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Michael Johansen

In previous profile stories, I discussed the idea that independent watchmakers design watches for themselves or for a type of person they have in mind. When they are designing for themselves, they are thinking of a better or different version of who they are, one that lives more adventurously or that lives a different life. If it’s for a type of person, it would be for a modern-day Jacques Cousteau or an intrepid polar explorer. They imagine what they would need for this or that specific adventure, how the watch would work in relation to the rest of their equipment, what specifications they would require to accomplish the tasks at hand, and then, they imagine what it would look like. It should look unique and desirable and have a certain je ne sais quoi that would make their horological creations stand out from the crowd. 


Some watchmakers—watch brand creators and designers, not those who assemble the watches—do a great job at infusing their models with a unique personality, their own personality. Somehow, they manage to transpose their life philosophy into the watches by adding a design element that shows who they are or by assembling a list of the perfect specifications for the intended purpose of the watch. One of the best examples of this kind of watchmaker is Michael Johansen, who founded the Wolf Creek Watch Co. during the latest humanitarian crisis our blue planet has encountered, COVID-19 (a tragic moment in our history that I regard as being responsible for the creation of many brands and for the improvement of their products). 


In this article, we’ll take a look at Michael’s background and how he managed to endow his second model, the North Star, with fundamental aspects of his personality. We will ultimately look at how he managed to create what I consider to be one of the best everyday adventure watches from any micro and independent brands below the $1,500 mark. 

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Michael Johansen, Founder

Building Watches That Last


As you might know, I always ask the same questions to every person I interview. I do so because I want to get into their psyche, understand who they are and why they do what they do (that last sentence will perhaps make you laugh later). If you are into mechanical watches, you are probably interested in their intrinsic durability. A well-built mechanical timepiece can last a lifetime, unlike a smartwatch or any other device or machine made with electronic components made today, which are designed to break down after a few years. It’s as if companies were deliberately giving nature the middle finger by making stuff that doesn’t last and that is impossible to recycle or repurpose. 


We humans are nature’s worst enemy. 


As Michael remarked, no one passes down an Apple watch to their kids to become the next family heirloom. Instead, they pass down mechanical or quartz watches that are built to certain standards, ones that can tick for many decades to come and look good with the additional scratches and scuffs, just like a vintage car that has racked up its fair share of mileage. Wearing a watch was essential to us before technology invaded our lives, as we needed them to stay organized and on time, and although Michael could be as organized with a smartwatch, he likes the idea of wearing a durable timekeeping device on his wrist. Mechanical watches ground him, given how much of our freedom we give away to technology.

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Unlike many other watchmakers that take the quickest route to make a watch, Michael decided to do things right, and with purpose. He could have released a $200 watch with what would seem to be the right specifications, but we all know that such a watch wouldn’t last very long (it certainly wouldn’t be something worth passing down through generations). Also, making a cheap watch would mean building a throwaway timepiece that would further negatively impact our environment (I highly doubt that inexpensive mechanical watches are recycled). To that end, Michael took his time to do things right and to find the right manufacturer to build and assemble his watches so that they would be quality timepieces. 


In other words, they would be watches that last. 

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A Philosophy for Picking the Right Stuff 


When was the last time you drove a car that was perfectly manufactured and put together? One that didn’t have a wobbly piece of plastic on the dashboard or a faulty turn signal? When was the last time you bought a pair of shoes that lasted more than a few months? 


See, most of what we buy doesn’t last long because we somehow believe that we shouldn’t pay much for quality products, but there is a reason why a 1970 Mercedes 300SD roars like a champ even though it has clocked in at more than 500,000 miles. That’s because it was made well with good parts, with attention and tender loving care. That is why the more we pay for something the better it is, generally speaking. On the other hand, we don’t have to pay more than we should to get quality stuff, we just need to pay a fair, reasonable price. That was Michael’s philosophy when he created Wolf Creek. 

