INTERVIEW: Isabella Proia

Interview by Brynn Wallner, photos by Cobey Arner 
          Isabella Proia has been a specialist at Phillips Watches for almost 4 years now, but she’s been in the industry for a minute, which is why I was connected with her in the first place. I needed her brain for this Harper’s Bazaar story, and we wound up meeting in Central Park for a chat that almost felt like a blind date (“I’m sitting on a park bench near the duck pond wearing white”). Before she could even school me with her seasoned watch knowledge, she warmed me up with her snap-crackle-pop personality. I don’t know what I expected... I thought maybe all watch specialists would be very serious? But she was so raw and witty and, to my delight, a little sassy (she confronted some nearby lady feeding the ducks Doritos); and throughout our conversation, she managed to inject humor and excitement into the subject matter, which is not an easy feat. Since then, I’m pleased to report that our meeting has blossomed into a lovely lil friendship. It always brightens my day when she sends me photos of her adorable twin daughters, and she’s been such a valuable resource to me, generous with her encyclopedia-grade watch wisdom. Also, if you need someone in your corner, you’ll be lucky to have Isabella – she’s always there for me when I fall victim to mansplaining in the Dimepiece DMs. For this interview, we met back up in Central Park because we love a full-circle moment!

Brynn Wallner: How did you get into watches?

Isabella Proia: So, much like you, it started at Sotheby’s. I don’t want to give them so much credit, but…

BW: I know, I feel you.

IP: Well, let’s back up. I did a Master’s because I wanted to go into academia and become a professor. But when I finished my Master’s, I realized it might not be for me. There were minimal spots available for what I wanted to study, which was the history of slavery in the Caribbean in the Antebellum period.

BW: So, very niche.

IP: It was also very competitive, but mostly with myself. It’s pretty lonely and it was hard on my mental health. So I decided I’d find something else to do in the “real world.” I had a friend who was working at Sotheby’s in the Chinese Art Department and she referred me to a job opening. I applied and was placed in the Watches Department as a floater.

BW: Love that word.

IP: Yeah, “floater”? So distinguished [laughs]. So, I floated for a couple months, and we were doing this sale with singing bird boxes and scent flasks and a bunch of different novelties, and I just thought it was so cool. There was also a caterpillar automata.

BW: What is that?

IP: It’s a tiny caterpillar that winds up and moves. It’s fully articulated. And then the birds are made from real bird feathers, and they have tiny bellows, so they actually tweet!

BW: And they tell time?

IP: They have clocks in them. The caterpillar doesn’t have a clock, but it moves. But, anyway, I remember thinking it was all so great because it was what I liked the most about being a historian: handling items, going into archives, touching papers, touching parts of history!

BW: The tactileness of it.

IP: Yes, and it was also fun to present to clients and talk to people. And the research! Cataloguing was all part of my training as a historian, but applied in a more commercial way. Like, I didn’t have to then go and write 250 pages on whatever I was researching. But, you know, at Phillips, we write pretty in-depth footnotes on everything. Right now, I’ve already catalogued half of our sale already, and it’s not until December. Not only do we write about the individual watch we're selling in the footnote, but we write about the entire history of the watch and, sometimes the historical context of when it was produced.

BW: Wow, so you studying history was kind of the perfect foundation for working in watches this way.

IP: Yeah, it actually worked out perfectly. And what’s great, too, is sometimes we’ll get a watch in and the consigner will give us certain details – and then, from there, you can dig and find documentation behind it, which is cool because it adds to the value of the watch. A couple years ago, we sold – you can’t use his name, but he’s a US senator who went to space – but we sold his watch… I found the record of him receiving the watch in the Congressional records, and eventually we found an actual video of the reception. And this stuff isn’t readily available on the internet. You can’t just Google this.

BW: You had to use LexisNexis or some shit?

IP: Actually, I tried LexisNexis but nothing! Somehow I found my way to the Congressional records…

BW: You had to peel through the layers.

