Hello watch enthusiasts!

The following is a (lightly) edited version of the recent Ask Me Anything with Ian Schon. If you wish to read the original thread you can do so here.

How did you determine $5400 was an appropriate sell price for your watches?

Mostly labor, materials/consumables and overhead. Pretty simple pricing model just like many of my other products I make. Very practical. I did decide to amortize investments in fixture development, prototyping, tooling etc. over the whole batch of 100 watches for this run. Zero marketing and not paying myself a salary or anything. Think of it as a side business (though I tried hard full time the first two years before I pivoted 70% of my time over to pens so I could keep the lights on).

There are lots of watches you can get at that price, but the goal was not to design a watch and have someone else make it, it was for ME to make it and do all machining and finishing as I wanted. So the cost is in that work, which some people won't want to pay for, and that's totally cool! Plenty of watches out there with all different approaches to making things.

What sort of equipment is involved in the manufacturing process for you? Are you using older machines, more modern machines, and where do you source them from?

I started off with a small benchtop 3 axis CNC Mill in my apartment, a small Hardinge Cateract lathe from the 1940s and a Sherline manual mill. All machines you could pick up and move with your hands because this was 10 feet from my bedroom in Brookline

I bought the 3 axis new and the lathe and mill on craigslist.

I turned the blank on the Hardinge lathe by hand, and bolted it to the table. then milled it out. No fixtures, but I quickly learned I needed them. The 3 axis didn't have a tool changer so it changed each tool by hand. There were like 10-12 tools or so. I wrote the programs in Mastercam. Then the angles, lug holes, stem were done on the manual machine with a rudimentary plastic and brass jig.

I would then destroy each prototype one by one on the streets of boston.

Using these 3 machines I tried several different approaches of machining. Again, these are not super fancy or expensive. This was in a 80 sqft workshop

Next approach was in titanium out of a plate. Mill, then turn on the lathe, then fixture. It went poorly but I learned a lot. I never finished this one and moved onto the next process.

After that I got in to waterjet blanks to save machining time cutting it out.

This process was mill backside, turn, mill again, and then used these cool 3d printed fixtures to hold the parts for the blind lug holes and crown machining.

Keep in mind this should be done super efficiently on a multiaxis machine... but those are like real money and I didn't have it, so I had to get creative.

I started to play with textures here and learned a bit about harmony between machine marks and aesthetics. It was a fun exploration.

I didn't have the money for my own shop and I needed to get serious. I found a shop I had worked with in my design job and went there and machined the next batch of cases on a DMG MORI serious twin spindle machine with some crazy complexity. This allowed me to move faster and within a 3 month span working full time I had finished my first batch in steel and titanium after extensive redesign of machined features to fit that machine. On thing I gained was sharp lug corners which I really wanted.

But they needed finishing and now I finish them one by one as I sell them. Finishing is the bulk of the work now as I am EXTREMELY particular about it. I have built a lot of custom fixtures to do so.

The machine I use for pens were bought from 5 different shops with stories. I would love to afford new, but I'm not there yet so I fix them as I go. I made some mistakes with some purchases there and suffered, but for the most part I love my Citizens, especially my newer L20 machines. I got those from a local medical device company who had 20 of them they were selling. (I got 2). These are critical for some new products I'm working on in the pen space.

Shopping for machines is personal stuff. How much machine and what machine you buy depends on your space, your budget, your ability to fix them on your own, how many different types of parts you want to make on your own, your sanity, so many things. I own the machines I needed to get started. I do not own the DMG as I only needed it for cases, couldn't make pens or dials or hands etc. I could have bought it and sold it but that would have been dumb. There isn't much of a business model to support this kind of work so its best to get creative. Making cases is insane work which is why most brands do not do it. Dials and hands on the other hand. Wayyyy easier and you can do it with small machines.

My 3 axis and Hardinge take care of most of my current needs for watches.

Do you still offer the crystallized Titanium case and dial as an option? Also what can you share about this process/idea?

I'm working on 4 of these right now. One will be for sale, the rest are spoken for. I am not doing it as a custom watch but it will be "makers choice" meaning I'll do something rad and be like hey here it is if you want it :). They are very difficult so I am sticking to word of mouth until I finish this batch and improve the process, then I might put them online, or maybe not - who knows!? They are an option but most people who want one just show up and I sell it to them so it's easier that way.

