Meet Driver, Pilot, Jeweler, Watch Designer, And Entrepreneur Geoffrey Roth
Photography by Ted Gushue
Every once in a while you get a phone call that sounds a little too good to be true in this business. A friend of mine gave me a ring to say that she has a friend she’s working with that races vintage alfas. Those guys are kind of a dime a dozen in our world, but I was interested. Then she continued, “he also flies classic airplanes.” Go on… “And he happens to design build and engineer dive watches that can go to 3000 feet underwater” What?! “yeah and he wants to know what you’re up to this weekend?”
Before I knew it I was on a flight to Arizona to spend a weekend with Geoffrey Roth and his toy collection.
Ted Gushue: Geoffrey how’d you end up building watches and racing cars out in Sedona, Arizona?
Geoffrey Roth:I went to Arizona for the first time when I was five or six. Well, my mom bought the ranch in ’53, so the first time I saw it I would have been maybe five or six years old.
I flew across the country with my mom to Phoenix, Arizona, and visited the ranch with the family when I was really young, and then when from age 14 to 16, I would fly out from Rochester, New York, to Phoenix to spent my summers at the ranch.
TG: And at what point in all this did you start becoming interesting in mechanical things and how they worked?
GR: I always remember being fascinated with machines and tools, and my Dad helped prod that interest too; it kind of runs in the family. My grandpa and my Dad have engineering minds, and my Dad actually graduated from Cornell with a mechanical engineering degree, so, you know, just ever since I can remember really I’ve enjoyed tinkering with things.
Right away I was pretty good at taking stuff apart, but not always good at putting it back together. That was okay though, that part would come with time.
My mom was extremely creative and encouraging as well. She could pick up anything and work with it—she made all my sisters’ clothes when we were kids, did all the drapes and all the sewing, and then she took up weaving and then she took up pewter hollowware, and just on and on and on like that. She always encouraged me to follow that path. She would be incredibly proud with what I’m doing today.
TG: It certainly sounds like you have the genes for it. When did this turn from a hobby into something larger?
GR: It really started while I was in college, probably avoiding business classes! I bought some jewelry-making tools and just took it up on my own, trying to figure out how to make jewelry out of silver.
Thankfully it all comes pretty naturally to me. I’ve never had any formal classes or training in anything, really. I’ve just learned from talking to people or watching what they’re doing, reading books, visiting workshops, through osmosis in a way. I’ve always loved visiting factories and seeing what people can do.
I really got into creating artistic objects after 1974 though, when I opened my gallery in Sedona. I created a line of jewelry, and within the first year I just hit on a design concept that took off. It worked out very well, just out of the blue.
TG: Walking around your GTV today, there was an almost jewelry-like quality to the modifications you’ve made. Everything was honed and flush. Very warm to the touch. Can you share that car’s story with us?
GR: That car is the first year of the GTV-style body sold in 1967 here in the United States. I just happened to find it down here in Phoenix a while back. It had been sitting outside for a while, though it was an Arizona car, so it had zero rust and had never been rolled up into a ball or anything. That said, it sat outside forever, so the interior was totally trashed. I bought it with the idea that it was going to be a race car, and I had it for 10 years and never touched it—just so tied up with my business and other things.
I never got around to making it into a race car back then, and interestingly enough, one day I sold it to a friend of mine because he said he was going to rebuild it. Well, he sat on it for another three or four years and didn’t do anything with the car in that time, so, I bought it back from him, exactly as I’d sold it.
Eventually, and slowly but surely, it started to look like a race car and I started entering VARA and SCCA events with it. This was the first race car that I’d built from scratch.
TG: It begs the question: what have you done do it?
GR: So many things. Not only decorative things, but mechanical-advantage mechanisms on the car for racing. I’ll bet I have two or three hundred hours of machining time spent just on parts for the car. I made all the assembly mechanisms for the roll bars front and rear, adapters for the driveshaft—I put in a full single-piece carbon driveshaft, modified the height of the suspension—but most of what you see of course is on the interior, under the hood, and in the trunk. Just fabricating all of the systems for the car, all the way down to a Brazilian rosewood-and-aluminum shift knob with a real cloisonné Alfa Romeo emblem in the middle, took a lot of time.
TG: You made the Alfa Romeo emblem as well?
GR: I did not make the emblem, no. That’s an art all in itself, but I made the entire dash, all formed out of aluminum, and with aircraft fittings so you can lift the top of the dash off and get into the wiring really easily. I also fitted special handles to replace the door latches. The shift linkage is the one that stands out most for people though.
