Do what you Love
Stephen Pulvirent, Writer
by Adam Marelli
Before I dive into the backstory of writer Stephen Pulvirent, I’d like to briefly introduce my new series called, “Do what you Love,” and explain where it came from, why I’m making this series, and what you can expect.
If we rewind a few decades, you would have found me in the less than exciting land known as New Jersey. Insert jokes here about the Sopranos, industrial highways and all the architectural wonders, like strip malls…New Jersey offers a framework for why this series is more than thirty years in the making. I grew up in suburbia, plain and simple. We never locked our doors, we played outside until dark, and the only sirens we ever heard were the six o’clock air horns that meant it was time to go home. It was a perfectly uneventful corner of the world and one that I was happy to enjoy for my childhood. It shaped my interests and perspectives in the most unexpected ways.
In the second grade we were told to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. As the little gears in my brain started whirling, a picture of my future emerged in the medium of crayon on kraft paper. Once our drawings were complete, we had to stand up and explain how we saw our futures. Foregoing the popular trends of super hero, astronaut, or unicorn (I kind of love kids who want to grow up to be mythic animals)…my picture was of a surfer on the top of a wave, with a camera, landing on a beach with dinosaur bones. I declared, with all earnestness, that I was to be a surfer, who travelled the world to make pictures and moonlighted as archeologist!
As it turns out I had archeology and paleontology crossed in my head, but these were unimportant details. And this cross-bred international profession seemed perfectly reasonable, because why wouldn’t I be anything but the sum of my interests? The answer to this question has occupied me for most of my life. As I got older, one thing became apparent…I knew lots of people who had jobs. Some of those jobs made a lot of money, others were more humble, but I had never met anyone who did what they loved.
This series is designed to explore the path followed by some of the amazing people I have come across who have converted impractical interests into professions. I’m fortunate enough to call some of them my friends, others are colleagues, and a few here and there will be people I’ve looked up to. Whether you are 5 or 65…you probably have an impractical interest that consumes you. This series is for you, to set aside all the reasons you “Can’t” follow your passion and instead, explore all the reasons you “Can” Do what you LOVE.
I met Stephen Pulvirent at the Soho Grand for a late morning coffee. As always, he was impeccably dressed, seated on a plush sofa facing a rainy New York City morning. He was recently back from a trip to the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, where he was invited by watch manufacturer IWC and the Darwin Foundation. He spent just shy of a week exploring the uninhabited islands both above and below the water, with a few specially designed dive watches to test and review. At this point, you might be asking yourself, how is it possible to find a job where you are flown to exotic islands, to tour preposterous wildlife preserves, and be outfitted with watches that most people might save a lifetime to purchase? Let’s find out…
I’ve always said that I never trusted an architect who did not know how to dress. How could you trust someone in the business of aesthetics who could not match a pair of pants with a shirt? For those of you who have have not had the chance to meet Stephen, he feels like he could be a co-star of Audrey Hepburn. Everything from his glasses to his shoes speaks of someone who has a subtle, but intense interest in design and how things look. He explained to me that as far back as he could remember, his interest in aesthetics was rooted in photography. It was the color pages of National Geographic that caught his eye. Like so many readers of that little yellow-trimmed book, Stephen wanted to know how to make good images. He never concerned himself with how it would become a profession, he just knew that he enjoyed filling his mind with a visual catalog of pictures, stories, and details.
University in London
Many of you reading this article who have children will empathize with the next statement. Most parents secretly hope their children choose a lucrative, linear profession like being a doctor or lawyer. And why not?! Since the 1990’s, every university commencement speech has said the same thing… “The current economy is the worst one we have seen since the 1930’s.” These are not exactly words of inspiration. So it’s perfectly sensible to desire a stable, well-paying future for your children.
But what if your major is focused on “Material Culture Studies,”? Most people will be quick to ask, “What do you do with that professionally?” Stephen took his concentration of “Material Cultural Studies” abroad to London. The British have a particular affinity for fine objects…sometimes they bought them, other times they borrowed them, and on a few occasions (like with the frieze of the Parthenon) they just commandeered them. Regardless of an objects provenance, London was a formative place for Stephen to consider why objects and images meant so much to him.
Since Americans are technically not supposed to work while studying in London, Stephen took an internship at the Saville Row tailor, Huntsman. Started in 1849, they have made bespoke clothing for everyone from Edward VIII to Gregory Peck. And while Stephen wasn’t about to learn the art of bespoke tailoring in a semester, he was given a very unique task. The basement at Huntsman was a disaster. There were abandoned suits, half finished pieces, and prototypes that never made it to the Saville Row floor. This veritable archive of clothing was a wonderland for Stephen. He was allowed, in fact encouraged, to handle, inspect, and catalog the vast array of pieces Huntsman had produced over that last 150 years. Well beyond the theoretical realm, this offered pivotal lesson to Stephen. He started to understand, with his eyes and hands, the delicate variety of men’s fashion that Saville Row shaped, and that holding an object created a different feeling for him than simply reading about it.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald Thesis
On the backend of the experience with Huntsman in London, Stephen designed his thesis project, which was to trace any of the objects named properly or commercially in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing. Everything from “The Manhattan Cocktail” to the “Ritz Carlton Hotel” was explored for its cultural meaning. He wanted to uncover why the specificity of an object was an integral part of telling a story. He found that in addition to writing, which was going to form the next major step in his career, by using objects that have their own stories, Fitzgerald was able to add another dimension to his work that would not exist if people went to “bars for drinks” and “laid up at nice hotels.” He had uncovered a connection between design, history, and materials that had all the makings for an interesting, possibly a good paper, but how was it all going to translate to dollars and cents outside of academia?
