Hess Fine Art - An Interview with Richard Arbib

HR Watches
March/April 2000

An Interview with Richard Arbib
By: Jeffrey P. Hess

It was a puzzle. It was 1987 and no one seemed to know who designed the hottest collectible watch of the era, the 1950s-made Hamilton Electric series. One of America’s few contributions to the international horology marketplace that was cluttered by more worthy Pateks, Vacherons and Le Coultres, the Hamilton Electric models—specifically the Ventura, the Pacer, and many other odd and Jetson-esque designs—were the darlings of the collectible world. People were wearing them, writing about them, and copying them. But no one seemed to know who designed them. The puzzle was not solved until the almost surreal pieces were somehow put together. Only a man like Richard Arbib could have imagined that puzzle pieces that included car fins, bombs, vacuum cleaners, outboard motors, odd asymmetrical shapes and futuristic cars and dirigibles (and Betty Paige) could be put together to form the picture-perfect image of a genius. And the genius was Richard Arbib himself.

My colleagues and friends Stewart Unger and Edward Faber told me in 1987 that they were writing a book about American watches. We were all concerned at the time that the Swiss companies were overshadowing many of the early American companies and designs, and Unger and Faber were going to do something about it. So I cavalierly volunteered to find the genius who designed the Hamilton Ventura. They smiled. My confidence waned when, after three weeks and hundreds of dollars of research and phone calls in pre-Internet 1987, I found “zilch.”

Each call that I made to former employees of Hamilton Watch Company, as well as (then) current employees of Hamilton Watch Company, museums and historians, led me nowhere. I remember the cacophony of laughter and almost derisive tone of voice of those whom I called. The universal answer was, “Those guys are long gone.” But I persevered.

When I finally discovered in February of 1988—after several frustrating months of investigative work—that the mystery man had a name, I still wanted to find him, this Richard Arbib, this wild man of design, this Ike-era George Jetson. I still did not know where to start. It was true that many of the designers of that era had passed away. But something told me that this guy was still around. Naturally I decided to try Lancaster first. After all, many of Hamilton’s people had retired there. My search yielded nothing, so I turned to Ma Bell. New York City seemed like a nice place to try—and to my amazement, good old 212 directory assistance yielded one Richard Arbib in Manhattan. I called, and much to my surprise, Mr. Richard Arbib answered the phone—alive, well and gleefully confirming that he was indeed the man who designed the Ventura. After 20 minutes of excited conversation, Mr. Arbib invited me to his apartment in Manhattan, and I was on a plane the next day. I had actually impressed Faber and Unger, two of the leading historians in watchdom and New York’s titans of antiquarian horology. I had found the designer of the Ventura—and in their own backyard!

When I was led into the foyer of the rather elegant yet dated building on East 77th Street, I somehow knew that I was into something good. The doorman directed me to Arbib’s apartment, and Mr. Arbib greeted me with a hearty handshake. Despite the fact that he was no longer a young man, he was still spry and sharp and looking good (even with his awful hairpiece). We walked through the first part of the huge yet tidy rent-controlled apartment as Arbib explained that he was renting the first part of the unit to a young foreign lady who worked at the United Nations. As we entered Mr. Arbib’s share of the apartment, I was awestruck. Piled high were drawings, plans, models, and boxes and boxes of personal papers. There were literally pathways between the boxes. As we meandered toward the back, Arbib began asking me if I would be interested in his newest venture—dirigible airline travel. Despite my repeated protestations, this was to be the main theme of the evening. Arbib was convinced that the time had come (this was in 1988 remember) for a dirigible comeback. Cheap travel. Quiet travel. Safe travel. He showed me many drawings of his “new” dirigibles.

Gradually I was able to draw him back into talking about Hamilton. Arbib seemed extremely unaware of the impact he had made in the watch world with his outrageous and sonorous designs. He was totally unaffected. He stressed that he was more interested only in his new designs, specifically the “dirigible project.” Changing the subject back to Hamilton, I asked about the work climate there. “They were wonderful people,” he said. “I never really worked for them. Most of the time I was just an independent contractor. They would call several others and myself and tell us what they wanted and we would all take in our renderings. Sometimes, as with the Electric, they just gave us free reign. They just let us go. They really wanted something different and were not afraid to let me really get creative.” Arbib insisted that his art came first. He bemoaned the fact that many of the best designs would not be built by Hamilton because the designs were too complicated. “Even after they accepted many of my designs for the Electric, we were always at each other’s throats with cost issues.” Arbib complained that while he had incorporated into almost all of his designs a strap that was “cosmetically integrated,” one that would “flow into one end of the watch and out the other,” Hamilton complained that this was too expensive and told him that only the first few models would have this feature. “This defeated the whole purpose!” Mr. Arbib stated. While Arbib is generally accepted as the man who designed the Hamilton Ventura, he probably also designed the Pacer, the Victor, the Titan, the Van Horn, the Cross Country 11, and the Transcontinental. In addition to these well-known gents wristwatches, he also designed scores of ladies designer watches for Hamilton as well.

When I asked him about the Ventura and the Pacer, Arbib surprised me by telling me that they were actually “bombs.” Since the Hamilton Electrics are universally recognized as the watches that brought down the company, I was not sure what he meant. The analogy was fitting perhaps. Thank the horology gods that Arbib’s futuristic designs were light years ahead of the movement that Hamilton had rushed to market.

