Applying Her Kurdish Heritage to Watches

In the early 1990s, when Leyla Uysal was in grade school, she and her family lived in Suruc, what was then a small town in the Kurdish region of Turkey, near its southern border with Syria. They would leave it only twice a year — when they attended a festival in Sanilurfa, the nearest big city, about 60 miles away.

“I wore the one pair of nice shoes I had and my hair was all made up,” Ms. Uysal, now 38, recalled during a phone interview last month from her home in Cambridge, Mass. “We were walking toward the bus stop, and I was feeling like a star. I was very small and skinny, but smiling at everybody. I was so excited that I was going to the city.”

Ms. Uysal, an urban planner by training, sought to capture that memory, of feeling excited and special, when she named her watch brand Bajer, which means “city” in Kurdish.

But the name also has another, more complicated meaning for her. Many experts, including the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, say the Kurds are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a state of its own. Indigenous to a region that now includes parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, Kurds often have fled their homes to avoid persecution since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s.

“The notion of a city has come to represent not only a physical space but also a state of mind — a place where Kurds can be free, safe, and powerful one day,” a page on the Bajer website says.

Ms. Uysal said she was inspired to create Bajer in 2018 as a way to shine a light on Kurdish culture, and on Kurdish women in particular. She said that, as a child, she always wanted a watch (“Rich kids had watches,” she said).

Introduced in 2022, the brand now has 15 quartz-powered models, divided into four collections named Artemita, Basenia, Corduene and Sophene, after ancient Kurdish place names. They are sold on the Bajer website and through the New York retailer Flying Solo, priced from $1,290 to $3,290.

The straps are recycled leather in colors chosen to evoke the landscape of her homeland. “The black strap is for a city called Amed, Diyarbakir in Turkish, where they have black stones,” Ms. Uysal said. “The green honors our ancient olive trees and the burgundy honors our vineyards.”

And in a more overt homage, each strap is embossed with one of three Kurdish motifs that belong to the culture’s carpet-weaving tradition, in which, she said, women “put their stories, their loves, their struggles into their rugs.”

“Let’s say your husband is beating you; your rug tells a story,” she said. “Let’s say you have a fertile harvest; your rug tells a story.

“We women found a way to talk to each other, and it was a visual language. I ended up incorporating that language into Bajer, so I can now tell women, ‘You don’t have to talk — your watch will tell the story for you.’”

Ms. Uysal’s own story could never fit on a watch strap. Of the 5,000 people in her extended tribal family in Suruc, she said, she was the only woman to graduate from the local high school, and later, the only woman to attend college.

“We had people coming to my house every day, telling my mom, ‘You are dishonoring your family — girls shouldn’t be at school,’” Ms. Uysal recalled. “But they did me a favor. Every time they were in our house, it became a motivation for me to become a better student, so I could hopefully provide an opportunity for the next generation.”

Ms. Uysal’s family moved to Istanbul when she was almost 20 so she could continue her education. In 2012, at 27, she graduated from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University’s architecture school with a degree in city and regional planning, and took a job at an urban planning firm in Istanbul.

That same year, Ms. Uysal was exchanging emails with a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard for some research. She mistook his exhortation to visit the campus as an invitation to study there. “I sold everything I had and came to Boston,” she said.

After realizing her mistake, the professor’s assistant — the person who actually had been answering her messages — helped her to attend classes as a guest and introduced her to some Turkish students whom she helped with a research project.

Ms. Uysal said she formally began her pursuit of a master’s degree in design studies in ecologies at Harvard on Aug. 29, 2022, 10 years to the day after she arrived in Boston. And she is a candidate for the Ph.D. program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she hopes to continue her research on climate change.

A personal reckoning in 2018 led Ms. Uysal to become an entrepreneur. She had been in the United States for six years, during which she met her husband and was staying home to care for their two children, when she realized she had fallen into the gender role that she had always opposed. She decided it was time to make a change.

Ms. Uysal reached out to a friend who previously had worked at Ferrari, and “he introduced me to people in the watch business and that’s how I started to get in touch with factories,” she said.

Using money she had earned as an Airbnb host, Ms. Uysal hired a branding agency in San Francisco that helped her form an international design team. She worked with its members to create a logo and a branding strategy and design the watches, and by July 2019 she was visiting Tan, a private label watch manufacturer in Chiasso, Switzerland, that was going to make them.

She planned to introduce the watches in March 2020. But once the pandemic began, her suppliers — both Tan and a leather strap vendor in Ancona, Italy — had to focus on bigger clients.

Bajer made its debut in October 2022, after a shipment of watches from Tan finally arrived at her door after eight months in transit.

In the future, when the brand is more established, Ms. Uysal said she would donate a percentage of proceeds to two nongovernmental organizations with access to remote Kurdish areas: Lotus Genc Alan Dernegi in Diyarbakir and the Hisar Anatolian Support Society run by Enver Ozkahraman, a Kurdish artist and activist who established a rug-making workshop for young women in Van, a city in eastern Turkey.

“As a person coming from the region,” Ms. Uysal said, “I am familiar with the struggles women go through in their daily lives. I feel responsible for providing opportunities for my people because I haven’t forgotten what I went through.”