Article by: Jimmy Smith
From the late 1800’s to mid-1900’s American watch brands were world renowned and represented by many household names. Ball, Hamilton, Howard and many others were in the forefront of engineering, design and style. While timepiece manufacturing never completely disappeared from the US, it did somewhat ride off into the sunset. Fast forward a few decades, and many small watch brands have found success in making limited watches for niche markets not only here but around the world. While you may not be familiar with all of these brands, there is one that seems to stand out: Shinola.
What’s in a Name?
Reviving the name of a defunct New York shoe polish company, mostly known for their WWII era slogan “You don’t know sh*t from Shinola”, it harkens us back to a nostalgic period that was difficult, while also being one of our most passionate points for American ingenuity and hard work.
Continuing with the desire to stay connected to those attributes, they chose a particularly historic building in the heart of Detroit for their headquarters and manufacturing. Opened in 1928, the Argonaut Building was built by General Motors and would become the center for the GM Research Laboratory. The Art Deco structure served as the offices for the great Harley Earl, with his team of innovative and sometimes rebellious designers. Well known for his unconventional approach, he was the first Head of Design for the car manufacturer, overseeing the creation of the “modern for the time” 1940’s Buick LeSabre, 1955-57 Chevy Bel Air and the iconic, first ever 1953 Corvette.
Commitment to a community
Tom Kartsotis, the founder of Shinola Watch, wanted to position their company as an integral part of a community from the start. Choosing Detroit because of the revered, blue collar production history and wanting to use their brand as a creator of employment opportunities for the city. Hiring locally and using training programs, nearly all of their workforce is comprised of people native to the Detroit area. Shinola has also been a key contributor around the city: investing in infrastructure, creating a park, as well as developing and opening the award winning Shinola Hotel.
The Star of the Show
Enough of the history class. All of this is so we can discuss the point that these guys make spectacular watches! In the name of full transparency, while Shinola watches are assembled in Detroit, not all of the parts are American made.
Wanting to make a timepiece known for quality, function and style, yet able to compete with high end brands at a more affordable price, Kartsotis and company chose Swiss made components for the movements of each watch. Using components from Ronda for quartz and Sellita for automatic timepieces, they have been able to supply a quality and well operating heart for all Shinola watches. So much so that most models have a limited lifetime warranty.
They are so meticulous in the making of the leather straps that they even recruited a key Leatherworker from French fashion giant Louis Vuitton. All leather pieces are produced at the in-house facility by their own craftsman. Stainless steel and gold cases, crystals and other pieces are imported from various partners, but all assembly of the movement components and watch bodies is done in Detroit by their own trained technicians.
Retro flair with a hint of Atomic Age style
Shinola watches have an aesthetic to match their dedication to history, with a vintage inspired appearance that sometimes reminds me of early 1900’s timepieces mixed with the look of post WWII and into early Space Race era mechanics and devices. Even the names like Runwell and Guardian embody the spirit Norman Rockwell pictures and when every kid wanted to be an astronaut.
Each dial is emblazoned with a Buck Rogers looking lightning bolt, vintage font Shinola logo and most have “Argonite” with the technical number of the specific movement to add to the Jet Fighter gauge appearance. Of course the women’s models are less macho and more “Audrey Hepburn strolling the streets of 1950’s New York City”. Every watch will proudly tout Detroit as their hometown on the face.
They range in design from being encapsulated in rounded edge weighty cases, purposeful looking PVD finishes with scored tachymeter style bezels, to slim lines for smaller models and lady’s fashion designs. The Vinton and Canfield remind of classic and prestigious models such as a Rolex Explorer, early Daytonas, or the Omega Seamaster Aqua-Terra.
My personal favorite is the Runwell chronograph model. Ranging in case sizes up to 47mm they could have been pulled straight from the cockpit of an early jet fighter. The smaller registers on the dial have a bit of an engine turn machined appearance. They use an assortment of color contrasts for the dials, hands, and numerals that are eye catching while maintaining a very authentic look. The dial colors are well coordinated with the tanning color of each strap they are paired with. The weight gives it the feel of a significant instrument while not being over bearing.
Shinola has thoughtfully balanced their interesting story, distinct styling and versatile function for daily wear to place their timepieces seamlessly into American culture from decades prior leading into the future of craftmanship for what seemed to be a trade lost from our culture.