Several months ago, I commissioned some custom-made watch straps and a wallet, and since placing the order, I’ve had several conversations about the people, the process and the product. A few of them, predictably, have led to more pieces being commissioned from the maker, but more germane to this article are the vast majority that went a different direction. Most people were quite simply confused by why I would want to order something bespoke and wait months when I could buy something similar off Amazon, and the one phrase that was commonly thrown around was “oh, but that sounds like a terrible waste of money.”
This soon lead to more conversations and much debate on why a few people understood the underlying motivation and many didn’t seem to and if this was a result of lack of information and education or something more fundamental that couldn’t be reconciled. This article attempts to summarize what I’ve been able to take away from those discussions. I think there are three primary pieces to the puzzle – the appeal of bespoke, chasing value, being a patron.
The appeal of bespoke: I think this is the piece that is easiest to grasp. Setting economic realities and questions of budget aside, who wouldn’t be excited about the prospect of being able to actively influence the design and characteristics of a product being manufactured for their consumption?
In my case, I was not only able to specify what kind of leather I’d like used in my straps and wallet, but was also able to have them dyed to a color I wanted and preferred. After we’d picked the type and color of leather, I was able to specify the color of thread used for stitching, even the thickness of thread and type of stitching. In the case of the straps, I was able to specify the shape and thickness of the padding, length of the strap, shape of the holes, distance and number of holes and how many loop keepers I wanted. The wallet, an object that sees daily use, was designed specifically for my needs with my preferences in mind and dimensions were set accordingly. Quite frankly, the various combinations and permutations can be dizzying and confusing but extremely exhilarating (and I was lucky to have some advice and guidance along the way).
Good luck finding the blue used for the strap and wallet (much less with the faux patina as seen on the wallet) off the shelf. And as silly as it may sound, the difference between a single and double row of stitching makes a significant visual difference on the blue and brown straps. Even the straps fit like a second layer of skin. There are other small elements here and there that matter to me, but may not to someone else, which is the entire purpose of bespoke – to be personalized to you, and only you.
Chasing value: This one has been a little trickier for me to explain – primarily because people confuse value for cost. Cost is usually reflected in monetary terms and is simply what something costs to acquire or gain entry to. Whether it is worth what it costs and offers the expected value is a different question. The accurate economics term for value would be utility, but its hard enough trying to explain value without roping economics into the discussion.
When most people told me that commissioning a custom wallet, when there are thousands of option available online and elsewhere, sounded like a waste of money they rarely took the time to ask me how much the wallet cost me or what the wallet was made of. After all, isn’t price a function of the raw materials?
My custom wallet is made entirely from Japanese White Hide leather (outside) and Italian calf (inside). The only other components used were the thread for stitching and the dye and any other polish, varnish or compounds needed to treat the leather. Anyone who’s gone shopping for a wallet is used to seeing dividers made from cloth-like material (usually some form of polyester) or plastic transparent slots for your licence/ID-card and so on. None of that stuff here. A lot of these wallets also tend to be made from ‘Genuine Leather’, but few people realize that ‘Genuine Leather’ isn’t actually an unbroken piece of treated hide but is the clippings, shavings and detritus from leather processing that’s mixed together with a glue or resin and layered into thin sheets to form something that merely looks like full-grain leather.
While it’s not impossible to get a wallet made from quality leather off the shelf with this level of finish, I’ve not seen one that I don’t consider prohibitively expensive (look up prices for a Berluti wallet if you’re curious). And this is where the concept of value comes in – while I want a well made wallet, I am not prepared to pay $500-600 for it as it doesn’t offer me the requisite amount of value. But this bespoke wallet offered me all of the same benefits and the fun of bespoke for significantly less.
Patronage: If value was hard to explain, this feels downright impossible without the risk of sounding haughty. For centuries, it was common for craftsman and artists to make a living through patrons. A painter or jeweler might be on permanent retainer of the royal court or a successful man of business – making their employers their patrons. You can see why using the word patronage might have connotations of snobbishness and the bourgeois. But in reality, patronage is nothing more than the act of supporting a craftsman or artist by purchasing their products. The entire Patreon site is based off this premise.
While it might be easier for me to buy a wallet off Amazon or from Nordstrom, and easier but more expensive to buy it from Berluti, it’s more exciting and fun to hunt for quality craftsman and support them in their endeavors, and the age of the Internet has made this far more accessible than before. The gentleman who crafted my wallet and straps for example is based out of Indonesia and while the quality of work is easily as good, if not better than Paris ateliers like Jean Rosseau and Camille Fournet, he’s not as well know as them (though he does have a small but loyal client base).
Not only does it feel nice to support someone like that, but the interaction with them feels far more human. The people who run this small outfit have quickly established themselves as the gold standard for customer service in my books. They welcome all questions, are willing to be as experimental as possible, are extremely transparent and quite simply delightful to work with. I can count using the fingers on one hand the number of times I’ve been treated like this as a customer, and it’s not a coincidence that the other occasions were also with small, independent craftsmen and artists.
There is one other element to the appeal of this whole exercise, but I think of this as a subset of chasing value – chasing perfection. While we all know that anything can be improved, we also know that it comes at a cost (the concept of diminishing returns, which I will leave for another post). However, I get terribly restless every time I find out I can have something significantly better for not a whole more effort, time or money.
I hope I’ve been able to construct a convincing case with this article or at the very least open people to the idea and appeal of going bespoke, chasing value and being patrons. I’m not suggesting that we all abandon Amazon, Nordstrom or Starbucks overnight – that’s nearly impossible. Just be open to the fact that there’s more available and its a lot of fun and very addictive to go looking for it, finding it and getting exactly what you want.