Q&A with engraver artist Johnny King Nerd Dowell
Did you saw our post about the latest Linde Werdelin Oktopus models? Two absolutely stunning, hand-engraved watches, created in collaboration with British engraving artist Johnny Dowell. These are the kind of watches that I could look at for hours with a loupe, exploring all their tiny details. I wanted to find out more about the artist behind these engravings and he was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to respond to my questions.
WP: Let’s go back to your early days, besides the fact that you have a gun maker uncle, what made you start out on this path?
JD: Originally I was studying A-Level Art and I wanted to go to Central Saint Martins to take the fashion route. The engraving sort of happened by chance from seeing a gun catalogue at my uncles. I never really realised that kind of engraving was done prior to that catalogue, I always thought of engraving as the stuff you see on trophies or wedding rings.
How does one become a gun engraver? Is there a school for this in the UK, or you have to learn it the old way as an apprentice of a master engraver?
I did an engraving apprenticeship for 5 years before I was allowed to actually engrave my first gun and yes I had a very talented master engraver teaching me. I started 14 years ago and I have been the only engraving apprentice at my company since.
You worked for many years as a gun engraver and later, you started working on jewellery. What attracted you to this field?
For me, engraving is no different to art in the way a lot of artists don’t want to draw the same picture over and over again or just draw on paper. I wanted to engrave on something different, a different object, a different material and in a variety of different ways. That’s why I started engraving watches, also the fact that I love watches too.
In which way is gun engraving different from jewellery engraving? For someone who has a vast experience in gun engraving, did your approach to jewellery and ultimately to watch engraving is different than someone who was trained and only worked with jewellery and watches?
The biggest difference for me with gun and jewellery engraving is the material, definitely. Being taught on, and engraving guns that are mild steel for 14 years has made it feel like Christmas when I get to engrave gold or silver because it’s a lot softer. Saying that, it’s been one extreme to another when engraving the Grade 2 and 5 Titanium Linde Werdelin watches. It’s now almost like I’ve engraved super soft & super hard steels and everything in-between.
How did you get in touch with Linde Werdelin? Whose idea was to collaborate on these two projects?
I had already engraved for Jaeger-LeCoultre and Panerai when I came across a luxury magazine in Lisbon, Portugal. The magazine had everything from yachts, jewellery and watches, this is where I first saw a Linde Werdelin watch, I’ve been a fan ever since. I’ve always been contacted by companies wanting to collaborate, but with Linde Werdelin I love the modern look of their watches and I kept thinking I’d love to engrave one of those. I contacted Jorn and Morten through Instagram and proposed the idea. We went back and forth with ideas over a long period as the guys were already releasing a new model and eventually we started to brainstorm and trade ideas.
Can you share with us some background info about the design process of the Oktopus Reef and the Oktopus Crazy Universe? Who came up with the sketches for the engraved decorations, was it you or Morten? I’m asking this, because, for both models, there is something very modern, very unconventional about these engravings, just as these Oktopus pieces are offbeat watches.
Morten originally came up with the underwater idea, so I began drawing & sketching. The original design was corals and bubbles placed diagonally across the watch but then Morten mentioned about the corals at the bottom and bubbles at the top with the Oktopus tentacles on the bezel so there was an obvious beginning, middle and end to the design, which I thought was a great idea. It also set up the Oktopus Crazy Universe perfectly as there was a flow to that watch too, with Earth at the bottom of the watch and the planets at the top.
Since we are talking about hand engraved watches, I suppose there are no two watches that are exactly the same. Can a customer ask for a unique touch, something to make their Oktopus different?
The engravings on both of these watches are very unconventional. They are not traditional at all. The Rolex’s, Patek’s, Jaegers and Panerai’s I’ve engraved have all had some kind of connection in style of engraving. Some of these watches have a connection to traditional gun engraving too but not the Linde Werdelin watches. The vision, me, Morten and Jorn had for the Linde Werdelin watches flowed perfectly. We wanted something completely different and not traditional at all. From what I’ve seen and read, the Linde Werdelin watches I engraved have created great discussions because some people are saying “wow, I’ve not seen this kind of style before, it’s pretty cool and different, it suits the modern style of the Linde Werdelin watch” while other comments are the opposite “why is this so different to his other gun engravings or Rolex engravings, I’m not sure”
I honestly love these watches so much because Morton and Jorn let me really put my stamp on it. We were on the same wavelength throughout the process. I really believe that if every watch looked the same then watches would be pretty boring. The Titanium on these watches are the hardest metal I’ve ever engraved and it shows when you look very closely at the engravings on these watches because titanium doesn’t quite have the same clean consistency as stainless steel watches, or mild steel, so the cuts have that rough, raw, edgy look to them which works very well when seeing the watch in the flesh.
With past watch engravings, the watches have all had to be identical. With the Linde Werdelin watches, we thought it would be a great idea to keep the theme the same but position reefs, bubbles, planets etc in completely different places on each watch so no two watches are identical.
King Nerd has always been my artist name for painting, graffiti, sketching and drawing. It’s the name, I’ve used since I can remember and I sign all my artwork with that name. People even call me by that name too sometimes, which feels a little weird. It came from me being called a Nerd when I was younger, hanging out with friends around the local council estates, and me being a massive N*E*R*D fan and their first album being one of my favourite albums, I added the King and the name seemed to stick!
Thank you, Johnny King Nerd for this interview and thank you, Linde Werdelin for elevating watchmaking to contemporary art. Your creative energy is an inspiration for me as a blogger and as a graphic designer!