«WHERE AMERICAN IS MADE»
WRITTEN BY IVAN CARVALHO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEFAN JERMANN
WHEN PEOPLE TALK OF START-UPS IN 21ST-CENTURY AMERICA, SILICON VALLEY AND TWENTYSOMETHING ENGINEERS FRENETICALLY CODING SOFTWARE FOR THE “NEXT BIG THING” SPRING TO MIND. THAT DOESN’T BOTHER THE FOLKS AT SHINOLA, HOWEVER, AN UPSTART COMPANY THAT HAS A RADICAL IDEA OF ITS OWN – FEEL FREE TO CALL THEM “DISRUPTIVE” IF YOU LIKE THEY WON’T MIND ONE IOTA. UNLIKE THOSE IN THE TECH WORLD, THE DETROIT-BASED COMPANY TAKES ITS INSPIRATION FROM THE PAST, A TIME WHEN ANALOG WAS STILL KING AND CALIFORNIA WASN’T THE EPICENTER OF U.S. INNOVATION. SIMPLY PUT, SHINOLA’S WANTS TO BUILD WRISTWATCHES IN AMERICA.
Now a business that bets on hardware over software and takes on the near monopoly enjoyed by Swiss watch brands may seem contrarian, or even a bit crazy, but the people behind Shinola aren’t afraid of a challenge. Far from it. For starters, the company has set up shop in Detroit, a city mired in problems ranging from double digit unemployment to cash-strapped public services but one that still symbolizes America’s manufacturing prowess given it is still home to the Big Three US automakers of Chrysler, General Motors and Ford, who are looking to bounce back after the recent job-sapping recession.
Fervent believers in good old manufacturing of the type Henry Ford made famous with his popular Model T cars, Shinola has simply exchanged the often noisy and smelly car assembly line, where workers in t-shirts and jeans stand and piece together a sedan or truck’s metal chassis with the aid of robots, for a serene light-filled workspace populated by staff who sit patiently at benches attired in hairnets, lab coats and Crocs footwear to painstakingly construct watch movements by hand – not surprisingly, Shinola has recruited many laid off auto workers intrigued by the chance to learn a new trade.
Besides helping to supply Shinola with staff, the brand can thank the auto industry for its current digs. The company’s headquarters and watch factory is located on the fifth floor of Detroit’s Argonaut Building, a 1928 Art Deco masterpiece designed by Albert Kahn for General Motors. The American automaker’s design department was housed here and engineers kept busy drawing up plans for innovations including the world’s first fully automatic mass-produced transmission that debuted in vehicles in the 1940s.
Leaping forward to 2015, this listed building adorned in brick is once more a hotbed of design. Shinola leases space from the building’s current tenant, the College for Creative Studies, a top US arts and design school, and in the brand’s 60,000 square foot facility visitors now see people creating designs and assembling engines on a much smaller scale. Call it the micro-motor city if you will. While the creative team dream up new pieces to add to the brand’s portfolio of clean-looking, no-nonsense watches – think numerals reminiscent of US public school clocks – other staff don loupes or peer through large magnifying glasses to examine the dozens of components that go into the watch movement, using slender pincers to pick up screws and other tiny parts – to ensure high standards, employees from Swiss firm Ronda, which supplies watch movement parts to Shinola, provide training for personnel and inspect the assembly process.
“We are on a mission to make things in America and of high quality,” says Shinola president Jacques Panis, who is a vocal cheerleader not only for his brand but for Detroit and the city’s industrial heritage. Listening to Panis speak, it’s clear that he is not swayed by all the negative chatter in recent years chronicling Detroit’s woes.
“There is such a stigma around the world that Detroit is in a pile of ruins now but it is not. It was known as the Paris of the Midwest for a reason. That great architecture, beauty and [manufacturing] might are still here.”
If one takes Shinola as a case study, it’s hard not to share the optimism espoused by Panis about a great industrial revival in what has often been considered by critics as America’s Rust Belt. From a handful of employees when it first moved into the Argonaut in 2012, Shinola has grown to more than 350 employees locally. In addition to its watches, the company is making tote bags, backpacks and other accessories from vegetable-tanned leather sourced from a traditional Chicago tannery, journals and notebooks handbound in Michigan not to mention sourcing sleek bicycle forks and frames from a specialty manufacturer in Wisconsin.
