What happens if life shuts a massive door on you, your business and an entire national industry? Do you sit in a corner and mope, or do you take action and proverbially rise from the ashes? This was the very scenario Nicholas Hacko faced just over a decade ago. A drastic decision taken by the Swiss watch manufacturing industry to cut back parts supplies and licensing to Australian watchmakers led to the creation of Australia’s first Manufacture, NHW. It was about time we dug a little deeper, so we set up an interview with Nicholas Hacko and his son Josh.
Nick & Josh, can you briefly introduce yourselves to our readers and explain what Hacko Watches is and does?
Hello! My name is Nicholas Hacko, and I am a third-generation watchmaker and director of Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker. My son, Josh, helps with the technical side of the business and oversees manufacturing. Concisely, NHW is Australia’s first independent watchmaker! But the longer story is about how our small team has developed an entire industry from scratch on the other side of the world. We like to say that watchmaking in Australia is like breeding kangaroos on the top of Mont Blanc. We started the journey in 2011, and in the last 12 or so years, we are very proud to present the world with timepieces made in Australia!
The company was born out of necessity. How did that come about?
In 2011, our 20-year-old watchmaking business was focused on the servicing as well as the buying and selling of high-grade Swiss mechanical watches. Overhauls, restorations, and services were a large part of our business, and having independent watchmakers involved in the supply chain of watch repair was not just a benefit to businesses like ours but also a huge benefit to customers. Independent watchmakers gave collectors choices when it came to servicing their watches.
That same year, large Swiss companies moved to restrict the supply of spare parts and to monopolise the repair of high-grade mechanical watches. Within six months, all the spare parts accounts in Australia had closed, and basically, overnight, a third of our business was hamstrung. The shutting down of spare parts accounts was a calculated move of corporate greed, but the argument that “no Australian watchmaker would ever be good enough to repair our (Swiss) watches” was the last straw. Enough was enough, and if we weren’t good enough to repair watches, we would show the Swiss brands, and we would make our own watches. That’s where our journey started, in rebellion against the Swiss monopoly!
So in cutting off Australia as a whole, the Swiss have essentially created Australia’s first Manufacture?
Absolutely. We couldn’t be more thankful to the Swiss companies that told us we were “too dumb, too old, and unwilling to invest“. Now we have a competent and capable young team operating the best horological workshop in the southern hemisphere. Sometimes the greatest amount of passion sparks from someone telling you that you can’t do something!
How has the company evolved over the past 12 years?
It’s been an incredibly exciting journey. One that is defined most by the word “learning”. Between 2011 and 2016, we sold over 700 watches that we designed, assembled, and adjusted in our workshop. We brought 11 different suppliers from all over the world to manufacture the parts of the watch that we would put together in Sydney. This was a huge feat for our small business, and it taught us how to start and finish projects, how to grow skills within a team and how to communicate a story to our incredibly loyal and interested customers. In 2016 we made a massive decision. We sat down and decided that we wanted to take our brand to the next level and start making things on Australian soil in our workshop. This would give us a totally new level of independence – we would be able to make complex design decisions quickly and develop our own unique voice in horology. In short, we began the journey of starting a manufacturing facility to pursue modern artisanal watchmaking. This is a great term and describes the art of making timepieces that utilise a combination of the best modern CNC equipment while leveraging hand finishing, attention to detail and low volumes. Six years and many millions of dollars later, we have a modest line of watches that we are proud to have made ourselves!
You describe your first watch as a statement piece. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The first watches we made in 2011-2016 were called “rebelde”, meaning rebel in Spanish. We were told by the large Swiss brands that we would never be good enough to repair watches, so our rebuttal to that was to “make” a watch. It was a “screw you” to the entire monopolisation of the industry and a physical, tangible way for us to be able to stand up to the big guys. Much of the inspiration came from the likes of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Growing up in former Yugoslavia, these were childhood idols that represented a rebellion against oppression. So, “rebelde” was quite fitting!
What have been the biggest challenges in starting a watchmaking business in Australia?
Making watches in Australia is like breeding kangaroos on the top of Mont Blanc. The industry simply does not exist. Everything from the skills and knowledge of watch “making” to the supply chain to the market. For example: when we first started the journey towards manufacturing in 2016, my son Josh inquired about spending some time at a clockmaker’s workshop to learn the basic skills of using manual machines to make horological components. He was bluntly told “no” and guided towards going to Switzerland. Reading between the lines of the tall poppy syndrome and the lack of knowledge available to share, it was plainly obvious that we had to start from scratch.
