ut today’s wooden watches are not like early models, which were very much a niche phenomenon. Today’s models are more refined, less bulky, and more durable. And they can also be found at very attractive prices, making this growing market very accessible to a range to consumers. In this special feature, we profile seven brands specialising in wooden timekeepers. From America, Canada, Italy, Germany, and Latvia, they’re all part of the global eco-fashion trend and are capitalising on today’s growing environmental conscientiousness movement.
TIMESHAPES: SCULPTURES OR TIMEKEEPERS?
Timeshapes is the creation of Iowa-based designer James Borden. Since the 1980s, James has been in the business of creating some very special kinetic sculptures. They are essentially mechanical weight-driven or spring-driven clocks, and maybe most impressive of all is that every component is made of wood.
James Borden hails from a small town in the state of Illinois – once a strong centre of American watch and clock making. But interestingly, his formal training had nothing to do with clock making. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree and then went on to finish a Master of Divinity Degree.
In the meantime, he opened a clock repair and restoration shop while attending his courses. From repairman he became a designer, creating standing and suspended clocks that have all of their gears exposed.
Gradually he then went on to make the hand-carved pieces we are familiar with today, all of which are made from fine woods like walnut, cherry, maple and hickory. They have been so well received that they have won several awards at the Smithsonian Craft Show.
Designs include clocks that can be suspended from the ceiling, which can measure nearly 3 metres in length and 2 metres in height, or standing clocks, which can be even larger. The table clocks are a bit smaller, standing at about 60 cm. The inspiration behind the unique clocks comes from shapes found in nature, whether that is a tree or the silhouette of an animal.
When set in motion, the pieces have a smooth motion and the passage of time can be heard through soft and woody clicking sounds. This is quite different than the high-beat ticking of watches – it represents a slower and calmer passage of time. Borden mostly sells his clocks at fairs and exhibitions. He also makes specially commissioned pieces for private customers, and prices range anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 USD. Of course, there is no mass production here – the master craftsman and clock maker can only manage to make about 10-15 of these clocks per year.
AB AETERNO, A WOODEN WATCH FOR ETERNITY?
Italy is a country full of history. Rome is, after all, called the “Eternal City”. But the country also seems to be full of wooden watch makers, too. Ab Aeterno is yet another Italian fashion brand looking to leverage environmental consciousness. The formula is the same as with many other brands in the same space: cases and bands designed from sustainably sourced wood and quite affordable quartz movements on the inside (in this case courtesy of Ronda). The brand in particular prides itself on being toxin-free.
Like with other wooden watches, the appearance of these watches will change a bit over time, making the watch a more personal item. The fact that wood remains somewhat of a “living” material gives such watches their character. Generally the watches are quite versatile and can be worn by either sex comfortably. To add a bit more flexibility and pop to their designs, the watchbands are interchangeable. Popular options besides the standard wooden band is the NATO style canvas straps for a sportier look. Their first collection was the Nature and Sky series, followed up with the more sober looking Horizon collection. But for Baselworld 2017, Ab Aeterno raised its level and introduced its first chronograph series: the Ianus.
THE “LOVE FOR WOOD” AND KERBHOLZ
The story of Kerbholz is half romantic, half silly. According to their website, Matthias & Moritz had been travelling across Central America when “they rediscovered their love for wood”. That’s when they got the idea to integrate the organic material into everyday street style. Joining Matthias and Moritz were their two friends Adrian and Nils, and after some planning, they started producing wooden glasses and wooden watches in 2012. Now that we know the origin story, what about that unique brand name? The word Kerbholz is German for “notches in wood” and it is meant to be a metaphor for all of the memories you would notch up wearing a wooden watch.
The wood used in Kerbholz is sourced from certified sustainable forests, as it usually is with wooden watchmakers. Sustainability is an important part of the brand’s message. For their part, Kerbholz promises to donate a share of its profits to reforestation projects in Nicaragua.
Besides using wood for their lifestyle products, Kerbholz also uses slate and acetate. Slate is known for its folded and parallel surfaces, which makes it a unique material to use in their sunglasses collection. Acetate, on the other hand, is essentially made from wood waste such as bark and other plant fibers, which makes it light and also somewhat weather-resistant. In terms of watches, the brand uses natural wood and Swiss sourced Ronda 762 E movements. A natural varnish is used to protect the cases from humidity and weather, which makes them splash proof. This also allows the watch to become darker with time, producing a patina similar to leather. Overall, with Kerbholz wooden watches you get a fine balance of German design, Swiss (quartz) mechanics and eco-friendly material sourcing. All that, and a great price to match makes this young brand a great option for those looking for something a bit different from the watch industry.
