Custom hat maker Eric Watson, 33, is the millennial personification of an early 20th-century milliner. Step into his Cave Creek shop (watsonshatshop.com), which he opened in 2012, and you’re instantly transported to a different era. Amid the antique wooden hat blocks, Singer sewing machines from the 1800s and steam blocking tables, Watson fashions and refurbishes a staggering variety of head coverings, from cowboy hats and felt fedoras to bowlers and Panama hats. His customers are cowboys, ranchers, golfers and hat connoisseurs searching for the perfect fit – achieved with the aid of an antique conformitor for measuring heads. Watson’s hats aren’t cheap – they range in price from $350 to $5,000 – but he’s courting the quality-seeking customer who appreciates a handcrafted work of art. The Ohio native has also created hats for superstar musicians Justin Timberlake and Kenny Chesney, as well as NBC Today show weather anchor Al Roker. Someday he hopes to spy one of his hats on the big screen.
How did you become interested in hat making?
As a kid I loved Indiana Jones. Every kid did during that time, but I really got into the hats when I was 12. Before that I was just buying cheap Indiana Jones hats and wearing them. I would go to the library to do research because the Internet wasn’t around at that time, and I would look in the phone book, call the directory assistance and ask where the hat shops were in Ohio. So my mom would drive me to those places and I’d meet with hat makers. From then until I went to college, I did it as a hobby. After college – I got degrees in international studies, diplomacy and peace studies and another in aviation technology – the economy went into a recession. I was working for corporations and I needed to build something for myself. So I decided to go into hat making.
Did you have a mentor or are you self-taught?
When I first started, I was self-taught by reading and taking old hats apart. Later on, Grant (Sergot) in Bisbee mentored me from Ohio and then when I came out here, he helped me a bit as well and sold me some equipment. After that, I started looking for more equipment and I found other hat makers who were retired. Today, I use a conglomeration of equipment from three hat shops, and we also purchased one of the oldest hat shops in the country called Hand the Hatter in Boston that was started in 1860. We had all the equipment shipped out here.
What’s the most unusual request you’ve ever had for a hat?
We made a Western-appeal chef’s toque hat for Bryan Dooley (owner of Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue in Cave Creek). We had a special hat block made with piping grooves, so the top part looks like a chef’s toque, but it has a Western-style brim.
Why do you make so many different styles of cowboy hats?
The cowboy hat signifies where you are in the horsing community culture. There are different hat styles for people who work on a ranch versus team ropers and for quarter horse people versus bronc riders, and ranchers will typically wear a different hat style than the working hand on the ranch. The hats are made from beaver fur felt and if you dunked the hat in a water tank, you could fill it with water. It’s very strong. Literally, a horse can step on your hat and you can pop it back out and put it on your head.
What do you enjoy most about hat making?
I like to work with my hands and I like building a hat that a customer loves and appreciates. It’s something they’re going to be proud to wear and something that’s going to last. The hats I’m making customers will outlive them and they can hand them down to their kids. We’re building functional heirlooms for people.
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