Keeping in time with the Camden Watch Company

NAVA interviewed Anneke Short, co-founder of The Camden Watch Company. We probe into Anneke’s adventurous background living and training in Switzerland, the company’s origins as a design studio, her love of Camden itself, and her complex inner-workings to find out just what it is about watches that makes her tick.

So I think what I’m most fascinated by is your background training in watchmaking in Switzerland. How did you get into that?

Kind of by chance, really. My dad was in the RAF, and when I was fourteen he decided to leave and find a new job, and one of the ones that came up was in Switzerland. He thought it’d be good for the family to get us all over there and start a totally new life, so we moved! I’d always known I wanted to do something creative but watches and jewellery – growing up in Cambridge – had never been something I’d really considered. When I went over to Switzerland I heard about this great art school that initially my brother actually attended, and they had a jewellery course. The minute I stepped into the workshop I thought ‘wow – this is cool; I really want to do this!’ So I went on to become a jeweller by trade – I did four years of training and went on to work for quite a famous Swiss watch designer who made jewellery as well. So I was on that team – and enjoying it a lot – but then a space came up on the watch team, and they decided to flip me onto that instead and I just loved it! It really started from there. One thing that you underestimate when you live in Switzerland is how much watches are all over the place. I only notice it now, going back – when you live there you don’t really see it because it’s so commonplace, but they literally are everywhere!

The minute I stepped into the workshop I thought ‘wow – this is cool; I really want to do this!’

Why do you think it is that the Swiss have this reputation – rightly so – of being the finest timekeepers in the world?

I think it’s historical, to begin with. It started a good few-hundred years ago, and it used to be the UK. The watch industry used to be very big here, but we lost it through various issues just like we’ve lost most of our industries. The Swiss, though, managed to keep hold of it and refine it and continue making it better and better over time.

So presumably the reason you got into the design aspect of the watches was from that background in jewellery?

Yeah, that’s right. When I was doing the jewellery course I quickly realised that, as much as I enjoyed the making, it was the design process that I really loved. And I knew a job in jewellery making wouldn’t be great for me, because it’s all very samey – it seems glamourous, but unless you manage to get that perfect little pocket of independence you basically just end up working for hours making the same thing over and over again, which isn’t really great fun. Whereas when you’re designing you’re patient zero – you’re doing all that initial stuff and you get to enjoy the fun bits.

I’d describe your watches as quite classic and vintage, obviously building on the history of the area. Has that always been your signature style?

Not at all! My personal style, I’d say, has always followed that mould, but I’d worked for various clients – from very low-end, cheaper watches to ridiculously high-end ones. I mean, I did a watch for a company that was just covered in diamonds and it sold for around £4 million; so it’s a whole different breadth. And that’s really fun, as well – when I started off I found myself designing in all kinds of different styles, and I loved it. Then, as my career progressed, I realised that I enjoyed designing stuff for myself that I really liked and was passionate about, and that’s kind of how the Camden Watch Company came about.

And Camden as an area – was that just because you were living here at the time?

Yeah, so Jerome – my husband and co-founder of the brand – is Swiss, and we would come to London quite a lot when we lived over there and always used to come to Camden; we loved it. I think the first time I came here I was eighteen and it was typically British – dark at four in the afternoon and raining, with everyone trying to sell us weed, and eighteen-year-old me was just, like – “this is amazing”. So it became somewhere that really attracted us, and when we moved to London in 2010 and were searching around for a place we decided to look at the rent prices here. London’s ridiculous for that anyway, so how could it be that much more ridiculous in Camden? And it was actually okay, at the time –we managed to get a flat right in the centre! That cemented our love of the area even more. It’s one thing about Camden – I think the more you get to know it the more you love it. A lot of people stay on the surface of what it is, and they’ll say they don’t like the market or the weekend revellers and the like, but as soon as you get past that it’s amazing. It’s got such a great community – there’s a bit of everything. I’ve always said that it’s like the whole of London squeezed into one area. That’s how it feels to me.

So having lived here for so long how would you characterise it?

Well that’s the thing – I can’t, really! And that’s the whole point of Camden to me; there is no way of summing up “oh, this is what the area’s like”. The only thing you can really say is that people are generally passionate about it. And that’s what I think is great. Whether its an eighteen year-old student to a sixty year-old taxi driver, everybody who comes from Camden tends to love it here – and they’re all very different.

It’s one thing about Camden – I think the more you get to know it the more you love it.

I think that comes across in your watches as well, because they’re all subtly different. And then of course the advertising – the photos you take and the models you use – show they look good on anyone with any kind of style.

