ESD Tours Shinola Watch Works

DETROIT — Watch production is back in America — and it’s in Detroit.

Twenty members and guests of The Engineering Society of Detroit got an up-close, first-hand look at the first watch movement line in America since the 1960s at Shinola, the Detroit watchmaking company housed in the A. Alfred Taubman Center of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, formerly known as the Argonaut Building.

The venture-backed company has been making watches in Detroit for a year and a half now, after being founded in 2011 by a principal of Fossil watches and partners.

Shinola occupies 60,000 square feet of the massive Argonaut building, where General Motors engineers once toiled to bring America the latest in automotive advances. It’s grown to 180 employees on site and 200 company-wide, having just added a second production line for watch movements (the first was the first watch production line in America in more than 40 years).

Shinola has hired people with manufacturing experience and people with no experience at all. The common denominator among them — meticulous attention to detail, as they assemble tiny components, some best viewed under a microscope, with tiny tools. The production area is medical-industry clean, with workers in hair nets and lab coats. Positive air pressure is kept up in the production area at all times, so dust stays out.

Shinola watches are built with Swiss parts — miniature circuit boards and tiny levers and gears. Watch dials, hands and sapphire crystals are sourced from Asia. Leather for the bands comes from the American tanneries.

Movement and watch assembly are an amazing thing to behold, with workers in the clean-room atmosphere using magnifying rings to see their work.

“I wear glasses, actually,” said one worker Thursday, who wasn’t using his glasses as he used his nearsightedness to get an even better look at the tiny parts. “This has improved my eyesight, believe it or not.”

In fit-up, workers use tiny sharp tweezers or what look like Q-tips with a dab of clay on the end of put hands on watches. Workers in casing assemble the final watch case with a gasket, and test the watches for airtightness. Shinola watches are rated to five atmospheres of pressure, which means they’ll still work after an accidental dunking in a pool or bathtub. Coming soon are watches up to 20 atmospheres, a true diving watch. A regular sample of watches is tested off the line by expert watchmakers. In another room, workers fit the various types of watches with a wide variety of watchbands.

And now, Shinola is branching into its own leather goods line. The company cut the ribbon this week on a 30,000-square-foot leather factory. Initially it will supply Shinola’s own watch bands, since the current supplier can’t keep up with Shinola’s growth.

Shinola watches range from $475 to $1,100 and can be found at retail stores in Detroit and New York City (coming soon, stores in Chicago and Washington, D.C.), independent jewelers as worldwide and high-end department stores. Watches come in three face sizes — 28 millimeters, 41 millimeters and 47 millimeters — and there are about 60 models in all. Each watch has a backplate with an individual serial number. The word “Detroit” is on the front, and “Built In Detroit” is on the back.

Production capacity at the Taubman building is 500,000 watches a year. This year’s production goal: 125,000 watches.

Shinola bicycles, meanwhile, have frames, forks and chain guards made in Wisconsin of American steel. Final assembly is in Detroit about a mile away from the watch factory — and they cost thousands of dollars. But that will be the subject of a future ESD tour.

And the name? Shinola was a famous brand of wax shoe polish that supplied the U.S. Army shortly after its 1907 founding. It was part of a famous folk saying after an exasperated soldier supposedly decided to polish his boots with excrement, since his idiot superior “didn’t know s–t from Shinola.” The company went out of business in the 1960s. When the investors and early executives of Bedrock Manufacturing (which ironically has no common ownership with Detroit’s Dan Gilbert, who has also used Bedrock to name some of his companies that grew out of his early Rock Financial) were arguing in a meeting, one of the principals used that old soldier’s expression. According to Shinola community manager Brian Ambrozy, “there was a hush in the room and it was a Eureka moment,” and the company had its name.

The only condition the family that still owned the name put on the people who wanted to use Shinola to market watches and bicycles in Detroit? They had to make shoe polish, too. So there’s once again a high-end Shinola shoe polish on the market, made in Chicago.

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