TENSE WOODEN WATCHES FROM A VERY CHILL PLACE
The story of Tense Wooden Watches begins with Ken P. Lau, who in in 1957 started to work as a professional clock designer. From the beginning, Ken experimented with natural components like wood and stone. But in 1968 he moved on to making wristwatches, and three years later he founded Tense Wooden Watches.
Being around since 1971 makes this brand one of the pioneers in this sub-category of the watch industry. And today Ken brings nearly a half-century of watchmaking expertise to the company.
The name itself comes from the word “tense”, as in one moment in time in relation to another moment in time (as in: past tense, present tense). That all makes perfect sense. Except for those who might unfortunately associate the brand name with “tension” instead…
This brand, however, seems to be anything but tense. For starters, they come from Canada. More specifically, Canada’s west coast, which is know for its chill vibe and beautiful scenery. Those characteristics are reflected in the watches as well. In this case, the watches are made from 100% recycled or reclaimed wood, and are manufactured by hand in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The watches are powered by either Swiss Ronda or Japanese Miyota quartz movements, and they seem to offer something for everyone.
For instance, the Vermont – part of the Hybrid Series – can be had for $360 CAD (270 Swiss francs, at the time of writing). Believe it or not, that’s on the more expensive side of their collection. The square face watch has a wood and metal case on a wood and metal band, hence the “hybrid” designation. It is powered by a modest Ronda 6004D Swiss Movement and is protected by scratch resistant sapphire crystal and stainless steel with PVD coating, both nice additions at this price point. For the ladies, there’s the fashionable and affordable Delta. It costs only $230 CAD (164 Swiss francs) and is made from teak. The triangular face is paired with an elastic band with angular pieces of wood forming the bracelet. This model is powered by a Japanese Miyota quartz movement.
Most of their other watches, however, can be worn as unisex models. For instance, the Leather Hampton is a good option for either sex. It is made from genuine Italian leather and 100% recycled or reclaimed wood and costs only $180 CAD (135 Swiss francs).
With a broad range and excellent price points, Tense Wooden Watches has done the Canadian watch industry proud.
THE GOOD THAT COMES FROM WOOD: LAIMER’S CASE
This young company – it was only established in 2012 – is based out of South Tyrol, the picturesque region straddling the Italian side of the border with Austria. While the region can’t compare with Swiss watchmaking heritage, it can certainly compete with its natural beauty. And nature is what it’s all about with Laimer.
Patrick Laimer, the brand founder, has been working in the wood industry for years. He now applies his skills in making lifestyle products – including watches and sunglasses – combining fashion and the protection of the environment.
The benefit of using wood is that it is a sustainable material – but only when it’s done right. Often, wood watch brands use leftover materials, for example using offcuts that would be otherwise too small to make furniture. Laimer’s watches and sunglasses are made of high quality leftover woods like maple, hackberry, zebrano, oak and sandalwood. In many cases, they use woods native to South Tyrol in Italy, which also lowers the carbon footprint of the business by consuming and producing locally. On top of their sustainable sourcing of materials, the company also supports various projects for reforestation.
Of course, it’s pretty hard to make a movement using only wood. So on the inside of their watches we typically find Miyota quartz movements. The light movements, and also the light weight of the wooden cases and bands, makes these watches very comfortable to wear. The nice thing about wooden watches is that grain itself can provide an excellent aesthetic, especially if different patterns and materials are mixed. In my opinion, the natural look is the best for these timepieces, and Lamier gives us some fine examples. But for those looking for a bit more flash, some models also incorporate crystals from Swarovski, like the “Julia”.
Prices are generaly in the mid-100 euro range and that is a great price point for anyone looking to enter the wood watch movement. And in this case, it is a proper social movement, too, since the company looks to be doing more than its fair share to work in a very sustainable way.
HOW WEWOOD STAYS SUSTAINABLE
WeWood is an Italian brand founded in 2009 in Florence. And coming from Florence can be a blessing and a curse for a brand. On one hand there is the great cultural and artistic heritage. On the other hand, the brand has to actually live up to it. That’s possibly a difficult ask since the city is known for its art scene, its architectural beauty, and even its T-bone steaks, but not really for its watches.
But on balance, WeWood’s designs seem to hold up. One example that stood out for me is the Oblivio, which sports a bold, circular case with metallic hands, large industrial indices, and a rich wood grain 46mm case. For those looking for a bit more resilience from a wooden timepiece – which they are not really known for – the Phoenix is a good option. It features the brand’s first waterproof case up to 5 ATM or 50 metres. It is paired with a Miyota VD54 movement and standard issue mineral glass. Like most other wood watch brands, WeWood uses remnants of hardwoods from all over the world. That helps keep material sourcing affordable and also environmentally sustainable. And just in case that wasn’t enough, for each watch sold WeWood promises that they plant a tree in collaboration with nonprofits like American Forests and Trees for the Future.
