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.

Plaza Watch International - - The American Frontier - WO R D S JOSH SIMS

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.”

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