When It Comes to Watches, She’s the Real Gomelsky

Dominique Renaud, Revolutionary Watchmaker
November 14, 2016
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When It Comes to Watches, She’s the Real Gomelsky

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My last name, uncommon even in my native Russia, is like an uneven sidewalk: People tend to stumble over it.

When my twin sister Julia and I were growing up in Southern California in the early 1980s, our funny-sounding family name embarrassed us to no end.

As Cold War refugees eager to blend in, we wanted nothing to do with our Russian-Jewish heritage. Over the years, we’ve grown fond of the name but, for me at least, it’s taken until now to feel an unequivocal sense of pride.

On Nov. 3, a new women’s watch brand called Gomelsky arrived in stores. I don’t have a financial stake in its success. I am neither its designer nor its muse. I had nothing to do with its creation or marketing. And yet, it is named after me. The proof, rendered in a lovely sans-serif typeface, is right there on the dial.

Gomelsky is the brainchild of Tom Kartsotis, founder of Shinola, the 3-year-old Detroit-based lifestyle brand best known for making wristwatches, bicycles, leather goods and, as of this fall, high-end turntables imbued with an all-American style. How he came to baptize the company’s first sister collection is a story that begins with an unscripted moment — one of those strange, serendipitous encounters — in Basel, Switzerland.

It was March 2013 and I was in the midst of my annual pilgrimage to the Baselworld watch and jewelry fair, to meet with watchmakers, see hundreds of new timepieces and fill up on spargel, the seasonal white asparagus beloved by the Swiss.

It was Shinola’s first time at the show but I already knew a hint of its back story. Mr. Kartsotis, a watch industry veteran who, along with his brother, had founded Fossil, had embarked upon what then seemed like a quixotic mission: kickstarting a renaissance in American watch manufacturing.

What I didn’t know was that before my morning appointment, Mr. Kartsotis had issued something of an order. Frustrated that his team had not found a suitable name for one of Shinola’s new ladies’ watches, he declared that it would be named for the first person who walked into the booth.

When I entered, the denim-clad chief executive, whom I’d never met, led me to a private room, where he spent nearly an hour walking me through Shinola’s entire collection, including timepieces such as The Runwell and The Brakeman, names evoking a long tradition of American-made watches for railroad employees.

Toward the end of our meeting, he brought out an attractive, cushion-shaped ladies’ style on a thin leather strap.

“Nobody’s come up with a good name for it,” he said. “Do you have any suggestions?”

Was this a trick question? “No.”

From the Gomelsky collection, three Shirley Fromer watches with, from left, a diamond-accented dial, a malachite and sandstone dial and a malachite dial.

Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

“Well, what’s your last name?” he asked.

“Gomelsky,” I replied.

“The Gomelsky,” Mr. Kartsotis intoned. It sounded like a proclamation.

My first reaction was that he was poking fun. But that night, when I ran into the publicist at the venerable Three Kings Hotel, she told me my last name had echoed around the booth for hours after I left.

A month or so later, a representative of Bedrock — the Dallas-based parent company to Shinola and Gomelsky — called to let me know the lawyers had given “The Gomelsky” the green light. Was I cool with it?

Had I been a stickler for privacy, I might have objected, though I doubt it would have mattered. Names can’t be copyrighted. Shinola was free to christen the model as it pleased (and no, I wasn’t entitled to royalties).

It’s been fun to revel in the glory, even though I know it’s misplaced. But now that The Gomelsky wristwatch has spawned a brand of its own, the story demands a fresh telling.

Mr. Kartsotis has described Gomelsky — which is available online, at select Shinola locations and at Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s — as Bedrock’s first attempt at “glitz,” the kind of feminine, gem-set watches that never would have jibed with Shinola’s sturdy, no-frills sensibility.

“We looked at what was available in the watch world and identified a white space in the women’s offering,” Mr. Kartsotis said. “No one was taking classic designs, the types of vintage watches fashionable women were buying and wearing, and giving them a modern update, without being too tricky or over-designed. Like Shinola, the Gomelsky collection is focused on quality and classic pieces but tends to take a different, more lighthearted approach to the meaning of luxury.”

With round- and tank-shaped styles ranging in price from $650 to $2,950, many featuring diamond accents and dials made of 1970s popular stones such as malachite, tiger’s eye and lapis lazuli, the watches exude a chic, cocktail party vibe — thanks in no small part to Gomelsky’s creative director, Cassie Coane, a former D.J.

In the summer of 2015, Ms. Coane called me to explain the fictional character she had conceived to capture the essence of Gomelsky. Based loosely on Little Edie Beale of “Grey Gardens” fame, whom The New Yorker once described as “beautiful, undisciplined and fun,” the character Ms. Coane conjured up was a cherished, slightly kooky aunt with a jewelry collection that inspired envy among her nieces.

Ms. Coane also looked to Joan Didion, Gloria Vanderbilt and Candice Bergen — “amazing women who had an unapologetic sense of style,” she said — to devise the brand’s offbeat merchandising strategy. She went on to ask her colleagues to describe the women in their lives who embodied the fictional Gomelsky’s lifestyle. Three of those women — Agnes Varis, Grace Lightfoot and her own grandmother, Shirley Fromer — have lent their names for the brand’s three styles.

For my family — a tiny clan that includes my parents, Leonard and Natasha; my sister; my aunt, Irina; my cousin, Alex, his wife and their young son — the debut of Gomelsky has been simultaneously hilarious and bewildering. Our surname traces its roots to Gomel, a city in modern Belarus that once belonged to the Pale of Settlement, the region of imperial Russia where Jews were allowed to live. Nothing in that humble history suggested it would someday be co-opted by a trendy lifestyle brand for women.

Until now, the name has been unknown except to fans of two somewhat obscure 20th-century personalities: Giorgio Gomelsky, a 1960s record producer described by The New York Times in his obituary in January as the “impresario who gave the Rolling Stones their start”; and Alexander Gomelsky, my father’s cousin, known as the father of Soviet men’s basketball, who, despite his 5-foot, 5-inch height, coached the Soviet Olympic team to a gold medal in 1988.

What I love most about my namesake watch is this merging of narratives, that of the fictional Gomelsky with elements of the real one, a Russian immigrant tale embellished and refracted on the gem-set dial of a groovy-looking wristwatch. It’s about time someone brought some glitz to Gomel.

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