NOVO Watches’ Steve Christensen has created a unique business handcrafting timepieces from reclaimed historical materials. From his base in Lethbridge, Alberta, he explains why beautiful watches hold such appeal.
Story by Gavin Conway, photography by Gerard Yunker.
When watch aficionados contemplate the finest handmade watches in the world, they will most naturally think of Switzerland. That is where storied brands such as Rolex, IWC, Breitling, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Blancpain and many others reside. So, it’s a pretty safe bet that the small town of Lethbridge, Alberta, won’t be on their radar. At all.
Which is a shame, because there is, for fans of exquisitely crafted timepieces, quite a special operation going on there. Namely, NOVO watches, founded by Steve Christensen, who has been passionate about watches for his whole life. “When I was younger working on a summer job, I won some money in a competition and went out to buy a watch,” explains Christensen. “I couldn’t find anything I liked so I told my friends: ‘I’m going to start my own watch company.’ I began coming up with ideas, talking to people in China about how to get them made, and then we started bringing in product.”
But competition was tough, and Christensen felt that his watches were becoming too much like every other mainstream offering on the market. “I felt like the soul of our product was disappearing, and so I got really interested in the idea of handmaking timepieces and doing all the work in-house,” he says. “And there’s something special about the artisan and handmade movement. It’s about creating something that will last and that you will have a great appreciation for.”
The Coalbanks-Barrow 1885 edition is made from 132-year-old railroad salvaged from a defunct local mine
“If you have an item of great sentimental value, NOVO will do its best to create a bespoke watch using that”
What makes NOVO unique is that Christensen and his team handcraft watches using reclaimed historical material, whether it’s a 132-year-old railroad track, an old shipwreck, or even a military tank. NOVO creates its own series of watches, but will also take commissions, so if you have an item of great sentimental value, NOVO will do its best to create a bespoke watch using that. The watch body has to be metal because of the precision demands of watchmaking, but other materials such as wood, leather and even plastic can be incorporated, either onto the watch face or on the strap. In one recent example of how this works, NOVO is using a Major League Baseball player’s plastic shin guard to create indicator markings for the watch dial on a commissioned timepiece.
It’s about taking something with personal, emotional context and creating something beautiful and lasting. “That way customers can keep a meaningful piece of history and then pass it down to the next generation,” explains Christensen. “There’s a certain authenticity and transparency that they can feel. I like to take old material and repurpose it into something else and retell the story.” And that ethos informs the name of the company, an idea Christensen formed after his travels in Siberia. “I have a special place in my heart for a city in Russia called Novosibirsk,” he says. “Novo in Russian means ‘new’, which fits well with our aim of making old things new.”
Christensen says that he learned his craft from the best in the business. “My mentor is Christian Laas, a watchmaker from Switzerland,” he explains. “He taught me everything I know about watchmaking. Laas works for high-end watch companies in their restoration divisions and the great thing about those divisions is they need somebody with incredible experience. I was lucky to have found him.” Unsurprisingly, the typical NOVO customer is a little older and well heeled, although Christensen says that profile is broadening, thanks to publicity the company has received. “We did a customer profile a while ago—originally, it was people over the age of 50, married, making $200,000 or more. That has changed a bit and I think the news coverage of us across the country is the reason why.”
One of NOVO’s recent projects involves an old shipwreck in California. The SS Dominator was built in the 1940s and its final resting place is near Laguna Beach. “It’s in a very remote spot that you actually have to hike to get to. So, we’ll be working out how to integrate the material into a watch. The hull is too rusty to use in structural pieces, but we can use that metal for indicators on or as pieces for numbers. We have permission to take small pieces from the side of the ship. They are long, thin rusted metal pieces so we’ll cut out small tiny circles and make them thin enough to sit on the face of the watch.”
Creating new watches is a long process, too. Christensen explains that the first version of a new model takes up to eight weeks to complete, but once the process has been worked out, that drops to about three to five weeks, depending on the complexity of the design. Asked about the biggest challenge he faced, Christensen laughs: “The biggest challenge? Well, figuring out how to make a watch in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, which isn’t exactly a hub of watchmaking! And finding the right people was tough. We have an amazing machinist, a young guy who loved the idea of watchmaking. And the hard part about getting material that isn’t pre-forged for a machinist is to find a blacksmith, and one who can take a railroad track and make it into the right shape. We’ve got a great one. Those were a few of the biggest hurdles. The last piece was finding the engraver; it was so important to find the right one because we really wanted to make our movements stand out and give more soul to the watch.”
Soul. That word came up constantly in our conversation and it’s probably the very best description of what NOVO and Steve Christensen are all about.