Shine On, Shinola

words: Marla Cantrell
images: courtesy Shinola

In midtown Detroit, on the fifth floor of the College for Creative Studies, employees at the Shinola Company are working with concentrated effort. The place is meticulously clean, light streams through tall windows, and those putting together the company’s signature watches are decked out in white shoes, white lab coats, white hairnets. Watch-making on this scale in this country – think Swiss standard – was thought to be extinct until Shinola came along.

But it did come along, in 2011, to a city known for its geniuses. Henry Ford, John and Horace Dodge, Ransom E. Olds, David Dunbar Buick, Walter P. Chrysler, all have ties to Detroit, and their work led to some of the world’s greatest automobile manufacturing innovations. Because of them, Detroit became known as the Motor City, and gained recognition across the globe.

Those grand successes are just part of a much more complex story. The auto industry faltered in 2009 during the Great Recession. Gas prices rose, and buyers, if they could afford a car at all, bought mostly small, energy efficient models, and not the SUVs American carmakers had been promoting before the economy tanked. This was just one more blow to a city that had been in financial trouble for far too long. Today, Detroit is in bankruptcy, the largest municipal filing in U.S. history. Abandoned factories sit idle, the population has been shrinking, and city-owned foreclosed houses are being auctioned at bargain basement prices, with bids often starting as low as $1,000.

Still, none of these facts worry Shinola. “It’s an iconic city,” CEO Steve Bock says. “We felt it would be a wonderful place, given we want to build things in the United States and we felt Detroit would be a fantastic city to establish our headquarters. There’s not been a day that’s gone by that we haven’t felt that we made an incredibly good decision.”

One of the main things they wanted to build were watches, top quality, at a competitive price. They partnered with Ronda, a Swiss watch movement manufacturer, so they were confident they would have the equipment and training they needed. What they didn’t know was whether they could find the right workforce. Watch-making requires steady hands, concentration and accuracy, since many of the pieces are extremely small. But they did, getting tons of applications, including those from former workers in the auto industry. After training, they found these new employees were as excited as they were.

Another plus was Shinola’s location. “We’re probably the only manufacturing facility in a college, in the United States.” (The building first belonged to General Motors, was built in the 1920s and ‘30s, and is where the automatic transmission was developed.) Shinola has 60,000 square feet, and they’ve just started producing their own leather watchstraps. There are currently seventy employees in their watch division. One of them is a former patrolman for the college, who stopped by while the company was moving in, just to see what was going on. He applied shortly after, began working on the line, and is now one of the line leaders.

The handcrafted watches take nine to ten days to assemble. The back of each watch is engraved with a serial number, and the words: “Built in Detroit.” As for distribution, it’s not widespread, and that’s by design. You can buy a Shinola watch in their stores, one in Detroit and another in Tribeca, New York. A few high-end department stores carry the watches, as well as carefully selected locations in other parts of the nation, including John Mays Jewelers in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Still, the word is spreading. “President Clinton, ten days ago, he spent almost two hours in our factory and in our store in Detroit, meeting with everyone…I think Shinola piqued his interest. He certainly seems to appreciate the quality and design of our watches. We’ve seen pictures of him wearing our watches for several months now. Having him there was fantastic for everyone at Shinola, and certainly a validation for everything we’re doing.”

Last year, they made 50,000 watches and sold every one of them. They plan to produce three times as many this year. Steve says when he’s out and sees someone wearing a Shinola watch that it’s a “humbling and fulfilling moment.”

The company also carries other American built products including handcrafted bicycles and leather goods, and they’re looking into other products that fit their brand. Since its inception, Shinola has created about 260 jobs, not enough to move the needle in a slow growing economy, but more than enough to prove how much buyers want to invest in companies that invest in the U.S. “If you can help by creating jobs and helping people build careers and start learning new processes, it becomes a very compelling story, and a very exciting one,” Steve says.

When Steve first talked about why he loved Detroit, he mentioned its rich history, its contributions not just to the automobile industry but to music as well. It is worth noting that songwriter Berry Gordy, Jr., who founded Motown Records in Detroit in 1960, changed the course of music with his albums by artists like Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, and Dianna Ross. He bought a house on West Grand Boulevard, lived with his family on the upper level, and built his empire on the first floor.

That was a long time ago, but not so long that we don’t remember, that we aren’t glad Gordy took a chance, that he believed America was ready for something new, and that he succeeded. In the decades to come, the same could be said for Shinola, a company that believes in American ingenuity, so much so they went to one of its most vulnerable cities to build something that could stand the test of time.

Shinola watches are available at John Mays Jewelers at 1401 South Waldron Road, Suite 103, in Fort Smith, Arkansas. 479.452.2140, JohnMaysJewelers.com.

For more on the Shinola Company, visit shinola.com.

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