This week, I’m butting in on Blaise’s territory. As Blaise continues to write about straps from the world over (please, contact us if you’re making straps from somewhere in the world we’ve not yet covered), I’ve come storming in with another American product. Have I done it because I’m American? Not really. I’ve actually done it because a reader contacted us last year via email and made a suggestion to take a look at today’s featured artisan. Rover Haven is the name of the brand and as you’ll see, this was especially exciting to me for a couple reasons. First, the straps are exclusively made in Shell Cordovan, which has to be my favorite material on the planet. It’s durable, oily and unlike any other type of leather. Second, Rover Haven is in Michigan and as someone who lived there for nearly 10 years, I just can’t help but get excited for business and progress in the state. I’ll step in between the interview questions every so often to share my thoughts on these gorgeous straps. For now, kick back, grab a Bell’s Oberon or a Founder’s Breakfast Stout (for you Michiganders) and enjoy this lengthy interview from an enthusiast who has given loads of thought to his hobby/business.
FW: Please tell us a little about yourself and your business? When did you start making straps and how did you learn? How did you get the idea?
My name is Myron Erickson and I am the sole proprietor of Rover Haven Straps in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Rover Haven is a craft producer of custom watchstraps made only from Horween shell cordovan. I’m a long time watch collector and have always enjoyed well-made leather straps for my watches. Sometime in 2011 I bought a one-piece pull-through shell strap from a retailer who had contracted with a maker in Chicago to produce a small number of them. The strap was pre-made and there was no customization possible. It took three weeks for the retailer to ship it out, communication with him was frustrating at best, and it cost a hundred bucks plus shipping. When it arrived the quality was definitely on the iffy side: crooked rivets, crooked holes, and way too many of them. I remember thinking, “I just paid a hundred bucks for this? Even I could do better!”
I had dabbled with leather craft since about 1989, so I started experimenting with one-piece straps in my own workshop. I will say that strap making is harder than it looks, and those first experimental straps were crap compared to what I make now, but I was proud of having done it myself and felt inspired to learn more. I kept improving them, making them better and better and giving them to friends and family. In the summer of 2012, I used some classic car business contacts I had in Chicago to get in touch with Horween. I bought a few shells right from the tannery and then set about learning the ins and outs of working with this fine material. Finally, I made a batch of four one-piece straps that I thought were pretty good and listed them for sale on my favorite watch forum, the Military Watch Resource (MWR). They all sold overnight, and Rover Haven was born in October of that year.
FW: Rover Haven is an interesting name for a strap maker…can you tell us the meaning behind the name?
The name Rover Haven speaks to several things important to me. My family and I believe in dog rescue and adoption, and have opened our home up to three rescued Border Collies, Zuzu, Nina, and Dash (although sadly we are down to two now, Nina having died not too long ago). We also have opened our home up to a rescued vintage Land Rover, Edward the Black Prince. I have owned that car for just over 20 years, and it has become a real family member. Finally, we enjoy travel and have many friends in other countries as well, so our home is a haven to us when we return from our travels. Given all the cities along Lake Michigan with the word Haven in their names, the name suggested itself and felt right: a haven to rovers of all kinds.
The Rover Haven logo is a stylized watch face and reflects my fondness for British military watches. It incorporates the pheon (aka broad arrow) and the 12:00 triangle found on so many of the classic mid-century military watch dials. Both the Rover Haven name and logo are trademarked.
FW: Regarding your location, I must admit that I was intrigued because I believe you’re in Michigan. It’s a state that I have fond memories of from living there and there’s a lot of history from industry to the outdoors. Do your straps take any of that into account?
Not so much with my styles or straps specifically, but a Michigan heritage and pride is present in everything that I do. I stamp all my cards and thank you notes, “Made in Michigan,” and the Great Lakes are a continuing source of inspiration and wonder to me. I work as an environmental engineer in my day job, and have dedicated my professional career to protecting the Lakes. Like mountains are to folks who live out west, the Great Lakes are a daily presence in our lives, affecting our weather, providing our drinking water, and giving us endless places to explore and recreate.
Additionally, the maker movement is alive and well in Michigan. Craftsperson colonies and maker shops are springing up in once-vacant warehouses and factories in cities like Grand Rapids and Detroit. It’s exciting to feel a part of it. If I can’t buy a high quality tool or part to do a job, I can have it made in Michigan. My Bund strap dies, stainless steel two-part screw rivets, and some special punches I use were all made in Grand Rapids.
FW: Shifting gears into the straps themselves…can you review the types of straps you make? I see several major categories on your site (roverhaven.com).
