The actor and watch designer explores his personal history with horology and how watches can be used to build a lasting legacy.
Words by Aldis Hodge, Photography by Glen Allsop
My language is art. Specifically, the art of design, which I’ve plied with an obsessive passion that eventually became purpose. I remember drawing my first watch when I was either 18 or 19 years old, after I had just become a student at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. It was a wooden wristwatch with a wooden cuff-style strap. I’m not sure if the design was any good. That’s not important, though. What is important is the symbolism it carried. It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to see the real value in that very distinct design, but I’ll expound on that later.
In my college classes, our primary focus was automotive and architectural work, but for some reason, my mind drifted towards horological design – which they didn’t teach, so I taught myself. I became enthralled by the intricacies of watch movements and how they were composed. In my mind, designing movements was kind of like developing a Tom Kundig house and building a 351 Cobra Jet engine inside of it. It seemed to make no sense yet, at the same time, made all the sense in the world.
I’ve been enamored with the freedom that the imagination of conception afforded me ever since I was two years old. I knew three things at a very young age: 1) tomorrow isn’t promised; 2) life isn’t a fair game, and 3) you must do your best in order to recognize and appreciate the blessings laid before you.
I come from a beautifully spirited family. My siblings and I were raised between New York City, New Jersey, and California by our gorgeous and courageous mother, who wasn’t always dealt a fair hand. She had a tremendously hard life, yet she always persevered. Even in the darkest times, like when we were living in our car, she was always (and still is) a champion who instilled her “never give up” fighting spirit in me.
I knew that I wanted for us to live a better life one day and for my mother to be afforded the comforts she deserved. I never thought that I would ever earn enough money to buy a nice house or a car. I thought that if I designed it myself, I could build it. Proper education – both scholastic and cultural – was the key. It was also my mother’s highest priority for us.
This is one of the primary reasons I began sketching blueprints for houses at the age of 12. Mom took notice and put me into a mentorship program where I actually interned at an architecture firm between the ages of 13 and 15 years old. Little did I know how much that would influence my horological design aesthetic. She’s also the reason I started college at 14, going through a few different institutions before landing at my favorite school, ACCD. This mentality of self-motivation came from the necessity to create an opportunity where there wasn’t one. Which is why I tell kids all the time: You are not a product of your environment. Your environment is a product of you.
My desire to create was further galvanized by my environment’s lack of recognition of who I was. I grew up in a country that told me, through subtle reinforcing factors, that I wasn’t supposed to amount to much in life. Oftentimes, people who didn’t look like me would take a guess at what they thought I wanted to be when I grew up. Scientist, doctor, engineer, or anything remotely associated with cerebrally motivated pursuits were never on their list – which was deeply insulting. The world I grew up in tried to teach me not to believe in my potential by beguiling me into not recognizing who I truly was. Were it not for the sagacity of my mother, I probably would have believed it.
The most alarming environment was actually elementary school. I never saw myself reflected in the history books. Growing up, I loved inventors, and Leonardo da Vinci was one of my favorites. There were many accounts of his great feats; however, there weren’t any for George Washington Carver, a Black American inventor who created over 100 products derived from the peanut. Nor were there any acknowledgments of other Black inventors whose designs greatly contributed to the ease of our daily lives, such as Garrett Morgan (the traffic light, 1923), Marie Van Brittan Brown (the home security system, 1966), Alexander Miles (automatic elevator doors, 1887), or Sarah Boone (an improved ironing board, 1892). And the list goes on and on.
That list reaches into the watchmaking field as well. Specifically, to Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, and horologist, who is rarely mentioned in the horological world – yet another Black inventor excluded from the history books.
Here’s a genius of a man who built his own clock from scratch in 1753. He borrowed his neighbor’s pocket watch, took it apart, and drew each piece. He then utilized those sketches to carve out a wooden clock using just a knife. What a painstaking challenge that must have been. And then to be able to calculate all of those ratios by his own determination – he was truly a savant. As a result, Banneker created the very first striking time device in America. It kept time and struck the hour for over 50 years until it was destroyed in a fire.
It’s astounding to me that the very first striking clock invented in North America was made by a Black man. For a young Black kid with engineering aspirations – to know this and see that representation is so very impactful. The fact that it was a wooden clock run by wooden gears was a strange coincidence. His creation resonated with me personally because when I think back to my very first watch sketch, the all-wooden wristwatch, it let me know that my efforts in this profession are connected to something bigger than design, bigger than watchmaking, and bigger than myself. I’m connected to legacy. This is more than just trying to build a watch. This is about building LEGACY. That is the primary motive for establishing my horology brand, A. Hodge Atelier.
I hope that my brand will stand as a representation of all of the virtues that have been reaffirmed within me through my experience with horology. I wish to represent the strength of knowing one’s true value, the power of perseverance and belief, and the necessity to educate oneself beyond what is placed in front of you. I aspire to develop educational horological programs for children and young adults not only to learn the mechanical and scientific aspects of what we do, but also to develop the mental fortitude that is needed to succeed.
Those aspirations are actually the inspiration behind the skeleton key I chose as the foundation for my logo design. You see, skeleton keys were theoretically devised to bypass any lock. And I would like my brand to stand as a reminder that you can use your mind to bypass any of the world’s locks, no matter what the challenge may be. I would like people to learn from my journey, my mistakes (failures, flaws, and all) and successes. And I want them to see that it’s worth it to never give up on yourself – especially in the face of adversity and naysayers.
Horology has exposed me to so much wonderful life beyond my original scope. I’ve met so many incredible people, traveled to amazing countries, and learned about so many different cultures, so much history. I’m even learning a new language because of it. Most importantly, this journey has opened me up to a newfound purpose, and I wish to share what it has provided for me with many young people who are seeking that very thing. There’s so much more to say. But the rest of this story will be told through legacy.
For now, I’ll end with the words of Nelson Mandela for anyone currently navigating through difficulties on their path to purpose: “I don’t lose. I either win or learn.”
On the site, there is a mp3 of Aldis reading this but it won’t embed on here so here is the link: Audio
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