis, to mismanagement, and to the watch market shifting away from producing niche utility pieces in the ‘80s. For Angus MacFadyen, falling in love with an obscure, but incredibly charming vintage diver made by the formerly defunct Swiss brand Alsta, led from a successful career in the tech world to a second act chasing his passion for watches while breathing new life into one of the coolest Swiss watch brands you may well have never heard of.
Odds are if you are already familiar with Alsta, it’s got something to do with the fact that the watch prominently seen on Richard Dreyfuss’ character Hooper’s wrist in the iconic film Jaws was an original Alsta Nautoscaph Superautomatic model. Hooper’s diver featured a distinct cushion case and was worn on a unique bracelet that made it a difficult piece for horology heads to overlook. While original examples of the Jaws watch have developed a fervent fanbase, since 2017, MacFadyen’s resurrected Alsta have applied modern production techniques and materials to produce heritage-inspired, aesthetically accurate reissues of the Superautomatic, and expand the brand’s offerings to a full range of pieces that seek to bring the romance back to wristwatches. For MacFadyen, producing accessibly priced, Swiss-made watches that are intended to truly sync with a lifestyle has become a calling.
Since rebooting the brand, the resurrected Alsta’s path has been forged by MacFadyen’s own passion for the marque, but also what he as a serious watch enthusiast would want to have in his own watch box as a collector. It’s an authentic approach that the lion’s share of big brands have seemingly lost touch with these days. That “enthusiast first” approach is a big part of why we brought Alsta into the fold as one of the heritage-inspired modern brands we offer in our shop, and it’s an approach that’s been a success for the new Alsta. However, MacFadyen’s just getting started.
As the brand’s offerings continue to expand around its core favorite Nautoscaph Superautomatic, Alsta’s range now includes several other vintage-styled divers, but also unexpected things like the Motoscaphe – a watch that features classic aesthetic elements, but was designed by motorcyclists to be the ideal wristwatch for riders. The Motoscaphe represents a return to watches being produced for lifestyles and people, rather than being a watch that considers only the watch market itself. It’s a refreshing way to run a watch company, and it’s one that MacFadyen is incredibly proud of.
In the following interview, MacFadyen shares his story in his own words with the C + T Journal and we discuss how his love affair with a rare dive watch catalyzed a career shift, the double-edged sword of having a famous model while trying to build a brand into something more than its greatest hit, and explore the refreshing approach to watchmaking that not only differentiates the new Alsta from its peers, but makes it a watch brand for the everyman.
Let’s start at the top. How did you decide to shift careers and resurrect Alsta? What was your initial attraction to the Alsta brand, which has always been a bit esoteric?
I was a watch enthusiast and I was a collector of the usual stuff. I had vintage Rolexes, I collected Omega, and I then started venturing into a bit more of the unusual Swiss houses, like JLC and ones that weren’t quite as universal as Rolex. In my watch collection, I had a vintage Alsta dive watch, which I loved, but I didn’t know anything about. So I researched it and discovered that the brand had just up and disappeared in 1978. I kind of thought no more of it at the time, but I always had this thought at the back of my mind that one of these days, I’d quite like to start my own watch brand because I was an enthusiast and I loved watches, but the thing that stopped me doing it was the having to invent a story.
Inventing a backstory is really, really difficult and it’s almost impossible to do that and be authentic, and it was that lack of authenticity that I found was missing in the watch industry. I was buying the watch magazines every month and I was thinking ‘Nothing’s really exciting me here.’ Rolex makes brilliant watches that are fantastically made and it’s this powerful brand, it’s just not really exciting to me anymore. Where’s the romance? Where’s the Jacques Cousteau story? Where’s the modern equivalent of the romantic images of these watches that we had in the ‘50s and ‘60s when people bought these watches as a tool and something that they would use as part of their lifestyle. They might go diving with it, they might go driving with it, and that watch played a part in that lifestyle. I was just not finding that romance in modern watches and I thought ‘I wonder if I should resurrect a defunct brand instead of inventing a new one? Maybe I can find one that had that authentic backstory, but maybe fell on hard times?’ Then I remembered the little Alsta dive watch in my watch box. So my fascination with Alsta came to the front of my mind again and I thought ‘Right. I’m going to do this because this brand is perfect for it.’
This was in 2017 and I acquired the rights to the brand in certain countries, which was owned by a Swiss company before me, and I then registered the rights to the brand in other territories worldwide – all the main places that we might want to sell watches. I was working full-time running a tech business at the time, and after getting the rights to the name, I realized it was what I really wanted to work on. When I first decided to resurrect the brand, I thought ‘You know what? It’s a massive risk, but I’m gonna make the first watch. If it’s a disaster, I’ll stick them on eBay and at least I’ve got the watch I want.’ I considered the reality that nobody might want to buy these and I might be left with hundreds of watches, but I’ve got the watch I wanted and I’ll have to somehow get rid of them. Sometimes you’ve just got to take the gamble and roll the dice and go for it when it’s something you’re passionate about.