What do you do?
“What do you do?” is a dinner party question that defines New York City. Unlike old guard cities like London, Paris, and Milan where family names and rank still reign supreme, in New York City professions are a used as a barometer of rank. Not that I endorse this in any way. It actually gets kind of annoying when the third question out of someone’s mouth is “So what do you do?” In social code this means: 1) How much money do you make? 2) Could you be of use to me? 3) Is it worth carrying on this conversation based on your connections? This is an inevitable aspect of New York City, one that F. Scott Fitzgerald knew all too well.
When Stephen left school with the declared aim to write about culture and the objects which made up its many moving parts, he was not sure how to do it professionally. Fueled by a historical understanding of men’s fashion, he landed freelance gigs at everywhere from GQ to Man of the World. Print and online media seemed like a logical step.
Then about two years ago he met Ben Clymer, founder of Hodinkee, the leading watch website worldwide. Stephen admitted that although his studies had touched on watches, he did not consider himself a watch expert. But the offer to work at Hodinkee in its early phases was appealing to him. It would allow him to combine a few interests all under one umbrella. He would also add to his repertoire of knowledge with the niche of watches, and more specifically, high-end and vintage watches.
On his wrist that morning was a Rolex GMT (famed red and blue Pepsi bezel) which he says is the direction his interests are leaning. Vintage Rolex’s in particular are fascinating to him, along with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who famously said in Across the River and into the Trees, “That it works as perfectly as a Rolex Oyster Perpetual.”
Writer and Photographer
With his new position at Hodinkee, Stephen was able to combine his love of material history, interest in fine objects, writing, and his photography all in one place. Outside of the constraints of traditional media, he was allowed to wear a number of hats. Typically, magazines have photographers and writers in separate roles. There are certainly cases where they overlap or are combined into one person, but that trend is waining. The watch world, however, offered Stephen the perfect opportunity to explore new ground, see amazing pieces which might otherwise be difficult or impossible to get his hands on, and most importantly get paid for all of it.
He went on to explain the range of pieces he covers in a given month. He said, “In many cases, a watch represents a specific event or time for someone. It could be a career milestone or the birth of a child, but whatever it is, the vast majority of people buy one good watch in a lifetime. On a regular basis, we are handed watches that are in excess of $100,000. I don’t say that to impress anyone, rather to emphasize the rarity of these pieces and how infrequently one might encounter them on a daily basis. To have them as regular fixtures at our office is a real treat. In a watch that lands in the five and six figures, there is a level of detail that does not exist in many things in the world, period. And to be able to dive into the details, the material selection, the evolution of certain horological functions, is everything I’ve always wanted to do and more.”
Galápagos Islands and IWC
I’m not sure we could collectively agree on the criterion for the best job, but one item that would certainly make the list is a job that allows you to explore your interests and accumulate meaningful experiences at the same time. The start of my conversation with Stephen lands in this territory.
Once a year, the Swiss watch manufacturer IWC (International Watch Company Schaffhausen) invites a few people from the watch industry to their initiative with the Darwin Foundation in the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. This year Stephen was joined by his colleague Will Holloway for a guided tour of the islands. “The Galápagos Islands are a complicated situation,” Stephen explained. They are in protected waters and the human footprint on the islands is enormously restricted. During visits, boats with registered guests rotate in shifts, on and off the islands. There are no busy overlaps and the time on the island feels like, “Stepping back in time.” He told me that things are untouched, or at least it seemed this way from a non-scientist’s point of view.
The difficulties lie in the logistics of enforcing the protection of species that migrate. By law they are protected on the islands and surrounding parts, but they migrate through zones which are open to commercial fishing. The ocean in all of its parts has preservation and governance issues. The other major complication is that a nature preserve costs a lot to maintain and conversely does not generate much money. This is where companies like IWC step in and make generous contributions in money, resources, and media coverage to the Darwin Foundation.
Read Stephen’s coverage here: http://www.hodinkee.com/blog/field-notes-galapagos-iwc-charles-darwin-foundation
While Stephen was in the Galápagos, he experienced a unique overlap of the watch, scientific, and expedition worlds. Professional disciplines don’t often overlap, as the world has gravitated towards specialization, almost to a fault. But one of the things that I enjoy about Stephen is his willingness to allow subjects to co-exist. They only serve to enrich the experience. When I asked him how he would define success for himself fifty years down the road he said, “If I can connect people to history, its meanings and its significance through the objects they surround themselves with, I will feel satisfied.”
It was a great pleasure to sit with Stephen. Sure we have our chats at watch events, but it’s different when we can sit down and dig deeper into the driving forces of our lives. It’s not always that the students of liberal arts studies navigate their way to such rewarding professions. But in the case of Stephen, it’s nice to see that he has been able to thread a line from interest, to ambition, and then to profession.