American Made: Thomas of Crown & Buckle

 

If we were playing a game of word association and I said “NATO strap,” what word comes to mind? If you’re into watches, I’ll bet you’d say “Crown & Buckle.” The fact that this product and this brand seem to go hand in hand has a lot to do with the rise in popularity of watch collecting and everything to do with the reputation of Crown & Buckle.

Aftermarket NATO watch straps are such a part of today's watch culture that you’d think every collector and casual watch wearer has been weaving them through their spring bars for decades. But up until a few years ago, NATO straps weren’t that easy to come by. The strap industry, in the form we know it today, didn’t exist. If you lived in the U.S. you likely had to order from overseas sellers, each specializing in one type of strap (i.e. NATO, 2-piece), and then wait up to a few weeks for delivery. Thomas Lathrop, founder of Crown & Buckle, has played a major role in ushering in the NATO revolution. And in my opinion, Thomas is one of the most influential individuals responsible for popularizing the NATO strap. 

But this feature isn’t about the history of NATO straps, nor is it a review of a Crown & Buckle product. This is the story behind Crown & Buckle; how the idea came about, how the company got off the ground, and how Thomas’ effort - with the support of his family, friends, and the watch community - has made Crown & Buckle the industry standard.

The dream of becoming an entrepreneur is an alluring thought: Telling your boss “I quit” and taking control of your own destiny is an empowering feeling. For most of us, this fantasy ends quickly once reality sets in, as certain factors need to be in place to start a viable business. There’s what you’re taught in the classroom, such as finding an industry with few barriers to entry. Then there’s the intangibles; qualities you either have or need to develop - like determination and foresight.

Of course today, Crown & Buckle is an American success story, so Thomas can chuckle when he says it was “possibly a dumb move” when he up and quit his job working for a luxury shoe designer, without a new job to go to.

Turn back the clock five years to this moment in his life; he had some ideas to make improvements at the company he’d worked at since college. He said the company was doing “good, but could be great.” Thomas was frustrated that he wasn’t in a position to affect change. He felt restless; deep down he knew he needed to be in a different work environment where he had more control over the outcome, whether the result was a success or a failure.

Thomas realized that his bold decision placed the weight of providing for his family solely on his wife, Taffney. Until he figured out his next move, hers would be the newlywed's only income. Taffney knew Thomas well-enough to trust that he would solve his career dilemma.

When it came time to figure out what to do, Thomas turned to his hobbies and took a hard look at “what wasn’t being served well.” Thanks to a close friend’s peer-pressure and enabling, Thomas’ most recent obsession had become watches - his first timepiece being a vintage Hamilton he bought on eBay.

As he got more and more into watches, he spent more time logged in on watch forums. He couldn’t help but notice how he could “dramatically change the look [of his watches] by changing the strap.” Having a few watch straps - in effect - multiplied his watch rotation. Thomas has always had an “itch for customization” - going back to pastimes such as building radio-controlled cars - so the versatility of NATO straps were totally his speed. But sourcing them was another matter... He had a difficult time finding his preferred colorways and fabrications. And when he did, it was an ordeal to checkout, and shipping took forever because most sellers were located outside the U.S. You could call this his "aha" moment.

Taffney didn’t fully understand how her husband was going to make a living selling watch straps, but she did know he was smart and hardworking, and more importantly, she saw his passion. For seven months, she watched Thomas work Monday through Friday; eight, nine, ten-hours a day setting the wheels in motion to debut Crown & Buckle. 

In hindsight, Thomas attributes some of Crown & Buckle's success and current market share to the hard and soft skills he learned in college and toiling away working for the shoe designer. 

Even before he graduated with a degree in Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Thomas proved he had the mettle to be a future business owner by scoring gigs as a freelance photographer and web designer for local bands. What at the time may have seemed like just an odd job rooted in a passion, turned out to pay dividends when it came to design the look and feel of Crown & Buckle years later.

Of course, he didn’t realize it at the time, but the various positions he held at the shoe designer - from an hourly employee in their warehouse all the way up to his last promotion to operations manager, exposed him to so many business functions, including supply chain and logistics. When it came time to negotiate with strap suppliers for Crown & Buckle inventory, Thomas had a bank of knowledge and real world experience to draw upon.

In the Summer of 2011, when the big day finally arrived for Crown & Buckle’s website to go live, you might be surprised to find out they didn’t have an Instagram account. Thomas said engaging with the watch community through forums [which at the time were still going strong] is "how we got our name out there." 

Crown & Buckle allocated some of their advertising budget to sponsor Watchuseek, which drove traffic to their website. But Thomas didn’t let the fate of Crown & Buckle rest on whether someone was curious to click an ad; he was an active member, searching threads and answering questions whenever he saw a watch strap topic pop up. Besides Watchuseek, Crown & Buckle also sponsored Worn and Wound, an upstart watch blog at the time, which is now a go-to resource. Slowly but surely watch enthusiasts became familiar with Crown & Buckle, especially after placing orders and trying out their straps.

Of course, in a matter of only a few years, the tables turned. Forums eventually took a back seat to social media as the preferred way to interact with customers. This led Thomas to create a @crownandbuckle profile on Instagram, and he’ll be the first to tell you how incredible the experience has been. The first time Thomas spotted a Crown & Buckle NATO strap threaded through someone's watch, he said he had a “huge grin; someone's enjoying something we put out in the world.” Since then, countless watches have been posted and reposted adorned with Crown & Buckle straps. No matter the publicity Crown & Buckle gets, they will not rest on their laurels. Still ringing true from day one is Thomas’ belief to always produce a quality product - at a fair price, and to provide solid service - including fast shipping. 

Even when Crown & Buckle was only a flicker of an idea in Thomas’ head, he was excited by the prospect of it becoming a one-stop-shop for watch straps; a place to find the perfect color strap to accent your watch or simply to give you a break from wearing a bracelet. For the record: Thomas has nothing againstbracelets - he occasionally wears one on his Rolex Sea-Dweller, but says when he does, he “feels guilty; like [he’s] betraying his company.” For a guy who gave us variety when it comes to straps, we certainly can't fault him for wanting a little variety for himself. 

Crown & Buckle is not only a thriving business, but it's a thriving family business; In 2013 Taffney quit her job to work side by side with her husband. Practically around the clock, the two fill orders from around the world; to people from all walks of life, with watches from Timex to Submariners stamped "Comex." The one common thread being that the watches and straps are a reflection of their individuality, just like Crown & Buckle is a reflection of Thomas. 

Be sure to visit crownandbuckle.com and fill your shopping cart with straps... Any questions? email contact@crownandbuckle.com

*All photography courtesy of Thomas