Celeste Wong is an example of what can happen when you change gears in mid-career to follow another dream. After a successful career as an engineer, Celeste rediscovered her childhood fascination with watches and made it her second act. As an engineer and educator for 18 years, Celeste ran her own company developing technical education curricula for schools and authored 22 books along the way. A few years ago, she decided to rekindle her first love: watchmaking, and not just the technical aspect of watchmaking — although she is perfectly capable of that — but the artistic side. For Wong, it is all about designing beautiful dials.
“I’ve been in love with watches since I was young,” says Wong. “I’ve seen pictures of myself at four years of age with a big watch on my wrist. Almost every picture I’ve seen of myself from my Mom’s old photo albums shows me wearing a watch. It’s been a lifelong fascination.”
Wong studied engineering because, at the time, there were no watchmaking schools in the U.S. “I wasn’t only interested in the mechanical workings, anyway. I was interested in the watch as a whole and what it said about you — what it projected,” she continues. About 10 years ago, she rediscovered her hobby and started buying every used watch she could find, spending hours taking them apart and putting them back together again. After two or three years, she had amassed about 500 watches, along with a collection of watchmaking tools, and she eventually studied watchmaking at AWCI in Ohio.
“I thought at first I was going to start a watch recycling business, but it didn’t speak to me,” she says. “I was spending too much time polishing cases and testing movements. My aha! moment came when I saw the Lady F by Laurent Ferrier. It changed my life. Celeste Watch Company was born out of a love for that dial.” The dial is made of mother-of-pearl carved in an arabesque motif; it triggered Celeste’s love of the decorative side of watchmaking. Her love for the ocean also manifested itself in her designs, and she started out with a wave motif, then moved on to a sea turtle. Then came an octopus and an orca. She uses shell as her primary canvas, including mother-of-pearl and abalone, often combined with wood or metal. In the Surfer Girl watch, mother-of-pearl and blue abalone are cut like pieces of a puzzle that fit together, marquetry style. Wong then adheres a metal surfer-girl outline on top of that layer. On the dial of Summer Wind, the abalone fits into the mother-of-pearl like a puzzle piece, and the metal biking woman is inlaid on top. Other motifs on her dials include a Volkswagen Bug, a tarantula, a sea otter, a tap dancer, and a skull and crossbones.
Celeste thinks of her watches as wearable art. And so they are, but they are also serious watches. The quartz movements are made by Ronda, a Swiss company, and she offers free lifetime batteries. “I’m trying to build a brand and offering the lifetime battery helps me keep my finger on how the watches I’ve sold are doing,” she says. “Even though every watch goes through 72 hours of integrity testing, I can’t test for all the ways people will wear them. Bringing them back in for a battery allows me to check everything out, from how the inlay is holding up to the way the strap is wearing. I love the opportunity to improve.”
For now, there are no mechanical movements in Celeste watches, which have 30mm, 35mm, 38mm and rectangular steel cases, but Wong is scoping out automatic movements for the future. The straps are vegetable-tanned and hand-sewn in her Springfield, Oregon, studio, where she assembles the watches herself, adding hands, trimming stems and attaching crowns. Each one takes 8-12 hours to create. The watches sell for $200-$500 and can be found at arts festivals and at the Celeste boutique/gallery/workshop in downtown Springfield. To find out more about Celeste and her handmade watches, visit www.celestewatch.com.
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