THE AMERICAN RE-REVOLUTION - Detroit, Shinola and the future

January 2014

The Detroit train station, Michigan Central Station, is a beautiful, iconic Beaux-Arts Classical building, but it is in complete disrepair, a symbol of the Rust Belt’s urban decay in general and, in particular, of Detroit’s fall from greatness. There are a number of neighbourhoods filled with derelict buildings, once-beautiful homes now abandoned, roofs collapsing and walls falling down. Yet, there are sections of Detroit that are beautiful, whole and doing quite well, thank you.

Modernity and urban decay: the contrasting faces of Detroit.
Modernity and urban decay: the contrasting faces of Detroit.

Downtown Detroit is certainly on its way back – General Motors has moved back into the city and there are a number of other companies that have made Detroit their home – like software giant Quicken. Detroit’s sports teams (the Lions, Tigers and Red Wings) are performing well, bringing people back downtown.
There is a vibe in Detroit, that the city is on the verge of coming back to its former glory as a centre of industry, design and innovation, and Shinola is a big part of the city’s revitalisation


When Shinola’s founders, Tom Kartsotis of Fossil and Bedrock Manufacturing, were trying to decide where to base Shinola’s operations, they considered a number of cities. Detroit was the most compelling and fit the Shinola story the best.
“Part of picking Detroit was that we were assembling the engine of the watch and what better place to be than in the heart of the auto industry, where so many engines have been produced?” says Heath Carr, CEO, Bedrock Manufacturing. “We knew we wanted to make our products in the USA and now we have a factory in Detroit.”
Shinola is a partnership between Bedrock and Ronda, a movement manufacturer in Switzerland. Ronda helped Bedrock to set up the Shinola factory, is training the watch assemblers and provides the movement parts in kits to Shinola. The quartz watch movements are completely assembled, cased, finished, quality controlled and boxed in Shinola’s facility, then shipped around the US and the world.
Shinola’s factory is in the historic Argonaut building in Detroit, the original General Motors design facility that also houses the College for Creative Studies (CCS) and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, which helped to facilitate Shinola’s presence in Detroit. Shinola has part of a floor in the building, with the first right of refusal to expand into more space.

The Argonaut Building
The Argonaut Building

The Argonaut Building was built by General Motors in the 1930s to house their design and style departments, and it was here in this structure that industrial design was born. The building is home to the CCS design programmes, has a dormitory for 200 students, and there is a charter school (middle and high school) here that is creative centred.

The facility is chock-full of history – it was here that the iconic Corvette was designed and the father of modern industrial design, Charles Kettering, had his office here. During World War II, the design centre was shut down and it housed a secret lab where the B-1 Bomber was designed and developed. Shinola works with CCS, presenting to students in the design programme, getting them involved in design exercises and sponsoring interns, some of them have signed to work for Shinola once they graduate.

“We sponsor classes here, we have an internship programme here and we get inspiration from these students,” says Daniel Caudill, the head of design for Shinola. “The students are so excited about everything in the world and it’s great to be around that. We are doing a marketing-based class, run by our head of marketing.”
Detroit, so far, has been a success for Shinola.

“We have the capacity for 500,000 watches right now and we can go up to 1.2 million in the square footage available to us.” Steve Bock, CEO, Shinola

“I think it’s really turned out very, very well,” says Steve Bock, CEO, Shinola. “I think we have a great idea, it’s a very exciting concept, but the fact that we have enjoyed and been given the kind of exposure has been amazing. The city of Detroit and the state of Michigan have received us with open arms. Because we are trying to create jobs and build this business in Detroit, we have been received in a wonderful way.

Daniel Caudill
Daniel Caudill

“We have the capacity for 500,000 watches right now and we can go up to 1.2 million in the square footage available to us,” he continues. “We can make watches for brands that are within our house, but we can also reach out to American fashion designers, who are currently manufacturing outside the US and would like to do it here. We can do private label here in the US for different companies.”

I had the chance to tour Shinola’s watch production, and it was very impressive. Without seeing the landmarks of Detroit through the windows, the operation could have been in the Swiss Jura. Ronda trainers were there with the workers on the two production lines, solving problems and answering questions, but the majority of workers were from Detroit.

One such Detroit-born employee is Willie Holley, 26, who is Shinola’s Assembly Line Leader for movements. Holley is often featured in Shinola’s communication, because his story is such a good one. Holley was actually a security guard at the College of Creative Studies when he heard about Shinola. He applied for a job, took the dexterity test and now he is one of the company’s most dedicated workers.

Willie Holley
Willie Holley

Holley took me through the production lines, explaining how Shinola did things. “The line starts with stamping the mainplate and goes all the way through to the finished movement (we do three different movements), then they go to batch QC and then the movement goes to dial and hands, then to casing, strapping and boxing/shipping,” he explains. “The line is being overseen by Ronda and they are continually training. We do 600+ watches per day now.”

