A few months back, the kind folk at Claude Bernard Singapore invited us down to an installment of its Local Artisan Programme where we learnt exactly how laborious the process of making our own NATO straps were. We were set to learn from Xie Hui (Stone), the founder and owner of Stone For Gold, a leather-craft atelier that specialises in highly customised leather watch straps. While fabric NATO straps are arguably the most correct (in terms of history at least), the leather variant is often our go to choice for a casual look that stands out at least.
We talked to Stone on his craft and his journey through it.
1. Where and how did you get into the leather-crafting trade?
I was formally educated in interior design (from LaSalle College of the Arts) and professionally trained in fashion merchandising. Leather-craft is a trade that is entirely self-taught.
I have always liked wearing accessories since I was a child and hand-making my own accessories like bracelets and necklaces with strings and beads and whatever I could find. I chose to work with leather later due to its versatility, durability and the fact that the texture of leather improves with age. Because there weren’t any courses for leather-crafting, I learned from reading books. Online learning from the internet expedited the process a lot.
By the time I started my design education at LaSalle, I was already running an online e-store selling leather key pouches, luggage tags and iPhone covers which I hand-crafted himself. I decided to set up Stone For Gold in 2008 as soon as sales volumes justified it. I started focusing on leather watch straps in 2011, as changeable watch straps became Stone For Gold’s No. 1 business (leather mobile phone covers comes to a close 2nd). I attribute the popularity of Stone For Gold’s leather straps for our ability to custom-make different types of watch straps in over 100 leather colours, stitchings, linings and tannings, and able to offer unique exotic skins like stingray, python, crocodile, ostrich and even chicken feet.
I find watch straps the amongst most customisable type of leather accessories. People like having different straps for their watches. It’s like bags, you can pair them with your outfits. And Singaporeans mostly have more than just one watch. My clients range from like students to homemakers to professionals. People who like leather and prefer that personal touch in a bespoke leather strap rather than buying it off-the-shelf.
2. How do you source for raw materials? What types of skins?
I source raw materials (basic cow leather and exotic skins like stingray, crocodile, ostrich, python and chicken feet) mostly from Asia as well as Europe. I travel to various countries in both Asia and Europe to source for these materials personally as I do not want to compromise on the quality.
3. What are some of your most popular leather skin types?
My customers have a taste for the unique and unusual. I have customers every other day asking to custom-make leather straps, leather key rings, wallets and handphone covers in exotic skins like stingray, frog and chicken feet. It is a novelty to them. But for larger items like duffle bags, folios and laptop cases, they will ask for traditional calf leather as exotic skins are often prohibitively expensive, and sometimes not practical as skins like frog cannot provide a seamless surface. It is usually with smaller accessories like watch straps and key-rings where there is more experimentation by customers with exotic skins.
4. How long does it take for you to make a high quality watch strap?
Because of experience, I only take 30 minutes to make a simple leather strap from traditional cow skin. But with more exotic skins, e.g. working with python (which is very tearable), stingray (which is slippery) or crocodile (which is thick, uneven and tough), it can take as long as 18 hours.
5. Can you give us an overview of the process of making a leather watch strap?
Precision in making a watch leather strap is very important. You have to get the cuts, stitching and gluing right on the first and only time. There is no compromise on any possibility of re-stitching or re-cutting due to the small size of a watch leather strap as the flaws will be too glaring and obvious. It is also an art that engages more than just visually – the sense of touch and fragrant smell of genuine leather all contributes to the experience.
Also, animal hides are not of uniform thickness and there are always slight variations throughout the strap. This makes a lot of demands on the cutting and stitching process which necessitates specially designed tools specific only to the trade.
6. What is it about your leather straps that your customers value?
I also conduct leather-crafting workshops for customers who desire the experience of hand-making their very own leather straps, of course under our supervision. Custom-made leather straps always only have one hole as it is personally fitted for the customer’s wrist. We can also engrave the customer’s name on the bottom lining of the watch strap. Our customers really value this level of personalisation – it makes their watches meaningful and something to wear with great pride and for life.
7. What do you need to look out for when hand-making a leather strap?
Everything plays a part. From the materials to the tools and the techniques applied, one has to be very conscious and aware. One wrong stitch and the whole thing falls apart quickly and the leather damaged. It all goes hand in hand.