Well that’s it; our first principle was always that, if we were going to create a brand around Camden, we wanted people from Camden to love it. So it’s not at all that we’re exclusive to the area. It’s a lot broader than that. But it’s important that people from the area firstly like the watches and, secondly, can afford them. That really had an effect on the cost – we wanted it to be the best price possible so that local people could afford them.

You started as a pop-up, didn’t you?

Yes! By chance, actually, the office space we were working in – which was a shared one called Camden Collective – were taking old, vacant shops on Camden High Street and turning them into pop-ups. We initially were going to go for a traditional approach, you know – have our website and then approach wholesalers and shops and see if they wanted to buy our product. But the Collective say “hey, we’ve got this pop-up – do you want to, maybe, take it on?” and we said “well, alright, we’ll give it a go!” And it was really popular and worked very well and gave us this amazing opportunity to talk to people directly – explain all the stories, really show our passion for the product – and get direct feedback. When we reached the end of the pop-up’s tenure we realised that this could actually be our strategy. We could start opening stores to complement the online shop, and we wouldn’t need to go to other retailers and squeeze down the margins and all that kind of stuff.

Do you think it’s important for a small brand to have that direct access to the customer?

It’s good, for sure. And nowadays it’s a lot easier as well, as you have that direct access online – you can talk to people on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and that kind of thing. But if you can do it face-to-face then that’s the best. I think a lot of marketers would pay a lot of money to be able to talk to their customers as directly as we can.

Clearly the design is, I would say, very London – very cool, very quirky – but so is the marketing. You had a design company before the watch company, right?

Yeah – we used to run a design studio, but we were designing watches and jewellery so it wasn’t too far from what we do now. The Camden Watch Company actually started as a way of showcasing what we did as a studio. One of the difficult things about the watch business is that everything is very confidential; really hush-hush and all done in-house. But actually a lot of stuff is outsourced to design companies – so what it meant was that it was very difficult for us to get new clients for the studio, because we basically had to approach people and say “look, we’ve done some really cool shit, we’re not allowed to tell you what it is but you just have to trust us”. So, you know, that doesn’t sound hugely credible. We decided to set up The Camden Watch Company as a way of going “and here’s what we can actually do”. It was the A to Z. We designed it, we produced it, we did all the packaging, all the photography – everything apart from the manufacturing itself was done in-house. And it really took off!

It’s a great portfolio – wearable as well!

Hah – yeah, it’s perfect!

The Camden Watch Company actually started as a way of showcasing what we did as a studio.

The internal mechanisms, too – do you do that?

That’s all outsourced. Very few watch brands in our price point, even Swiss ones, actually make their own movements. We use a Japanese company called Miyota, who pretty much any watch brand of our price point will be using – and they’re really good. The only reason we don’t use Swiss mechanisms at our price point is because we’d end up paying more for exactly the same product. When you go into the automatics and the high-ends and that sort of thing, then you start talking Swiss and it becomes interesting. At our price point though it’s just a bit silly, basically. It’s literally just to have the stamp that says ‘Swiss made’ on it.

I think if you’re that much of a watch aficionado to want Swiss-made then you’ll happily spend five-hundred, six-hundred quid anyway.

Exactly!

Do you have plans to expand into a higher price point?

Yeah, potentially. Last year we launched our automatic range. We used to only have quartz, which is battery-powered, and then through Kickstarter we launched our range of automatic watches. They’re kinetic, so they power themselves by the movement of your wrist.

That’s so clever.

It’s really cool – proper watch geek stuff. It gets people very excited. Though we had no idea how it would go; we knew we wanted to do it and some customers had been asking for it, which is kind of why we went through Kickstarter, and it’s actually very popular. So whilst we definitely want to keep the core range that we have there’s no reason we can’t build on that into more expensive products.

You have limited edition ones, like the Barber, right?

Yeah. The Barber’s sold out at the moment but it’s actually not limited. It’s just a special edition – a collaboration we’ve done with someone else. Then we’ve also got the cycling watch that we did with Kitty Pemberton-Platt, which is really popular. We did do a limited edition called the Tom Sayers Watch, based on the Victorian bare-knuckle boxer, which was really fun to work on. And we’ve got our Black Editions as well, which come out once a year – we only produce one small batch of them annually and then when they’re gone they’re gone. But yeah, going forward we definitely want to do more limited and special editions and that kind of thing.

And have you got any in mind at the moment?

I do, but none that I can talk about! They’re too early-on for me to discuss without putting my foot in it. Well, actually, we have got one that I can talk about which is going to be really interesting. That’ll be in collaboration with a local charity called Camden Giving, who used to work in Collective as well. I was looking for a way to partner up charities with each of our stores so we could give back to the communities, and it just so happened that we were approached by them. We’re going to be working together on a special watch that should come out in May – so watch this space.

Literally – watch this space.

Haha!

Too many puns, I make too many puns…