Jay Harrison had an unusual idea for retirement following a 10-year career in the NHL. He wanted to tell stories about his native Canada. It just so happened that his medium would be watches.
“Watches are cool expressions and represent more than a way to keep track of time,” said the former Maple Leafs, Hurricanes and Jets defenseman. “There’s a statement around it, and one huge component is what a watch says and doesn’t say.
“We’ve always loved watches and had this great idea to tell Canadian stories in a distinct and understated way. You have to be asked about it to boast in a pride a lot of Canadians have.”
Harrison, co-founder Duncan Fletcher and a group of investors launched Whitby Watch Co. in October with two initial products. The Intrepid Diver is a diver watch based on William Stephenson, a Canadian largely considered to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. According to Harrison, diver watchers were traditionally worn by James Bond. They’re reliable yet fashionable, understated yet distinct.
The second line, meanwhile, is a pilot watch called the Avro Arrow. Set at multiple price-point entry levels, it’s an homage to the cutting-edge aeronautic engineering prowess Canadians pushed in the mid-20th century.
Despite their Canadian roots, Whitby Watch Co. is already something of an international company. The watches are made by German watch manufacturer Jannes Vollmuth, whom Harrison credits for ensuring the designs are brought to life in an accessible, fashionable way with high-quality materials. Harrison and Fletcher are confident Whitby Watch Co. can eventually gain a foothold outside their home country on the sales side, too.
“A lot of the stories we’re excited to tell from a Canadian perspective have broader Western reach,” said Fletcher, executive director of Game Change and Professional Association of Athlete Development Specialists. “William Stephenson has a special resonance to Canadians who aren’t aware of it. These are the kinds of stories we’re eager to share and have the opportunity to bring to Canadians who aren’t as aware as they could or should be. The first couple are out there, but we have a few more that are more compelling coming.”
Harrison traces his love of watches back to a brief stint playing in Switzerland, the heartbeat of a world-renowned watch industry.
“It was the greatest place to get into the watch world,” Harrison said. “A great place to understand what timepieces can represent and to understand horology.”
While Switzerland is largely considered the homeland of premier watch brands, there is a current trend of microbrands in the timepiece industry that Harrison and Fletcher are excited to be a part of. Harrison says they hope to differentiate Whitby Watch Co. in the space by making their pieces more accessible. To that end, they’ve implemented a direct-to-consumer model which offers greater accessibility than a standard retail relationship might provide.
But they also understand the odds facing them as a niche brand in a highly competitive industry. To that end, Harrison believes success won’t be found in the bottom line, but in taking the chance at all.
“The watch market is an incredibly competitive space and looking at it for scale, and starting a brand probably isn’t a great idea to make a dent in the watch market,” he said. “What we have is a passion project for us. All of our stakeholders, we love watches, and we love where we’re from.”
In so doing, they’re also sending a message to athletes to make sure they have interests and business opportunities lined up before their careers are over.
“If you have these interests, take action on it,” Fletcher said . “We both work with active and recently retired athletes to make their migration to a new space, reducing the fear of going into those new environments. We’ve had an energy and interest in watches, and we’re trying to be that role model.
“The game doesn’t remove that interest as an opportunity. You can find those small steps to engage and learn more about it so when the day comes, you can go full throttle.”