Holland-based creators of oversized timepieces TW Steel are already a well-established brand amongst both the style-savvy and those who generally prefer bigger, bolder watches. With the launch of their latest Maverick Collection, spawning from their recent Son of Time collaboration between Chief Designer Ton Cobelens and Amsterdam-based motorcycle builder Roderick Seibert, which saw one watch and one motorcycle created in unison, the company showcase their ability to modernize the wristwatch whilst also using some old-school design philosophy. During the launch of this new collection in Sydney last week, we caught up with Ton’s son, and CEO of TW Steel, Jordy Cobelens to talk about the company, the watches, and everything else in between.
TW Steel is already well known and established for what is a relatively young brand, do you see not having the history of some of the other major watch companies as an advantage?
I’ve never really thought about it like that… I mean, right now of course we don’t have a lot of history but I think in those ten years we’ve done so much that you know, sometimes it feels like it’s already been three decades instead of just one. When those other brands started you look at their first, maybe, three decades and things moved very slowly, slowly – the world is moving at a different pace now so you take, say, a hundred years ago and you take one day then, that’s probably an hour now. I think also that everything that’s going on with social media, you know, everything is happening so much faster. We did the ten-year anniversary last year, if I could show you the videos we’d done and the partnerships we’ve made I think it’s very impressive. So no, I don’t think it’s an advantage or a disadvantage I think you just have to be realistic about who you are and act accordingly.
The new Maverick collection looks great and has a more ‘vintage’ feel to it. Do you think that this is important to current trends?
Yep. I read a lot of style books. When you’re designing watches you read a lot of style books and I think you start to see certain trends. They don’t tell you the colours or exact styles but you do see trends developing, that’s how we started in the first place, we saw a trend for big watches. The other thing is with Instagram and Facebook people start to really enjoy sharing the smaller things in life, you know, like private dinners and such. Vintage gives the feeling of history and family and we definitely see a big trend in that. Of course you’re trying to translate that into a product that suits the consumer. It still needs to be a modern day product but with a vintage feel.
Ten years in – what’s been your proudest moment as CEO?
Well, there’s been a lot (laughs). Proudest moment I think it depends a bit on what level. First overseas office which was actually Australia was a very proud moment. Signing Formula One with the brand being only four years old; standing there seeing our logos on the cars was a very proud moment. And the first boutique we opened was also big for us, you know, when somebody wants to open a mono-brand store just to sell your brand – so there’s definitely a few for us.
Was getting into motorsports always a goal?
Not at the start, no. But then none of this was really planned at the start. We set out to create some nice looking watches and probably sell them in Holland, yeah, so, it grew much faster and bigger than expected. Once we chose motor sport as a platform of course we thought that Formula One is something that would be the ultimate but it would be maybe in a decade or something. It happened a lot sooner.
What’s the hardest decision you’ve had to make at TW Steel?
The hardest decision… I think hiring people overseas. Those were tough decisions. Opening offices in Australia and Hong Kong and Thailand you know, they’re different cultures. Especially doing business in Asia. You have to judge it based on your experience and your instinct and of course you make mistakes, because in an interview people always tell you the best possible scenario. Those were tough decisions. Everything else of course I trust my instinct and I mean, we all make mistakes but yeah, definitely hiring people for overseas offices.
TW Steel is obviously a very creative environment – have you ever had to step in as CEO and say no to something?
My father is the main designer and we work very closely. Before something happens we’ve already discussed it. There’s never something that comes along and we say no. We look at trends and source materials together, you, know, the leather, those kind of things it’s a whole process. It’s a process working together to get a final concept.
With regards to pricing, TW Steel have built a reputation for quality, but the prices have remained entry-level, starting at about $350 Australian. Are you ever tempted to raise the prices knowing that you probably could?
No. Never. I’ve been a big believer of ‘never change a winning team’. Things are going well, why would we change it? Of course we’ve done exclusive pieces and we’ve stretched it a little from where we started, at around the $300 mark, some of the higher end pieces are around $1000 but once you go out of your comfort zone you’re trying to be somebody you’re not. The strength of TW Steel has been great looking designs at an affordable price-point. So, value for money. Once you go above that you’re losing your DNA.
Where does the name TW Steel originate?
It’s ‘The Watch – in Steel’. We started with four steel watches and we had to come up with a name.
Interesting that you did it in English and not Dutch…
(Laughs) It would not sound pretty in Dutch.
What was your boyhood dream watch when you were a kid?
