On Time: 3-D Printing Pioneer Goes Low Tech, With a $5,800 Watch Made in Brooklyn

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On Time: 3-D Printing Pioneer Goes Low Tech, With a $5,800 Watch Made in Brooklyn

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On Time

By ALEX WILLIAMS

Seven years ago, Bre Pettis established himself as a Silicon Alley futurist when he helped found MakerBot, a pioneering Brooklyn company that helped make 3-D printing more widely accessible with affordably priced desktop machines.

Given his digital pedigree, it may seem odd that Mr. Pettis, who left MakerBot in 2014, decided to stake his latest company on a technology that last seemed cutting edge around the time Isaac Newton was ducking apples: mechanical wristwatches.

In late October, Mr. Pettis, 44, sat down to discuss the Origami Watch ($5,800), a distinctively angular watch made of sandblasted stainless steel that is the centerpiece of his Brooklyn-based manufacturing company, Bre & Company.

Q. A lot of start-up American watch companies, like your fellow Brooklynites Throne Watches, go retro in terms of design. Why did you go futuristic?

A. I grew up in the ’80s. I love this folded-paper aesthetic that emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s, this sort of idea of faceted design: the DeLorean, the Lotus Esprit. I actually have a DeLorean. And you see it in 3-D printing. Behind the scenes, 3-D models are all made up of triangles. So I’ve been saturated in faceted geometric design.

In your own watch collection, however, you have several antique Patek Philippe pocket watches. Do you have anything more “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in spirit?

My first watch, which was originally my grandfather’s, was an Accutron Spaceview that is an early electric watch that is powered by a tuning fork. I’m a Bulova Accutron fanatic. They were made in Queens in the ’60s, and they had super-advanced technology. They dominated the watch world for like 10 years until quartz came along.

Your previous career was all about the 21st century. Why stake your fortunes on 17th-century tech?

MakerBot was the holy grail of making, because we made things that made things. But after I left the company, I spent the last couple of years thinking about what’s worth making, because once you can make anything, it’s a real mind boggler to figure out what you actually want to make.

And so I spent about a year asking everybody I knew, “What do you have in your life, as a thing, that’s meaningful?” For women, it was usually jewelry. For guys, it’s watches.

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Why are so many guys obsessed with watches when they could just check their phones for the time?

Everybody I asked this question to, it went immediately from an object to — by end of the first sentence — a relationship: They have stories behind them to connect us to the people we love. For example, the Rolex I want is my dad’s Rolex, a first-generation Explorer. He got it after 10 years of service to his company. He’s worn it every day for the last 20 years. It’s just glued to his wrist. It’s part of who he is. That’s why I settled on making watches, because most watches have a story.

Part of the story with the Origami is the half-ounce gold coin, an American Eagle from the United States mint, attached into the back. What is the idea there?

My original idea was to make watches that you could only buy for other people, as a gift, so the coin would be like a gold medal for friendship. I wanted to make something that was different enough that people would have to ask you about it. “What is that?” Then you’d have to say, “My friend gave me this because he thinks I’m an awesome friend.”

But the other reason is pure “prepper.” If you need to get on an evac helicopter, a coin like that will get you there.

Why did you go away from the idea of gift-only watches?

I heard so many stories of people buying watches to mark their own achievements that we opened up the platform to include achievement gifts. Even so, when you buy it, if it’s for somebody else, you have to write down a few attributes of this person that they represent, whether it’s “trustfulness,” or “good listener.” Then you tell a little story, and that creates a document that gets shipped with the watch.

We do this in obituaries, except you’re already dead, so this an opportunity to pull the obituary into somebody’s life, I guess. You know, the best things in the world have stories, that’s what provenance is. I can’t make those stories up, but I can create the infrastructure for those stories to emerge.

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