Lasse and Øystein
Up to now, it has been a given that those who create watch companies are longtime watch collectors surrounded by people who know about watches, be they friends or coworkers. Just to keep life interesting, let’s disprove this well-proven pattern by offering a counter example: the creation of the Norwegian microbrand Straum.
Although founded by two industrial designers in early 2021, Straum’s two co-founders have been working at it for five years. They’ve made slow but steady progress month after month, all the while simultaneously juggling family life and their regular working life and somehow finding time to create a company and a first model, the Opphav, that is both striking in its appearance and specifications.
Designers at Heart
Neither Lasse nor Øystein, the two co-founders of Straum, were watch people when they decided to create Straum. Of course, we ought to use the words “watch people” rather loosely because what this means varies greatly from person to person. In this context, they wore watches and have always been interested in them as tools, but they were not typical collectors. A bit like Seaholm’s founder Todd Adams who always wore good watches because he liked having the right equipment, Lasse and Øystein kept modest collections of practical watches. There weren’t many people around them who wore watches, and those that did had gotten them for practical reasons, so conversations about horology were rare and far between. In a sense, that’s how they started as well: they had to have a watch but they weren’t connoisseurs, but the more they became interested in watches over the years, the more they wanted to know everything about them.
Both are industrial designers with a knack for getting to the bottom of how things work. In their career thus far, the projects they’ve worked on range from ice cream packaging to large commercial ships and UX design. Whatever has needed to be created and has posed a challenge to their design skills, that was their thing. With watches, their earliest interest manifested itself in a fascination with watch mechanics, a deep curiosity about the hundreds of tiny parts that make up a watch movement and how the movement functions within another precise ecosystem made by the hands, dial, and case. One could say that when they started working on the first design, the Opphav (which is Norwegian for “origin”), they approached it as they would have done with designing anything new: from the ground up, not repackaging something that had been made before. They wanted to create something that looked classic, but with a twist.
As happens with everything humans have created and done, developments in the watch world happen at the pace of new fashion trends such as this one: making watch dials that evoke the natural world either by creating patterns that mimic a forest (looking at you, Grand Seiko) or waves in the ocean (yep, that’s you, Omega). It’s a great trend. The two brands I just mentioned are big watchmaking houses, and what is particularly fascinating with Grand Seiko is that they show the beauty of Japan’s natural environment and changing seasons in their watches. Omega, on the other hand, went with the general theme of water (not any less cool by any measure). Microbrands took this trend a step further and began designing dials that represent elements of the landscape in the country they come from.
Straum is by far the best example of this new trend in young brands. The dial of the Opphav represents several features of the Norwegian landscape: “Ripples on a lake; a glacier; the seabed. Opphav captures the textures of raw Norwegian nature in a vessel made of steel and sapphire” (whoever wrote this, by the way, is a true wordsmith: they get it exactly right). Straum thus invites the wearer to connect with a part of Norway’s fascinating landscapes in anticipation of the day they can actually go there. In a sense, Lasse and Øystein are artists. They tell you something about where they come from by the way they designed the dial of their watches. As we will see later, making a dial that looks like this is no small feat, and just like the natural world they sought to represent on the dial, they went at this creative process slowly and steadily.
Lasse and Øystein are outdoor people. Take a look at their website and you will see for yourself. Their photography and videography are captivating to the point where I watched every single video they’ve put up and studied every photo.
Ah, yes, I forgot to mention that they are also accomplished photographers and videographers. They’ve shot most of the product photography themselves, and have taken a few trips into the wilds of Norway accompanied by a professional photographer friend to shoot the documentary-style imagery. Being industrial designers, they’ve come to dip their hands in all creative aspects relating to the projects they work on. Being outdoorsmen, they seized the opportunity of weekend getaways to get their watches photographed in their natural environment. The result is outstanding imagery that matches the quality of Rolex or Omega, who hire professional photographers and celebrities for their ad campaigns.
Nature has a deep impact on many watchmakers. Whether they design a dive watch, a pilot watch, or a field watch, nature has inspired the design elements used in many watches, particularly the dial. In a way, nature is at the core of our relationship with time keeping, since we started measuring time thousands of years ago by first studying the cycles of the sun as it rose and set. Even brands such as Rolex can be said to have been inspired by nature. Why else would have they created a dive watch if mankind didn’t care about exploring the underwater world? Why else would they have created the Explorer if Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay didn’t want to climb Mount Everest? Most of our technological advances have been fueled by our observations of and fascination with the natural world.
When looking at the Opphav dial and even more so that of the Limited Edition Rastarkalv—the dial of which is made of a 3,300-year-old root dug up from a swamp of the same name—it is clear that Lasse and his co-founder wanted to invite all of us to discover a piece of their country, its nature, and its wonders. While trends tend to come and then quickly go—especially in the world of fashion where trends disappear and reappear every 10 to 20 years—I sincerely hope that the trend of showcasing a country’s unique natural environment via watch dial design will stick around. It is amazing to be reminded of how wonderful the natural world is whenever looking at our wrist to check on the time, a perfect allegory.
At the Pace of Nature
I can hardly manage my own time, even though I only have myself, my spouse, and my dog to deal with. I can’t begin to understand how people manage to juggle a full-time career, raise a family, and start a watch brand all at the same time. That’s exactly what Lasse and Øystein have been doing for the past five years: five years to design their first model, create a website, and give birth to what seems like a long-established watch company. This may be going out on a limb here, but I’d say that in doing so, they moved at the pace of nature: slowly but surely. Perhaps they didn’t feel the need to rush, or maybe they couldn’t. Regardless of the reason, their first model looks perfect in every sense of the world. It’s original yet classic and well-proportioned, and it truly evokes Norway’s natural environment.
