Celeste Wong isn’t sure where the love of timepieces and the craft of watchmaking came from, but she recognized an appreciation for mechanics from her early childhood in California. “I don’t know how I knew about watchmaking,” she says. “It just sounded really cool to me.”
Wong wore watches every day. “In every picture my mom has of me growing up, I have a watch on,” she says. She also bought a lot of watches because she broke them often, usually by being too eager to keep winding them. Her first timepiece, which she still has, was a Charlie the Tuna watch obtained by mailing in tuna can labels. At the time Wong was considering college, in the pre-Google era, she couldn’t find a watch school in the United States — that industry is focused in Switzerland and Germany — so she got an electronic engineering technology degree, built circuits in Silicon Valley, and mostly forgot about this dream. She got a second degree in biomedical engineering from Louisiana Tech, started an engineering education company, and wrote a best-selling book to help encourage kids to study engineering. “I had this strong message that engineering was this fantastic degree to be a platform to do anything you want,” she says.
After living in Louisiana for 10 years, Wong moved to Springfield in 2001. “I wanted to and needed to be back on the West Coast,” she says. Her love for watchmaking never dissipated, though, and she embraced it again, trying to figure out how it worked. She read every book and watched every video she could about watchmaking, and slowly started spending less time on her engineering business and more on watchmaking.
In 2013 she discovered a Rolex school in Seattle. “But they just wanted Rolex service people,” Wong laments. She vividly recalls a photo of a $90,000 watch made by a French designer named Laurent Ferrier. “It was one of the most beautiful watches I’d ever seen, with an abalone shell dial, with this kind of this arabesque motif,” she says. “It was my epiphany, where I realized a watch didn’t have to look like what you see at Macy’s. With that realization, I started on my own path.”
Wong sold her engineering education company and became a full-time watchmaker, selling her first watch in 2015 and opening her storefront on Springfield’s Main Street in 2017. But there was a learning curve — the wooden watch faces absorbed moisture over time because the watch cases didn’t fit precisely over her materials. Now, movements — the brains and heart of the watch — are manufactured in Switzerland and the cases are crafted specifically to fit her materials. Each watch gets a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal and a strap from vegetable-tanned goat leather made for her watches. After that, the watch goes through three days of integrity testing, and batteries are always free from Wong’s shop, although she’s now implementing a new style of watch in which the mechanism winds the watch when the wearer moves their arm.
She already had her own laser cutters, “because I was geeky and liked to make things!” she laughs, and started using thin wood veneers for her face designs because the laser could cut them. She also started to laser-cut thin sheets of shell that are typically crafted for guitar luthiers. “What’s really neat about having sheets this thin is that you can do so much with the translucence of it and combine it with other colors of shell to make it look different,” she says. “And since there are so many different colors of the abalone and mother of pearl, it makes each watch different from the next.”
Wong’s imaginative watches reflect her own interests, pets and nature, and cultural events. For instance, she’s making hot air balloon watches to take to a balloon festival in New Mexico. She has watches of different dog and cat breeds, animal- and nature-themed watches like hummingbirds and horses, and whimsical ones like a girl riding a bicycle. A watch like the hot air balloon represents 22 pieces of tiny, laser-cut mother of pearl that are inlaid in the balloon framework along with an abalone background. An assistant, Rebecca Montgomery, works with Wong one day a week to help with the meticulous cutting and inlaying.
Given the hand-crafted detail, you might think that the watches would cost more than they do — most of them are around $300. “I could probably charge more but I would rather keep them affordable and sell more of them,” she says.
For Wong, every Celeste watch has a story, and her watches help people tell theirs. “To me, these watches are art pieces that help you express who you are, how you want to show up in the world, who you want to be,” she says. Wong wears a different watch each day, depending on her mood, and she says many of her customers wear different watches as milestones or as personal reminders. The peacock, for instance, could symbolize “I’m feeling really good about myself right now.” “I’ll wear the peacock when I feel like that,” Wong says. “I’m wearing the surfer girl today — because she makes me feel like I can ride the waves when there’s a lot of stuff coming, and I want to remind myself I can do it.