The discovery came through experimentation and a crazy inspiring finish i saw on a pocket knife from Boker that used the material. When I saw it first I didn't understand it and as someone who is very technical my heart was racing and I needed to figure it out. It's all about grain structure and manipulating grain size in the titanium so you can see them :)

Do you have any pictures of HOW these 2 pens look AFTER some time? The color probably dramatically changes and it would be good to see how they both look. Also, maybe show a sample of how smoothly it writes?

Yeah the machining on that one is some of my best work. The facets were really fun to design and come up with. The pens write as good as any other roller or Jowo fountain pen, a video or pic wont help determine if it is best for you though, since the experience is actually dictated by your writing style (angle, Left H vs Right H, how you hold the pen, etc.) so it's a super personal thing. Most pen addicts, like watch addicts, figure out what they do and don't like over time. These are quite standard ink roller and fountain pens nibs (Jowo #6) so they are easy to customize, swap out etc. Many of my customers have their nibs ground to their style. Some I really love what they did to it, others I can't stand! All preference.

Looking at your shop, I see that you have your own ink cartridges, but can you use other branded ones? I really like Japanese ink brands since their quality is one of my favourites and they have a ton of variety.

And as a one-man watch manufacturer, would you ever make a watch with a high accuracy quartz movement, or do you think you'll stick to the mechanical watches exclusively? You can use any ink you like! It's a cartridge pen so there are limitations, but you can syringe fill an old cartridge with anything you want. No issues :)

Given that you're basically a one man show, what are the challenges you tend to face when it comes to designing and creating watches and pens? Are there any other micro brands that you're into or that you find inspiring? And building off of that, are you a collector of any watch brands in particular? If so, does your collection influence you or inspire you at all?

There are a million and one challenges. Doing the "right" work is a big one. There are infinite tasks and opportunities. Finding where to put your energy each day is critical. As someone who has an intimate and growing knowledge of what it takes for me to make my products it is easy to get overwhelmed and pick the wrong things to focus on at any given time. Reflection on this is critical to changing my workflow. The strange thing about removing constraints by owning my own machinery and making my things is it becomes harder to kick off a project since I have to think not just about design, assembly, marketing,
sales, etc. but now also which machine, programming, tooling, setup, workholding, material, run time, cleaning, finishing, in process quality checks etc. The list becoming big quickly when adding in any manufacturing in house. My time is being spread quite thin, but the control over the process is yielding new results.

Big challenges often arise in the unknown unknowns. Things I don't expect. Things I didn't anticipate. Things I do not know how to immediately solve. These are SUPER rewarding to tackle, but in the moment can be stressful and grind a process to a halt. In these moments the skill of evaluating a plan of action and hypothesis building on how to move forward it critical. Even asking for help in these moments is super difficult since it requires a lot of "framing" and baseline knowledge of many different aspects of my workflow to even discuss with anyone. So I am often alone, toiling away and turning these solutions
into things that separate me in terms of quality or product or the way I do what I do on a daily basis.

It's a daunting task working for yourself, but I love how well rounded the work is. Another big challenge for my watches I encountered is describing what I do. I am somewhere between an independent and a microbrand I guess. The amount of manufacturing I do sets me apart, but I don't make my own movements. So its really hard to place me in the "watch industry". I focus a lot of independent workflow in my work from design to completion. I think getting put into the category as a microbrand often makes me feel a little weird as I consider myself an artist and a maker. Plus my pricing is not that of a micro brand or of a independent. Saying "brand" at all feels weird. I stamp my watches "Schon" on the
back since sure, Schon Horology is the brand name, I don't really have a brand and I don't really care to build one, I'm just Ian Schon and here I made this.

Similar to this challenge, the watch industry is optimized for people to sell hundreds or thousands of watches, selling 5-20 pieces a year. It's hard to justify going to tradeshows, making watches to send out for review, splitting the proceeds with a dealer or sales channel that isn't direct. whew. hard. I want to continue making watches, but I learned quickly that I cannot play by the normal industry rules if I want to do things my own way and I have to forge my own path otherwise it just doesn't workout in the end financially.

Micro brands that I find inspiring? What do I collect? I think Ming is cool. I am inspired by the design of their watches. Had I seen more brands like Ming before I started I would have collected some. By the time I dove into making my own watches I had allocated all my watch budget and then some into the making of watches. I really wanted a Journe and instead of buying one and saving for it, I said to myself let me go make a watch and spend some money on that, that'll be fun AF. So I went for that instead. Do I regret it? No. But I cant put more money into watches as I should just enjoy what I have chosen to make vs. collecting others. I have a lot of things I want to make for myself. That feels good. So I'll just save some time up and some budget to do that for me.

