Those ‘#watchfam’ readers who already follow me on Instagram (@watchwatches2020) could hardly miss noticing my passion for Nautica-brand watches. Inevitably, I post a large handful of different Nautica models each month, sampled from among the 3-4 watches I choose to wear daily from the many in my collection. Recently, a follower asked me about the origin of this decidedly atypical collecting penchant. That had me retracing my collecting path over the past years, and spending time pulling at the threads of my memory to recall how exactly my interest arose in Nautica – a brand that is almost entirely ignored within the mainstream watch collecting milieu. The question also piqued my interest in the history of Nautica, the brand, the watches, and their ties to Timex Group.
What follows here, a timeline and commentary on the history of the Nautica watch brand, resulted from that research deep dive and was wonderfully supplemented by a gracious early autumn Zoom video call with Giorgio Galli in Milan, Italy. For nearly 30 years Giorgio Galli has been the creative force behind Nautica’s watch designs, and has additionally applied his substantial expertise to Timex Group for over 15 years.
Birth of a fashion brand
Nautica was the brainchild of Taiwanese-born clothing designer David Chu and his partner, and first appeared on the fashion scene in 1983 when they introduced a collection of bright-hued outdoor jackets. When early success began to require further investment in expansion, Chu’s partner balked and instead sold his interest to another American activewear firm, State-O-Maine. Through 1984-85, Chu integrated his line and designs with those of State-O-Maine, at the time lead by Harvey Sanders. The two created a strategic expansion plan to sell their Nautica collection into high-end retail stores carefully selected across the United States. Further, retail partners would be required to commit floor space to displaying the collection offered—across categories eventually ranged from mens’ dress shirts and trousers, to belts, to jewelry & watches, to fragrances—in a cohesive retail ‘store-within-a-store’ concept. The bold strategy led to Nautica seeing 100-fold sales growth between 1985 and 1990, as the brand’s distinctive sport-active styling and bold colors created an enthusiastic following in the era of layered polo shirts and popped collars.
Nautica achieved major brand presence in U.S. retail while I was attending college—even in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Nautica’s unique ‘store-within-a-store’ retail concept saw strong growth as the brand’s on-trend fashions spoke to the times. Nonetheless, I never noticed Nautica watches at the Younkers and Von Maur department stores that were in their heyday in Iowa at the time, but only became aware of them much later, in the mid-1990s, through that ubiquitous American institution, the Outlet Mall. But back to the history…
Nautica pursues the watch category
Around 1990-91, David Chu was seeking a more deliberate design focus for some of the outsourced products, including Nautica-branded watches, as the category was beginning to see some renewal in an era of increasing wristwatch market interest and the proliferating ‘second-watch’ Swatch sales driven by distinctive design attributes. Meanwhile, in 1990, Milan-based designer Giorgio Galli had been recruited under contract to create and staff a new design center in Milan, Italy for upstart ‘Swatch’, which was owned by Nicolas Hayek’s SMH at the time. Until 1992, Galli was consumed by his work for Swatch, responsible for bringing his unique creative energy to their entire product creation process from graphics to designs to hiring staff necessary for bringing new watch collections to life twice a year.
As the early 1990s brought success for Nautica, Chu visited Galli in Milan and asked for watch design assistance. As Giorgio Galli tells it, David Chu was looking for more than simple design or production assistance, something he could get on a project-by-project basis from SMH/Swatch’s private label Endura SA subsidiary. No, Chu arrived in Milan intent on offering the Nautica brand license for their entire watch category. Galli was not able to accommodate such an ambitious undertaking at the time, as his design studio in Milan was already quite fully booked with work for Swatch and he was additionally managing side design projects outside watches for clients across the globe. Galli indicated to me that he did provide advice and work with Chu on a few custom watch creations for the Nautica brand, apparently under the auspices of Endura. The seed had been planted.
During 1992, Galli left Swatch as his interest in expanding his learning and experience outgrew the opportunities he saw in remaining. He recalls with fondness the incredible watch design knowledge he gathered during his time at Swatch. Giorgio’s side hustles became his main hustle, and he began to actively create watch designs under contract to numerous other watch brands, both Swiss and Japanese, including Movado, Seiko, Citizen, and Ebel.