Another example: watchmakers use a specific type of steel to make their pinions, screws, pins, and other small turned parts. In Switzerland, this steel is available from the horological equivalent of a corner store. Easy, available, and no minimum order quantities. Currently, in our workshop in Brookvale, we have about 5 kilometres worth of 3mm diameter steel, enough to make about 1.6 million screws. This was the minimum order quantity for the steel suppliers in Switzerland to even be interested in answering our emails… And finally, one last point: Australia is a very small place, isolated from the rest of the world geographically and economically. It is very challenging to carve out a niche in a place that has one-tenth of the population of the US and which is critically underdeveloped in the industries and markets where watchmaking thrives. Having said that, we have to admit that our customers are the best customers in the world. We love to brag that every person with a Nicholas Hacko watch is our ambassador, and it really does feel like that when we see and get feedback from our patrons.
Nicholas Hacko watches are manufactured in Australia; what does that mean for you?
For me, it means a step towards independence. It also means something much larger than an individual’s efforts- it represents the hard work of a young, passionate group of Australians who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
How has the reception been from Australian enthusiasts and collectors?
We are incredibly lucky that we have a fantastic network of local collectors, enthusiasts and supporters. The daily newsletter that we send out with regular updates from the workshop has over 12,000 people on it, with a daily open rate of above 60%! Having an audience like that is incredibly encouraging and goes to show that people are interested to see the progression, the story, and the journey of independent horology.
You incorporate things like Timascus in your watches, not something typically used in watchmaking. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Timascus is an incredible material. One way to describe it is that it’s an organic metal. The raw material is made by only one company in the world, AKS, in Utah, and it’s all done by hand in a very secretive process. It’s a huge technical challenge to make. In short, Timascus is a 3-part composite made from different types of titanium alloys. The three different alloys don’t mix with each other, so what you end up with is a heavily grained, or figured, material. The cherry on top is that you can anodise Timascus and change the colour of each different alloy separately, producing absolutely amazing coloured patterns. In the same way that different species of wood have beautiful and unique “figures” or “grain”, Timascus has an absolutely amazing “life” to it. The trade-off is that it’s an incredibly challenging material to work with- it’s very tough on cutting tools, and the internal stresses make it almost impossible to produce precision parts! With the NH2 and NH2.1, we were the first people in the world to use Timascus in the internal components of a watch – a huge achievement for us. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we could create something unique and personal, but the response from people online and in person was immense, so we integrated some Timascus components in the NH3, as well!
You’re also just (about) finished with the MK2, right? (the blue dial watch you see here)
Yes! The MK2 is our best attempt at dial and hands manufacturing to date. The watch is inspired by Curl Curl beach, the beach closest to our workshop here in Sydney. The dial, hands, and the applied indices are all made from Grade 5 titanium and decorated meticulously by hand. We used one of the most accurate CNC machines on the planet, called a Kern Micro HD, to do the guilloché patterns on the MK2. Engine-turning titanium is very challenging, and to get the absolute best results, we had to leverage the absolute best technology in the world to get the mirror-like waves on the dial. It’s also a 40mm case size, which was something many customers wanted to see. The goal with the MK2 is to keep the watch in stock as a flagship model. The problem? As soon as we make them, the watches get sold! The realistic volume for the MK2 is still quite low; it takes so much time to get to the quality standard of where we want to be, but we expect to be making about 50 of these watches per year. In January 2023, we delivered our first batch of MK2s and are looking to release the second batch before June 2023.
Watchmaking is not all you do. Can you shed some light on some of the other activities?
As you might be able to tell, we are super passionate about manufacturing! Over the years, we’ve been approached by many different non-watchmaking companies to manufacture complex, high-precision parts for them. This side hustle very quickly grew to the point that in 2021, we formally separated a business called “NH Micro” that specialises in ultra-high precision manufacturing for the medical, space, quantum computing, optics, semiconductor, and scientific instrumentation sectors (just to name a few!). Our clients are both local and international, and we are extremely proud of the projects we’ve been invited to collaborate with. Our small team of machinists, toolmakers and watchmakers has made parts that are currently in space, in the world’s most advanced research telescopes, in medical devices that are helping to save people’s lives, and in manufacturing facilities that are producing the world’s next consumer electronic goods. NH Micro is an extremely exciting part of our workshop; it exposes us to new and interesting manufacturing techniques and inspires us to bring what we see in the broader manufacturing sectors back into our own watchmaking.
What’s in store for Nicholas Hacko Watches in the future? What can we expect a few years down the line?
If we learned anything in the last 12 years, it’s that watchmaking is a marathon; small incremental successes are always more sustainable than huge projects with ambitious outcomes. So in many ways, our experience does temper some of our grander plans. In saying that, we do have some exciting projects due for completion this year- we are excited to enter the Louis Vuitton competition for independent watchmakers and release the watch for that competition in a small series. Personally, I’d love to see our MK2 line develop and integrate some new colours and patterns… I think you won’t have to wait long to see some of our ideas on that front!
And looking further into the future, a large goal is to move to even greater independence. This means bringing more and more of the watch “making” in-house. This year, we are more than halfway to getting case manufacturing done in-house, and we have slow, steady projects focused on the movement side… But the main overarching goal is to cultivate and grow our team, training young Australians in the art and science of watchmaking.
For more information, please visit NicholasHacko.com.au.