BANTING, July 9 — A band of childhood friends — Zac Tan, Bryan Chang and Wallace Fong — set up Project Woodworks to make timepieces from sustainable wood. The trio wanted a company that combined their beliefs on sustainability and entrepreneurship.
The catalyst for the sustainable business — with its core focus on wood — came from Tan’s father’s business.
Fong shared that Tan’s father was in the carpentry business, making antique furniture used for prayers and other high-end furniture.
“I heard from him there was a wood crisis meaning the price of wood rose for some time because of illegal logging and economic problems. That’s why they closed down the business,” said Fong. This was back in 2008.
Fast forward to 2015. Tan and Chang co-founded Project Woodworks which makes timepieces from sustainable sources such as maple wood and walnut wood from Canada, and black sandalwood from Africa.
Fong joined them later when they were in the accelerator programme under Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Center (MaGIC). “For our supplier we chose wood that has been certified by FSC which stands for Forest Stewardship Council, “ said Fong.
The 24-year-olds design each watch which they then outsource to be made overseas before assembling it back here in Malaysia.”Our business operations actually started last September, it’s not too long ago. 2015 is actually just ideation, concepts and ideas then product development,” said Chang.
Parts for the watches such as the movements came from Japan or Switzerland; it took some time before they could start their business operations.
“The wooden parts are also from overseas because locally, we don’t have such fine machinery,” said Chang.
“It’s about wood, about sustainability and also about social impact that we are creating,” he added. For instance, instead of sourcing for cheaper products such as nylon for the Luxoré series, Project Wood Works chose to use a recyclable element like canvas fabric.
So far, the trio have released two collections of watches: the Shivelight series and Luxoré series.
The Shivelight series comes in four different types of wood and are named Maple, Onyx, Royale and Lunar.
For the Luxoré series, Project Woodworks used walnut wood for the watch case and recyclable canvas fabric for the strap. This series comes in two sizes for its watch case: 38-millimetres and 42-millimetres.
The collection comes in three colours: Muted Black, Sahara and Moss.
The watch movement for both collections are sourced from Japan, using the CITIZEN Miyota quartz movement. Prices for the Shivelight and Luxoré series starts from RM399 to RM469.
The watches are not made from 100 per cent unused wood but a good mix between unused wood and fresh wood.
Wood itself is already sustainable in terms of being bio-degradeable. It’s just the matter of how it is harvested.
Chang said that for the outsourced parts, the three of them do site visits to check the wood used. They also require the wood suppliers to show their certification before Project Woodworks proceeds to source the parts from them.
Each of the partners bring to the table their own influences. Tan’s educational background is architecture design but he realised that he wanted to continue the legacy of his father’s woodworking business. He’s interested in designing products so he came up with the idea to use wood.
As for Fong, he graduated as an environmental technologist. From a very young age, he has been practising recycling household items. “I’m very interested in the idea of sustainable consumption so I’m trying to spread this idea to let people know that what we do every day in our daily life is very important,” said Fong. He believes that sustainability can help change the world.
Chang studied finance and previously he was working in a corporation. He also started another business prior to joining Tan in Project Woodworks. “My background was more towards that and I believe that business and social impact can be aligned.”
With their shared philosophies, the three of them also co-operate with local NGOs to do preservation such as planting a tree with every purchase of Project Woodworks watches. This initiative is in partnership with Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC), an NGO that preserves tree species and does reforestation in our country.
Currently, Project Woodworks is partnering with the Wood Industry Skills Development Centre (WISDEC) under the Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB) for a space to work and develop their products.
They have also signed a year-long letter of intent to use the space and also learn from the wood experts there. Usage of the space is pay-per-hour basis but since Project Woodworks is using local unused wood to develop their next products, the wood is available for use.
Project Woodworks also offers custom-made services for companies who want eco-friendly merchandise.
Upcoming in their latest collection of wooden products are name card holders made with unused local keranji wood. Project Woodworks is also coming up with prototypes such as a notebook with a wooden cover, multi-purpose organiser, sunglasses and other wooden products that use local unused wood such as nyatoh, meranti and balau. This upcoming collection wil use 100 per cent unused wood.
It’s not easy to run a startup that is eco-conscious, as the three of them can attest. When they introduced this new product in Malaysia, it caught people’s eye but they would also be sceptical.
It took some time for the team to educate them and tell them the story behind each piece. “Even with the material itself, a lot of people question us about the durability of the products because when they look at the products, they question that it’s wood,
will it attract termites, or when it touches water, is it durable, would it break easily,” said Fong.
“The best way to answer this is to tell them wood can be used to build a ship, why not these things?” said Chang. Another challenge they face as a local brand is that Malaysians tend to compare things made abroad with homegrown brands. Their perception is that local brands should be cheaper but they don’t understand the lengths designers take to create something.
The demographics of Project Woodworks’ customers is a surprise: from university students to a 70-year-old uncle who turned out to be a watch collector! There is still a market for wooden watches despite the surge of smartwatches in the marketplace, according to Fong and Chang.
“We have plenty of international customers, US and also a few from UK. The other day we sold a batch to Cayman Islands wholesale. Around 50 pieces. We were quite surprised actually. When they first approached us, I thought it was a scam,” laughed Chang.