Vintage watches and vintage-inspired watches are such an important connection to the lifestyles and vocations that so many of us romanticize. People will always be enchanted with the Omega Speedmaster because of their connection to space exploration. Dive watches have an element of magic like that, but they’re also incredibly functional as a watch category.
That’s absolutely it. It’s that escapism, and it’s not a connection to past times or harkening back to the good old days for me. It’s nothing to do with that. It’s the fact that back then, buying a watch was a much more emotionally considered purchase than it is now. I’m not talking about the watch enthusiast community here, but I’m talking about people in general. People buy watches because of the impression that other people have of them these days – people buy a Rolex because it projects an image of success now. But people bought watches with a purpose back then.
What was the big shift away from the tech world for you?
Working in real cutting edge tech was in many ways the opposite of the things that I was wearing on my wrist, and it was eating away at me. So after I acquired the Alsta name, I started to research suppliers and I started to do some work on what I wanted the resurrected Alsta brand to stand for, and what I wanted its ethos to be, who I wanted these watches to appeal to, and I also had to consider where I was going to get them made. Were we going to make watches in Asia cheaply and bring them to market and sell them in volume, or were we going to do something different?
I thought ‘I’m the first customer of Alsta here and I’m going to do this the way I would like it to be done as a consumer, and if no one buys them, at least they were made the way I would like them to be.’ I would like them to be made in Switzerland and assembled in Switzerland. I would like them to be of very good build quality and finish, but obviously not the same as a $10,000 watch because these are going to be $1000 watches. So the challenge became how can we make a watch that is relatively accessible and affordable, but extremely high quality and still have it be a Swiss watch.
To make an all-Swiss watch for $1000 is pretty much impossible; you can’t machine the components, have it assembled, quality-controlled, and have a Swiss movement in it for a thousand bucks. But what you could do is you could have it made somewhere else and stick a Swiss movement in it, or you could have it made in Switzerland and put a high quality, reliable movement in it that’s not Swiss. I decided I wanted to go the latter route because Seiko makes a fantastic movement that’s respected, reliable, excellent quality, and inexpensive – which means you don’t need to service it – you can just take the movement out to swap it out for a new one if something goes wrong. It typically doesn’t happen, though. By doing that, I could use a quality movement from a manufacturer with some extremely legitimate dive watch and sports watch credentials and have the watch made in Switzerland.
So we used one of the original 1960s Alsta Nautoscaph dive watches as the inspiration for the first release, the Nautoscaph II, but used modern materials and modern technology to make the watch. It was inspired by the original, but not a carbon copy; we made it slightly bigger to appeal to contemporary tastes. That first Nautoscaph II that came out in 2017 was a good watch, but we’ve improved greatly on our watches since that one. However, that watch was a success; I think insiders really liked the fact that Alsta was back, and that first edition sold out – and they rarely come up for sale on the pre-owned market. I was so delighted by that and I’m so proud that they’re out living lives instead of being resold.
I knew that the brand was starting to gain a following, so we brought back the Superautomatic, which is the Jaws watch that was worn by Hooper, and that is the Alsta that everybody wants. The Superautomatic is our core piece – our Royal Oak, if you will. It was a difficult watch to recreate because it has a distinct cushion-shaped case, but also the bracelet on the originals had a very unusual unique design. That bracelet was really difficult to get done the right way and quite expensive to redesign, but in late 2019, we brought the Superautomatic back to market and that has been our biggest seller!
I know that you guys have a complicated relationship with the Jaws watch’s history. Is its success a bit of an albatross as you push out new offerings?
It’s interesting having that core model. Candidly, it is an albatross because that story and film connection are really important, but there’s much more to Alsta than just being the brand that made the Jaws watch. On the other hand, it’s our bread and butter and it’s what people want from us. After we brought the Superautomatic back, it was selling really well and customers started saying to us “This is brilliant, we love it! We love the Jaws story and we’re so glad you brought it back! What’s next?” And we don’t want you to be a one trick pony.”
It was important for us to continue making other interesting watches. The Superautomatic will always be there, but it’s not going to be everything. The feedback we got from our retailers was also “We love the Superautomatic and it sells well, but we need a portfolio of pieces from you in order to present our customers with a number of different models and options to show that you’re a well-rounded watch house that’s not just relying on that one piece’s history.” We started bringing other pieces out and they do well, but when the retailers place orders from us, they still order 5, 6, and 7 times the number of orders for the Superautomatic because people simply love that watch and it sells so well. That core model success is important to us, but we’re not going to rely on one core piece.
We’re always going to do other interesting stuff as well, because I’m still guiding this brand by what I like from a watch house myself. I personally don’t want to invest in a brand for just one piece, I want a variety of different pieces with that design language. But we can’t ignore the fact that the Superautomatic is the model that we’re best known for, and according to a lot of people, we’re lucky, we’ve got a core, anchor piece with history like that because a lot of new or small independent brands or don’t have that. I made that facetious comment about it being our Royal Oak, but it’s true! Audemars Piguet puts out all of these fantastic watches, but ultimately, people just want to know what the next Royal Oak is going to look like. Not that I truly compare us to a brand like that, but I sometimes feel a bit like AP must. Our customers and our retailers say “Yeah, we’re glad you’re bringing these other pieces out, they look fantastic, but when are you doing the next Superautomatic?” So yes, it’s an albatross, but it’s also what the people want.