So far, the company has planted nearly half a million trees since the programme began in 2010. If that is an accurate indication of the number of timepieces they’ve sold since then, WeWood seems to be in decent shape. But while WeWood watches are designed in Florence, full disclosure: they are assembled in China. That might raise some sustainability questions, but they’re not exactly the only fashion brand to set up camp in China. And it seems that the brand does more than most to make up for it in the end anyway.
OVI WATCH: PUTTING LATVIA ON THE WATCHMAKING MAP
We’ve covered many wooden watch brands of late, some relatively young and some that have been around for decades. And with the market for eco-fashion on the up, we’re still seeing some new players enter the space.
We recently discovered another example from Latvia: Ovi Watch company. We don’t see much in terms of watchmaking from the Baltic country, so they’re worth a closer look. As it turns out, starting a lifestyle brand specialising in wooden products in Latvia makes a lot of sense, because wood is the country’s number one export. Most of the place is covered with trees, after all.
Ovi takes this plentiful natural resource and adds value to it by designing some interesting timepieces. They’ve even delved into making wood brimmed caps. But let’s stick to the timepieces for now. Starting from 3D models at the Liepāja Design and Art College, the team produces all of its timepieces in the Latvian town with the same name. Typical source materials used for the cases include elm, cherry, walnut, and teak.
On the inside we get Swiss made Ronda quartz movements, and each is topped with a sapphire crystal. That’s notable because their price points are very good, typically ranging from the low to high 100s in euros. Getting your own personalised Ovi watch, for example, will run you 189 euros, which enables you to choose among wooden materials and a specific signature to mark the watch as your very own.
Typically of wooden watches, these too are quite light. They are also quite versatile – perhaps more than most wooden watches – and they can be worn daily and even during some formal occasions without much of a second thought. Having seen my fair share of wooden watches recently, what I really like about Ovi’s watches is the integration of the hour indices from the dial up to the bezel. It’s a nice bit of wood carving that adds depth and detail, making Ovi one of my favourite wood watch designers.
ANOTHER UNUSUAL MATERIAL…
THE TAMAWA STORY: FROM SNOOKER BALL TO WRISTWATCH
This contemporary brand executes a mono-form design concept to perfection, with a wide range of lifestyle products inspired by the Bakelite ball.
We first came across innovative Belgian brand Tamawa at Baselworld 2017. The relatively young company was founded by Hubert Verstraeten, who also plays an active role in design for the company. The unique name is Japanese for “ball on steel ring”, but all Tamawa products are 100 % made in Belgium.
What really makes this lifestyle brand stand out was the unique monoform design concept across the entire product range. You might have recognised that the brand’s identity is firmly tied to Bakelite, an early plastic that was invented by a Belgian-American inventor over a century ago. Bakelite is the same material that snooker and billiard balls are made from. The idea came about when Hubert Verstraeten met with a Belgian snooker ball manufacturer, which would then go on to supply a special resin to the designer to make his watches and eventually jewellery pieces. This mono-form design also makes is relatively easy to have a single design aesthetic running throughout the entire product range. The company employs the talents of up-and-coming designers, artists and silversmiths to create a very colourful and contemporary product line. On offer we have everything from jewellery, to salt and pepper mills, coat stands, wall hooks, and even lighting systems. All pieces have a unique shine and are quite durable. They also come in a wide range of bold colours – in fact all the official colours that snooker balls are available in: white, blue, yellow, purple, black, orange, red and pink But what I’m really interested in is their watches. The two emblematic pieces comprising the collection are the TW27 and TW35 watches, designed by Hubert Verstraeten himself. Again, a Bakelite ball is at the core of the design, complemented by a spherical dial and usually a double bracelet.
I also enjoy the simplicity in the naming of the different models. There is the “Small Watch” option which comes in a 27 mm Bakelite casing, and the “Big Watch” which is larger at 35 mm. It’s hard to make a mistake about choosing the wrong size in this case. Watch prices range from € 255 to € 286 depending on the size. Each can be customized online, with plenty of case colours to choose from, as well as two different options for the watch hands. For those who can’t decide one way or another, there is also the option to purchase a complete set, allowing the different components to be interchanged. The set comes packaged nicely in a case which looks more like a snooker set than a watch collection, which certainly makes these Tamawa pieces conversation starters.