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Looking back at the experience of creating his first two models (the Voyageur and the North Star), Michael couldn’t believe how much Swiss luxury brands charge to make seemingly average-quality watches. He realized that brands tend to add costs nobody can explain that transform what should be a $1,000 watch into a $3,000 timepiece. He realized that paying x dollars for a good movement is enough and that achieving 200 meters of water resistance and superior protection against shock and magnetism doesn’t justify a price tag over $2,000. That is, in a nutshell, how Michael managed to create solid watches for less than $1,500. 


As we saw in my review of the North Star, Michael managed to design a robust $1,275 watch that bursts with incredible specifications and a dapper look: a top-grade Sellita 300-1 caliber, a solid piece of sapphire crystal and a soft iron cage that protects the movement from magnetism, and a synthetic, aerospace industry quality rubber gasket that protects the movement from shocks. I cannot think of another watch from an independent or micro brand that boasts such specifications for the relatively modest sum of $1,275. And to top things off, the North Star comes with a unique appearance that I found utterly seductive.

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Deep Into Nature

I am a self-described adventurer and admirer of the natural world. Ever since I got into watches, I’ve been on the lookout for the “perfect” everyday watch that could handle any sorts of adventure, and I truly mean any. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of having one watch that can do it all and look good doing it all, a bit like what the Rolex Submariner used to stand for—affordable watches for professionals—before they became shiny and expensive, so much so that many collectors do not use a Submariner to dive with and instead buy something more affordable and less blingy. Interestingly enough, the North Star retails for the same price as the first Submariner retailed for in 1954 (adjusted for inflation). 


Michael’s goal was to make a robust tool watch that didn’t look flashy, a watch with a modest appearance but not modest capabilities and functioning and, as I will try to now explain, that  anchors itself in—and celebrates—the natural world. He grew up in rural Wisconsin where people spend their leisure time hunting, fishing, cycling, skiing, kayaking, and experiencing nature more than those who live in the concrete jungle (though his watches are equally capable of handling the bustle and chaos of New York City as they are the outdoor environment in, say, Yellowstone National Park).  


See, that’s the versatile aspect of Wolf Creek I mentioned earlier. 

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The connection to nature can be seen in several aspects of the design and construction of the Voyageur and North Star. First, the North Star has a rounded case profile that reminds me of a pebble whose edges were smoothed out over centuries of rolling at the bottom of the ocean floor. The monochromatic dial design evokes the simplicity of how things work in nature, while the name of the brand and its logo do homage to the wild populations of wolves that inhabit Minnesota, as well as the unique spectacle of the Northern Lights visible from his part of the world. I would further advance the notion that the North Star flies under the radar in a way that does not further disturb the natural order of things as we mere mortals rove the planet. 


The second aspect that connects the North Star to nature is its construction. As we know, Michael wanted to build watches that are durable, both so that they can be passed down through the generations and so that they could be the only watch we need. In other words, we shouldn’t need to buy another watch after getting a North Star, reducing the need to produce more watches. Furthermore, building watches with the good stuff means an easier owning experience (read: less trips to our local watchmaker). Just like we should live in solid and sustainable houses that do not stand out in their environment, the watches Michael designs blend in with nature and within our daily lives. 


Lastly I would say this: a theme that came back multiple times during the interview with Michael is the idea of being deliberate. Given his upbringing and where he lives, Michael thrives to create watches that make people think of nature or that would inspire them to go out into nature. When he imagines what a timepiece should look like, he imagines what those who hike and explore would wear to keep track of time. More than anything else, he wants people to actually wear his watches and not put them in a watch box. He himself only buys stuff that have a purpose, not those whose very purpose is merely ornamental. Although we can make tools pretty to look at—which I feel he did with the North Star—they should, first and foremost, be useful.

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From an Idea to a Production Model

So what does it take to make such a watch? First, an incredible amount of time and patience. Designing a watch and putting it through production generally takes months, if not years. Although I didn’t ask Michael his age, he did share that he had wanted to create a watch since he was in his 30s (I’m terrible at guessing people’s age by the way they look; I could mistake a 50-year old person for someone in their early 30s insofar as they take good care of themselves). Michael was not in a hurry, though, and he waited to get his ideas in order and to find the right partners to make his vision of horology become a reality, just like how things take time in nature and getting things done right takes even more time. 


