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Political Watchdog : Newsmakers Around the World Lend a Hand to Timepiece Maker

January 09, 1991|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Howard Subnick's watches not only tell time, they make political statements.

As president of the Political Time Co. in Huntington Beach, Subnick creates watches with Bush, Gorbachev and other political figures on their dials accompanied by a timely message.

His George Bush watch, for instance, has this to say to America's friends in the Middle East: "Up Your Oil Well."

In answer to critics of Dan Quayle, Subnick has a "No Quayle hunting" wristwatch with the likeness of the vice president. It's a big seller in Quayle's home state of Indiana. A watch depicting both Bush and Quayle reads: "Bush and Bush Lite."

Subnick's "Cuba Libre" watch is popular in Miami. The dial features the international "no" symbol--a red circle with a slash--across a caricature of Fidel Castro.

When it comes to politics, the 55-year-old Subnick describes himself as "good old middle-of-the-road." While he's a registered Democrat, he doesn't always vote his party.

"I go in either direction. It depends who lies less," he says. In short, neither Democrat nor Republican is safe from his lampoons.

He stays on top of world events by reading several daily newspapers and weekly news magazines and by watching cable news.

Thus, when Bush made headlines with his to-hell-with-broccoli stance, Subnick immediately produced a watch showing the first couple that read "Eat Your Broccoli." A produce company in Guadalupe that sent Bush 10 tons of broccoli ordered the watch by the hundreds for its clients and employees.

Subnick has declared some political topics off limits. Although he's been asked to create a watch with Saddam Hussein's mug, he refuses.

"I couldn't see making a dollar off a situation where people might die," he says. "I did my four years in the Korean War, and if somebody gets killed (in Kuwait) I don't want to make money off of it."

There is evidence that his watches are being worn in the corridors of power. President Bush and Vice President Quayle have his watches, as does press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. Subnick has letters from President and Mrs. Bush and Quayle thanking him for the timepieces.

"Quayle said he's wearing the watch, and now he's waiting to see if Johnny Carson wears his," Subnick says. Subnick made sure some celebrities, including Carson and "Today" show weatherman Willard Scott, received watches.

Subnick's most popular line of watches, however, has nothing to do with politics. Rather, the watches pertain to many people's favorite pastime--shopping.

He designed a series of watches for the die-hard Nordstrom shopper that have been carried in most Nordstrom stores.

One watch proclaims, "I am a Nord-a-holic (and I love it)" with Nordstrom credit cards at the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock positions.

Others in the yuppie line read: "Nordstrom University, Ph.D Shopping" and "My Two Goals in Life" with a drawing of a Porsche and Nordstrom credit card.

The watches come with instructions that if the Nord-a-holic is found wandering, he or she is to be "transported to the nearest Nordstrom store and a credit card placed in his/her hand." The instructions state that under no conditions should family members be notified.

The Nordstrom watches proved so popular for the December holidays that Subnick is introducing a red watch for Valentine's Day that reads, "Nordy and Me" surrounded by a heart.

Subnick knows his watches are novelty items and deliberately keeps their prices low, about $30 to $65. He sells them through catalogues and ads in newspapers and magazines. His Nordy watches sell exclusively at Nordstrom stores.

He was inspired to make political watches about a year and a half ago after spotting French caricature artist Jean Pol d. Franqueuil at work at Peter's Landing in Huntington Harbour. Franqueuil specializes in political portraits, and his work has appeared in U.S. News & World Report.

Subnick, who once owned two jewelry stores and still makes custom jewelry, figured the two could pool their talents.

"You know, we could put these on watch dials," Subnick told the artist after seeing the portraits. A business was born.

Franqueuil, for instance, has drawn Mikhail Gorbachev with a hammer and sickle in place of the birthmark on his bald head. Subnick used the caricature for his Gorby watch, with the word perestroika spelled out in place of numerals.

In the future, Subnick plans to expand on a kinder, gentler aspect of custom watchmaking. His latest project is Kids Create-a-Watch, in which parents submit their child's drawing for Subnick to immortalize on a watch face.

Subnick will also turn any photo or drawing into a personalized watch. Companies have ordered watches imprinted with their names and logos.

One man ordered a watch adorned with his picture and the date of his divorce with the words, "Free Again."

At times, Subnick has had to turn down offers to reproduce X-rated photos.

"People get carried away," he says.

Meanwhile, he watches the political landscape for timely ideas. He's already looking to the next national elections for inspiration.

"We'll be ready for '92," he promises.

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