THE AMERICAN FRONTIER
Could Shinola represent a potential renaissance in homemade American manufacturing? Plaza Watch speaks to the company’s President about pioneering a new industry.
If you’re going to go up against Swiss watchmaking, you had better come with something that makes competitors take notice. Shinola – pronounced ‘Shine-oh-la’ – is doing just that. Each of its watches comes with a lifetime guarantee – any defect, bar battery and strap, will be repaired free of charge, or the watch replaced.
“It is,” admits Shinola’s president Jacques Panis, “a bold thing to do. But we think it speaks to the level of quality. And we’re comfortable that we can stand behind it. We did the math to see how it would work out for the short- and the long-term and it will work. What watch enthusiasts look for is a timepiece that’s well-designed and well-built, and we have that with a guarantee of a type not offered by the Swiss industry.”
It is perhaps all the bolder a claim given that Shinola hardly comes with the weight of watchmaking heritage behind it. The brand, under the Bedrock Manufacturing Company, was established just four years ago in the watchmaking heartland that is Detroit, Michigan, perhaps best known in recent years for being the Motor City that the motor manufacturers forgot. As the cheeky ad line the company used on launching had it: ‘The long tradition of Detroit watchmaking has just begun’, before promptly selling out its first production run of watches sight unseen.
In fact, it doesn’t even profess to be a watch specialist, having already extended its somewhat random product line into stationery, bicycles, leather-goods, varsity jackets and pet accessories. The one guiding principle that unites them all? They’re all made in the US. Shinola, indeed, is an old American brand name dating to the early 1900s. Bedrock – and this may bode ill or good – was where that ‘modern stone age family’ the Flintstones lived.
This all, in part, comes from an admirable sense of the social good. “We’re American and making things in America creates community, creates jobs, and good jobs, not just minimum wage jobs,” Panis stresses. “We want to have an impact on the country. Much of its manufacturing may have left, but the people didn’t.”
But Shinola is also riding two waves of the zeitgeist. One is for what has been dubbed the patriotic purchase – the noted preference post-2008 for consumers to buy the products of their home country. All sales of Shinola watches were within the US up until September 2014, but this might have more to do with distribution than the local nature of demand – it has since launched an international e-commerce site and picked up a number of painfully hip accounts, the Colette ‘curated store’ in Paris and the like.
The other wave is our increased sensitivity to provenance. Stereotype it may be, and perhaps one no longer with a solid foundation given increasing globalisation, but certain countries remain associated with quality manufacturing, and some in specialist areas – France for foods, Italy for fashion and, yes, Switzerland for watches. “Consumers do care where things are made now, not just in the US. We want to know where our food is from and that applies to bigger goods too,” Panis argues. “Who’s assembling the watches, who’s sewing the straps? People want the human story that allows for more of a connection to the product. That’s the case for artisanal products at least – making in China clearly doesn’t have an impact on Apple’s sales.”
Certainly Shinola, which has expanded rapidly and now employs over 300 people, with more than 80 of those just in watch manufacturing, is emphatic of this aspect. “People trust American-made goods,” Panis argues. And certainly - while this really can’t be said of American goods across the board - Detroit knows better than most that American cars are hardly known for their quality, nor even for being properly American, and Panis concedes it’s more about craft goods – Shinola’s watches are more American than most. The movement parts are Swiss (by Ronda), but the watches are otherwise American-made with (Swiss-trained) American assembly. Shinola has even bought a leather factory to make its straps.
“The fact is that we can make products of the same or higher quality in the US at the same price as products made in, say, China,” says Panis. “The perception is that making in the US must be expensive, but that’s just not true. Of course, the infrastructure involved in making everything ourselves would be enormous, but if we need a lot of leather straps we may as well open our own factory, so we can control the quality and get ex-
“Consumers do care where things are made now, not just in the US. We want to know where our food is from and that applies to bigger goods too.”
actly what we want.”
The watch line to date includes diving models, three styles for women, even a pocket watch. The Brakeman is a tonneau-cased watch and arguably Shinola’s most distinctive. The most advanced model so far, and perhaps a statement of intent, is the $1500 titanium Black Blizzard, which comes with a leather carrying case, a hickory watch box and – a nice touch this – a leather-bound coffee table book on the Great Plains dust storms that the model is named after. Again, it’s arguably a much more complete package than many of the elite Swiss makers provide.
The watches are American in flavour too, with something of a 1940s retro/period feel to them, especially Shinola’s bestseller, the Runwell. Although Panis prefers to call them “timeless” and insists that “we never sat down and said the watches ever had to look ‘American’.”
Certainly, however, Shinola plays on American associations: limited editions, for example, have been created under what the company calls the ‘Great Americans Series’, with watches made so far to honour Henry Ford and the Wright brothers. Reflecting the company’s confidence, buying one gives the owner automatic membership of a private club just for collectors of its limited editions.
Might Shinola even be leading the way for an American watch industry resurgence? “The watch industry was huge in the US once, but like so many industries it wanted to cut costs and increase margins and so went overseas,” says Panis. “But we’d love to see other US companies making watches, especially if that allowed us to make all components, as a community of makers. A critical mass could see companies launch to make cases, glasses, dials and – boom – an industry is revived.”
The company has certainly had an impact in Detroit, Panis contends – indeed, much as Mondaine has made capital by dotting its Swiss railway clocks around Swiss cities (and those abroad), Shinola has introduced a 1.2 metre diameter city clock set to be installed at multiple locations around Detroit. Shinola’s Detroit store outsells its New York one. Factory tours are, Panis says, booked up weeks in advance.
“We’re a small part of a regeneration of a city – but everyone wants to help everyone there, to be part of something positive,” Panis says. “There’s so much left over machinery, so many empty buildings, they’re beginning to suggest new possibilities. We’d love to do a toaster – whatever we could make in the US, we’re interested in exploring. But we’re starting with watches and watches are pretty damn hard to make.”