In its push to become a vertically integrated watch brand, something that still requires a lot of legwork given that today its timepieces are powered by quartz movement components supplied by its Swiss partner Ronda, the firm recently set up a watch dial facility inside its Detroit store in the Midtown neighborhood. Visible through glass walls – the workshop must be located inside a sterile room to keep dust at bay – customers see firsthand that the company’s slogan “where American is made” is more than just marketing hype. The mere fact of moving some of its dial production from a Taiwan supplier to mainland US is impressive, especially given Shinola is a fledging brand in a watchmaking industry where the Swiss have dominated for decades.
To further boost their “Built in Detroit” motto that is visible on their watch cases, the brand has inaugurated a leather goods workshop adjacent to its Argonaut headquarters where new hires are churning out wallets as well as leather straps for its popular watches such as the Runwell. In another move to up its game, Shinola brought in a manager from luxury bag maker Louis Vuitton, who helped with its Detroit-based leather goods collection, getting workers to remove their gloves and work barehanded with the leather to improve their familiarity with the material.
“Provenance is a key pillar for us,” adds Panis. “Consumers don’t just want another widget, they want something that they can be part of and identify with. Our story is about Detroit and the good that is happening here in the community.”
Perhaps clients feel they are getting a piece of the Motor City strapped to their wrist when they purchase one of the brand’s timepieces or perhaps they feel that in some small way they are taking part in the rejuvenation of a city that has been linked to craftsmanship and innovation long before Intel and Apple on the West Coast were busy trailblazing the digital economy. Whatever the case, the numbers don’t lie as Shinola has in a few short years seen demand boom, with orders coming in from New York to Japan and annual production now topping 200,000 annually – stores have now been unveiled from Los Angeles to London.
No doubt helping matters is an attractive price point, with most Shinola models retailing between $500 and $1,000. Their utilitarian looks stand apart from the sea of cheaper models flooding in from China that target fickle fashion trends and feature shocking colors while the brand sits below the pricy mechanical Swiss watches that sometimes are overstuffed with useless features. Indeed, it’s no surprise that Shinola paired with fellow Detroit-based firm Ford to recently make a 50th anniversary timepiece to honor the carmaker’s Mustang model, an iconic automobile that is in line with the watchmaker’s clean, functional and authentically American aesthetic.
In the end, it makes perfect sense for the first company in forty years to build watches at scale in America to be located in the cradle of US manufacturing. It is a testament to Shinola’s owner, Dallas-based Bedrock Manufacturing, a venture-capital concern of Tom Kartsotis, an upstart entrepreneur who previously founded Fossil watches. Today, Kartsotis has a lofty dream to promote businesses that are based on making things locally and not offshoring them out to Third World countries – Bedrock has also acquired brands like Filson, which began making clothing for outdoorsmen in Seattle over a century ago.
To hear from Daniel Caudill, Shinola’s creative director, the choice of Detroit wasn’t an obvious one but after meetings with locals in the community and the first tentative steps to put together timepieces the company was sold on the idea of the Motor City as its home base. “It really was a leap of faith,” says Caudill, dressed in his utilitarian uniform of t-shirt and jeans. “At the onset, we weren’t really sure if we could manufacture movements in the United States or assemble watches. It was based on emotion and heart. What has since come out of this factory is simply astounding. The level of quality of a Swiss movement that’s assembled here in Detroit is breathtaking. To walk through the factory and touch a movement from the very beginning until it is packaged and leaves the door is quite stunning.”
The success of Shinola may be a harbinger of better things to come for the city and a signal to other metropolises not to turn their back on industries where people work with their hands to make something tangible – just think, do we really need all those developers making apps for our smartphones? In fact, one could argue that the minute motors inside the watch brand’s steel cases are helping in their own way to propel the economy of Detroit forward. It’s still the Motor City, only downsized.