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Thursday, September 21, 2023

From Engineer And Educator To Watchmaker – Celeste Wong Changes Careers After 50


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By Caroline Ceniza-Levine,
When I decided that I wanted to start my own brand, the single most helpful resource was myself…knowing how to run my own business, trust my instincts and not be afraid of failure were crucial. – Celeste Wong, watchmaker and founder, Celeste Watch Company

Celeste Wong, watchmaker and founder of Celeste Watch Company
1. It’s never too late to make a career pivot.

2. The change can be gradual over time – no need for big career moves all at once.

3. You can build a career based on your passions that supports you creatively AND financially.

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These are my three favorite takeaways from the real-life career change of Celeste Wong, watchmaker and founder of Celeste Watch Company, bespoke watches with colorful dials made from natural materials, such as mother of pearl, abalone and wood.

Celeste – Butterfly watch CELESTE WATCH COMPANY
Wong was an engineer by background and ran an engineering education business that consulted to schools looking to start an engineering program. After years of collecting vintage time pieces, then collecting watch-making tools and learning how to use them and then selling at art fairs on the weekends, Wong – at the age of 50 — sold her engineering education business and opened a retail store in Springfield, OR in February 2017. Coming on five years later, Wong has the trademark for “Celeste”, expanded to online sales and is one of only two women-owned and operated watch companies in the US.

Wong shares her career change journey and insights she has learned along the way. The bolded, underlined sections are highlighted by me as particularly relevant to aspiring career-changers:

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Caroline Ceniza-Levine: You started thinking about a career change 14 years ago. Did you leap, or was it a gradual move?

Celeste Wong: The move was gradual. At the time I was considering making the change, I was running my first company, an engineering education center. I knew I had to sell my current company in order to make the change, and it could take a considerable amount of time. I’m big on testing the market, so for the first year, I gradually increased the number of hours I was spending as a watchmaker and decreased the number of hours running the engineering center. During this testing period, I spent every Saturday at an outdoor art fair to learn how to talk about the watches and also get feedback. I was regularly selling a few every Saturday and gradually added new designs. I would come back from these art fairs so stimulated and exuberant I knew the career shift was imminent. To my great surprise, I informally put my engineering education company up for sale in the Summer of 2016 and it sold right away. So it was full speed ahead on Celeste Watch Company by October of that year.

Ceniza-Levine: How did you get started?

Wong: I’ve wanted to be a watch maker since I was a little girl. When I was graduating from high school, before the Internet, I couldn’t find a watch school in the United States. Unable to pursue this interest, I got an engineering degree and mostly forgot about this dream. However, about 14 years ago, I heard that Rolex opened a school in Seattle. I thought to myself that I could finally go to watch school! The old passion came flooding back. I planned a visit only to discover that they existed to support Rolex. They were training Rolex service people. Of course. But this lit my fire anyway and all the old interest came flooding back.

I bought hundreds of old watches and took each one apart. I organized the parts in big sorting boxes and then began putting them together as different pieces. I amassed a large collection of watchmaking tools, read every book I could find on the subject, and over the next five years, as my skills improved, the ideas flowed too.

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Ceniza-Levine: What resources were particularly helpful in making the change?

Wong: When I decided that I wanted to start my own brand, the single most helpful resource was myself. I chose to put art on the watch dial so I couldn’t simply buy watches are replace the dials. The cases had to specially manufactured for this application and the movements were not standard either. To the best of my knowledge, there was no other watch company doing this kind of work in the US. I was a pioneer so knowing how to run my own business, trust my instincts and not be afraid of failure were crucial.

My other best resources and encouragement came from other business leaders and owners. I would say that knowing what you want is critical too. My goal, at the time, was not to start a million dollar company but to make enough income each year to allow me to live comfortably while chasing my dream and growing. Doing what I loved was the most important thing to me.

Ceniza-Levine: When did you feel like you had changed careers – i.e., you identified as a watchmaker v. engineer?

Wong: I’d say that when I sold my engineering education company I officially became a watchmaker. Essentially, I identified as a watchmaker when my income depended on my watchmaking skills.

Ceniza-Levine: What about your old career was helpful to the new? What did you have to unlearn or drop from your old career?

Wong: I’m a big believer in the idea that everything you do in life, every experience you’ve had, gets you ready for today (this moment and all you will encounter on this day.) I’ve never felt I had to unlearn anything but this business certainly required a different approach in marketing, primarily.

For example, in my old business, we would publish a book and order thousands of printed copies. Once the production was done, I could spend all my days marketing. With the watch company, we make each watch dial and then build each watch on site. It’s difficult sometimes, to make time for marketing when I’m so enthralled and passionate about making the watches. All I want to do is make the watches.

Other things from my old career that have been helpful are how to start with a grassroots approach, how to wear many hats, how to prioritize, how to test the market, using accounting software, how to handle the stress of a feast or famine lifestyle, and all the other behind the scenes work that goes into running your own company.

Ceniza-Levine: Were friends and family supportive? If not, how did you find the motivation to work through your career change?

Wong: Most everyone, at least, feigned support. I could see that friends and family, who didn’t know me well, thought I was crazy to sell the stability of my old company and venture off into the unknown. I remember a neighbor saying to me, “A watch is just a watch, it’s probably not going to make it.” When I first started selling at the art markets on Saturday, other vendors would come up to me and say I needed to make earrings to go with my watches or I wouldn’t sell anything.

The support I needed to keep going came from my customers. I could see how people’s eyes lit up when they saw my watches and how unusual they thought they were. Each watch that I produce has a story behind it. For example, I created a sea turtle watch to feel closer to the ocean and my family in Hawaii. The watch was stress relief and a way for me to know that everything was going to be ok. When I tell this story, I often hear stories from my customers about their experiences with sea turtles or a magical trip they enjoyed. My role was important somehow – in a bigger way than I thought it would be and this in turn supported my belief in the feasibility of my dream.

Ceniza-Levine: What advice would you have for mid-career professionals who are thinking about making as big a pivot as you did?

Wong: When working towards an MBA in entrepreneurship, I had a professor that said repeatedly, “The number one reason that small businesses fail is because the owner changes their lifestyle.” He said that many small business owners go for so long on a shoestring that when they finally become successful, they buy a new car or move into a more expensive house. Their personal obligations increase. I’ve been so thankful for this advice because I never expected to see a pandemic in my lifetime and if I hadn’t taken this advice to heart, I might not be in business today.

Ceniza-Levine: What’s next for you?

Wong: The future is very bright for Celeste Watch Company! We not only will be debuting automatic watches this upcoming year but we are also having a Valentines Day party to celebrate 5 years in our retail location on Main St in Springfield, securing the Trademark “Celeste” for all jewelry in the United States which allows us to sell in new markets, and we are making a commemorative watch for the City of Springfield…..Customers come from near and far to purchase and/or care for their special watch. We are seen as a destination in Springfield with unique handcrafted art that helps you express who you are.

First published in Forbe 2021 edition  by Caroline Ceniza-Levine .  

Follow her on Twitter or                                                                                                                                                                           LinkedIn. Check out her website

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