In 1609, English navigator Henry Hudson sailed the Dutch ship Halve Maen from Amsterdam to find the Northwest Passage to China. But somewhere along the route he turned southwards and ended up laying the foundation of the Dutch Empire’s exploration of what we today know as New York.
The story sets the stage for the latest addition to Sweden’s fashion startup scene, Maen Watches, founded by Dutch entrepreneurs Sebastiaan Cortjaens and Jules van Helvoort. The obvious link is its name, the less obvious is the same desire to explore new territory.
“It’s a story we grew up with in the Netherlands. He deviated from his path, which led to the founding of New Amsterdam which became New York. That’s also our style, to go in a different direction,” says Cortjaens.
Their own story is in a way similar. Both originally had a plan to move to New York but, to use their own words, deviated from their path and ended up in Stockholm – Cortjaens following his Swedish girlfriend, van Helvoort to study motion graphics at Hyper Island.
“My plan was to move but my plan changed. If I look back now I’m happy I didn’t go,” says Van Helvoort, who has continued working in animation web design. “Really? I didn’t know you wanted to go to New York too,” laughs Cortjaens, who has just taken six months off work to dedicate his time to Maen Watches.
His is the story of the tax lawyer who, again, deviated from his path to become a watch designer.
“I’ve always had a huge passion for watches, so I started working on the ideas. I knew that Jules worked in design so I asked him for advice – and it turned out that he had had the same idea,” he says.
“We had both already prepared different aspects, and luckily we were quite aligned in design ideas,” adds Van Helvoort. “And it’s nice to be able to speak Dutch to each other.”
The new business partners and friends met almost by chance, through mutual acquaintances in Stockholm, and quickly hit it off despite the age difference – Cortjaens is 32 and van Helvoort 25.
“If we had stayed in the Netherlands things wouldn’t have come together like this,” remarks Cortjaens, who grew up in a town near Maastricht. “You’re quite a bit older than be so I probably wouldn’t have met you,” adds Van Helvoort, from Eindhoven. “It’s a funny thought how things just happen in a particular way.”
But for all the twists and turns of fate, Maen did not just happen by chance. It took a lot of work finding the right supplier, finding good-quality parts and finding business contacts to help the brand get off the ground.
“If you are abroad you have to network more, so we actually hope that will make it easier for us,” says Cortjaens when asked about the challenges of starting up a business in a new country.
“Marketing-wise Stockholm has a reputation as a fashion capital. Internationally, Sweden is hot. But because there are a lot of Swedish brands, we’re one of many whereas in the Netherlands we would have been one of a few. Right now we’re a needle in a haystack, we need exposure,” he adds.
One of the watches. Photo: Maen
The Maen watches are all made using Swiss quartz Ronda movement, sapphire crystal glass and an Italian leather strap, they explain. ‘Maen’ being Dutch for ‘moon’, the first model features a complication that consists of a rotating disc designed to look like the Moon as seen from Earth, illustrating the moonphase.
“We wanted it to be quite minimalist and smaller than the average watch, and we also wanted high quality but at a low price. And for me, one of the things that also triggered this was that I kept seeing so many new brands with ugly designs popping up,” says Cortjaens. “I thought, you can do better than this.”
But despite their clear ideas of what it was they wanted, putting those ideas into practice was a different thing entirely. “We were very picky, so maybe others would have accepted the first sample, but we sent it back to the supplier four or five times,” says Cortjaens.
“Doing that over and over again is really exhausting,” adds Van Helvoort. “There was a moment where we asked ourselves ‘can we continue?’ I think we’re probably going to have another one of those moments now,” he adds about the nervous jitters of wondering if potential buyers will like their creation too.
“Hopefully watch fans will appreciate the brand,” says Cortjaens. “But we’ve already got quite a few orders. We got one from a guy in Moscow the other day – how did he even find us?”
The Maen online shop launched just a few weeks ago, but the entrepreneurs are already thinking of how they are going to develop the watches, which are sold as unisex at the moment and released one model at a time. And they agree that straying from your beaten path to explore new territory is not a bad thing at all.
“Culture-wise, I immediately found I could get along with the Swedes, I didn’t have to change my personality – I could just be myself,” says Van Helvoort. “I used to have quite a strict plan of where I was going, but then I was just sort of placed in Sweden directly from the Netherlands, which helps make you more creative.”
“Swedes are a little bit more respectful than the Dutch, so we’re probably still ruder than the average Swede,” laughs Cortjaens. “But there’s something about the Stockholm syndrome. It’s a creative virus.”