Ian Walton NTN is a rare thing; a watchmaker from Dublin.
Ian Walton is a 32 year old designer hailing from Galway and living in Dublin for the last 15 years. He is one of a small club of people on this island, let alone this city, who can call themselves a watchmaker and his W1 watch can be found on wrists around the world
We visited him in his small studio near Newmarket to hear how he got into the watch making game.
Ian Walton outside his studio beside Newmarket Square in Dublin
My first job as a designer was working with Design Partners in Bray working on consumer products for some of the big electronics brands and learning how to function as a professional designer.
In 2009 I went out on my own and set up a small product design studio called notion with Marcel Twohig. We grew the business from a no money operation to having a pretty respectable roster of clients and more importantly a great studio/workshop/outdoor space in D2 that I will forever miss.
In 2013, after a decade of commercial design I began to feel the need to produce objects with a little more longevity. Something that people could perhaps feel more attached to than a pair of disposable plastic headphones for instance. So, we paused the commercial work and focussed instead on the design and production of a small collection of objects under our own name.
"What happened next was surprising and overwhelming in equal measures."
One of the items in this collection was the original W1 watch which I designed and produced in aluminium. We released this collection to the design press and much to our surprise it was picked up by the big international publications (Dezeen, Designboom, Frame Magazine, Dwell). The response to the watch was incredible and what happened next was surprising and overwhelming in equal measures.
Suddenly we had interest from around the world and with one watch prototype in my hand (we made two and one was stolen from our studio) I decided to go for it. I spent the first half of 2013 on a huge learning curve researching watchmaking, designing and developing the W1 into a product that we could actually build. In September 2016 I took the next jump, leaving notion to establish NTN as an independent brand.
From the first watch I made years back to the ones that shipped from the studio just this morning, every one has been hand built in Ireland. Each watch begins with the solid metal case, machined from 2 pieces of Stainless Steel 316 and then brushed.
Our watchmaker then assembles a Swiss-made Ronda movement into this case before setting the hour, minute and second hands in place. While that is taking place someone else will be making the straps. This process involves using a 10 ton manual press to die cut the strap blanks from full leather shoulders which we import from British and Italian tanneries. Each strap is then hand stitched with waxed leather thread and given one coat of Irish beeswax to condition it.
"It's pretty exciting to think that our watches are currently on wrists in the US, Australia, Canada and throughout Europe."
The third important element is our glass crystals/lenses onto which our increments and graphics are printed so as to float over the hands below. These are hand printed using a silk screen, one at a time.
The last step in the process is the production of our packaging which is also die cut by hand from thick wool felt and fitted into our boxes. Once all of this is complete each watch is given a 48 hour timekeeping test before being packaged up and sent out. A pretty involved process from start to finish!
My customers, despite my best efforts, tend to be people like me. Guys from 18 upwards who have an interest in design, or inevitably their wives/girlfriends who are giving a watch as a generous gift. We sell about 50% of our watches in Ireland with the other half travelling around the world. It's pretty exciting to think that our watches are currently on wrists in the US, Australia, Canada and throughout Europe. As a rule they choose our watches because first and foremost they respond to the simplicity and reduction of our design, but they also want something unique with a sense of place and a bit of an idea about who actually made it.
"Being a small independent brand...brings some considerable challenges"
Being a small independent brand and building watches on the small batch scale we are brings some considerable challenges. The biggest of these, being possibly too honest here, is price. Our competitors are generally producing their watches on a large scale in the far east and can as a result produce their finished product for sometimes half the price of ours. When our product sits in a cabinet beside one of these brands we can at first seem expensive.
However I have learnt that once people get a better understanding of the process described above and the unique nature of the watch that they see the price in an altogether different light. Communicating this, and finding retailers who are interested in that type of product is an ongoing challenge.
As it stands NTN is a watch brand and I am focused on establishing it further, hopefully internationally in the near future. Personally, I am fascinated and a little obsessed by the idea of projects and in April we will grow and move into our own studio at 29 Francis Street which we are seriously excited about. The space will function as a studio and a shop and will be called People & Projects, from where NTN and my other project OTHERS (an outdoor/surf project currently underway together with Eoin McNally) will run. Sharing the space with us will be the very lovely people at Grown and Scullion Architects. Keep an eye on peopleandprojects.ie for info on openings etc