Probably half of the straps I make are single-layer two-piece straps. I will close the ends in a variety of ways (e.g., riveted, straight seams, tack-stitched, etc.), and I also like to make open-ended two-piece straps for the fixed bar mil watch guys.
I also make a lot of one-piece pull-through straps and three-keeper military-style straps commonly called NATO straps by most folks. I call these MIL straps on my site. Any strap I make can be combined with a Bund pad, which I will build with either sewn keepers or punched slits. A Bund strap is a great way to enjoy that vintage watch that doesn’t get worn much because of a small case size, for example.
My favorite strap, both to build and to wear, is my Arts & Crafts strap. It is a two-layer two-piece strap sewn lengthwise. They are beautiful to behold, extremely durable, and very comfortable. And they are so satisfying to make because I know they will last nearly forever. They take the most time of any style of strap I make and demand the most skill and attention. They represent a return to elegant simplicity, which is why a great friend of Rover Haven suggested I name the style Arts & Crafts.
Shifting into a short review, Myron urged me to try an Arts & Crafts strap because, as he mentions, he feels it’s the best example of his work. To be honest, I tend towards saddle or tack stitching on my straps, but I obviously accepted the suggestion. I’m glad I did. Upon arrival, I put the strap onto my Universal Geneve Polerouter Jet and later on a Clebar/Zodiac Venus 178 chronograph.
This 18mm (16mm at the buckle) strap is simply wonderful. The way the strap bends and takes a set against its precision stitching reminds one of a great pair of loafers; there’s no doubt that this strap will age beautifully. The design is versatile and works for many occasions as I used it at work and after hours in more casual situations.
These straps are not inexpensive, but they’re double thickness and Myron did work with me on custom lengths to fit my small wrists. When you’re talking about this much hand stitching, this much shell cordovan, and a piece that should last forever, the price seems well in line.
FW: What types of materials do you use, what style options do you offer?
Although I will use other leathers for non-watchstrap projects, I use only shell cordovan for straps. It offers so many advantages to the strap maker and strap wearer – like greater stability, smoother presentation, self-burnishing characteristics, finer grain, and no pesky suede side. For cord I am a non-traditionalist, using only waxed nylon thread made in the USA. Traditional leather craft calls for using linen thread, and it is truly beautiful when you see it done right, but the engineer in me disagrees with its fuzzy appearance and weaker breaking strength. I will not use monofilament or polyester-based threads because they are ugly and more difficult to work with. Shell cordovan, waxed nylon cord, time, and skill; those are the key ingredients to a good watchstrap.
Stylistically, I let customers choose straight or tapered widths and just about any means of closing the seam they can dream up. I have some standard stitching styles that I suggest, but if someone has a special request I will always consider it. Of course, I usually have at least half-a-dozen colors of shell cordovan to choose from as well.
FW: Is there anything about your strap making process that you’d like to mention? I’m curious how long, on average, it takes you to make a strap from start to finish?
The typical strap building process involves much more time communicating and working with the customer to specify the strap than it does to actually build it. I spend a couple to several hours a day staying caught up on email correspondence, and usually have between 12 and 20 current projects going on at any given time. Each customer is special and wants to know that you care about him or her and their individual strap. For newcomers, they often have very fundamental questions that need to be answered. Experienced collectors, shell heads, and repeat customers often know exactly what they want but might ask for pictures of the colors currently in stock, for example. I really enjoy building the relationship and assisting in the customer’s design process. Then when the specification is complete, I build the strap and send pictures. I decline offers of pre-payment and prefer to wait until the final product is complete and ready to be delivered.
In terms of the actual strap itself, a one-piece pull-through strap with no unusual details can be built in a half-hour. An Arts & Crafts strap takes a couple hours just to sew, and there is a step that requires the strap to rest overnight before you can even sew it. If I were selling pre-made straps from an Etsy or eBay storefront you could do it pretty efficiently and probably just barely make a living at it. But my product is really the pleasant transaction, interesting correspondence, and a human connection. I end up with many hours total in the entire customer experience, which is why for me it is a hobby business, not a day job.
FW: Do you allow customers to specify custom lengths, widths, etc?
Definitely. Only very occasionally am I unable to satisfy a custom request. Currently I offer tapered straps in five different widths but I will be expanding this soon. Straight straps can be made to any width. Most folks do not know what length they want and I’m always happy to make a recommendation based on their wrist size. Getting the length just right is probably the trickiest thing I do. Speaking of customization, I once made a braided pocket watch fob for a customer’s vintage Stowa 55 mm B-Uhr. The watch was too big to wear on a strap around the wrist, so he decided to wear it as a pocket watch.
