Top of His Class

Eric Watson Perfects the Art of Traditional Custom Hat Making

When Indiana Jones first hit movie theaters back in 1981, he introduced archeology to a generation that has now become leaders in the field. For a kid in Ohio, however, he found his inspiration not just in the adventures of Dr. Jones, but also in his fedora, and with that, crafted a one-of-a-kind career in which he has few peers.

“When I was twelve years old I wanted a good Indiana Jones hat,” says Eric Watson, owner and hat maker at Watson’s Hat Shop in Cave Creek. “I couldn’t afford a nice one, so I always ended up with a cheap hat, which pretty quickly lost its shape or just fell apart, and remember thinking that there was no way that these were the hats they were using in the movies.”

After researching traditional hat making at the library, Watson started having his mom take him to antique stores, where he would look for old hats to fix up, taking the time to examine their details. Through his research, he learned that beaver fur felt was the best material for hat making, and taught himself how to tell the difference by the touch and feel of the material. He then spent the better part of his teenage years collecting and restoring those hats to their original beauty.

After achieving degrees in Aviation Technology and International Studies, as well as obtaining his commercial pilots license, Watson found himself fresh out of college, with little work experience and in the heart of a recession.

With few other prospects on the horizon, Watson told his wife that he wanted to learn to make traditional, custom hats. He dug out whatever materials he had left from his father’s garage and found one solitary, old hat maker who would take his phone calls and offer a couple of tidbits to get him pointed in the right direction. After honing his skills and finding a storefront, Watson’s Hat Shop opened in 2012.

“From the felt to the liners, hatbands, leathers and buckles, all the way down to the thread, every single raw material we use is made here in the United States, and we’re very proud of that,” says Watson.

Pride also emanates from the craftsmanship and tradition that are trademarks of every one of Watson’s hats. Most of the equipment used comes from one of Boston’s oldest hat shops, which operated from 1860-1989, and scores of antique crown irons and hat blocks scatter the shelves. Even after all these years, a medieval-looking contraption called a conformateur is still the best way to transcribe the shape of a customer’s head, and Watson’s 1890s Paris model is as accurate today as it was over 120 years ago.

In addition to creating new hats, the shop still does hat restorations, some of which prove to be just as rewarding as making one from scratch.

Watson tells the story of a customer whose father had recently passed away. He was a local police officer, and she was hoping that Watson could refit his officer’s cap to fit her. Watson did, and when she placed it down on her head for the first time, she was so overwhelmed with emotion that tears started streaming down her cheeks.

“I have always said that this, in its own way, is Eric’s ministry,” says his mother, Dawn, who also works at the shop. “If you’re not doing something that impacts other people, brings some joy to the world, then what’s the point?”

Watson’s Hat Shop is located in Stagecoach Village in historic downtown Cave Creek. For more information, please visit WatsonsHatShop.com.