When you think of likely places to make bespoke watch straps, you probably think of back rooms of luxury boutiques in Mayfair or tiny workshops in France or Italy. Walthamstow is probably not the first locale on the tip of your tongue. However, buried at the end of a long and lushly overgrown garden in the heart of the creative hub that is E17 is Sabel Saddlery, where Mia Sabel handmakes watch straps.
“This is actually my third career,” says Mia as she opens the door to a green, wooden, chalet-style building, which releases a scent reminiscent of old furniture shops and rooms frequented by gentlemen with greying hair. “I used to be the creative director of Egg [the now defunct credit card company], but eight years ago I decided to retrain in saddlery.”
Left: the outside of Mia’s workshop and the wooden, bamboo-lined route to it
Saddlery is not a usual career choice for people – that there is only one full-time course in existence in the UK at Enfield’s Capel Manor shows how rare a profession it is – however, Mia, whose grandfather was carpenter, wanted to learn a traditional craft.
“It was between saddlery and millenary, but I don’t wear hats, so…”, she laughs.
There was slightly more serendipity to events than that. Mia was taking a year out to decide what to do after Egg went under. She had taken up horse riding and learnt Spanish, even combining the two by looking after horses in Spain for a few months.
She found out about the saddlery course and was accepted but not until the following year.
One of the many surfaces covered in pieces in progress in Mia’s workshop
“I needed to earn money so was trying to find something to do in the interim when, three days before the course was supposed to start, the tutor phoned me,” explains Mia. “Someone has broken their leg and so there was a spare place.”
So Mia embarked on the course, where she found herself surrounded by 16 year-olds whose parents owned livery yards.
“They already had a business to go to when they graduated, but I didn’t so I decided to look at the course for what skills I could learn and how to apply them in other ways,” she explains.
After completing her course and subsequent apprenticeship of sorts – she was too old to do a conventional apprenticeship so had to work for herself for two years while reporting to a master saddler – Mia started work doing repairs on tack and also people’s leather goods.
Bridles hanging in the workshop and (right) traditional saddlery tools
“Because of my design background, I found I could ‘design out’ faults that I saw in the things people were bringing me to repair,” she says.
A QEST (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust) scholarship, which is awarded to exceptional artisans in the British craft industry, followed and, last year, Mia was also accepted onto the Walpole Crafted Mentorship Programme, which pairs those involved with relevant mentor in the luxury sector to develop their business and their skills.
Mia’s mentor was Robert Ettinger, managing director of Ettinger one of the best luxury leather goods companies in the world.
“In the first three session, Robert looked at everything,” says Mia. “I was already making watch straps, but didn’t really know how to promote them. Robert really latched onto them. He told me to stop doing wholesale and gave me advice on how to improve them and also how to PR them.”
Strap options, including different types of stitching and strap ends
The key to Mia’s business has always been the quality of the leather – she uses mostly UK leathers where she can and sticks to bridle leather, which can be found in Chesterfield and Walsall, and oak-bark or pit-tanned leather, which takes a year to produce and can only be bought from a tannery in Devon.
She also makes everything by hand using traditional techniques, such as hand stitching for which she has to source very particular linen thread.
This adherence to the old ways means these straps are both beautiful and hard wearing.
Mia thinning the leather and (right) the hand-operated machine that does the thinning
And, although they can be mail-ordered, Mia prefers to have customers come to her for the final fit so she can ensure its perfection for its new owner.
When you think of the painstaking handwork that goes into many mechanical watches, it seems only right that it should be affixed to your wrist with something that is imbibed with a commensurate amount of tradition and craftsmanship.
And, when people ask where you got it, you can watch the shock on their faces when you tell them it was made in E17.
If you want to contact her for a bespoke strap you can get in touch with her through her website