The grandson of a New Haven watchmaker has raised more than $80,000 to launch a watch company, hoping to succeed in a venerable industry that now competes with smart phones, the timepieces of the 21st century.
Brian Dunnigan, co-founder and president of Hawthorn Watch Co., raised the money on Kickstarter in January 2017 and the first watches were delivered in late August.
He credits a “budding watch scene” that helped provide financial support for the company, which designs and markets its line of watches. The timepieces are manufactured overseas.
He was inspired by his grandfather, Bernard Brown, a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient who benefited from the GI Bill of Rights after the war to study watchmaking.
Brown, a watchmaker and repairer of timepieces in New Haven, died in 2011.
Dunnigan, whose day job is at UConn where he works as a web designer, didn’t learn about the trade until he inherited his grandfather’s tools a few years after his death. He said he watched his grandfather work at his bench in his basement and later discovered his own fascination with watches, which led to the start of the Hawthorn Watch Co. a year ago.
His grandfather “was the one who inspired me to get into watches and spurred my love for watches,’’ said Dunnigan, 31. The idea for a company, he said, came in a dream.
“From a dream, a literal dream about making a watch, came the idea for Hawthorn Watch Co.,” Dunnigan said. “I woke up in the middle of the night, sketched it on a piece of paper on my nightstand and fell back asleep.”
Dunnigan said in addition to his grandfather’s wooden tools, he also inherited a “press of some sort,” a flashlight and log books noting the make of a watch, the charge for the work, dates the work was done, even the number of jewels in a watch and whether it was a men’s or woman’s watch.
“He took detailed notes on every timepiece he worked on,” he said.
Dunnigan said he learned watchmaking by adapting 21st century technology to old-fashioned shoe-leather efforts — “a lot of Googling” — and speaking to smaller watch brands about their suppliers, specifications, details about manufacturing and other aspects of the business.
Dunnigan and Hawthorn co-founder Jeremy Crossgrove, an industrial designer in Boston, designed a watch, looked for manufacturers and calculated production costs to determine a selling price.
Crossgrove is “the only person I know” familiar with computer-assisted design and work in 3D, Dunnigan said.
“I really love watches because everyone has a story behind their watch or a history,” he said. “It’s all about the sentimental value.”
Typically presented as gifts for birthdays, anniversaries and retirements, watches “connect a really good memory to a visible object,” Dunnigan said.
Wristwatches have run up against competition from smart phones that tell the time not only locally, but in time zones across the world. Dunnigan says watches have “come back in fashion.”
Major watch manufacturers are in Germany and Switzerland, not in the United States, said Jim Hush, an instructor in watch and clock repair at Gem City College in Quincy, Ill.
Nicholas Manousos, president of the Horological Society of New York, the first and oldest watchmaking guild in the U.S. that dates to 1866, said watchmaking jobs are secure and pay well, with annual salaries in the New York area of $60,000 to $70,000.
“They are definitely in fashion today,” he said. “It’s similar to the resurgence in vinyl records. It reminds us of our history, where we came from. You can pass them on to your children.”
Dunnigan said the past was in mind as he and Crossgrove designed the watches, which sell for $219 and $239.
“We decided to make watches that were inspired by the vintage times with more modern designs,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable amount of work to get it made right.”
His watches, which contain more than 40 parts, are manufactured overseas: The case is made in China and a Swiss company makes the ’ movements. However, the leather watch strap is from Florida and tanned in Maine.
“Just being able to show your personality and things you like on your wrist is what attracted me to watches. Each watch has its own story whether it is a birthday gift or anniversary gift or something that you got to celebrate a promotion,’’ he said.
“Each watch is sort of tied to a memory. And even if it is not tied to a memory now it might be part of one in the future. I think that is what makes watches so personal to each individual. You tie these memories to this one little thing you keep on your wrist.”
For now, Dunnigan said he sells 30 to 35 watches a month, up from 15 or 16 a few months ago. He’s working on the next generation of watch, a chronograph, which is a typical watch with stopwatch capabilities.
Displaying gears and springs is “more attractive to watch enthusiasts,” he said.
Dunnigan and Crossgrove market their watches “for the most part” on the internet, specifically Facebook and Instagram. They’ve also connected with others in the industry at an annual “Wind Up Watch Fair” in New York City.
Another Kickstarter fund drive and ordering of samples of the next generation of watches are planned for 2018. Expanding Hawthorn in the next couple of years “is the ideal goal,” Dunnigan said.
“At a certain time, I’ll have to take the next leap,” he said.