Holley is a perfect example of what Shinola is doing here in Detroit, changing people’s lives and making a difference in this struggling city. “Detroit has welcomed Shinola here,” Holley says. “Watchmaking is something totally new to the city. It’s amazing that I have a hand in making something that is now being sold to people I know — it’s really cool. I like making something that keeps time, and I like the historic feel of Shinola. “It has been a totally mind-blowing change of life for me,” Holley continues. “It was a big opportunity, opening doors for me to advance and have a career. I want to be an important person in this company.”

THE AMERICAN RE-REVOLUTION - Detroit, Shinola and the future

Holley wore a Fossil when he was a security guard and today he wears...nothing. He does not have a Shinola on his wrist, as all the production has gone to sales. Note to Shinola: Get Willie Holley a watch! Jalil Kizy is a Shinola watchmaker, also from Detroit, who learned his craft at the Lititz Watch Technicum in Pennsylvania. “I have loved every minute of my experience here,” he says. “Shinola is very original. They are supporting Detroit and Detroit is supporting them. My nickname is ‘Detroit’ and I am pleased that Shinola is standing behind the city. I love the watch.” Currently, Shinola is making three different movements and the plan is to introduce a chronograph at BaselWorld 2014.

“The original idea when I first came on was proving that we could make well-made, great product in this country,” remembers Caudill. “It’s not about price, it’s about design, and to be able to do it at scale. Modern is important to me. The brand name is heritage, but we are building a modern product. This is not a vintage brand, it’s a modern brand.
“As this brand grows, it will grow in a modern way,” he continues. “We are inspired by classic design, but product should never look like it is fake or treated. The watches are classic in design inspiration, but they are clean, simple and timeless. The goal is to create product that lasts and isn’t a trend.”

Every Shinola product has a yellow lightning bolt on it, Shinola’s mark of quality. “If anything goes wrong, the ‘shit’ from that Shinola saying will come back to haunt us,” Caudill says with a smile.


There is no doubt that Shinola has done a masterful job of marketing its efforts. The company has used advertising taglines like “Where America is Made,” “To Those Who Have Written Off Detroit, We Give You The Birdy,” “The city that made this country, isn’t done making things” and “The Long Tradition of Detroit Watchmaking Has Just Begun.”

The Shinola story has really resonated with people in America – people looking for quality and for products that are made in America. “The watch certainly has a look and feel and quality of a luxury brand,” says Bridget Russo, the head of communication for Shinola. “We are approachable luxury. People see and feel the watch and are pleasantly surprised by the price. You have young people who are buying it, they are saving up for it, and we have watch guys buying it. The appeal runs the gamut, everything from the hipster that likes the way it looks and the Detroit piece of it, to the collector, to the casual buyer. I’ve never worked for a brand that has resonated like this with people from all walks of life. The only common thing is people that care about quality and the American-made nature.

“Online, our customer is younger than the retail customer,” she continues. “From a product side, we are 50/50 men and women, but our sales are 60/40, men to women. Right now, our ad campaign skews a little masculine. Next year, we will have a campaign that skews more feminine.”


Shinola has its own boutiques in Detroit and New York (recently featured in Vanity Fair magazine), with more to come. Shinola has a variety of products in its stores, some from its own production, some from companies within the Bedrock Manufacturing stable (like Filson outdoor wear and gear) and others that are curated products from other companies, like interesting magazines, clothes and more. They also do installations of local artisans in the store, trying to keep things fresh so customers come back often to see what is going on in the store.


They also have something called the “Issue of One,” a programme of one-off vintage products that they find and refurbish. “We find vintage pieces that are really special; we have Omega, Rolex, and other watches that we offer in our stores,” Caudill notes. “Our watchmaker will check them for authenticity and make sure they are in great running order, and we buy really great pieces for this programme. In our New York store, we have a 26 star US flag from the 1800s, which was the very first printed flag, and it costs $50,000. We have another flag, over 25 feet long — and it has 36 stars and they think it hung on a battleship.”

Shinola watches are distributed in independent retailers as well as big department stores like Nordstrom, Saks 5th Avenue, Barneys and Neiman Marcus.

Before any retailer comes on board, Shinola requires them to visit the operation in Detroit, so they completely understand the concept and the brand’s commitment.

“We show retailers the totality of the brand, and we like them to have the full assortment in some way, shape and form,” says Russo. “And this isn’t just an American effort. We will be launching in Robinson’s in Singapore, and China is a big market for us in the future. We see Shinola as a global brand.” One particular technique Shinola has used with great success is what they call a “pop up store”, where they put in a temporary installation of what amounts to a Shinola boutique in a retailer when the brand is launched there, making a splash and raising awareness.

“We opened a pop up store in Kansas City to give the market a try,” says Caudill. “The reaction has been really overwhelming and it’s been humbling. Launching at Barneys and having Barneys sell out, brick-and-mortar and on-line, was amazing.”


Shinola’s future seems very bright, indeed. They have a great, real story – they are making watches on an industrial level in the USA, something that hasn’t been done for more than 50 years – and the watches are selling. It will certainly be interesting to see where they go from here – making a splash with a lot of money spent in advertising and marketing is not that hard. Continuing that success and taking the next step is much more difficult.
We at Europa Star will be watching Shinola closely, as will the rest of the watch industry.


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Source: Europa Star December - January 2013/14 Magazine Issue