FW: Where do you source your supplies?
Shell cordovan comes from only one place in the US, the Horween Leather Company in Chicago, Illinois. There are tanneries in England, Italy, and Japan that make shell but I’ve never used their material. I live only 180 miles from Chicago, so I make frequent trips there to pick up shell cordovan (and other leathers for other projects from time to time).
I buy thread from a vendor in North Carolina. All my threads are US-made.
My stainless steel two-part screw-together rivets are made right here in Grand Rapids. Besides mine, there are only two sources of these that I know of, one in England and one in Germany. The British supplier isn’t selling to other strap makers and the German gentleman wanted €17 for one rivet set. So I decided to have my own made.
My brass hammered rivets are made in Belgium, and for off-the-shelf tools, I like CS Osborne in New Jersey, which has been making tools for the leather crafter since 1826, a fact I find amazing.
High quality buckles and other stainless hardware items are the trickiest thing to source. I get buckles and spring bars from businesses in countries as diverse as China, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Australia, and California in the US. Despite countless hours of searching, I have never been able to locate a North American-based manufacturer of stainless steel buckles in the sizes and styles I need. So if you’re reading this and you’re a North American-based buckle manufacturer, please get in touch. 🙂
And speaking of buckles, my favorite is the humble NATO style. They are simple, versatile, and even the off-the-shelf units tend to be well made. In polished form they make a dandy buckle for a dress watch, and in brushed or blasted form they work great on a strap for a tool or sport watch. They’re ultra secure, being sewn in place and non-removable, and their small prongs don’t require a giant hole to be punched in the strap. There is nothing that bothers me more than seeing holes in a strap that are about one-fourth the width of the strap in diameter. And the NATO buckle can be easily heat bronzed, so I use them for customers who prefer a bronze or gold-tone buckle.
FW: I notice that you do a lot of work with Horween Shell Cordovan. This material and the brand itself have really gained in popularity over the last 4-5 years with the focus on high quality, handmade, traditional goods. First, can you explain a little about Shell Cordovan…what it is and what makes it such a fantastic material?
Shell cordovan is a leather product that is the tanned membrane (called a “shell”) from an equine that is found in between the muscle and the hide on the rump of the animal. Hence, each horse produces only two shells, and the biggest shell you’ll ever see is only a couple square feet in area. They are approximately oval in shape, and they can vary dramatically in thickness.
The tanning process is very manually intensive and takes many months to complete, six according to Horween. This, combined with the low availability of equine materials available to the tanning industry in the US, means there is a perpetual shortage of shell cordovan in the US. This ongoing shortage keeps the prices of products produced from shell cordovan relatively high.
Many people associate the word “cordovan” with a dark oxblood color and use the two terms synonymously. I believe the reason for this is that Horween’s most famous color of shell cordovan, Color No. 8, is an oxblood. Shoes and other articles made out of this color have been popular for a long time (who hasn’t owned a pair of oxblood colored penny loafers?) and the two words came to mean the same thing over time. But in fact it is only correct to say that cordovan is a material, not a color.
Shell cordovan has the reputation of being very durable. Its relatively higher density and lower permeability make it superior to conventional leathers for many applications, especially for the strap maker. It presents two smooth sides, unlike more familiar hide leather that has a suede side, although only one side of the shell is finished and colored at the tannery. Horween shell cordovan is vegetable tanned and exudes a soft, waxy finish. With care, articles made from shell can last for many years.
FW: How is shell cordovan to work with and has it gotten much harder to source as global demand has increased?
As I mentioned above, there is a perpetual shortage of shell cordovan that keeps prices very high. The ban on slaughtering equines in the US has had unintended consequences on the tanning industry, and Horween sources all its equine hides from overseas. Horween has told me that they only use equine materials from horses that died naturally (i.e., that there are no horses being slaughtered only for their meat or their leather that end up in the Horween product line.) There are several very famous shoemakers that buy most of Horween’s output of shell cordovan, such that little players like Rover Haven don’t generally enjoy a lot of choice or selection at the tannery. Pretty much when I show up, I just hope they’ll sell me something, and I buy whatever they are willing to offer. I worry that someday I won’t be able to get any at all, which would be the end for small custom strap makers like me. Currently the Whiskey and Natural colors are nearly impossible for me to obtain.
FW: Regarding costs, what are the typical prices of your straps?
One-piece pull-thru straps are $75, two-piece single-layer straps and MIL straps are $90, and Arts & Crafts straps are $140. I’ll make a Bund pad for any strap for an extra $30. All my prices include USPS Priority Mail shipping in the US. International orders are welcome and I simply pass along the cost of shipping without markup.
