William Wood: the watchmaker recycling firefighters’ kit
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William Wood Watches has humble origins. “We were in the local Wetherspoons [pub], where everybody gets the inspiration for an international luxury watch company,” jokes founder Jonny Garrett.
It was Boxing Day 2016 when Garrett first learnt about the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, over drinks in his hometown of Hexham, north-east England. He used the site eight months later to raise £25,000 and start the British watch brand inspired by his late grandfather William Wood.
Wood was a firefighter for more than 25 years and the brand’s watches feature materials that have been used to fight fires in the UK: crowns are made from melted-down 1920s brass helmets, and straps from upcycled fire hoses or firefighter kit. The Chivalrous model has a limited edition commemorative coin, again made from a 1920s helmet, in the case back.
While the first buyers were firefighters, Garrett says 80 per cent of customers now are “watch enthusiasts”. The company broke £1m in annual revenue for the first time in August 2021, despite 30-year-old Garrett, a former banker, only committing to the venture full-time earlier that year. He hopes to double sales within two years by expanding production, which currently stands at between 700 and 850 watches a year. “I’m very ambitious so I’m sure we’ll achieve it,” he says.
Garrett has no employees and, instead, contracts in services as required. He only sells through the brand’s own website, with traffic driven by paid social media. He designs the watches, which have Swiss or Japanese movements depending on the model, with his girlfriend Haieda.
He sources hoses from different fire regions including the red of the London Fire Brigade and blue of his grandfather’s region, Tyne & Wear Fire & Rescue Service. Each 23m-long hose that is donated produces about 300 watch straps, diverting the material from landfill. “We’re constantly trying to push the boundaries of upcycling but there are challenges,” says Garrett. “You are taking materials that are not meant to be luxury watch materials and you’re trying to make it into a luxury product.
“To say that making the fire hose straps was difficult is an understatement. It took about six months of sampling to get the straps supple enough to where we are now.”
Garrett is now working with the Pink Firefighters fundraising association in France to make straps from pink firefighting kit, in aid of cancer research. He would like to create dials from the wooden handles of firefighters’ axes and is prototyping a watch winder made from hoses. He says “the further into the niche” the brand goes to push the firefighting element, the more customers like it. The Triumph model’s case back is inspired by a fire alarm (In case of fire break glass), as is one of the watch presentation boxes.
Will the novelty wear off, however? Is there a danger people will see the watches as a one-off purchase because they are so different? Garrett thinks not. More than two-thirds of his customers own watches from all four collections that have been produced to date. “Every time we drop a watch, it’s sold,” he says. “It’s almost like a cult.”
If all goes to plan, the brand’s devotees will have somewhere to gather in 2024, when Garrett aims to open a concept store in an as yet unidentified, former fire station in London — or (his being a Geordie) in Newcastle.
He envisions employees, in upcycled fire hose aprons, sliding down a firefighter’s pole with the watches and customers ringing a fire bell above the counter. But, before that, Garrett plans to buy and convert a vintage fire engine into a mobile shop to take around the UK next year.
As well as its public collections, the brand produces commemorative watches for individual fire services’ firefighters to buy. It made 100 for the Kuwait Fire Force featuring the service emblem on the case back and an individual’s service number. Garrett is hiring a sales representative in the US — his second biggest market behind the UK — to approach city fire chiefs there.
He is keen the brand remains affordable to firefighters, with watches priced between £395 and £2,495. “I can’t see us ever releasing a watch which will ever be even close to £5,000 because you’ve just priced yourself out of your values,” he says.
Supporting firefighters is part of the brand’s DNA. Garrett donates 1 per cent of annual global sales to the Fire Fighters Charity in the UK, which supported his grandfather, and makes additional donations to other charities on a project-by-project basis.
The auction of a one-off watch to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks raised $19,000 for the US non-profit Tunnel to Towers Foundation, with a further $10,000 donated to the foundation from the sale of 100 limited edition commemorative watches.
Garrett’s grandfather died in 2009 with pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease which his family thinks may have resulted from his time as a firefighter. What would he have made of the watches? “He used to always go, ‘Bloody hell,’” recalls Garrett. “He probably would have said that, but he would be super proud.”
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