Nautica watches hit the market
In 1994, Nautica released their first collection of watches, created through cooperation with Prestige Time in Hong Kong, containing Chinese movements with Swiss parts, and engraved with ‘Made in U.S.A.’ on the case backs. That same year, Timex signed a global licensing agreement with Nautica which eventually led to the creation of a dedicated Timex subsidiary in 1996 for the design, manufacture, and marketing of the Nautica watch brand. The seed planted years before began to grow in earnest.
Chu and Galli became reacquainted under the new watch category license agreement and began a fruitful creative collaboration. In the mid to late 1990s, a prolific barrage of watch designs was brought to market through the deepening Chu-Galli relationship under the Timex license. This was, not surprisingly, when Nautica watches first caught my eye at the local Outlet Mall, and I purchased my first Nautica.
Timex begins to leverage Galli’s design expertise
By the early 2000s, Galli began consulting more broadly for the Timex Group itself. Timex had secured licenses for watch design, manufacture, and marketing across a growing field of brands including Versace, Guess, and others, and Galli began to participate in a growing list of design projects, including Nautica. In short order, Giorgio Galli & Partners was responsible for all the new Nautica watch designs coming to market, and he was involved in a growing number of designs for Timex’ other licensed brands as well.
By 2003, when VF Corporation purchased Nautica for $586M, David Chu had seen the firm rise to prominence among the top three men’s clothing brands in America, along with Polo and Tommy Hilfiger. Chu stayed on with Nautica for only another year, before leaving in 2004, but his relationship with Galli had created a solid foundation of trust with the brand based on the development of “zillions of watch designs,” according to Galli. At Chu’s departure, Galli’s dedicated watch design firm became the sole creative force behind the Nautica watch collection, while Timex likely watched the brand’s growing success with envy.
Galli’s design firm joins the Timex family
Through the next several years, the design relationship between Timex and Galli grew stronger, to the point that in mid-2007 Timex purchased Galli’s firm outright, dubbing it the Timex Design Center/Giorgio Galli Design Lab. In 2013, Galli was appointed to the role of Timex Group Global Design Director. Since this time, Galli has not only continued to support the design of dozens of Nautica watch collections, but he has worked on the reinvention of the Timex brand itself, coordinating and managing collaborations with numerous brands and individual artists/designers, including Todd Snyder, Jacquie Aiche, NASA, UFC, Fortnite, Nigel Cabourn, Hodinkee™, Worn & Wound, Stranger Things™, Pac-Man™, Supreme, and more.
In 2017, VF sold Nautica to Authentic Brands Group (ABG) who currently oversees the Nautica brand license with Timex and are involved in approval of new Nautica watch collection development. Naturally, the nearly 40-year-old Nautica brand has a story of ups and downs and twists, but for most of that time, Nautica watch design has continued to develop alongside the parent brand and remained consistent to Chu’s original vision. Though ABG has seen fit to reposition the Nautica clothing brand into the upper-mid price tier, and demand demographics have evolved over the years, the brand continues to be an enduring success story.
Likewise, over the past 28 years, the Timex/Galli/Nautica arrangement has seen the release of hundreds of well-received, unique watch designs, and even today, multiple new collections are introduced each year. Recently, at the request of the CEO of Timex, Galli worked on a reissue of one model from the classic 2006 Spettacolare collection, with four different colorways being introduced. Sell-in to retailers was very strong, Galli says, and he expects the series to do very well in the market again this second time around.
Galli describes his work for the Nautica brand as providing him “a laboratory for experimentation” in watch design. He notes that technologies like his stainless-steel metal-injection-molded case and modular component design seen in the Timex Galli S1, released in 2019, were first utilized in a variety of 1996 Nautica models. This feature has also been incorporated into many of the Versace sport watches that have been introduced in the past few years as well. As a playground for experimentation and providing near complete and unfettered brand control, Nautica watches truly is a laboratory. And under the creative guidance of Giorgio Galli, Nautica continues to move forward with bold and creative watches designed to invoke the spirit of adventure and maritime roots of the brand.
About the author
Michael Compeau has made a career of education, organic analytical chemistry, new product development, and technology marketing. Somehow, over time, he acquired many, many watches, as well as the stories which bring them to life. You can follow him on Instagram.
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