Master Artisan and Entrepreneur, Matt Conable, Tells of his Unrelenting Mission to Create Functional Knives, Jewelry and Accessories from Ancient Artifacts
att Conable, an artist, designer, entrepreneur, and businessman has been forging unique handcrafted tools, jewelry and accessories for men since 1997. The company name, William Henry, is derived from the middle names of original partners, Matthew William Conable and Michael Henry Honack. Matt sold the company to a private equity group in 2017, and now focuses all his energy fulfilling his role as Creative Director. The goal of William Henry is to produce unique and timeless pieces forged from exotic and precious materials (although exotic may be an understatement). The articles are fashioned from fossil mammoth tooth, mammoth tusk, dinosaur bone, meteorites, and fossil coral to name a few — some of which are over 100,000 years old. Each unique material is constructed into a one-of-a-kind opus that is more akin to art than accessory. But don’t let the gorgeous facade fool you — the extraordinary artifacts are all incredibly functional, a result of Matt’s mission to, “effectively transform the archetype of all tools into superb pieces of functional jewelry and accessories for men.” The collection now ranges from bracelets, writing instruments, money clips, cuff links, to key chains, but the brand launched with their award-winning pocket knives which continues to be the cornerstone of the brand.
His story began thirty years ago when Matt dropped out of college at 19 and got a job in a small knife shop on the coast of California. Matt explains, “I just wanted to be doing something with my hands that had some sense of permanence versus studying bold faced terms in college courses at the time. I never would have predicted that that would eventually lead me here.” He quickly picked up the knifemaking trade with help from shops owner, David Boyle; and together they produced rustic and highly functional knives. Simultaneously, Matt finished his college degree, “just in case I needed one” he adds, “...turns out I didn’t!”
In his mid 20’s, the young craftsman moved to Arizona, intent to set up his own shop full of artisan knives. It was a one-man-operation and he was selling mostly direct-to-consumer at small arts and craft shows. Still, Matt was gaining exposure in the art world and by the time he was 25, he was juried into the Smithsonian and the same year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Matt describes, “In terms of American craft, I reached what looked like the pinnacle, at a young age. Everyone around me was one or two generations older.” But after analyzing the numbers, the young artist realized he was making less money than if he were waiting tables at a local restaurant.
Matt decided the economics simply weren’t feasible to sustain a modest lifestyle or provide for a family. The California born knifemaker resolved to leave his days of being a struggling artist behind, and opted to move back to the Bay Area where he would apply for the best MBA programs in the country. As Matt puts it, “That was my plan — I was going to put on hard shoes and join the real world.” He had about eight months before grad school commenced and in the interim, needed money, so he sought after work in Silicon Valley. He obtained an offer in the now, tech-centric region, right before it was about to take off.
Serendipitously, the night before he was to accept the job offer, Matt received a phone call that would alter the course of his life. Matt explains, “There was a message on my answering machine from a knife collector who had some of my work. He somehow found out that I was on my way out of knife-making business. His middle name was Henry. My middle name is William and that’s eventually where the name came from.”
Michael Henry Honack persuaded Matt to stick with his passion, and that is undeniable talent would inevitably pay off. Matt told Michael that he was willing to turn down the job in Silicon Valley and spend the eight months before grad school to create a business model. Michael would cover Matt’s living expenses while he developed a business plan based off his experience in high-grade, custom caliber knives. And Matt also clarified that once grad school began, he may or may not want to continue with this entrepreneurial endeavor.
Six months passed and Matt toiled away in a small studio apartment, the bumpers and grinders so close to his computer he had to cover it with a garbage bag to protect from the dust. “The biggest learning curve was the difference of making everything yourself by hand, which is inordinately slow and expensive, and takes a level of craft that’s hard to replicate — versus how do you do it at scale and what technologies are available to help.” By the time eight months passed, Matt had four solid designs and orders to fulfill throughout the year.
This was all the persuasion the young entrepreneur needed. He realized, “Maybe I can do this. Maybe I don’t need to go to grad school and spend 100k, go into debt, put on hard shoes and become a cog in a big organization… maybe I can actually build something I believe in. So off we went.” Now, William Henry is a formidable force in the realm of men’s jewelry and accessories, and has a celebrity following of Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford and Pierce Brosnan, to name a few.
Matt remains an artist at heart and thrives in the creative process, but also maintains his entrepreneurial spirit. He’s a little hard on himself as any good entrepreneur is, and says, “on one hand we’re doing well... look how far we’ve come since ’97! But on the other hand, look at a Jeff Bezos… he started Amazon at about the same time.”
It’s no question that William Henry has come a long way. The company launched with less than 200 products, all of which were hand made by Matt, and today they are staffed with 45 people in a 6,400 square foot studio. The brand remains committed to hand-forging dramatic and detailed functional, wearable works of arts. And Matt Conable, the master craftsman remains focused on the creative elements of the business. “It went from, as any business does when you’re starting - me doing everything to gradually pocketing myself more and more into the creative role. The designer, the process engineer, the troubleshooter, still the macro-level master craftsmen that hopefully the shop and the system can look to for solution. And people told me I couldn’t do it!”