Still life Photographer: Kenji Toma for cartelandco.com. Portrait photographer: Eric Rose at filmesque.com.
The Stone Age Is Looking Modern
In many ways, Matt Conable’s craft—functional luxury accessories for men—mirrors his approach to the world. “It would be a cool mix of old America and frontier,” says founder Matt Conable of his initial concept for his company, William Henry. The same could be said of Conable’s trajectory over the last 20 years. Abandoning an Ivy League education and heading west at 19, Conable set up a new life in the coastal Santa Cruz area. There he met David Boye, “an old-time hippie knifemaker,” who liked Conable’s piano playing and offered him a job at his store. “That’s kind of how he ran his business,” Conable says, laughing. It would be a fortuitous moment at a fork in Conable’s life. The self-trained craftsman has since taken his creative vision to heights he says he couldn’t have imagined in his pre-William Henry days. The brand’s knives, pens, cuff links, money clips—and recently, jewelry—exist in a space all their own: They’re crafted with thousand-year-old techniques, and incorporate exotic materials like dinosaur fossil bones, the teeth of woolly mammoths, and 100-thousand-year-old fossil coral sourced from lime pits in the Florida Keys. In this regard, they’re unparalleled. But to a teenage Conable, it wasn’t readily apparent that an ad-hoc apprenticeship would spark a lifetime interest in knife making. “I would’ve never told you in a million years that it was what I would end up doing. And I didn’t get into it because I was a knife nut. I got into it because it was something to do. I never really thought about knives as anything other than utility—a pocket knife, a kitchen knife—but this guy’s style was very different…I just never bothered to focus on the way form and function, art and utility, can meet in something like a knife or other fine tools. And that was interesting. There was some sense of legacy with every action that you took—that these were tools that were going to be around long after we had all gone. And that still inspires me.” In time, Conable branched off from Boye, and he and his girlfriend (now wife) made their way to Arizona where they repurposed an old barn into a workshop. Conable’s girlfriend etched designs into the blades and managed sales while Conable made the knives. Though a humble operation, they caught the attention of some high profile industry insiders. “I was 25 and we were already being accepted into the most prestigious shows in the country—Smithsonian, Philadelphia Museum of Art—these really hoity-toity shows where other craftsmen and artists that were there were another generation away from us.” But the payoff was table scraps, and Conable second-guessed his trajectory. They moved back to the Bay Area, and if it weren’t for a fateful phone call, Conable would be in a very different place right now. It was a Thursday night when he got the message; the following Monday he was slated to start work at a new company. “Somehow [Michael Henry Honack] had gotten ahold of my résumé from somebody, and just left me a message saying ‘Hey, love what you’re doing; hear you’re floating right now. I’d love to be part of creating, rather than just consuming this kind of stuff.’ Well, he turned out to be my business partner.” William Henry—a combination of the two men’s middle names—was born. “The start of William Henry was actually me in a single room upstairs in [Honack’s] glass studio. I had a computer, and three feet away I had my grinder and my drill press and my polishing machines. So I would throw a garbage bag over the computer,” he says laughing, “while I worked on these first pieces so that the dust from them wouldn’t ruin my computer.” The shoddy makeshift scene is a far cry from the luxury of William Henry’s current crop, which has grown into a decidedly luxury brand. Conable’s knife making past has melded naturally with the company’s expansion over the last couple of decades, as it evolved to incorporate a range of accessories for men that are one part Davy Crockett, one part Clark Gable. “That’s the competitive advantage—I come out of the world of hiding, and it’s a weird, trippy little rock when you look under it; there is a pretty big world. And in that world there’s a lot of real nut balls that are out there,” he says of the knife-making industry. He and the other nut balls know where to look, and that makes for great stories, both pre- and post-production. “It’s my interest to take all of that aggregated learning that we have at William Henry about where to find these kinds of materials and how to work with them—that whole network that we’ve built over these 15-plus years—and bring that into men’s accessories to really expand the base and give men a reason to be excited. We like to tell stories.” It’s noticeable how excited he is as he explains: “If you have a [William Henry] bracelet and it looks cool, someone goes ‘That’s nice,’ and you have a story to tell about it that’s more than just ‘Yeah it’s David Yurman.’ ‘Check that out, that’s 300-million-year-old dinosaur fossil bone or hand-forged steel, the same way they used to make samurai swords with 600 layers.’ You’re so much cooler than the next guy in the room with a story like that. We like that stuff. We do. We like those kinds of stories.” When you’re plucking fossils out of obscure locales or incorporating ancient etching techniques, the pace of production is slow, but that gels with Conable’s outlook. His focus is on quality, not quantity. He wants to find the best materials, the most talented engravers in the world, the most fascinating sources of inspiration. “All that stuff is great,” he says of other high-end companies making luxury accessories for men. “Beautifully made—mostly beautifully made. Very well-engineered, well-executed. They’re real pros at what they do…But it’s very conservative. It’s conservative mostly in terms of materials, and to me that’s very foundational. It’s all freakin’ silver and gold and onyx and black diamond, maybe tiger’s eye and you’re done. End. And that’s really boring to me. There’s so many cool materials that—even by themselves—are amazing. They are the decoration, rather than needing to be [decorated]. They have a story to tell.” Integral to William Henry’s expansion to jewelry is the inclusion of Seattle-based jeweler Tomas Wittelsbach, who joined the team in June of 2013. Prior to then, “Everything that we designed, everything that we made, was me,” says Conable. Wittelsbach adds a new aesthetic to the brand, which “is much more modern, much more rock ‘n’ roll, much more jewelry as people think of it,” Conable says. “His aesthetic comes very much from a focus on Japan and Asia in general, fused with a kind of pagan-goth rock ‘n’ roll. Although that’s not all that he does, that’s where we are tending to lean. But if you want some beautiful Celtic piece, he’s got that, too. His talent’s very broad.” That aesthetic will blend with the existing qualities of Conable’s own tastes. “The story is really going to be about these two disparate designers—how they meet and bump into each other and mix. One is this amazing sculptor—who’s used to doing $800,000 sculpting commissions for, you know, royalty in Japan—who has taken that aesthetic and scaled it all down into things that are wearable, against me, in my relatively timeless, elegant, neutral, mechanically precise approach that’s really founded in materials.” Jewelry is not as purely utilitarian as William Henry’s other accessories, but there’s a perk to that: They’re much more visible. A pocketknife, a pen, a money clip...those stay tucked into pockets—occasionally the pockets of very high-profile red carpet types, but pockets nonetheless. Jewelry offers the brand a chance to become more visible—and that means more stories, Conable’s driving inspiration. The fossils, the precious stones, the intricate designs—they’re conversation pieces, and Conable’s looking forward to seeing more of those conversations come to life. “Gold is just gold—there are 20 places in my town I can buy as much as I want. Silver? Forget about it; it’s in 200 places. It’s not rare; it’s a commodity. It has a market value and can be beautifully rendered, but fundamentally you’re not creating a distinctive personality for yourself when you’re buying that stuff, compared to what we’re able to offer. We have to figure out how to tell those stories in a meaningful way. Brass, copper, and nickel on their own are not precious materials. But this one guy who has managed to force and twist them into, ‘mokume gane,’ a remarkable patterned material where no two pieces are ever going to have the same grain structure? Now that’s amazing.” The rest has yet to unfold, as stories do, but Conable is clearly ready to see it in action. “I’m trying to build stuff that is at the limit of my current imagination, and hopefully by the time I build that, my imagination will have made a leap forward and I’ll already be unsatisfied with what I built because I know what I could do.”