The typical Alfa shifter in these cars is way up to your right; it’s not impossible, it’s not even a problem really, but if you can sit in the race seat and have your arms down at your side and have your hand right on the shift lever and it’s maybe an inch and a half throw into first and then three inches back to second and it’s right there—it seems like you should be able to go faster with better ergonomics for racing. Especially since this mechanism has ball bearing movements in it and a carbon fiber rod.
TG: Would you say it’s obsessively over-engineered?
GR: [Laughs] A little bit.
TG: What’s it like to drive on-track after all you’ve done to get it there?
GR: It’s a dream. Somehow I seemed to get everything dialed in right from the start, and our first race was at Watkins Glen just after I’d finished the car.
When I was a kid, Mom and Dad were very active in the Sports Car Club of America, and we would often go off to the races at Watkins Glen. We spent many weekends there.
Mom was an official timer and my dad was an official photographer, and this was in the days of Stirling Moss and all these guys were just right there in the pits, and you’re just friends. Mom and Dad would go out to dinner with these guys, but as a kid, I loved the racing most.
When I found out that the 31st annual Fall Festival at Watkins Glen was coming up and some friends of mine were gonna be there, it was a done deal. I put my Alfa on a truck with a friend and then flew all the way back to Watkins Glen and raced this car for the first time without a hitch. It was just spectacular. Everything worked as it should.
TG: I notice you have a few other cars in addition to the Alfa; what’s the story with the ’59 Sprint Veloce?
GR: That’s what I started racing in. A very special fellow, Dick Hughes, had built this car and raced it for many years. He lived in Flagstaff, just 45 minutes away from me. Never knew the guy though. This car started its life as a race car in Argentina, and Dick found it as a derelict in a parking lot in California and built it into a racer.
Dick was a hell of a mechanic, a great driver—he was often a winner in his class in this car—and a good guy in general. He got another automotive bug at some point, and he had to have this interesting purpose-built racer and decided he was going to sell the Alfa in order to own it, so I went up and looked at it and bought it, and went out winning.
After getting used to the car at a race weekend or two, I was able to win with it relatively often. It’s a sweet little car. Absolutely the loudest one on the track too.
TG: Very cool. And so what’s the story with this Formula 3 car?
GR: You know, that’s a funny story. A friend of mine, also a total Alfa guy and racer, bought this car sight-unseen from England. As you know, we don’t have the Formula 3 circuit here, but he just was taken by the looks of the car and the history of it. It was a winning car: it’s a 1991 Dallara-bodied, Alfa-powered Formula 3 race car.
Ken Gerard owned this car before me. Ken is about six-foot-four or -five, and so the car arrives and he can’t even sit in it. After a while enjoying the looks, he said, “Gosh, I think I have to sell it.” He offered it to me, and since it’s red and it says “Alfa Romeo” on it, the rest is history.
TG: Why Alfa Romeo for you? Why not something else?
GR: There’s just … going back to my dad, I guess, there’s something there. He had three Alfas in a row at one point.
When I was 16, I couldn’t afford an Alfa, but my first car was a brand-new, red 1968 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe. Double overhead cam, four-cylinder. Somehow I always had this bright spot for an Alfa in my mind, and one day after being in business for a couple of years, I thought I was making a little money, and I was down in Phoenix, and I drove by the Alfa dealership and here’s this 1974 GTV 2000.
This was in 1975, or early ’76 maybe. There was a GTV 2000 in Le Mans Blue sitting on the used car lot at the Alfa dealership, and I drove in and I bought it. I had that car for many, many years, and it never let me down. There’s just something about the Alfas. The exhaust note, the way they smell, the way they work. They’re exhilarating to drive.
TG: Leaving the tarmac now, what’s the story with the Bonanza?
GR: Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to fly. The day I got out of the service I drove all the way to Sedona to visit my step-grandfather to visit the ranch and just chill out for a few weeks, and I stayed. I never went back. Well, I went back to California the next day, picked up all my stuff and moved to Sedona! I always say that I moved to Sedona January 19th, 1972 though, the day I got out of the service.
Having a little bit of money in my pocket from the military and a little bit of savings, I started to take flying lessons here and there for about six months to a year. Then I came up with this idea of opening my own shop, and that really took care of my finances, my flying money, for a while.
