What brings you to follow a certain career or invest your time in a specific hobby? What makes you move to a different city?
People and the connections you have to them.
Our many conversations with brand owners and collectors have shown us that watch collectors fall into horology because they grew up close to someone who had watches, talked about them, or maybe even collected them. That person could have been a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, or a friend. Someone showed them a watch at some point during their childhood, and they were magically and instantly hooked.
Etienne Malec, founder of the popular French independent brand Baltic, had a similar experience. In his case, his proximity to a watch connoisseur was more intimate than it probably was for most of us, and it is this rather unique relationship he had with watches that prompted him to create Baltic later in life. This article is about continuity, the importance of connecting with like-minded people, and the importance of persisting in our dreams.
Etienne Malec, Baltic's Founder
A Father Who Collected Watches
Etienne’s father was to Etienne’s love affair with watches what electricity was to the Frankenstein monster: it brought it to life. For about 15 years, Etienne’s father collected cars, cameras, and especially watches. His dad created a network of watch collectors and dealers in Normandy where he had grown up. He kept a journal chronicling his collecting adventures at flea markets, the private deals he brokered for all sorts of watches, the “flea market” watches that he bought cheaply and resold cheaply, and once in a while a much nicer piece from Breguet or Breitling.
Etienne father's book
The book, which is now Etienne’s, catalogs all the watches his father bought and sold. Each page shows a different watch with its photo, the brand, the model name, who he bought it from, how much he paid, when, and also who he sold it to (or traded with), for how much and when. The book is really quite thick. Etienne inherited the journal and a trunk full of several dozen watches after his father’s passing when Etienne was five years old. He didn’t know what to do with it at first, setting it aside for a while. He wouldn’t return to it until the point at which he gained interest in horology as a 16-year-old and felt driven to discover what his dad had been storing in this trunk.
He started learning about the watches his dad had collected and diligently recorded in his book. He joined French watch forums and discovered that certain watches could be sold in order to finance the servicing of the better ones from the collection. He sold some watches and maintained others, especially certain gems he had found amongst the layers of cases, bracelets, and straps. That’s when Etienne started photographing watches—among other things during his many student trips across Europe—and at age 19, he won a photo competition and was invited to have lunch with the then-vice president of Omega in Bienne.
Before Baltic = Eyewear
Etienne lived in Poland, Turkey, and the Czech Republic for most of his post-high school studies. He had felt the desire to take a break from the French educational system and explore new corners of the planet. It served him well, allowing him to explore his personal sense of creativity by photographing watches, people, and the places he would visit. He attached a lot of importance to this creative process, as it allowed him to interact with his environment from a personal perspective. At the conclusion of his studies and travel, Etienne and a couple of his friends decided they wanted to create a business together and sell something that they designed themselves.
They created an eyewear company that they successfully ran for eight years. Although they loved being entrepreneurs and being their own bosses, not all of them were as passionate about glasses as they had hoped to be. Because of his experience discovering his father’s watch chest and journal, Etienne had dreamed of creating a watch company for a while. He was very attracted to chronographs and had imagined what would later become Baltic’s sector dial Bicompax. He pitched the idea to his friends, and they all agreed it was the right path to take. Etienne now set about laying the foundations of Baltic while sharing office space with his now ex-colleagues.
When I first came across a review of the Baltic Aquascaphe in early 2019—when I was shopping for my first “serious” watch—I heard several reviewers critique the brand name as not sounding very French. If anyone had bothered to ask Etienne, they would have discovered that his family is from the northern part of Poland near the Baltic Sea. It was only fitting, then, to name his own watch company after his family’s native region. His dad, after all, had initiated Etienne’s love for horology, and his prior work guided Etienne through the design of his first horological creations.
The Power of Persistence
Imagine what it must have required for the first humans to survive harsh climates and live among more powerful and carnivorous animals? How much perseverance must NASA have displayed in order to put a man on the moon despite the numerous setbacks and doubts? If we look at history as a whole, we can say that nothing good or major ever happened without persistence and hard work. As my favorite Stoic philosopher Epictetus allegedly said: “Two words should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life. These two words are persist and resist.”