It would be one thing if it was a boring watch that happened to just be famous from being in a beloved film, but it’s also a lovely watch with a lot of personality. I think that makes a big difference here. Big bands have to play the hits live – even if they’re tired of that song – and I don’t think Superautomatic is a song that you’ll ever get tired of playing.
I think you’re right. I’d also be ignoring our enthusiast base if I stopped making that watch and those are the people who are spending their hard-earned money on our watches. The funny thing is, the Superautomatic ended up in Jaws by accident. They were ready to start filming and someone on the set said “Hold on a minute, Hooper doesn’t have a watch! This guy should be wearing a watch.” So some runner was sent out to find a watch that looked right for Hooper, and he picked up a Superautomatic at a watch store in Long Island. It was on that original bracelet, which is extremely recognizable, but the original design of that bracelet was totally inappropriate for diving because it’s expandable. As soon as you hit the water, the thing would rip off your wrist! So we’ve made the new Superautomatic bracelets look like the old ones, but it’s not an expandable bracelet that will break – it’s a proper link bracelet with a deployant clasp.
But it’s important that I get to do other interesting stuff with this brand as well, which is why we started the line of motorcycling-inspired watches. We’re going to do more of those this year and build that into its own range.
I love the motorcycle watch idea. With all of the niche watches being made right now, to find a specific gap in the market to fill in a creative way and in conjunction with actual motorcyclists is really interesting to me.
The Motoscaphe was something born out of my own interest in the whole lifestyle of motorcycling. I was talking to Allen Farmelo, a good friend of mine who runs the Beyond the Dial website and podcast, and he’s a motorcycle enthusiast as well. Allen planted the idea to do a motorcycling watch in my head, but the approach we took had to be authentic. As lucrative as it could be to get a fabulous company like Ducatti to just stick their name and logo on the dial of one of our watches and call it a motorcycle watch, would it really be who we are? I would rather make one that was designed wholly for motorcyclists and spoke directly to that vibe and lifestyle, and then see what we can do from there. Allen agreed that was exactly what was needed here. Really, the world doesn’t need another watch with an automotive brand stuck on it, it needs something that’s more considered and designed for the lifestyle first and foremost. We set about doing that with the Motoscaphe and we designed it with Allen, who brought a real-world motorcycle enthusiast’s perspective to the project.
Allen did the original rendering and used the Alsta design language to come up with something that was ideal for motorcyclists to really use while riding – relatively simple things like putting the crown on the left side so that it doesn’t dig into your wrist when you’re holding the handlebars of the bike. A lot of little design considerations were made for the rider, and there were even a few things that we wanted to do on the first one, but were still workshopping and will do on the next Motoscaphe release. That idea started very organically and very simply, and it’s an experiment to see how the people they were really designed for like them. We wanted to focus more on the motorcycling community than the watch community with this and make something specific, which is how tool watches used to be made. And we did just that and the watch has been a success! We’ve actually got another three designs rendered up for the next iteration of the Motoscaphe.
These are the things that are so brilliant about resurrecting and bringing back a watch brand independently. We’re able to do adventurous things and not have a committee say “No, it’s too risky financially.”
The watch world is such a passion-driven market and such an enthusiast-focused space. I think that your point of entry into resurrecting Alsta is going to really resonate with a lot of like-minded people. I also love that your first foray into resurrecting a brand is an accessible, blue-collar, utility-minded brand.
I’ll always want to make watches that are around a thousand bucks because we’ve been supported in our resurrection by the guy who can afford the $1k watch – who sees the value in what we do at that price point. I don’t know if we had started off in 2017 with a $5,000 offering that we’d still be here. If the customer with $3-5k to spend on a watch has a choice between a pre-owned Omega or a pre-owned Heuer, or a watch from an esoteric brand like Alsta, what’s he gonna do? He’s probably going to do the safe thing and buy the piece from the better known brand. I’d rather cater to the enthusiast that isn’t as concerned with the financial politics and risk there.
Now that you’re a few years into resurrecting this brand, how has your personal relationship with Alsta changed?
It’s just pure passion still. It’s something that is driven by my passion for not just watches, but for doing the right thing with this brand, which has heritage and history, and shaping it back into something that’s a lifestyle item more than something flashy. I want to do the right thing by the brand and it’s driven by passion for the brand, passion for the watches themselves, and overall, for the ethos of bringing the romance back to watches. So I don’t think my relationship with the brand has changed since I started this journey in 2017; I’m still as passionate as ever and I’m still as impatient as ever to push the boundaries and find the next level for Alsta in terms of our size and reach of the brand. But all that said, I’m as excited as ever about Alsta and I can’t wait to see how things continue to unfold for us.
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