His bold and important designs housed the ill-fated and infamous Grade 500 that essentially doomed the project from the beginning. He then said, “Bombs...see?” He walked over to a cabinet full of original renderings and internal archival photographs and advertisements of watches for Hamilton, Omega, Sheffield, and Marcel Boucher. He pulled out several of the photos of the Electric and, when he turned the Ventura sideways, there it was: a bomb. An inverted rocket. After he showed it to me, it did seem rather obvious, but I had to ask: “Why bombs?” Arbib turned to me and said, “Did you know that I put the fins on cars?” During the war (WWII) I designed bombs and rockets? He explained that he had designed fins for auto companies and that they were based on rockets too...! So that was it! Bombs!

Arbib then gave me a couple of renderings and signed them for me. My curiosity piqued, I then asked if he had any unusual designs for other horological projects. Arbib wandered over to another cardboard box and as he peppered me with pleadings to invest in his dirigible project, we gradually got back on the subject of horology. Under some files and photos and renderings of vacuum cleaners, autos, clocks, and household appliances—all with wings, seemingly ready to fly right off the page—he unearthed some file folders and showed me a couple of renderings for Hamilton of a transistor radio clock that was truly awesome. It incorporated the same “space age” lines and clean yet fanciful swoops that he had used in his Ventura and Pacer designs. He explained that Hamilton was always on the lookout for new products and that he had high hopes for this one. But alas, Hamilton passed. General Electric, in fact, later produced some of his clocks.

I asked if he had anything even more exotic and he loped off to another section of the apartment and rummaged through another dusty cardboard vessel, quickly pulling out a group of drawings. Oops! These were drawings of his dirigible. Would I be interested in seeing them? So, after another hour of listening to his good-natured pitch, we again got back to the subject at hand.

The next thing he shared with me was truly fascinating. He unearthed from an old metal cabinet a huge blueprint for a Time Zone Clock, labeled “MX-l, Full Scale”; “Client: Hamilton Watch Company, Date: March 6, 1956.” But this was not just a “world” time clock. It was an “out of this world” clock. Arbib was way ahead of the game, even in 1956. This one was labeled “CELESTIAL TIME ZONE CLOCK MX-1 drawn by Richard Arbib.” A CELESTIAL Time Zone clock. Truly awesome. A planetary time chart, complete with earlier sketches of a clock that showed the “time” on all of the planets, with a notation that “Rotation was shown in earth hours, planetary times are relative to solar day only.” Arbib said that Hamilton passed on this one too and that he eventually just built two of the clocks—a prototype and one that was put into his futuristic car (a modified Nash) that was featured in Mechanics Illustrated and Newsweek in the mid 50s. The final product simply had a planetary night sky map that was quite impressive as well. When I commented that it was too bad that he did not save the prototype, Arbib bounded over to yet another box and fished it out. I was very impressed and excited to no end. Mr. Arbib was on a roll as well. As he unearthed drawing after drawing, photo after photo, rendering after rendering, I knew that I was sitting next to greatness.

When Mr. Arbib asked me if I wanted to buy some of these things, I said “yes.” Actually I had been thinking of a way to pose that question all afternoon long. I asked him to sign the renderings and he did so, signing them alternately “R. Arbib ‘55,” “R. Arbib ‘56,” “R. Arbib ‘57” or simply “Arbib.” Clearly his memory had faded a bit, as some of the items he signed ‘57 obviously predated some signed ‘56, but no matter.

We had several other conversations over the next few months. I asked for (and received) permission from Mr. Arbib to use the photos and drawings in Mr. Unger and Mr. Faber’s book, and after hearing that Rene Rondeau was writing a book about Hamilton, Mr. Arbib also gave me permission to share his name with Mr. Rondeau. Mr. Rondeau kindly credited me in his first volume, an honor I will truly never forget.

The rest is, as they say, history. Mr. Richard Arbib passed away in 1995, but today his drawings are all over the Internet, a part of the Smithsonian’s collection, included in the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, shown at the Mendenhall Gallery in Los Angeles, and a part of my own collection. I share some of them with you here. My conversations with Mr. Arbib were memorable. My only regret is that I did not consider investing in the dirigible project.

Richard Arbib studied at Pratt, cutting his razor sharp teeth by working at General Motors and Henney while doing odd jobs such as designing covers for magazines like The Galaxy Science Fiction in 1952. He designed watches for: Marcel Boucher, the costume jeweler (who apprenticed at Cartier); Paulo Gucci, Hamilton, Sheffield, as well as Omega. He designed boats for Century Boat Co. (The Coronado) and motors for Evinrude. The Coronado, used in the movies The Eddy Duchin Story with Tyrone Power and You Can’t Run Away From It All with Jack Lemmon, was the flagship of the Century line and one of the most expensive boats of its day. He designed autos for Henney/Packard, GM, and Cadillac, as well as clocks for Hamilton and General Electric, in addition to designing vacuum cleaners and dirigibles. Some of his designs were made, and some were not. One of his most famous cars was the Astra-Gnome, which was featured on the cover of Newsweek in 1956. It was a modified 1955 Nash Metropolitan that was his vision of what a car would look like in the year 2000. The automobile has been completely restored and is kept at a museum in California. The prototype of the clock for the Astra-Gnome is in Jeffrey Hess’s collection. Arbib’s secret romance with Betty Paige is confirmed by his son, Richard Arbib Jr., a novelist living in California.