So how did they do it? Five years ago, they decided to create a watch company. Their goal was to create a watch that was both classic (as in timeless) but also endowed with a unique charm that would make it stand out from the crowd. That’s how the idea of the dial came in. Although the dial of the Opphav was not always like this—it was not until they settled on one manufacturer that they would make their vision come to life—it has rapidly become a standard feature of the watch.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, though. We need to go back to the beginning when they first started laying down the foundation of the brand and the reasons why they wanted to do it in the first place.
The thought of creating a watch company sprang from their fascination with the minutia that goes into creating a watch. In a sense, it became a self-imposed challenge. We humans have been making and wearing watches for centuries, and their design has evolved over time as technology and fashion trends have evolved. Watches have become something people covet again, and it represented a good challenge for Lasse and Øystein. A watch is not only a marvel of engineering (a movement has an average of 150 parts) but also a challenge for any industrial designer. It must tell time accurately and be pleasing to look at. A watch can be easy to read but ugly, and conversely, a watch can be beautiful to look at but impossible to read.
Being industrial designers, Lasse and Øystein had no problem getting started with the project. Figuring out that they wanted to make a watch was easy, deciding that the first model should be versatile was simple, and deciding that they would build the company while working full time and being parents was nonnegotiable. The two friends remind me of Lauren and Lorenzo Ortega. Neither of them knew anyone in the watch industry, so once they had made enough progress on the sketches, they decided to use Google to find out how to get a watch manufactured. One website led to another, and that led to connections they made with other brands and finally a list of go-to manufacturers.
What was difficult was finding that one manufacturer that would provide a good balance between price and quality. Once they found that, they started building the brand including the website, the branding (they started thinking of the packaging before getting a prototype on hand), their values as brand owners, and their overall identity in the watch world. The first two years, then, were spent thinking and building the foundations of the company, sketching a model, and finding the right manufacturer. They then spent another three years refining the design of the watch and its technical aspects.
There is more to the watch that may seem at first glance. Earlier we mentioned the fact that Straum wanted to create a classic watch with a twist, or, actually, two twists. The first one, as we know, is the superbly three-dimensional dial that is an ode to Norway’s natural world. The second twist lies in their proprietary floating-dial system. Indeed, the center portion of the dial (which has the texture with the metal-toiled look to it) actually floats above the chapter ring and is held in place by the longer even indices. Classic looking? Yes. A marvel of engineering? Yes, which is unsurprising given who is behind the design. Their inventions didn’t stop here, though. They created a unique articulated arm in order to properly photograph the unique dial.
They didn’t make the indices this way from the get-go, however. I want to pause here for a second to appreciate what we’re looking at. These two men were industrial designers by trade and detail-oriented nerds by passion who spent three years just designing a watch to make it perfect, who came up with the ideas for the branding before finishing designing the watch and getting a prototype, investing their own money (no Kickstarter campaign for them!), and inventing their own solutions to photograph their watch. Five years after having laid down the foundations for their brand, they finally are shipping their first model. So, the indices you asked? Well, after many revisions of the dial, they decided to make the odd indices smaller to create visual balance, a small detail that goes a long way in making the dial clean and easy to read.
That’s dedication to perfection.
Who Straum is For
Straum is for people who love the outdoors and who are deeply connected to nature, even those they would rarely make it outside. Lasse and his co-founder wanted to embody a part of Norway in a watch so that they themselves could always be linked to it and so that anyone who is ever so slightly inclined to go outside could make a connection to something that makes us who we are: nature, which is all around us, even in the most conspicuous places on earth. Imagine working on the 35th floor of an office building in downtown Manhattan and running from meeting to meeting and once in a while being able to glance down at your wrist and see the representation of an entire ecosystem on your wrist. It feels quite magical to me.
So Straum—and the Opphav more particularly—is for explorers and those who go on casual adventures or those who dream of traveling but can’t. Straum has created a timepiece that calls for dreaming anywhere we are, just like a good book allows us to delve into a world we are not currently living in but that is equally compelling. They managed to make a watch for those who are into horology but don’t necessarily collect watches, for those who are into adventure but dwell in the city too much, and finally, for all of us who have a keen interest in keeping track of time and maintaining a connection to the very nature of time as a natural phenomenon that we don’t control.
Conclusion: A Continuous Search for Perfection
All along the designing phase, Straum sent out their first prototypes to watch reviewers and collectors to get their feedback. They wanted to have real-life critique from people who know more about watches than they did when they first started. Because their watches had to become instant classics, and because they wanted to infuse them with a little bit of Norwegian soul, they took their time to design the watch to perfection, just like water slowly moves down mountains and through valleys, sculpting the rock along the way and slowly but surely arriving at its destination.
Oftentimes, a brand releases a first model and then an updated version of it because it is clear from the outset that the model needs improvement. Whether adjusting the dimensions or changing the colorways and date window, microbrands often come up with a revision less than a year later after the release of the first model. The Opphav does not seem like it will need an upgrade later down the line. To me, it looks perfect the way it is because it has been meticulously designed through and through.
Thanks for reading.