Right then. I haven’t posted on the Watchrant for a long time; according to the site analytics of this page, my monthly readership for this site has dropped down to a couple of views per month and I suspect those views are from people who’ve accidentally clicked a link on my Instagram page and have had a curious snoop thereafter. The title of this blogpost gives away a huge portion of what I’ve been up to and I’ll just right to it.
I never thought I’d be writing a blogpost about starting my own watch label. In fact, I’m pretty sure I swore to myself at the start of the Watchrant that I would have little to no commercial involvement in the watch industry and that I’d simply be a humble observer – sharing opinions nobody ever asked for and enjoying this hobby on my own terms. I think it’s worth sharing the context of what lead me to being in this situation, followed by what I’ve been up to in order to achieve my goals.
As mentioned in my earlier blogposts; I didn’t end up going to university. In fact, after having a tragic run at my A-level exams I ended up taking a gap year to refocus on my goals and ambitions and have a fresh crack at what I thought would be a fixed life plan. I was fortunate enough to start my first ever job at a major financial institution at the age of 18 – it was a job offer I received at a stroke of immense luck and one that I expected to change the course of my life and something I would be sticking to for the foreseeable future; I was told by all my professional counterparts and mentors that this was an opportunity I couldn’t afford to throw away and that I should dedicate as much of my energy and resources to learning and growing in the finance industry.
The previous paragraph is a tale that many of my readers will be able to sympathise with: start your first ever job, stick with it as long as possible to build the aptitudes and acumen of what it takes to enter the professional working world and use that as a platform to launch your career. I thought this would be the case for me and all I could see myself doing was keeping my head down and nothing else. That didn’t go quite as expected.
My initial adjustments to my job were met with a lot of setbacks and hurdles. Frankly, I wasn’t settling in well and the anxiety and stress had built up really quickly. I remember speaking to a couple of confidants and the advice was that it’s common to have such culture shocks and that I should find and outlet to keep me distracted outside of work – something that I could enjoy just for myself. It didn’t take too much pondering to come up with what I enjoyed: watches.
The way I originally translated the idea was to use my newfound income to build and expand the presence of the Watchrant. I could afford to pay for tickets to travel to international watch events and network the heck out of each trip – building my knowledge and presence in the watch industry. This came to fruition in a few ways; travelling to my first ever SIHH in Geneva, along with visiting Redbar in New York and the Patek Philippe exhibition in Singapore. It was an international footprint I never imagined myself having and I enjoyed every moment of it. Meeting several startup watch labels with funky and imaginative interpretations of horology inadvertently planted a seed in my head: why not learn about watchmaking and make my own watch?
I remember sitting down with a few CEOs and founders (whom I had grown to be on friendly terms with) of various independent and microbrand watch labels and blurting out the idea. The responses were a mixed bag of amusement, excitement and scepticism. The overall tone was that I was encouraged to have fun learning about horology, design and engineering – but don’t necessarily translate that that energy as something you want to turn your career into (IE: probably not a good idea to start a watch label at this stage of my life). The notion was that turning your passion into a career was a bigger can of worms than most people would anticipate and it was a better shout to have a separate stable job that enabled you to enjoy your passion. I personally didn’t envision myself starting a watch label at this point and all I wanted to do was tinker away at designing and producing a watch to satiate my own curiosity.
In an earlier life, I had an interest in artisanal knifemaking. I loved watching videos where someone would explain various techniques to forge blades, learning about different compositions of metals and their applications, along with the creative ideas that went into making knife handles. I also had a mini venture painting portraits of watches using unconventional materials – theses paintings were sold to clients to help pay for my gap year. I knew that I would combine my interest and curiosity for strange materials into my own watch project.
My *cough* first attempts
Selecting materials and a design was a fairly quick but still iterative process. When I started my A levels, I had made attempts at designing my own watch in school, using the D&T workshops as my workspace. Back then I wanted to make a watch out of a material called micarta, which is essentially a compressed material (paper or fabric are the usual options) stabilised with resin. The material was really fun to work with and I knew of it through my earlier interest in knifemaking – plus I had experience making the stuff already.
I used my bedroom as my main workshop, though I subscribed to a creative coworking workshop in London as a base of operations to get the more noisy and smelly processes out of my own home (lets just say that resin fumes and pure isopropyl alcohol aren’t a welcome scent in a small East London flat bedroom…) and the first few days were spent creating micarta using recycled paper. This involved a number of different methods such as the traditional laminating method, to a resin stabilised composite made from paper mash that had been compressed using a Victorian Arbor press.
I ended up selecting a secondary material – which ended up being coffee. The idea came about when I visited a local Nespresso store near my office. I had quickly grown accustomed to having coffee regularly and wanted a solution to have some good coffee at home, without having to invest in an expensive coffee machine or go to the effort of learning how to ‘properly’ brew coffee.
