Monday, March 29, 2010

Focal Length Designs

We recently stumbled upon the work of Isaac Watson, and his line Focal Length Designs. His cuff bracelets are made from recycled camera lens parts, so this was naturally intriguing. Isaac was kind enough to answer some questions for us.

KEH: What's your profession?

IW: I wouldn't call myself a designer, or an entrepreneur, or a marketer. Just a creative, I guess. It's been a topic of hot, self-reflective debate lately. Some years ago I started a degree in graphic design, taking a few photography courses along the way, but burnt myself out physically, emotionally and financially after several years. I decided to take a break from school and regroup.

KEH: How did you come up with the idea to make the bracelets?

IW: In early 2008 I stumbled across a website featuring an artist that made jewelry from old camera parts. Encouraged to try making my own version of what I saw, I armed myself with a concept and some rudimentary tools and set to work.

I spent a sweltering May afternoon in a borrowed workshop grinding, filing and sanding away at a little piece of metal from a broken SLR camera lens I had found at a thrift shop. Two hours later I emerged from the shop with grime-covered hands and several minor lacerations, but I also had a couple shiny new bracelets. They were comparatively crude—scratched from a few too many slips of the metal file and dinged by a few too many mis-strikes of the hammer—but I had accomplished my goal, and I had a ball of a time in the process!

A single experiment in mimicry opened the door to a passion I never knew I had. I couldn't wait to take another stab at them!

KEH: What has the response been like?

IW: I find that I usually get one of three responses from people when they see my work.
  •  Response 1: "Oh, how clever!" This usually comes from the people who don't really get it. Suburban craft show moms and such.
  •  Response 2: "Oh, sweet! Those are bad-ass!" This is my favorite response (naturally). I get this from designers, fashionistas, the hip photographers.
  • Response 3: "OMG how could you?!" This always makes me laugh. It's usually the old school photographers that still have their AE-1 or K1000 in their closets and would never dream of getting rid of it. They're the ones that took the longest to convert to digital (not that there's anything wrong with that) and think I'm destroying their history. I can usually calm them down by assuring them that the lenses were broken to begin with or that they were obsolete parts. But really I understand that the shock stems from emotional connection to the "death of analog".
KEH: Have you thought about making other items based on the same idea, or using other camera equipment parts?

IW: In dismantling at least 30 lenses since I started, I've amassed quite the collection of optics, brackets, screws, springs, rings, aperture flaps, and all kinds of other parts. Part of my goal over the winter has been to expand my work beyond cuff bracelets. I'm currently brainstorming and collaborating with my good friend and mentor, Betsy Cross of Betsy & Iya. She's a wicked talented jewelry designer and we'll be launching our collaboration at the Crafty Wonderland Super-Colossal Spring Sale, May 1-2 at the Oregon Convention Center.

KEH: How long does your process take to make these?

IW: If I spent a good solid day in my workshop, I could emerge with ten bracelets. But that's assuming the lenses are already in pieces and I've got a good solid flow to my work. I also put a lot of time into photographing, naming and writing a "story" for each one. They are one-of-a-kind pieces, and I like giving them some kind of personality or history. I enjoy being able to connect to my customers that way, and it's a great outlet for my writing hobby.

KEH: Whats your process? What do you do with the other lens parts that aren't used for the bracelets?

IW: I'd like to say that it's as easy as slice, bend, and file, but there is so much more art that goes into it. Each piece has its own style that takes form as I work with it, and I've developed my own special techniques to add complexity to their minimalistic nature. My techniques have developed along with the bracelets, too, considering I have no formal training in jewelry-making or metal-smithing. I still do a lot of work by hand, even though I got a fancy Dremel tool for Christmas. Files and sandpaper are my friends! All the leftovers go into tubs and boxes and baggies and await brilliant ideas and collaboration as mentioned previously!


KEH: Can you size them to fit specific size wrists?

IW: Sizing depends greatly on the original diameter of the cuff and the thickness of the aluminum. Some of the metal is more flexible or more brittle than others. Most of my bracelets can be fine-tuned, but the big adjustments have to happen in the shop if the metal will accommodate it. I love doing custom work, too! Finding a raw piece and making it specifically with someone's wrist in mind is exciting, especially when I get to see their face at the unveiling! If anyone's interested in custom work, I'm happy to get in touch and discuss details!

KEH: Anything else you'd like to tell us?

IW: While I play around with my old AE-1 when I have the time and money for developing film, I don't consider myself a photographer. Most of the good photos I take are pure chance—my skills are not that greatly developed. So I would call myself more of a photographile instead.

Up until this year I had been selling my work solely through my Etsy storefront. In February, a new retail shop opened up inside an art gallery here in Portland, called Small Victories Shop. Erin, the shop owner and curator, focuses on artful and functional handmade goods for the home and body. She approached me about adding my bracelets to her collection, and is now the first brick-and-mortar shop to carry them! It's a fabulous little space and if anyone is in the Portland area, they should drop by and check it out.

I'm also the Co-Chair of a pilot project called I Heart Art: Portland. It's an art advocacy group that represents a new relationship between Etsy.com and PNCA. We're starting some really great programming here in Portland.

Below are a few bracelets from the line:


"Subtle Scratch"
"Large Threads 1"
"Micro-Bandonomics 1"
"Slice n Dice 1"
"Come to Grips 1"
"75mm Brilliance Plus 1"

For more on Focal Length Designs, visit the shop on Etsy.