Then in 1988, I was in a position to actually buy a used airplane, and I went out looking and somehow I ended up gravitating in the end, to the Bonanza. A very distinctive airplane. I bought a 1963 V-tail Bonanza, and actually got my license in that airplane too.
TG: The V-tail doctor killer?
GR: The V-tail doctor killer, yes. It’s called the forked-tail doctor killer. That’s a whole ‘nother story, and it’s an unfortunate one. A lot of people bought this airplane that maybe shouldn’t have been pilots, but they bought it because they could afford it. It was the hot thing to have back then.
TG: It’s like the 911 of airplanes then in a way…
GR: Yeah, but it’s a fabulous airplane. I’ve been all over the country in it, from Florida to as far east in Maine as you can go in an airplane to land. I’ve been halfway up to Alaska and down to California—a lot of it by myself. I just enjoy flying.
TG: How has your experience in the automotive and aeronautic world translated to your latest project, Geoffrey Roth Watch Engineering?
GR: Of course the fascination with mechanical objects comes into play. When I was in my early teens and somehow ended up in some antique shops, I always remember being fascinated with pocket watches. My grandfather on my dad’s side traveled to Switzerland often with his wife, and he brought me three watches from Switzerland when I was a kid. The precision of a watch got my attention, my fascination, but I bought my first pocket watch when I was I think 14, and I carried that for some years.
I opened my gallery in 1974, carried fine designer jewelry and accessories and sculpture for 38 years. About three or four years into that business in Sedona, I heard about the Basel Fair and I thought, “Well, I guess the business has to pay for my ticket over to Basel, to further the interests of the business.”
So I went to the Basel Fair, and I’ve been back often for around 35 years now, maybe 25 trips all told. In the ’90s, the mechanical watch business started coming back together. As I’m sure you know, the Japanese absolutely destroyed the Swiss watch industry with the quartz watch, and I was very fortunate in timing that, in seeing the renewal of the mechanical watches from Switzerland.
I did carry some very fine brands in my gallery for a number of years, but they didn’t quite fit the handcrafted feel of the rest of the work, so I eventually sold out of the watches and didn’t restock. One day, a couple of years later, I woke up and said to myself, “I’m going to design my own watch,” and the rest, again, is history.
TG: Where do you take the inspiration for your designs? They have a very organic feel in a way that seems to reflect Sedona, where you spend a lot of your time.
GR: Yeah. I never think that, really, “Does Sedona have an influence on the watches?” I’m not sure. Sedona is one of those very special places in the world, and over the years some very important artists have lived and worked there. I’ve always felt the reason they’re there is because it’s an inspiring place. Just the beauty of it.
I can’t say that there’s an object or objects or reasons for the design, but as I told you the other day, I commonly refer to my watches as engineered sculpture, because I enjoy the idea of anything to do with mechanical engineering as well as sculpture. The compound curves and the flow of the case of the watch is just, as you say, an organic design in many ways that just needed to be appealing to the eye and feel good in the hand alike.
TG: Totally cool. Can you walk me through that watch?
GR: It’s depth-rated to a hundred atmospheres, so 3,300 feet of water pressure. We built our own test chamber, and we’ve actually tested it to 270 atmospheres so far, without failure, without water incursion. It’s turned out to be a neat project.
As for how it’s constructed, we used bronze, well, phosphor bronze, only because phosphor bronze is labeled as a marine bronze, fitting for the watch. Also the phosphor bronze has a beautiful reddish brass or bronze color. It’s actually … you almost can’t … polished phosphor bronze, it’s a specific alloy of phosphor bronze which has the same color as 5N rose gold, which is a special color of rose gold for Swiss watches. The 18K gold in Swiss watches, the color runs from 1N, which is a light straw yellow, to 5N, which is a rich, almost … I hate to call it coppery, because it’s not the red of copper, but it’s a really rich, warm, red gold.
One thing really special for us with the Diver is the bezel. We worked very hard on a concept for the unidirectional bezel. My associate Andy had a great idea that he had run across some years ago with a mechanical clutching system, so our bezel has no rack and pawl, therefore no clicks when you turn the bezel. It’s silky smooth, like a fine camera lens, and it has zero backlash. Actually we have a patent pending on our bezel, we’re really excited about that.
Editor’s Note: We’d love to direct your attention to the craftsmanship that Geoffrey takes into all of his work at his website, Geoffrey Roth Watch Engineering. A very special thank you to Geoffrey and his team for hosting us in Arizona.