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The Belfast craftsman who served up smash hit for tennis star Novak Djokovic

As Ian Hawthorne watched the Serb win Wimbledon, he could hardly believe he was working on a special wooden box for him in his garage

By Stephanie Bell

Every day as Ian Hawthorne takes the few steps from his back door to his garage he walks into his dream world - a converted workshop where he crafts bespoke boxes for some of the wealthiest and most famous people in the world.

After 25 years working shifts on a factory floor, the Belfast dad of two has made the fantastic transition from printer to internationally-renowned craftsman whose latest commission was a watch presentation box for the world's number one tennis star, Novak Djokovic.

Ian's work also graces the home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as well as Prince Charles.

Not bad for a former printer who learnt everything he knows about the art of intricate box-making through trial and error.

What started as a hobby making furniture when he bought his first home over 20 years ago is now a full-time business with commissions from an elite worldwide clientele.

Self-taught Ian took the plunge five years ago to go out on his own and set up Hawthorne Crafts with the help of his wife Kate.

Such is the level of detail of each individually-crafted commission that a single handmade box can take up to six months to complete from design to finished product.

Ian, who prides himself on the quality of his pieces, wouldn't have it any other way.

And while this uncompromising attention to quality will not make him a fortune, he says his life couldn't be richer as he spends his days in his garage doing what he loves.

"I earned twice what I am earning now when I worked in printing but I couldn't be happier," he said. "I used to work night shifts and I absolutely hated it.

"Now I take the kids to school and then I walk the dog every morning and I see the trees and the hills and you just couldn't ask for anything more than that.

"I am in my workshop from about 9am - it's a dream come true and I really do appreciate it.

"When Kate and I first bought our house years ago I remember watching a programme on the Discovery Channel about people working from their home workshops making things, and thinking that would be a dream.

"It's taken me a long time to realise it and I really didn't believe that one day I would be doing it too.

"You do get days when things aren't going right but you get a way round it and it beats the night shift.

"Commissions like the one I have just done for Novak Djokovic make it very special."

The exquisite bespoke walnut watch presentation box was commissioned for Djokovic by his sponsor, global watchmaker Seiko.

Initially when they contacted Ian he had no idea who the box was for.

The brief was to design a bespoke, high quality box to hold six watches with a time-related design on the lid top.

"I only knew that the box was for a man, so my initial ideas involved creating a walnut watch box with a lid design incorporating angled veneers to give the impression of time passing by.

"I decided that the blue suede lining on the inside lid would also be stamped with the Seiko logo and the watch rolls made from the same material.

"I had quite a few phone discussions with Seiko and once I found out it was for their new ambassador, Novak Djokovic, I immediately thought of setting off the time design with a stainless steel circular disc to represent a tennis ball, and also to add Novak's signature to the left hand corner.

"I conveyed my thoughts to Seiko by producing fully rendered 3-D models using computer software and sent them by email for approval.

"Wimbledon was on at the time and it was a bit surreal watching it and knowing I was making something for the winner."

Seiko was delighted with the finished product which they presented to Novak earlier this month. A picture of him with the box was posted on the sport star's Facebook page and also by Seiko on social media.

Even though it is not his first famous customer, Ian says it still feels a bit surreal for him: "It enters my head that the box is maybe sitting in his house now and it is something that was made in the garage out my back and it feels a bit weird but, wow, it's fantastic.

"I wonder what he would think if he knew that it was made in a garage in Northern Ireland."

It all started for Ian (45), who is dad to Tom (15) and Zoe (13), when he and Kate (43) bought their first home 25 years ago.

Ian had been glued to the series on Discovery featuring craftsmen who mainly worked from home.

As he and Kate shopped for furniture for their new home he found himself thinking that the items they were buying would be easy to make.

He started to buy some simple tools and experimented first with making himself a work bench with drawers from some old pallets taken from his factory at work.

He progressed to a bookcase for the house and then ambitiously made a TV media unit which he describes as "very basic", but which the family are still using today.

He searched the internet and bought books and gradually added more sophisticated tools to his collection as he honed his skills over the years.

"I would start work at 6am to do a shift in the factory and would get up and be in my workshop from 4am making things and then go back to the garage when I got home from work at night."

When he saw pictures of boxes created by a woodworker in a magazine he was enthralled by the level of detail and the challenge in the scale of the work.

He couldn't resist having a go and soon found his niche.

Now working with a range of unusual materials including snake wood, ebony, yew and mother of pearl, Ian has mastered the art of marquetry and honed his skills to such a level that he is now renowned in the world's box-making circles.

"It was the detail and how small it is and there was a real challenge in that for me. There were so many possibilities and to me it wasn't just a box but a piece of art."

His clientele are largely wealthy collectors who want fine boxes to display their collections which range from pens to jewellery and even gemstones. He is currently working on a shaving box worth £7,500 for a wealthy Mexican.

His most treasured commission, however, was a jewellery box designed as a wedding gift for the Royal couple, Kate Middleton and Prince William.

"I got an email from a company in England who insisted on remaining anonymous asking me to design a jewellery box for William and Kate," he says.

"It had to have two trays inside with 24 compartments in each and the Royal Coat of Arms on the lid.

"I sent them a 3D model and priced it at £1,500.

They came back to say they needed to stick to their budget of £1,200 and so I modified it slightly and got the job.

"I still occasionally think 'Wow' my work could be sitting in the bedroom of the Royal couple.

"It's definitely exciting when you get a commission for something like that.

"It would be nice to do one for Rory McIlroy."

Meantime, Ian is being kept busy in his garage workshop with a commission to finish for Christmas, and more for the New Year.

He adds: "Thankfully I've always been kept working and let's hope it continues!"

 

Knock on wood... with a world-class talent

• Ian's one-of-a-kind bespoke boxes are created with an Art Deco and modern 20th century influence

• His boxes are available through his website and also from select galleries in England and Ireland where they are on display

• Prices range from £100 for ring boxes to the most expensive box, priced at over £7,000

• Among his long list of elite clientele is top London jeweller designer Jack Du Rose, who commissioned him to create boxes for a bejewelled pendant necklace and several watches

• Prior to specialising in box-making he was also commissioned by ReACTions Theatre Group in Ballyclare to make a pair of Native Wooden pens to be presented to Prince Charles, and also by the NI Timber Trade Association to make a set of six Lord and Lady Royal Goblets for TV's Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs fame

• Ian's skill as an artisan box-maker has seen him featured in specialist magazines around the world including Good Woodworking Magazine, Furniture & Cabinet Making Magazine and Craftsman magazine

• For details on his work, visit www.HawthorneCrafts.com

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