Once the idea of creating Baltic was set in stone, Etienne and his colleagues started working on several prototypes. Through connections Etienne made over the course of several years by frequenting a Parisian restaurant popular with watch collectors and dealers, he was able to get a list of factories that could manufacture their first prototypes. As soon as he got the first prototype in hand, he knew this was exactly what he would have paid money for. The first model was a chronograph that took many design cues from the Longines 13ZN step-case chronograph (see picture below). Armed with the prototype, Etienne embarked on a six-month hyper-focused period of preparing a Kickstarter campaign.
That’s the persist part.
Being passionate about photography, he captured the first prototype from all angles and infused the photographs with his own personal passion for horology. We are all unique, and we all have a certain way of photographing watches. We may follow the same style, but the way that we photograph watches is a direct result of the way we see them. Looking at Baltic’s product photography, it is clear that Etienne views his watches with the same admiration his father had for the watches from his own outstanding collection. Etienne’s photography was so good that Baltic gained immediate traction on Instagram once Etienne started posting the first shots of the Bicompax.
He realized that people had become interested in the design and wanted to know how real of a brand Baltic would become. Etienne, who had completely set aside his first company, started taking appointments to show people the watches and have conversations about them. He remembers scheduling at least 250 appointments within the first few months of 2017. He met with local horological enthusiasts and tourists visiting Paris who had horological inclinations. This is unheard of, and it shows Etienne’s dedication to the project. He also went to New York to visit the team at Hodinkee to present the first prototypes.
Encouraged by the positive early signs of support, Baltic officially launched on April 7, 2017 and pre-sold 1,200 watches, both the Bicompax and the HMS 001, the second model and time-only one. Despite Etienne’s great success, he was suddenly overtaken with panic at the thought of making sure he could deliver on his promise and on time. In his own words, the project only became “serious” at the moment when hundreds of people put their money in his hands to produce the watches he had been talking about and working on for so long.
That’s the resist part.
The rest is history, of course. All went well, and the delivery was only delayed by a couple of weeks, which we can all agree is reasonable for a first Kickstarter campaign. Immediately after the release of the first two models, people immediately wanted to know if a new one would soon come out and if more of the Bicompax and HMS 001 would be released.
Etienne was overwhelmed by self-doubt and questioning. Obviously, the first release was a huge success, but he wasn’t quite sure why it had been successful. My wife, who made a career in design for American political campaigns and worked in a highly competitive market, has told me that she’s only as good as her latest design. This means that she never took her skills and success for granted, realizing that she had to constantly improve herself. Any successful artist and entrepreneur can relate to this feeling, and Etienne was no different. He had to take apart the success of the Bicompax and HMS 001 and figure out why it worked and how he could guarantee the success of future releases.
The Baltic Recipe
Etienne understood that he needed to come up with a recipe to expand the Baltic collection and ensure that each new model would be as well received as the last one. His goal was to refine the case design to make it the same for all future models. Creating continuity would mean establishing a design language for the brand, and those who liked the HMS would be likely to go for the next model. He standardized the case design, then, and adapted it for future models. After the delivery of the Bicompax and HMS 001, he made a limited edition of 200 watches that sold out in 45 minutes. By that time, he was already working on the next model, the Aquascaphe.
His father’s collections had several divers, for which Etienne had a natural affinity. He got most of the design of the Aquascaphe figured out on a train ride (he feels the most inspired while riding trains). The case was a little thicker to accommodate for 200 meters of water resistance and a rotating dive-time bezel, but overall the case profile and dimensions are more or less the same as the Bicompax and HMS 001. Etienne felt confident doing a pre-order of the Aquascaphe instead of going through another grueling Kickstarter campaign (to me a sign that a brand does well and is headed in the right direction). The Aquascaphe’s launch was even more successful than that of the Bicompax and HMS 001.
He had gotten the recipe right.
