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Shinola Brings Watchmaking to Detroit

Laurie Kahle
Posted: May 8, 2014

When Shinola launched last spring, all that remained of the once heralded American watchmaking industry were very small producers, most assembling hundreds of watches per year using imported parts and movements. By contrast, in its first year, Detroit-based Shinola built about 45,000 quartz watches at its manufacturing facility in the College for Creative Studies, which occupies the city's Argonaut building, former home of the General Motors Research Laboratory.

The ambitious newcomer opened boutiques in New York's Tribeca neighborhood and in Detroit in a historic space once owned by John Willys, founder of Willys-Overland, which made Jeeps. It has also rapidly expanded its retail network to include Barneys New York, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Colette in Paris, plus retailers in Singapore and Berlin. It even hired famed fashion photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber to shoot its latest campaign. Shinola's rapid ascendance is proof that deep pockets can produce very fast results.

The brainchild of Fossil founder Tom Kartsotis, Shinola achieves his decades-old dream of building watches in the United States, which experienced a watchmaking heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Shinola's quest to establish a domestic, large-scale manufacturing operation led it to the economically battered city of Detroit, with its abundance of low-overhead industrial space and a hungry labor force with manufacturing experience.

Shinola partnered with Swiss movement maker Ronda, which sent trainers to teach former automotive workers how to assemble its quartz movements. Other components, such as cases and dials, are imported from China, Switzerland and elsewhere. The leather straps, though, are American-made in keeping with Shinola's mission.

"Shinola is an American company that's dedicated to making things here in America," says Jacques Panis, president of the brand. And watches aren't the only things it's making. Shinola has partnered with other American companies to produce bicycles, leather goods, journals and more, all with classic American design infused with a retro vibe.

Shinola's current watch offerings include five different models for men and women, ranging from $400 to $1,000 with a colorful array of style options. Last December, it launched the limited-edition Great Americans Series dedicated to visionaries and industrial pioneers with the unveiling of The Wright Brothers Limited Edition Watch and Bicycle at Detroit's Henry Ford Museum, where the Wrights' original bike workshop and childhood home reside.

This year, plans are in store for a limited edition Henry Ford pocket watch. For all it's accomplished in a mere year, Shinola has even bigger plans for the future. It currently has the space to increase annual production to 500,000 watches, with options on additional space that would allow it to double that number. With its abundant capital and vast retail network, Shinola has the potential to make the Motor City known for watches as well as cars.

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