IP: Like an onion!

BW: Was the watch a Speedmaster?

IP: No, it was a Breitling! A Cosmonaute – a Navitimer that they modified to keep 24 hours so that they wouldn’t lose track of time in space.

BW: So you discovered at Sotheby’s that you really liked watches.

IP: Yes, and I wound up working in other departments too. They launched ecomm, and I worked on that; I did some cataloguing; I did a memorabilia sale which was weird, but cool – that’s where I first got exposed to cataloguing massive amounts of inventory. And then I spent the next year trying to get back into watches. I called Cara [Barrett], and I was like please help me get back into watches! This is what I want to do!  

BW: How did you know Cara?

IP: I actually worked with her at Sotheby’s, and then she left to go to HODINKEE. I asked if she knew any dealers hiring, or really anyone in watches I could work with. And, actually, at the time, HODINKEE was hiring a shop assistant, which I wound up getting hired for. I was working with the vintage watches – this was before they sold modern watches – but, mostly, I was handling inventory, customer service, you know, retail kind of work. But I worked very hard on the vintage stuff to prove myself and to learn. After that, I worked briefly at The Real Real, until I finally got the call from Phillips, which is what I actually wanted the whole time. I had been watching their sales and reading their catalogues, but I knew their team was small and they didn’t seem to have a place for me. But a cataloguer position opened up. I got hired in January and never looked back.

BW: And that was January 2000–

IP: 2018.

BW: Phillips seems to be doing the best work in watches…

IP: I mean, I am biased, but as far as auctions go – I think, yes. We’re really lucky in that we’re all coming from a place that no other company gets to come from. Our department focuses solely on collector’s watches, so we really get to hone in. Also, everyone on our team just loves watches. You have to really know and love them, or else the job wouldn’t be very interesting or fulfilling, you know? There are lots of other things you could do at an auction house, so you’re here for a reason. There’s a huge amount of knowledge on our team, and a lot of passion, too. We’ve been together for a long time and we trust each other.

BW: That makes such a difference in the quality of the work.

IP: Exactly. And we don’t sell every single watch that people put in front of us. We only sell watches that our clients will like and that we find compelling, that meet our standards of quality.

BW: You have the luxury to be selective.

IP: Yes, we reject over 80% of the watches that we see.

BW: It’s like trying to get into Harvard!

IP: I think it’s easier to get into Harvard…

BW: What was your first watch?

IP: It was a Tiffany-signed Patek.

BW: Oh, damn! Casual first watch…

IP: John Mayer has it. It’s a reference 5396G.

BW: Just you and John…

IP: Wait, do you mean the first watch that I bought?

BW: Yeah!

IP: Ohhh, I thought you were asking about the first watch that I consigned!

BW: No, I meant what was YOUR first watch? God, I was really taken aback there for a minute.

IP: Oh, no. That would cool, though. Yeah, no. My first watch… like, as a collector? I mean, I’m sure I had a Baby G. Actually, scratch that. I don’t think I ever had a Baby G because my mom refused to buy me one. Maybe that’s why I still don’t own a G-Shock to this day. I’m scarred.

BW: Why wouldn’t she buy you one? Because she thought it was ugly?

IP: I think it was more that she didn’t want me to get something that everyone else had.

BW: Respect.

IP: For better or for worse, I was always different. I was just like, make me the same as everyone else, mom! But the first watch I ever bought for myself was a vintage Enicar, with a redial. I still have it and love it. It has this bright green dial that was definitely painted and redone in India or something. But it looks cool, and it was very cheap. My second watch was a Datejust. It came with papers, but the guy who sold it to me didn’t seem to care about that, so I felt like I won that...

[interview pauses because we both gush at a dog]

IP: But I sold my Datejust to buy my first (and only) Sub. I never actually liked my Datejust – isn’t that weird? I wore it, and it was classy, but it wasn’t me. It was really nice, though. It had a white dial, a white gold bezel and a jubilee bracelet.