Following the first Aquascaphe, Etienne released different variants of this model, adding bronze cases and making a super-compressor-style variant, as well as the GMT versions. He then redesigned the first two models, the Bicompax and HMS 001, into ( you guessed it) a Bicompax 002 and HMS 002. The case design and dimensions remained the same, but what changed was the design of the dials. He again took inspiration from vintage models that he had found in his dad’s chest of wonders when designing the Bicompax 002 and HMS 002, both of which were instant hits.
In between the release of new models, Baltic started doing collaborations with nonprofit organizations and magazines to release unique watches (not limited editions, just one unit) of the Aquascaphe, Bicompax, and HMS. Notable models include the Baltic X Vortex Aquascaphe and the Baltic X Only Watch, and Etienne sold both at auctions to support a variety of charitable causes. Baltic also released the acclaimed Baltic X Worn & Wound Limited Editions of the Bicompax and HMS with gorgeous salmon dials and most recently a neon-like Fifth Anniversary Dual Crown version of the Aquascaphe (Baltic is already five years old!).
What all of these successes show is that Etienne found his groove in designing watches by forging a unique approach that makes Baltic stand out as an independent brand from the sea of brands that have popped up in the past decade. As he puts it, his design process is selfish. He designs watches that he would want to buy himself, watches that interest him. He does reckon, though, that creative people are interested and passionate about certain things that reflect some aspect of themselves. He consequently assumed, and rightly so, that there have been thousands of people who have resonated with the Baltic design.
The best example of Etienne’s successful process is the recently released MR 01. From a design standpoint, half of the watch is exactly the same as any of the other Baltic models: the case profile is the same. What changed is the fact that they took cues from watches from the ‘40s and ‘50s for the dial. He wanted to go bold and used Breguet-style numerals, which he put through a fattening regimen, finishing them up with a high-polish treatment. There is nothing contemporary about the original Breguet numerals, but the way he used them for the MR 01 feels modern. He had begun the process of designing a micro-rotor watch for a while but couldn’t find the right movement for it at first. Once he did, Etienne couldn’t be stopped.
What quickly became apparent with brand owners is that what they do is highly personal. They invest everything they have in mounting the brand—their savings, their time—and sacrifice a lot for it, but they also produce watches that tell more about who they are and what they like than anything else they could wear and do. As we mentioned earlier, for example, Etienne designs watches for himself and the people around him. He also likes to get to know his prototypes inside out by wearing them for several days to see how they fit and feel, how the light bounces off certain angles of the case, and whether or not the watch can actually be used for its intended purpose.
Designing watches is akin to any creative enterprise: you need to flex the creative muscle constantly in order to get the best ideas. Etienne spends most of his time conceptualizing watches in his mind’s eye before doing any renderings. Doing the renderings takes time, and he loses sleep over it until he can get it right, but there are periods of time during which he doesn’t feel inspired and nothing gets produced. You better believe, though, that once an idea pops, he’s going to be hard at work until he has exhausted all options for the design and until it feels right.
As we know, when Etienne first launched Baltic, he met with several hundred people who were intrigued by the prototypes of the Bicompax and HMS 001. He wanted to have a personal connection with the brand’s future fans. This dedication to making it personal and keeping it small has borne fruit five years later: Etienne handles all social media for the brand and responds to all direct messages as quickly as possible. When he had his eyewear company, he used to sell his products through third-party retailers who were more interested in discussing profit margins than the products themselves.
That’s why you will never see a Baltic being sold on a third-party website (with the exception of limited editions, of course).
Speaking to Etienne felt special because I could relate to this passion and drive for making well-designed and well-built watches and for doing everything in his power to have personal—almost intimate—connections with the people who buy his creations. Meeting him in Baltic’s boutique and office in Paris was even more meaningful. Sitting across a coffee table from each other, Etienne would passionately recount the events of the past five years while sipping on a cup of coffee and leafing through his dad’s notebook that contained the seeds of the Baltic brand.
I have it under good authority that we will see more of Baltic’s unique design DNA soon.
Thank you for reading.