Michael has been working with a local designer (and teacher) to transpose his ideas into sketches and later, thanks to a partnership with a Swiss manufacturer, into technical drawings. Michael found that working with a non-industrial designer brought a unique perspective to the project, as his colleague knew nothing about horology and was therefore not bound by the canons of classical watchmaking. This is only my humble opinion, but I believe that yes, indeed, this unique collaboration made it possible to endow the Voyageur and North Star with an organic feel that is not typically present in steel and lacquer watches that do not come with nature-inspired patterned dials. 


Looking at you Grand Seiko.

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Just a little ways up the page, I made the comment that I like to get into people's psyche and that this comment would eventually make sense. Here’s where I make it make sense. 


Michael, unlike any other brand owner and watch enthusiast that I’ve met, has a master’s degree in psychology and has worked as a psychotherapist. Now, he’s turning his career towards psychology in the workplace and building sustainable businesses by implementing more holistic, nature-oriented ways of doing things. I hope it makes a little more sense now to connect his love and passion for nature to the way he went about creating Wolf Creek and his first two models. 


But wait, there is still more to the story. 


Although Michael had wanted to create his own watches for a little while, he wasn’t sure he would actually do it. As we now know, he’s got a career and has “better” things to do already, but right before COVID-19 rocked our world, he had gotten in touch with a Swiss manufacturer that he knew other microbrands were using. He wasn’t crazy about the models they were making, but he had a good feeling for the people working there, so he submitted his designs, began a healthy working relationship with the Swiss designers and engineers, and ordered a few prototypes. He liked how things were going, but Michael being Michael, he wore the first prototypes for an entire year to make sure he liked it and that it would work for him.

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He definitely has the right mindset to create good watches. I don’t have the patience to even wait a week to receive a watch I purchased, let alone wear a prototype for one whole year. That is why I write about watches and people like Michael that make them. Essentially, I love writing about talent, and I give a lot of credit to Michael for doing what he does in the way that he does it. What I’ve learned over the years writing about brand owners is that the longer they take designing a watch and adjusting the prototypes, the better the watches come out. Conversely, the less time they spend, the worse the watch is. The same way in which it takes water centuries to wear down the bedrock to create a river, good watchmakers and designers take months—and sometimes years—to get the design, specs, and proportions right.

Conclusion: Watches by Nature, for Nature

I believe so much in what Michael does and how well he does it that I added a North Star to my collection. For the past three months, it has been the watch I wear the most. There are two main reasons for this. First, it strikes the perfect balance between size, specs, and looks. Second (at the risk of sounding corny), I do think of the natural world every time I look at it. As mentioned above, the case is rounded and smooth, the lacquered dial and contrasting white printed hour markers and broad arrow handset remind me of the simplicity of nature, and the stylized wolf’s head logo and model name constantly bring me back towards better thoughts and a healthier mindset. 


Inspired by nature, Michael designs watches for nature, for those of us who yearn to live simpler lives, to own less things, and to only have what we need, and also to indirectly reduce the harmful impact humanity has had on our planet. After all, we weren’t meant to screw it up that much, and although wearing a North Star won’t change the climate crisis, it is by supporting small businesses such as Wolf Creek that we can contribute to making this world a slightly better place. 


Although I believe that we don’t need to create too many versions of the same thing, I do see how Michael and Wolf Creek do not compete with other brands, big and small. 


A North Star can coexist with another watch from another brand, and making a few hundred well-made and thoughtfully designed watches is much better than making millions of throwaway watches. I think—hope—that we are moving towards a watch collecting community that more often than not gravitates toward better-made watches that cost a little more but that can do so much. I love owning a piece of horology to perpetually connect me to nature—where we come from and where we belong—and I am grateful that I was able to tell you about Michael and Wolf Creek.


Thanks for reading. 

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