When I was seven or eight, I remember telling my friends I wanted to be a watchmaker. I had no idea how I knew about watchmaking. The small parts and constant ticking fascinated me. And then again, my fifth grade teacher proclaimed one day that we would/could never get time back.
This concept of time was intriguing – was it in the past or on my watch? I’m a person who loves building systems that make sense – combining my different loves into a whole. Making something that didn’t exist before has always excited me.
I’m not sure what came first but around the time I was discovering watches, I saw that on the Starfish Tuna cans there was an offer to send in labels and get a free Charlie the Tuna watch! My mom could see immediately that I wasn’t going to let up on us following through with their offer. When we finally had enough labels, I got my watch but the entire family was completely sick of tuna sandwiches!
Because I couldn’t find a local watch school when I was graduating from high school, I pursued a career in biomedical engineering. I thought at first that I wanted to be a doctor but then I realized I was squeamish around injuries and ailments. So I found a way to combine a love of medicine with my love of systems, making and fixing things.
I thought it was perfect until I found myself struggling with the way that engineering was taught. It was a boys club and I didn’t feel respected for the way that I thought and solved problems. As a result of this struggle, over semester breaks, I wrote the book I wished I’d had when making the decision to attend engineering school.
The concept was to flip engineering on its head and instead of identifying what each type of engineering was, I started with identifying the engineers that create your favorite things. What engineers create earbuds? Olympic equipment? Roller coasters? Etc. It was called “Is There an Engineer Inside You?” And after a call from NASA shortly after it came out, I found myself launched in a whole different and unexpected trajectory.
The book became the number one engineering career guide on Amazon for 12-15 years and I produced five editions. I toured the country speaking at engineering schools from coast to coast. It was a wild ride. In middle school, I came to Oregon each summer to work in the strawberry fields. My cousin was a field boss and so it was fun to be immersed in strawberries all summer. Because of these good associations, and because my best friend from high school lived here and gave the area a thumbs up, in 2002 I moved to Springfield and opened the Engineering Education Service Center (EESC).
Having just completed a Masters in Education, I wanted to open a center that supported engineering at the middle, high school and college levels. I loved Springfield because I felt it gave me the opportunity to create something that didn’t exist anywhere. Most engineering outreach centers were housed within engineering schools and were designed to help enrollment and local communities. I wanted to do something bigger on a national scale.
Working out of my garage-turned-office in the Washburne, I made my dreams come true.
Over the next 18 years, I ended up authoring 22 books on engineering education, I was the author of the encyclopedia’s engineering section, I wrote the curriculum for the State of Oregon’s K-12 engineering education, I began a workshop program for 8th grade girls and their moms to do engineering projects together, and even worked as a trainer for LEGO, helping teachers learn to teach STEM using LEGO.
It was a pretty wild ride as the company grew, but not sustainable, as I was getting burnt out and so many schools were in-flux educationally.
In about 2013, I began craving something new with more color and innovative challenges. As luck would have it, this was also the time that I discovered Rolex had opened a school in Seattle. I was pretty excited until I visited and saw the boys club there, too. Not one woman was enrolled.
The school was also designed to graduate Rolex service people. Although I didn’t want this, the watchmaking bug was alive again. I had an epiphany that a watch could be anything —that it didn’t have to look like something you see at Macy’s or any other watch store. Each watch could tell a story and have meaning for whoever owned it. I wanted to create art in a way that was rare here in the U.S. and I wanted the watches to primarily be for women.
Everywhere I looked, I saw mostly watches for men and the watches for women were usually smaller versions of a men’s watch or ultra feminine with lots of bling.
Surely I could do better?
It took two years to develop my first watch. I like to say I found 50 ways not to do it! For three or four years I worked as the director of the EESC and also collected watchmaking tools, read every book I could find on watchmaking and experimented with building watches.
In 2015, I had my first watch design and was ready to see what people thought. I did this by getting a booth at the Saturday Market. I could make four watches a week so the very first week, I sat at my table with my four watches and talked to every single person who showed an interest. The response was fantastic and I usually sold one or two per week.
As the watch company took flight from this grass roots approach, I sold the EESC and finally became the full-time watchmaker that I’d always wanted to be. I was offered a retail storefront at 335 Main St. and we just celebrated our six-year anniversary. The store functions as my maker laboratory and a workshop for putting watches together.
Springfield made this possible. It’s a place where multiple dreams have come true because the community values small business. The cost of living is low enough that I was able to experiment building businesses that had no model I could follow.
I made many mistakes along the way, but both businesses have thrived because I wasn’t so pressured by living expenses. I had an entrepreneurship professor that said, “Most small businesses fail because the owner changes their lifestyle.” I took it to heart and stayed ready for the rainy day – this is possible in Springfield.
I love it here.
Celeste Wong is the founder, designer, and watchmaker of Celeste Watch Company, a nationally-recognized watch company with its storefront at 335 Main St. in Springfield. She was The Chronicle’s hyper-local woman in leadership spotlight at this month’s Roast, Toast, & Boast, a monthly networking event that showcases women in leadership and nonprofits.
The next RTB will be held on Monday, Aug. 14 at 8:30 a.m. at Pegasus Playhouse, 402 Main St. in Springfield. The public is encouraged to attend.