Ahhhh. That’s a good one! I think when I was very young you know digital watches were quite cool. I had different interests and when I was young I wasn’t really into watches yet. When I was fourteen my dad started designing watches so it was pretty much our own brands. But when I look at when I was around nine or ten I liked the digital watches, and ones I could tease the teachers with – I had one with a remote control in it that could change the channel on the television!
This question could be contentious, you don’t have to say a brand name, but what’s the ugliest watch you’ve seen?
(Laughs) I see ugly watches all the time obviously. If it’s brands I mean I think they’re unknown anyway, but of course we design ourselves and I can appreciate other styles of watches that are different because while I might not necessarily wear it I also have a commercial mind, you know, how can I say something doesn’t look good when they sell so many? What is good looking? Either you make something that nobody wants that is artistic or you make something that everybody likes but maybe some people say isn’t real design. I think it’s personal preference. I like clean looking styles, not too messy. I like it clean and not too flashy.
You’re a celebrated DJ and music lover. Does music inspire what happens at TW Steel?
Of course I’ve got the entertainment company, that’s a great way to see what’s happening in the market because we do events and the audience at those events are twenty-five, thirty-five, forty (years old) so when I’m at these events I’m always looking at everybody’s wrist you know. What are they wearing? What colour combinations? In that respect it gives inspiration, but I can get that anywhere. It’s mainly a marketing tool, we never claim that music made us create a piece though.
Where do you see the brand in fifty years, once you’ve stepped away and left a legacy?
I think of course building it strong in every country, making great designs and really, people know us as the watch company that changed the watch industry for big watches because that’s what we did. I think that sometimes that message of course – and when we started, yes, we got strong quickly, and yes there were other brands that jumped on it as well, I think that not enough people know the story yet so that would, I’d say, be the end goal. That people really know that TW Steel changed the landscape in the watch industry.
Would TW Steel ever make a ‘normal sized’ watch?
No. Never. Because then we’re losing our DNA. If tomorrow, nobody buys big watches anymore then that’s okay, the brand will always be the brand. But once you start to change that then you have to just start a new brand because otherwise you’re going to be exactly like the rest of them. There’s always going to be ups and downs and there’s always trends. Slim watches are a bit of a hype right now, but we still maintain a strong position and there’s still an audience. You see with cars as well, there’s years where Mini Coopers are popular and there’s years that SUVs are popular, but it’s not that when one is popular the other one dies, there’s still a market and you have to stick to your roots.
Assuming there’s a vintage trend at the moment, what’s the next trend in wristwatches, say, in five years time? Not just for TW Steel but for fashion in general.
(Long pause) That’s… That’s a good one. No. It’s too difficult to say right now. I think that this (vintage styling) is something that’s going to continue. I think that smart-watch technology will have an influence on traditional looking watches. You can already see Apple watch sales dropping, most of the big smart-watch manufacturers are selling less and less. The product (smart-watches) gets old quite quickly, you need to charge them every day and there’s not going to be a major change in them in the coming period. But there’s room in a classic design for some smart technology. Maybe in the strap, or in the casing but hidden in a way that you don’t see if from the outside. I think that will have an impact as technology of course is moving quite fast and there’s already quite a bit possible. I mean, you can do a chip in here (points to watch clasp) that can pay using EFTPOS already, so it’s something that we look at. Look at the past thirty years, outside of big watches everything has been done before. Nothing is new. Even in the last fifty years nothing is newly available – it’s only price points. When we came in we made big watches available to the masses but big watches have been around since the 50s, so there’s really nothing new, no new ideas. I don’t think there’ll be a huge change over the next two decades even, it’s really just about colours, which is very difficult to predict. The vintage style is definitely something that will continue for at least the next three years. It’s why we’re collaborating with motorbikes and barber shops, like I said at the start people want to go back to the roots again, it’s a cycle, things always go in and out of fashion and each time it always has a bit of a new flavour.
Lastly – as a brand that you personally built, what’s the most important, salient point you’d like to make about TW Steel?
It’s important to highlight again where the brand is. We started ten years ago to make really cool watches and to do things a bit different, and now ten years later we have partnerships with major organisations like, we sponsor Moto GP, but still this year we’re going back to our roots and doing something much smaller which I think has more soul in it. Those partnerships are still really important as they give us a great platform and great exposure, but when people see this (points to the custom-built café racer) – it gets the emotion out of people, they feel more real with it. We did an event with the Moto GP bike and also the custom bike and you could see how many more people who were drawn to this custom bike because it’s something more real to them, it’s something they could own. Unless you bring a really big chequebook you couldn’t afford a Moto GP bike, but this and this (points to bike and watch), this is real and that’s why it’s successful.