BW: What size?

IP: 36. It had papers from Japan and everything, but it just wasn’t me! I don’t know. I actually bought a Datejust for my mom that I like better. It’s two-tone and has a dark grey dial. I don’t regret selling my Datejust. In fact, I rarely ever sell watches – I’ve only sold 2...  That, and this great all-gold GMT with a nipple dial. I loved that watch, but the bracelet didn’t fit me, and I didn’t like wearing it on a strap. It was with much sadness in my heart that I had to let it go.

BW: It just wasn’t a fit.

IP: It was a shame.

BW: Did you get something else to replace it?

IP: I bought a two-tone GMT. That one has a jubilee bracelet, but I wear it on a strap. I don’t even make sense to myself.

BW: Well, this world is full of contradictions. So, are there a decent amount of women in the watch industry? Do you feel–

IP: Lonely?

BW: Well, have you noticed more women getting into watches?

IP: I think, yes, more women are getting into watches. But I think more so what’s happening is we’re being noticed now. The thing is, we’ve always been around – and the women I’ve worked with… it’s not like we all showed up in the past year. Women have been in the industry since the beginning. We’re getting credit now, though. I hope that encourages more women to put themselves out there and even become collectors.

BW: How did you feel when you saw yourself listed as one of the 8 women changing the watch world in the Wall Street Journal?

IP: I thought it was a gross exaggeration [laughs]. I just don’t know if I’m changing anything.

BW: What ‘change’ do you think the journalist was talking about?

IP: I don’t know… maybe the change is that the industry is starting to acknowledge that women exist?

BW: The bar is low…

IP: So low! But for me, to incite true change, I would like to see more Black people in this industry.

BW: Well, I wouldn’t sell yourself so short. You do bring something–

IP: I love what I do, and I think I bring something different, hopefully, to the table. But boil down what I’m doing and it’s essentially the same thing as other women at my level across the auction world. We have a similar set of skills and are all doing largely the same jobs. So, from an auction perspective, I don’t think I’m that different or really changing anything. My point is that we’ve been around; but it’s only now that we’re being noticed. In the watch space, women working at auction have often been misrepresented, regarded only as cogs or admins. We weren’t seen as specialists that bring in half a million dollar watches. It wasn’t until people saw that video of the Paul Newman Daytona sale that women started getting some recognition. My colleagues Nathalie and Tiffany were battling it out in New York over this watch… going back and forth, while their male colleagues were watching with anticipation.

BW: Why do you think women are so underestimated?

IP: Well, it’s not like our male colleagues are reinforcing this, like sit aside, woman, let me speak. It really is that more clients gravitate toward them. Men in our industry hold more leadership positions. But one day there will be a woman heading a department at Phillips!

BW: Maybe you…

IP: Well, I’m younger! And it’s only been 4 years at the company.

BW: You’re not like, I’m a woman, so you need to promote me for the optics!

IP: Right, and that’s the thing. You do need time to earn people’s trust. It’s just harder when you’re a woman because people do not expect you to know anything. You have to work a little harder for people to feel comfortable working with you.

BW: Just to get that default level of trust that a man would get.

IP: Yes, and again, it has nothing to do with my colleagues. It’s just the way it is.

BW: Do you have any big goals?

IP: My goal is that one day I’ll create an incredible, female-owned collection. My colleagues have built amazing collections with “gentleman” collectors, and there’s really no reason why this can’t be done with women. The only thing that stops people from buying watches is money. Of course, you have to love watches too, but being able to afford them is the main factor. So, my hope is that one day, there will be a woman who’s like, hey, Isabella, let’s build this insane collection of the best watches in the world. And I’ll be like, YES, Naomi Osaka, let’s do it. Just two half-Haitian girls with the most insane vintage Pateks and gem-set Daytonas and we’ll just kill it. That’s all I want.