In the harbor town of San Pedro, California, there’s a little section that stands almost as a time capsule amid the hustle and polish of Greater Los Angeles. Fading storefronts hang above hoary old pawn shops and union meeting-houses, creaking wooden bars bear the scratches of countless pint glasses, and above all stands the Warner Grand Theater- the Art Deco grand dame of an age when cinema was still high culture. In the midst of all this stands a place that we as watch enthusiasts in the age of eBay and Watchuseek too often overlook- a brick and mortar watch shop, and even more rare, a family business.
It was early in the afternoon when I first stepped into Vilicich Watch and Clock, and as I stared into the displays waiting to meet with the owners, I must admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. But as the owners beckoned me into the back room, it quickly took on the air of being welcomed into the home of a long-lost friend.
Jerry is an easy man, a man of soft laughter and a gentle wit. He reclined against his workbench like an oversized cat, watching his younger brother Patrick survey my Squale 10 Atmos Super through a loupe. “I’ve been doing this since I was seven years old, and I’ve never seen one like this,” Patrick remarked, but looking around the corners of the workshop I have a very hard time believing him. A drawer of pre-quartz electrics sat half-ajar, with a balance wheel Seiko Elnix ticking away. Among the pictures of recent project pieces is the weirdest chronograph I’ve ever seen, a 70’s TV-style case gone vertical, with a central chrono seconds and a large 60-minute subdial at 11. The actual timekeeping is done on side-by side rotary dials at 9 and 3, and signed above all the lunacy is “El Recio”- Spanish for “The Fast”. This is the kind of place where almost anything could come through the door, and they’d be ready.
When asked about some of the stranger things that had come through the shop, Patrick grinned and began shuffling through his pictures. A moment later, he pulls out a stunner- a gold Rolex 6085 with an unusual pictorial dial, depicting a dancing woman next to a golden palm tree. “I got it from a guy in India… [and] I don’t think it is, but it might be one of one.” The man’s plan, at the time, was brilliant. When the British relinquished their hold on India in 1947, the ruling class left behind all manner of rare and unique pieces, some of which hid tucked away in crumbling estates and back-alley jewelers for decades. The buyer, Patrick explained, made several trips to these Indian sellers in the 1990s and eventually sold off the 6085 to this shop. The mysterious pictorial-dialled piece was eventually sold off to a customer- a decision he still regrets. “I really should have taken that one to auction,” he mused, “[It] could have gone crazy.”
When you’ve been around as long as Vilicich has, however, those types of things are bound to happen. The shop has been in business since 1947, when Jerry and Patrick’s father started work as an independent contractor inside a larger, more general shop on nearby Pacific Avenue. At the time, there were six watchmakers on that street alone, a far cry from the specialized niche work of today. “In a lot of ways, it’s a dying art,” Patrick muses sadly. “It can be a difficult thing to keep a family business like this alive,” I offered. “Is there a different set of challenges?” Jerry turns and gives his brother a sly look. Patrick returns his gaze, and the two laugh loud and deep. “In all honesty, though, it’s a great relationship,” said Jerry. “I never try to let the sun go down on a coarse word.” It shows in the demeanor of the place. Everyone from the counter staff to the man in the back corner hunched over a quartz movement has the comfortable, broken-in familiarity of an old baseball glove. It’s a tight ship, but a friendly one.
Jerry, however, is a man of many passions. When he’s not working in the shop, he’s playing bass in a traveling band, recently backing up Dean Martin’s son on tour playing his father’s music. Even on stage, though, Jerry’s enthusiasm is infectious, and he shared several experiences where he’s talked watches with music producers and crew. “Music people tend to be watch people,” he explains, and with a common interest in timing it’s clear to see why.
A few hours of questions, laughter, and swapping stories later, however, it was time to step back into the ultramodern rush of LA life and leave the little window into the past behind. The short time I spent there, though, certainly left an impression on me. It was a warm reminder that the old ways are not quite dead, and the way things were, in some small places, are they way they still are.