By now, you’ll probably have come across William Wood at one point or another. The British brand has been making waves with their firefighter-themed timepieces, complete with straps made from upcycled fire hose and the kind of obsessive attention to detail that shows a true passion for the subject matter. They’re unmistakable. But there’s a lot more to the brand than just being part of the new wave of British watches, more even than their novel designs and funky details. And it all starts with the reason it’s founder Jonny Garrett started the brand in the first place.
“William Wood was the name of my grandfather, who served on the Newcastle and Gateshead Fire Brigade for over 25 years on the Blue Watch. He was a massive role model in my life and effectively went on to drive my entire career, really. He’s why our ethos is so related to fire fighting.”
Like many a newcomer to the watch world, their collection began with a handsome quartz piece, the Chivalrous dress watch. It was designed for off-duty firefighters, unfussed but classy with a few thematic touches. But it wasn’t until the Valiant, the brand’s premier automatic that William Wood really hit their stride.
“We already had a dress watch and there was a hole for something more durable. I loved the ruggedness of a dive watch, something that firefighters could just chuck on when they went out to an emergency.”
And do they actually wear them?
“Some of them do, yeah, they wear them into burning buildings and the watches come back with this cool smoky effect. You can smell the fire on them.” The Valiant did extraordinarily well for the brand. In Jonny’s words, “it was a turning point for us.” But now William Wood’s rounded another corner as they’ve upped the ante with the Triumph Chronograph.
“It’s been a huge, huge evolution. It’s taken us probably four years to get to a fully Swiss-made chronograph movement and it’s been a big step for us. It was a bit of a test, too, as it pushed our price point up to where we weren’t sure if people would go for it. Well, we produced 100 in the first batch and all of them sold out in 48 hours, so apparently they will.”
Obviously the £2,500 that the Triumph will set you back is coasting into some seriously competitive territory. For not much more you can get a Swiss watch from a long-established brand rather than a young British brand. But William Wood might have more of an edge than you think – especially if their incredible recent auction success is anything to go by.
Last month, US-based first responder charity Tunnels to Towers ran an auction to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11. There were plenty of donations to raise money, but the headliner was a unique William Wood watch, a one of one created specifically for the auction. Think of it as the charity’s own Only Watch.
“Bids are currently at $19,000! That’s an insane amount and it’s all going to a great cause. Tunnels to Towers basically gives away 200 mortgage free homes to the families of fallen firefighters and veterans all across America. It’s incredible, and I’m so proud we can be a part of it. I still remember getting home from school on 9/11 and 20 years on to be able to donate a minimum of $29,000 (including the proceeds from our 100 pieces limited edition) to the charity means so much.”
It’s a fantastic story, but from a business perspective also sets a precedent. William Wood watches do well at auction, and so there’s some serious value there. For a new brand hoping to play in the big leagues, that’s a solid base to work with.
“It’s also an entry point into what I reckon will be our biggest market, the US. There’s a very different sort of mentality in the states, they’re more impulse buy. But the fact that firefighters and first responders are put on a pedestal there has done really well for us.”
It’s not like William Wood have all that much competition at the moment, either be that for civilians with an interest in and appreciation of firefighting, but among the firefighters themselves. There are plenty of watchmakers offering military pieces to squadrons and platoons, even a few here and there for medical services, but for firefighters? Name another. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
It’s little surprise then that Jonny’s been exploiting his niche in much the same way as Bremont, Breitling and IWC have air forces around the world.
“We’ve been producing watches specifically for individual fire services for a while now. We’ve done it for Melbourne, London, Kuwait, even Kent Fire and Rescue service. Now, we’re going to be working with Tunnels to Towers to try and make a watch for the biggest fire service in the world: New York. That’ll be about 300 watches, all based on the Valiant.”
The Valiant of course is still the bread-and-butter of William Wood. It’s the watch that made them and despite the coming of the Triumph, is still very much their signature piece, with plenty more variations to come – the latest of which is the Bronze Ruby Edition.
“The bronze edition has been our most popular to date. We kind of wanted it to be the triumph, but we took a poll and no, the bronze Valiant. Bronze has been incredible for us and later this year we’ll be launching the Ruby (which I’m wearing now) with a strap made of upcycled firefighter uniform.”
That strap is in a lovely desert sand colour, the first neutral coloured strap in William Wood’s off-kilter upcycled collection and while I’m personally on the fence as to whether it actually suits the Ruby Edition, it’s a solid addition to the collection. Better yet, even though it’s not a unique charity auction piece, you can still rest assured that some of the money will make its way to a good cause.
“We’ve always donated some of our profits to firefighter charities and now we’re on track to donate at least $50,000 to charity just this year! It’s incredible. But it does make me look at other watch brands and think, ‘what is going on’? Even in our early years, we were giving at least a five-figure amount; now we want to be the biggest donator to the UK’s firefighting charities and it’s a question of when, not if.”
Sadly, Jonny’s grandfather, the inspiration and namesake of the brand passed away in 2009, so he never got to see the lengths William Wood has gone to in order to give back. But with numbers like that, £50,000 in a year to UK charities, $29,000 to their stateside counterparts, one thing’s for certain: he would have been proud.
More details at William Wood.