FW: How do you get ideas for new straps?
I get ideas from customer requests quite often. The Arts & Crafts strap was my own idea and is my own design because I wanted two-layer straps for my own use, although it’s nothing fundamentally that you wouldn’t find other strap makers doing as well. A good friend sent me some ammo pouches that I turned into a handful of prototype straps. I sent him one as a thank you, of course.
FW: Do you have any other materials in the works such as suede, exotic hides, etc? Or, perhaps, accessories such as watch rolls?
I get requests all the time for belts, guitar straps, wallets, key fobs, iPad cases, and on and on, but with very few exceptions I only make watchstraps. I stay as busy as I can handle with just that, and I literally never make for sale posts on the forums. It’s all driven by word of mouth and people who stumble across my website. Hence, my reputation is everything.
Earlier this year I built a small gentleman’s everyday carry bag out of shell cordovan. It was a one-off project for a special customer and took a lot of time. If I had to do another one, I’d have to charge the proverbial arm and a leg for it, but it was a really fun project that you can read about on my blog. I also occasionally make card wallets to give as gifts and I would make and sell one to any customer.
As I mentioned above, I have recently experimented with making watchstraps from vintage leather ammunition pouches. That’s also really fun, but the results are unreliable because the raw material is unreliable. The leather from Ammo pouches tends to be moldy smelling, dry, brittle, and unpredictable. It takes a lot of time to make a strap from a vintage ammo pouch because there is so much additional labor compared to starting from virgin shell cordovan. I made a blog post about this project, too.
FW: Regarding your customer base, do you have any memorable experiences where you received some great feedback or made something for a very special watch?
Truly what I love most about Rover Haven is establishing a pleasant and enjoyable relationship with the customer. Many of my customers are repeats, and many have become friends and pen pals. I have a great customer in New England who has bought literally dozens of straps from me. My wife refers to him as my patron. As a favor to him and to thank him for his many orders, I made him a set of matching dog collars for his dog and her littermates in his hunt club. They turned out beautifully and he was very pleased.
I once looked up a repeat customer in Toronto, Ontario, when I was visiting that city. He was surprised to hear from me but pleased to meet me for a beer. We hit it off and spent a very enjoyable evening discussing watches and dogs. Surprised?
As far as straps go, I have made straps for a Rolex 5517 Mil Sub, a vintage IWC B-Uhr, and a famous science fiction author’s watch. But I also make straps for $90 Seiko watches, and every customer gets the same amount of attention and interest from me. Once recently I was working with a customer who is an actively serving naval officer. In my day job I work at a facility that follows official protocols with our flags out front. We were instructed to lower our flags to half-staff one day to honor a sailor who had died while serving, and in reading the story of this man’s sacrifice I happened to notice that the ship he had served on was the same one my customer served on. When I offered my condolences to my customer, he let me know that this man had been one of his best friends. It’s amazing how often these small world things can pop up and make you wonder.
FW: How is business going today?
I am always swamped. Someday I may retire from my day job career and just do Rover Haven full time. Probably the hardest thing I do is staying in touch with all my active project customers at the same time. I have a system in place that prevents a project from totally falling through a crack, but very occasionally more time elapses in an ongoing project dialog than I would like and the relationship can suffer. This is always a bad day, but I find most people are very flexible and forgiving when you explain the nature of any delay and apologize for it.
This is a good place to point out that I usually take the summers off. There are so many other things that need attending to in life like house projects, time with family, etc. that I have found this is the only way to keep it all balanced. I also use the time to restock supplies and experiment with new product ideas.
The second strap I received from Rover Haven was a saddle stitched 20mm (18mm) at the lugs piece that I immediately paired with my Premoon Omega Speedmaster Professional 145.012. Like on the Arts & Crafts model, the quality of this strap is amazing. As in the other piece, it came with a fixed keeper and an optional sliding second keeper. The Bund-style buckles are well crafted and are in keeping with the design of the strap. This style of strap is single thickness, which exposes the unfinished yet smooth backing. It makes for a thin, yet very strong strap. As in the previous strap, I’m impressed and I’ll be keeping the Speedy on the Rover Haven for the foreseeable future.
FW: Do you work globally with customers?
Definitely. I have sent straps to Ireland, England, France, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Yugoslavia, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Australia, most Canadian Provinces, and just about every State in the Union. I think I am forgetting a few countries, too. I only ask my international customers to pay the extra cost of the shipping method of their choice and I never mark it up. The cost and risk of international shipping is a constant source of frustration for me.