I recall buying my first machine during an in-store promotional sale and was given 50 free espresso capsules as part of my first purchase. The initial days of purchasing a new gadget resulted in me having several espressos a day, along with my little sister using the machine when she was studying for her A levels. I remember quickly going through the 50 free capsules I was given and had a pile of used coffee pods build up. I have a strong aversion to creating unnecessary waste and remembered thinking “surely there’s a better way to use this waste product?”. Now, to Nespresso’s credit they do offer a recycling collection scheme and I did use this for the first several months. But version of me who had experience using unconventional materials in painting watch portraits was screaming that this could be a new opportunity to explore uncharted territory in producing watches.
The brainspark I had was to melt the aluminium casings to create watchcases, and the dials would be made from the remaining coffee material. The melting was achieved through putting empty casings into a ceramic plant pot and using a blowtorch to bring them to a molten form (the thin cases, paired with the relatively low melting point of aluminium made for easy work to get them in liquid form). However, this idea was quickly scrapped when I came to the realisation that the aluminium alloy used in the coffee casings was highly unsuitable for making watch cases and that I didn’t have the resources or expertise to refine the aluminium to the correct grade. The aluminium case idea was shelved (though I later came up with an idea to incorporate them into watches, but that will be revealed in a future blogpost…) and I stuck with the proposed coffee composite.
I had a very quick and steep learning curve when it came to developing a coffee composite. The idea was to use epoxy to stabilise the coffee grains and then I could manually machine the coffee to get the desired shape and form I wanted. The great adage of using spent coffee capsules is that the natural oils in the coffee are extracted during the brewing process – which reduces the risk of the epoxy failing to cure (oil and resin is a horrible combination). There was also a quick lesson learnt in that once the capsules had been used, I had to immediately rip them apart and allow the coffee to air dry as the moisture created a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria – earlier failings were used in my mum’s compost pile which was to her delight. The coffee grains then had to be baked in an oven at a very low temp to completely dehydrate – though I learnt the hard way that baking manky coffee grounds in your kitchen will leave a very unpleasant coffee smell wafting around your home and it would take a few days for the scent to leave your carpets and curtains. My family was VERY displeased with this and I soon curtailed this by limiting the amount of coffee grains I had available and using the sun to dry the grains in my garden for future batches.
Despite the initial technical challenges and unwittingly having my home smell like a waste chemical treatment plant, the first few months were incredibly good fun. I had a sense of joy and excitement that I hadn’t experienced for a very long time and instead of going to bed straight after work, I would instead get cracking on with my research and development, staying up late hours trying to solve problems and couldn’t wait for the weekend to arrive so I had plenty of time to test out my ideas that I had come up with during the weekday. I would post and document what I had come up with during weekly updates on my Instagram stories and my followers would reply with interest and curiosity asking questions and providing advice.
Deciding to go commercial
As mentioned earlier, I started this project with no intention or interest to commercialise. The intention was to have an outlet to vent stress from my day job and bring my interest in watchmaking to a whole new frontier. I knew the project would be expensive, so at the very beginning I had made a decision to set aside a fund to finance the project from my salary – making sure that I don’t go over budget. This figure was a grand total of £2800 which at the time was a very hefty sum for my 19 year old self and I had naively thought that it should be an ample amount to finance the project as I was doing all the work myself. It took almost no time to blow through this budget within the first few months.
A huge portion of the costs were using a workshop space in London – I’m sure it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that a desk space in one of the most expensive regions of Western Europe, paired with having to travel back and forth each day isn’t going to be friendly to ones wallet. Additional costs included buying equipment such as a 3D printer and power tools, along with raw materials. I had also sought the help of a watchmaker friend to develop a few complex machined samples to test the materials and compensating for the time spent had drained my budget. I felt was making good progress with the project and I had to justify the further expenses in order to continue. This would be a good segue to mention that I do plan on exploring sunken cost and prospective cost reasonings in this project, in a future chapter.
The final nail in the head came when I was speaking to a few watch collector friends who knew of the project and were asking how it was going. It wasn’t until a few of them said “this sounds like fun, I can’t wait to see what your crazy brain comes up with” and “ will the watches be for sale? I’d like to buy one when ready” did I make the decision that I would sell the watches under my own label. I had a small handful of people interested and offering me support and advice. I now had a new goal to work towards – one that would justify the time and expense I had put so far and possibly lead to new opportunities for the future.
Except that was three years ago and I’ve only now decided to publish chapter one. What happened you may ask? To put simply I’ve come to learn that this whole process is mind numbingly more difficult than I could have prepared for and the next several chapters will explore all the (mis)adventures I’ve had with this project.