John Ferrer of Brew is just such a nice dude I love his passion and what he brings in terms of photography and design. So I always love seeing what he is up to.

I'll be honest though, making watches kinda ruined collecting a bit for me. Not gonna lie. I wish it wasn't true but it totally is. I can't see things the same way anymore. Do I love seeing other people's collections and nerding out hardcore? TOTALLY. I love every Redbard meet I go to. I love the passion. I love when someone buys a watch and they want to just GEEEK out on it with me and that brings me a lot of joy. But I haven't been buying. I do scan second hands stores and nerd out when I find cool stuff. The hunt and the unknown is fun. I found a few legit watches that way years ago.

Other micros... Autodromo is cool. I love the look of their early integrated lug watches. So sweet and unique. Ogle watch Co. is not a micro but if you haven't heard, he's the dude. His stuff is the closest process wise to mine. Like me he is an outsider in the industry and does his own thing. He is one of the most talented machinists I know. Full stop. Also he and I both love bikes and have worked in that space a bit.

In the spirit of "ask me anything", were you nervous about opening up your own business (TONS of start-up costs before you make a dime, uncertainty in getting enough customers to support yourself and your family, etc.)? How did you manage to do it? And what made you decide to take the plunge, if you already had a good job?

Was I nervous? HECK YES. I started in 2011 with my pens as a side gig and when it started taking off I worked outside my day job nights and weekends on the pens and the watches up until 2017. Here's a nice snapshot of the nights and weekends early development of my watches in 2015.

I had a dream job, not just a good job. IDEO was the best. This was my career goal and I was there. But the stress of clients was too much to bear. I didn't like having bosses. I am not the best at working with other people even to be honest (I see this more now than I did then)! I wanted to do my side projects full time. So I kept cranking on them. Testing, learning, saving money, building process and systems all outside of my day job at night. This really helped set the stage for going solo.

I had about 6 years worth of experience in my own projects so once I quit I hit the ground running. I was doing some consulting on the side outside of my business (actually in the watch industry, but due to NDAs I shouldn't talk about it) and yeah for a few years I didn't make money, but I was happy. Really happy. I worked out of my house for the first year to save funds. I eventually got a 400 sqft space in Boston. I was ALL IN on watches at that point, the pens were funding them, but I was spending more than I was making on them. I got an intro into Hodinkee and they asked I make them 2 watches for review. I sent them out once I finished them and they sat on them for a year before reviewing them. During that year I made 12 watches including the 2 for Hodinkee and I developed tons of process around finishing and was even deep into a jump hour module and new design. By the end of that year I needed to get real and make some changes.

I realized I was in a super niche with my work. I wasn't willing to compromise on what I loved about my process and so I decided to keep doing it the right way and do less of it. The article hit (a bit too late sadly) and there was some new demand but there was also a lot of email that came my way from folks who insisted on telling me how my watches were too expensive or that I should be making my own movement. Cool. The negative energy from that review was actually more than the positive. But that's just part of the snark of the internet collecting world. I have thick skin so I still do things the way I do.

I got a bit soured after all the emails I got. It was really intense actually. The uplifting thing is that there was a lot of interest from people who wanted to do the same thing. For months I answered them and for the most part warned people that the economics are very difficult. Best make a watch under 2k and use lesser techniques. Oh and buy a case since extremely few people care about a handmade case (that are willing to spend on it). LOL

After this year of toil I did a really scary thing. I started looking into bringing all my pen manufacturing in house. Why? I wanted to machine them the way I used to back when I was making pens in my garage in 2010. I love making things. What if I could make a model for doing the machining myself? I created this business model and it was a bit sketchy and tons of unknown unknowns were there. I bought my first Citizen lathe in 2018 and my wife and I moved to Philly in 2019 to support my effort. I got a 2800 sqft space and started the next phase of my work, which was I think 3.0 at this point here's a snap of the studio as it looked around 6 months in.

This was a HUGE investment in the renovation/electrical of the space, added rent, machinery, auxiliary processing equipment but I launched my fountain pens coming off this and my design was well received (I had been marinating on it for about 3 years 'till I made the first ones). The new processes and workflow was working nicely. SPEED was key. I could make things faster even though it required more of my time, I was onto something. I am now working on the next wave of products for my pens. About a year in at this point and things are going well. Quite challenging for sure, but going well!