Taking it from the Top

Sunday 5.5.2013 @ 8:40pm | ImagesAZ | Lifestyle

From under the downturned brim of a smart fedora, Eric Watson’s eyes gleam behind dark-rimmed glasses. His words come out with a touch of molasses, more from his deliberate nature than from his Ohio roots. The ticking of the clock, he proves, is not the only thing that determines the rhythm of life and the destiny of a passion. Time has stood still, or at least taken a pause, inside Watson’s Hat Shop in downtown Cave Creek. Like the gentle clicking of his century-old sewing machines or the heavy comfort of beaver hair felt as he inspects rims and crowns that he’s molded and shaped himself, it’s tradition that finds its way into every corner of the shop, settling in like a comfortable friend.


Just outside the doors of the single-room store, traffic passes innocuously, keeping pace with the steady comings and goings of modern life. Inside the door, however, the honor and pride of a bygone era is alive and well. Behind its magic is a man much younger than expected, but whose love for the art of hattery is timeless.


Watson has always been an old soul. Even as a young child, he was more comfortable around people his grandparents’ age than his own peers. “They were smarter,” Watson said matter-of-factly. “You can learn a lot more from somebody older than you.”


In the 1980s, at the age of 13, he discovered the first love of his life at the movies. It was Indiana Jones – not the character, so much as what he was wearing. The worn and rugged fedora Jones sported separated him from anyone else Watson had ever seen. Though he was young, Watson knew he wanted to experience life from underneath a hat like that.


In the coming months and years, Watson begged his mother to take him to antique stores to find such a hat. He could never find just the right one, but he did find several well-worn versions that kept his imagination going. One day he struck a treasure. He came across a store owner who had some hat making equipment that would put the boy’s imagination in motion. “I bought an old beat-up hat and some hat blocks, and lo and behold, the first hat blocks were my size,” said Watson fondly. Using the blocks to restore his finds, he began a hobby that would later become a respectable trade.


“I was always the guy with the hats,” Watson said of his early years. “In particular, I loved old fedoras.” He researched techniques and found pieces of equipment along the way that helped him build his collection and he spent countless hours cleaning and reshaping until it became, well, old hat.


“You can tell a lot about a person by the hat that they wear,” Watson explained, plucking an example from a display rack. “If you had this hat on you,” he adds, “you would stand out.” There’s no doubt about that. The hat he shows me is a beautiful Western hat with a leather hat band studded with silver conches. It’s all handmade and is surely the finest hat I’ve ever felt. I put it on, and my jeans and T-shirt are suddenly part of a very different look.


“I think a hat is part of somebody’s personality. It distinguishes them from other people,” he says. “It completes them.”


At 18, Watson went off to college, earning degrees in aviation studies and international studies. He went on to flight school, he thought, to become a multi-engine commercial pilot. There he met his wife, Emily. It was love at first flight, and they’ve been together ever since.

A downturn in the economy led Watson to sell the fedoras he’d restored as a teenager. Still in Ohio, he consigned a few at a local shop and put some on eBay. “They sold like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “People started asking me, ‘Do you have more?’” Before he knew it, he was selling his hats all over the world.


Knowing he was on to something, Watson began to research everything he could about hat making. He got online and looked for hat shops that seemed to be selling the quality of hats that impressed him. “I knew from looking at what they were making if they were any good or not. There are hatters out there who make hats, and then there are hatters out there who make hats well, and their reputation precedes them,” he explained.


Somewhat surprisingly, it was difficult for Watson to find hatters who were interested in talking. They tend to take their trade and its secrets very seriously, he learned. But one hatter from Bisbee, Arizona did take the time to talk. Over the next years, the two struck up a friendship based on their love of the art.


Grant, the Bisbee hatter, gave Watson the opportunity of a lifetime by offering for sale a large collection of equipment, including century-old hat blocks, a crown iron machine from the 1920s, a hat stamper and many other tools of the trade to get him started. Without Grant’s help and the help of another old hatter back east, it may have taken Watson decades to find such treasures in antique shops. Very few, if any, manufacturers still make the specialized molds and hand-operated machines used to create or refurbish authentic Western hats, fedoras, derby hats and other handcrafted toppers.


About two years ago, Watson’s wife was offered a job as a flight instructor at Deer Valley Airport. On a bright Sunday, as they searched the Valley for a place to settle down, they ended up on the road through Cave Creek. Like a prodigal son called home, Watson felt an instant connection. They drove past a “For Rent” sign next to Bryan’s BBQ and on a whim, Watson turned the car around and checked the place out. He wrote down the phone number, and the rest, as they say, is history.


Watson’s Hat Shop is small but mighty, in a charming kind of way. Each hat starts out as a rough form made from one of four materials: genuine American beaver felt, European hare felt, Ecuadorian Cuenca or Monte Christo straw from Ecuador. The materials themselves are fine and meant to last.


Through a series of timeless (and time-consuming) processes, Watson spends hours gently shaping, molding, sewing and completing each creation until it’s exactly as the customer wants. His felts come in 31 colors, and he has 40 colors of hatter’s ribbon to choose from for hat bands. He’s also partnered with several other talented local leather toolers, silversmiths and other impressive artists to create custom bands for his clientele. “I’ve been blessed with so many wonderful craftsmen in just a few months,” Watson said.


Finding the perfect hat is much more involved than one might think. Each client’s head shape is different, and every lump and bump affects the fit of a hat. Watson uses a special tool to map those differences; then his apprentice, Steve Snider, creates a wooden template for the customer to exact a perfect fit. The rest of the hat is based not on whim, but on the length and width of the face and width of the customers’ shoulders.


Every bit of felt or straw is coaxed into place, from the crown to the peak, using molds and presses until the vision takes shape. Every band is hand-stitched, and the smallest details are tended to with tools whose names are long forgotten. Watson pours a piece of himself into each hat he makes, his dedication and creativity the true marks of a master craftsman.


From the utilitarian Western hat to the classic derby, and so many in between, each finished product boasts its own personality. From the fine leather sweat band inside the hats to the smart handcrafted ribbon, turquoise and metalwork touches on the outside, there is nothing plain about Watson’s art. His dedication is just as much about creating the new as it is keeping alive the old.


“It’s all about quality and the tradition behind it,” Watson said. “People get that. They understand that … the ones who have been raised that way do.”



Watson’s Hat Shop

6140 E. Cave Creek Rd. Suite 5, Cave Creek