Spotlight Interview With HODINKEE’s Cole Pennington
Updated: Oct 22, 2019
I'm not going to lie, Cole's story is both inspiring and thought provoking. The guy works for one of the most influential online platforms that covers horology, cars and interviews with seriously important people, yet remains as humble as one could be. Apart from the world of watches and HODINKEE, Cole is a man of many talents and interests. These include passing down racing techniques to new students on the weekend, and consuming an array of books. It's obvious right? The man is passionate about the things that matter the most, education and serving others in any way he can. This is a good one people!
Cole, thank you for agreeing to be a part of the Spotlight Series. Could you give our readers an insight into who you are and what you do for a living?
The pleasure is mine, Daniel. Truly. I’m an editor at HODINKEE, and that means living and breathing watches. I’ve been here for just under a year. First and foremost, my mission is to bring readers the best horological stories possible. That means product-focused journalism, of course, but what’s interesting about the watch world is that it’s not really about the watches in the end. It’s ultimately about people. The stories I write exist on a spectrum: On one side I try to keep readers abreast of the latest developments in the industry and releases of new product, and that means acting as an intermediary between watch manufacturers and brands, and the readers who are interested in them. The other side of the spectrum uses watches as a lens to look at something larger. Watches have been used as a tool in the darkest conflicts, but they’ve also been used to mark some of humanity’s greatest achievements as well. Have you seen the Starmus Speedmaster that was gifted to the recipients of the 2017 Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication? Not to mention the personal story that everyone has about a watch their father or mother wore, etc. The way I see it, watches are just an excuse to tell a compelling story. I’m very lucky that it’s my job to do so.
I cannot think of a more influential online platform for watches than HODINKEE, what’s it like working there and what have you learnt on the job?
Hodinkee is the product of some very sharp foresight by Ben Clymer and the early team. The later additions turned it into a giant. It’s one thing to be able to tell great stories, but it’s another beast entirely to build a viable business around something that most folks would consider esoteric and niche. HODINKEE is an exercise in defying the odds and sticking to a conviction. Aside from freelance writing and video, I’ve always worked for big companies, so I never had the opportunity to gain any valuable insight into entrepreneurship or how to grow a company. Working at HODINKEE has certainly taught me to think with an entrepreneurial mindset, and I don’t mean that in a bottom-line sense but more in the sense that I have some skin in the game now and that comes with a different sort of responsibility. I’ve developed a sense of stewardship for the brand that I haven’t felt at Fortune 500 companies. Another takeaway from the job is the idea that there’s always another level. I’ve never been close to “seeing it all,” but once you do have the opportunity to see and learn a thing or two, something even larger is revealed. That’s what keeps it exciting. Again, it goes back to watches as a lens for looking at humanity and history. One day you’re sifting through recently declassified CIA reports from the ‘50s and another day you’re calling up scientists to understand the material properties of the latest hairspring innovation. A lot of what I end up learning and writing about isn’t limited to watches.
You obviously have a passion for motoring and aviation, what attracts you to these activities?
They’re both classic expressions of freedom. Of course, both driving and flying are a means to get something or someone somewhere, but I think there’s an element that totally transcends the functional part of it. They’re both just plain thrilling. Nailing an apex or executing a perfect shift is addictive. And flying is, in my mind, one of the most incredible things humankind has developed. Think about this: You can drive your car to the airport and from there get anywhere in the world. The Wright Brothers’ first successful flight was in 1903. And here we are today, with the ability to go anywhere. And our capabilities go far beyond what your typical airliner can do. That notion leaves me flabbergasted.
Your watches definitely reflect your lifestyle, do you have any special watch stories to share?
You can read a few of them over at HODINKEE! Watches have certainly been the catalyst for a few great stories. Hunting down a Seiko 6105 in Japan sent me all over Osaka and Tokyo to all these little markets tucked away in basements, and alleyways. It led me to a ton of fascinating bars, restaurants, and corners of the city that I’d never see otherwise. I ended up not finding the watch I set out for, but what I did find was arguably way cooler. I ended up finding one in the US, ironically.
While I was visiting North Korea, I started asking around about a Moranbong watch. I had read about a domestically-produced watch from the DPRK and I wanted to see one in the metal, and if I could, buy it. I was on a road trip throughout the country and every city we stopped in, I would ask around to see if anyone had one or knew anything about them. I looked at every person’s wrist that I encountered. Waiters, local guides, soldiers, just about anyone I came in contact with. What ended up happening was that I’d ask about the watch, and it would end up serving as an entry point to talk about another story. One of the guys I talked to had his father's Omega that was gifted to him from Kim Il-Sung. There’s nothing glamorous about a totalitarian state, but just chatting about watches allowed me to peel back another layer and learn a little more about such a mysterious place.
My father gifted an Omega Seamaster to me when I reached University age. I’ve worn that thing everywhere. The stories of my own life are marked by scratches in the case. One day, when I have a family of my own, I’ll pass the collection down and someone else will be able to tell those stories.
What does your current watch collection look like and is there a grail in mind?
Seikos, Omegas, and some brands that aren’t around anymore. I like funky divers from the ‘70s, represented by a Certina DS-2 PH200M, a Camy Seven Seas diver, and of course the Seiko 6105. On the aviation side, I finally found what I think is the best example of a 1969 Omega Flightmaster, the caliber 910 with “professional” hands. This is the most fascinating watch to me. The case design and dial layout, the origin story (check out Flightmaster only for that), and the way it feels on the wrist all comes together to make it my personal favorite of the collection.
With that being said, I think my grail watch might be a solid gold Flightmaster. They’re rare and incredibly costly, but that’s what a grail watch is, right? A realistic “grail” would be the Grand Seiko SBGK005. I’m rarely drawn to dress watches, but there’s just something about that watch that speaks to me. That’s an attainable grail.
But in the end, whatever watches that are in the box are my grails. I already have them. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the game of chasing the next best thing and always wanting something else. That’s dangerous because it really never ends. So you get that crazy watch you’ve lusted after. Now what? Is it that much more fulfilling to wear than your first proper watch? I think the “grail” is creating incredible life stories and thinking of the watch as a little wrist-mounted companion that was along for the ride.
Outside of watches and HODINKEE, do you have any other passions? How do you unwind from your busy schedule?
With a good long bike ride or a trip to the local fishing spot. Or a nice drive with the top down. I instruct drivers who are just getting into track driving and racing techniques on the weekends at a motor club in upstate New York. It’s a grind, but it’s also something I really enjoy doing. The transmission of knowledge is one little way to serve others, and in this case it happens to be exhilarating.
I also hunt down old books on the weekends. Thrift stores, yard sales, wherever. And it’s not to collect them, it’s to actually read them. It’s way more effective than waiting around for someone to build a time machine!
Follow Cole on Instagram @cole_pennington