FW: How can people best reach you and what type of turnaround time do you typically quote?
I work by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and simply ask that folks give me a day or two to respond before they worry that maybe I didn’t receive their mail. Typical turnaround time for me is about four weeks from initial contact to getting the strap in the mail. Sometimes it’s two weeks and sometimes six to eight if there is a very special request that takes time to accommodate. Every customer and project receives the same time and attention regardless of complexity or value.
FW: Moving on, are you a watch collector? If so, what are some of your favorite pieces?
Of course! I have worn a watch every day of my life since my parents gave me a red LED Timex digital watch for Christmas in the 6th grade, which goes back quite a few years for me. In high school I discovered Hamilton field watches because my family were big LL Bean customers, and the military style really appealed to me. I still enjoy collecting vintage Hamilton and LL Bean field watches to this day. My customers can read on my blog about the Confusing Fall Warblers, my collection of 33 mm Hamilton field watches, and also my love of funky Hamilton chronographs from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
I really enjoy issued military watches and collect two-register navigational chronographs, particularly from the British services. But I also enjoy modern watches too, and have quite a few that I wear from day to day. I am drawn to German makers like Sinn, Damasko, Mühle Glashütte, and Junghans as well as Swiss brands like Omega and Oris, which are all well represented in my collection. I usually have two or three Seikos kicking around, and can’t believe the value proposition they represent. I am a big fan of what Eddie Platts is doing and own several Time Factors watches. They are also an incredible value.
Watches that I call near vintage are also very interesting to me. For me, these are pieces from the late 1960’s and into the early 1990’s. They’re old enough to be out of production and less common, but not so old that they’re impossible to service. They often have interestingly aged tritium dials and handsets, and they can represent the attainment of something that wasn’t affordable to me 20 or 30 years ago. Lately my love of the Lemania 5100 movement has brought quite a few of these pieces into my collection.
I tend to be more of an accumulator, and only sell a watch when it fails to ignite that little spark, and even then it can take months to years for me to actually get off the mark and get it listed. With one or two exceptions, I don’t collect quartz movement watches. I cannot imagine having to keep up with so many batteries, and there is an environmental footprint to those devices that a mechanical watch doesn’t impose.
I am also privileged to be the caretaker of several family heirloom watches. I have my Dad’s 1958 Omega caliber 284 that my Mom gave him as a gift when they were just married. I also have my great-great-grandfather’s Zenith pocket watch that my grandfather handed down to me when I was 14 along with the handwritten letter he gave me explaining the story and history of the watch.
If you asked me right now today what my favorite watch is, I’d say my late-80’s Hamilton Lemania 5100 Bund-alike chronograph. Picture a Sinn 156, but produced by Lemania for Hamilton and sold only in Italy as a limited edition. It took me a long time to find one, and it just returned from a full service and is proving a delight to use and wear. But ask me again next month and it will be something different! I write about my watches and other topics on the Rover Haven Blog, which I started earlier this year just as another way of connecting with customers.
FW: Do you consider yourself a fan of any other strap makers?
Ha, that’s a great question. There are so many good leather craft makers out there, but I have to say that I haven’t bought another strap maker’s products since Rover Haven has taken off. I do wear nylon NATO straps often, especially on my fixed bar military pieces, and Phoenix and Maratac are probably my two favorite brands. In thinking about it, I have traded straps with other hobbyist strap makers before, so I guess that counts.
FW: I have to ask about your love of dogs because I feel the same way…what type of dog or dog(s) do you have? Do you make their collars? 😉
Yes, as I mentioned above we are definitely dog people and I do make collars for my own dogs. Although pet ownership can be a lot of work (we’ve had bad skunk encounters twice this year) there is so much value in sharing your life with a good dog. They are unfailingly loving and forgiving, always empathetic and happy to see you, and our lives would be incomplete without them. I used to volunteer a little time for a regional Border Collie rescue organization, and we also have a cat and a turtle, also both rescued. Dogs keep us grounded emotionally and are reminders of what’s really important in life: having someone to care for and being loved in return.
I love to talk about dogs with other dog people and find it can be an even more connecting experience than finding any other common interest, even watch collecting. I think this is because when we talk about our dogs we are really talking about relationships. When customers send me a picture of their good dog, I am always happy to put it up on my site.
FW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for this opportunity! It has been a real privilege being interviewed by you, as Fratello has become a site that I frequent often. As I mentioned to you earlier, I have come to trust the information I encounter on Fratello and know that many other collectors and enthusiasts do as well.
A huge thanks to Myron at Rover Haven for his patience and diligence. For more on Rover Haven, check out www.roverhaven.com