If you pay any attention to what’s going on in the world of magic, you’ve heard of Dan White – the magician in “The Magician At The Nomad,” his long-running and always-packed show at New York’s Nomad Hotel. If your idea of a magician is a paunchy guy in a rented tux and cheap cape, pulling disheveled-looking rabbits out of a battered top-hat, White has put together a show that will make you realize just how powerful magic can be, done right. Tall, with somewhat brooding features and a penetrating baritone voice, he’s a commanding stage presence whose show has been one of New York’s hottest tickets since March 2015 (his performances are routinely sold out) and whose stock in trade is narratively compelling, psychologically arresting, relatively close range work; he has a rare grasp of both great technical facility, and understanding of how to build and maintain drama.
He’s worked with such legends of modern prestidigitation as David Copperfield and David Blaine, and his command of cards and mastery of apparent (and apparently impossible) mind-reading has to be seen to be believed, but he’s very much aware that for magic to strike a chord in a modern audience it has to innovate as well, and in one of his most astonishing tricks, he seems to be able to reach into the abstract realm of numbers itself and rewrite the laws of mathematics to follow his commands. In a world where many still associate stage magic with kid’s birthday parties and the Las Vegas Strip, he’s made magic cool again; he’s a regular on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, and has created effects for everything from Kanye West’s The Yeezus Tour, to Michelin-starred restaurant 11 Madison Park.
Magic and horology have a history that’s surprisingly connected at several points – ingenious mechanisms have been behind some of the art’s most amazing effects, and one of the founding fathers of modern stage magic, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin – whose legendary trick, The Marvelous Orange Tree, was re-created for the film The Illusionist – was also fascinated by mechanics, and invented the first mystery clocks. (Robert-Houdin, who died in 1871 at the height of the Franco-Prussian war, was so revered by the following generation of magicians that Harry Houdini took Robert-Houdin’s name as his stage name.) As with mechanical horology, stage magic lives in an interesting intersection between nostalgia and modernity – creating effects by sleight-of-hand seems old-fashioned to the point of reactionary in a world where we’re routinely dazzled (or not) by computer-generated special effects.
But magic’s power lies in the same domain as horology’s – just as there is something compelling about perceiving the passage of time via the operation of an actual physical mechanism, there is also something about seeing the apparently impossible happen just feet away, in person, with no possibility of digital enhancements, that even the most garish and expensive special effects can’t match. (This is not to say that White is averse to wowing his audience with classic and purely non-cerebral effects, however; one of the high points of his act is a feat of levitation done with the nearest audience members inches away, and while surrounded on three sides.)
As with his take on magic, White’s take on horology emphasizes quality over quantity – it’s a relatively small group of watches but each one came at a particular time in his life, and is a repository of both memories and hopes. His collection features household names including Cartier, IWC, and Rolex, and each watch is interesting in its own right, but it’s how each watch came to him and the meaning each one carries that makes them important as individuals. He’s not collecting to fill gaps in a particular series or type of watch; instead, he’s taken an approach to collecting that allows him to have a direct relationship with each timepiece (no safe queens).
White talked watches with us at the Nomad, in the space where his performance unfolds, and as you’ll see in the video, he shared some of his work with us. Now, it’s one hundred percent true that you could call his act “thinking man’s magic,” but the goal of every magic trick is to produce, on a visceral level, an incredulous “What the hell?” – and his work’s a treat not just for the thinking adult, but also for the kid in all of us who loves to wonder how it was done, and has more fun not knowing. On that note, by the way, the ability to produce suspension of disbelief is essential to enjoying magic and a lot of that is in the hands of the magician, but solutions to magical effects can be found all over the Internet – please don’t post spoilers in the comments if you’re a magic fan and know how some of this stuff was done! I have theories, but I’m keeping them to myself.
IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XV
The first good watch White ever owned is this IWC Mark XV, which is a classic version of the brand’s famous pilot’s watch series. As with many first “good watches,” it’s one he saw as a kid and wanted for some time – White remembers seeing it on the wrist of Tom Cruise in the 2001 thriller Vanilla Sky. This particular watch is something White admires for all the reasons the Mark XV was, and remains, a fan favorite – it has a directness and simplicity that make it a minor masterpiece, and an iconic member of the Mark family. It would also set the tone for much of his subsequent watch collecting. This one was a high school graduation present to himself (with, he says, a little help from his mother).
Cartier Pasha GMT
This Cartier Pasha is a bit of an outlier in the context of the rest of his collection; it’s a bit more ornate than his other watches, and it’s also (so far) the sole Cartier in his collection. Still, this Pasha GMT is a watch he treasures, because it came to him as a gift from his sister, who understood his passion for watches. He was struggling to get his career as a magician off the ground when the watch became part of his collection, and he still remembers it fondly as a very timely morale booster.
Rolex Datejust 36mm In Stainless Steel
This 36mm Datejust is, like the Mark XV, something of an exercise in horological classicism. It was, like the Mark XV, a gift to himself, but it was purchased to mark a time in his life when he’d begun to enjoy some real professional success (no help from Mom needed for this one!). White describes this Datejust as simple and iconic; one of his favorite features is the jubilee bracelet, which adds a touch of nostalgia to what’s otherwise very much a modern Rolex.
Rolex GMT-Master II
This Rolex GMT-Master II became a part of his small but growing collection when he began performing at the Nomad. It’s a confident, rather extroverted watch, and a logical and solid choice to pick at the onset of what proved to be one of his most successful outings as a professional conjurer. The Mark XV and Datejust are both very solid, but relatively modest pieces and White was at a point in his watch collecting where he felt ready for, and in need of, a more overtly sporty watch; it was his first, you might say, statement piece.
Rolex Daytona Ref. 116500LN
Speaking of statement pieces, this is his most recent. Rolex fans who find the current dearth of stainless steel sports watches available from the company frustrating will surely be able to relate to White’s remark that the special event that this piece marks, was that he was able to get it at all. It’s currently (no surprise) the watch he wears the most nowadays, and it speaks to both the maturing of his career and his small but very personally meaningful collection of timepieces. It’s interesting to wonder where he’ll go next – unlike many Talking Watches guests, his watch collecting is still at a relatively early stage (I can’t help but wonder if his next piece might not be something thin, gold, and elegant). Whatever’s next, I suspect it will be just as thoughtfully considered as his watches thus far – to White, the best thing about his watches are that each one is special to a particular time in his life. His watch collection is very reminiscent of his approach to magic – it’s small scale, intimate, and because of its highly personal nature, powerful.
To see Dan White perform live, visit nomadupstairs.com.