Shinola's workers, the new faces of Detroit manufacturing

"Not many people can say, 'I work for a watch company; I make watches,'" says Shinola watch assembly team leader Te'nesha Martin.

That's true, especially when the number of watch makers in Detroit pales in comparison to the number of automotive workers. But at Shinola's current rate of expansion, perhaps watch making might not be such an uncommon profession in the near future. Could Detroit one day
be known as the Tick-Tock City?

Watch manufacturing is unlikely to supersede the automobile manufacturing any time soon, but the high-profile success of Shinola has put a spotlight on Detroit and its manufacturing history. With the city's bankruptcy and blight center-stage, outsiders may view the company's entry into Detroit as a misguided endeavor or fleeting publicity stunt.

Shinola president Jaques Panis begs to differ.  

"People forget that there are three big companies in the Detroit area that produce thousands of units a day," says Panis. "Manufacturing is alive and well in Detroit. We're just small-time compared -- just a small piece of the puzzle -- but the things that are happening here are amazing, and we're proud to be part of that."

Outside of Detroit, the world is taking notice. Shinola has been courted by politicians and its watches are being sported by celebrities and former presidents. (Bill Clinton wears a Shinola Runwell model.)

Shinola now has over 300 employees working in the city, over 130 in a manufacturing capacity. The majority live in Detroit. Shinola wouldn’t divulge starting salaries of its employees, but said that the company pays above minimum wage and that employees are eligible for full medical benefits.

Shinola hit the ground running in 2013. Their first watches ticked off the assembly line located in the College For Creative Studies' Argonaut Building in spring 2013. That year, Shinola produced over 50,000 watches. The company hopes to triple those production numbers this year. Panis declared their new leather department for making watch straps, opened in April, one of the most sophisticated leather facilities in the world.

Detroit is synonymous with the automobile, but at one time, everything from stoves to organs were made in the city. Watches may seem incongruous now, but maybe Shinola's early success will inspire other smaller scale manufacturers to make Detroit home.

So how does working in a watch factory compare to life on the automobile assembly line? Model D toured the Shinola assembly, spoke with workers, and learned that many there do have a history in the automotive world. As one watch assembly worker said, "It's in our blood. Everyone knows someone who works in manufacturing in Detroit."  

Are workers accustomed to the automotive world and its large-scale products able to transition into the minutia of watch assembly? Te'nesha Martin says that it can be a challenge for some, but there is a pay-off in the pride of being at the start of something exciting and taking part in a tradition that Shinola and their partner and watch movement's manufacturer Ronda take very seriously.

"You have to be very focused here. It's different. It's fast-paced, but it gives me pride to be doing something different. Not many people can say that they make watches. And the people who trained us from Switzerland, it's their lives. They take great pride in what they do." says Martin.
Te'nesha Martin
The watch assembly area looks more like a medical facility than an auto plant. Workers sit at rows of desks and lean over the watches they're working on with great concentration. Before walking into the glassed-in watch assembly area, visitors must put on jackets, hair coverings and plastic booties. Dust and debris is the enemy of the air-tight machines and the tiny gears and mechanisms involved.

Jalil Kizy demonstrates the scale of parts they work with by holding up a barely visible red crystal with his fingers. Kizy, who grew up in the Detroit area, is one of Shinola's two watchmakers. He has a degree in horology from the Lititz Watch Technicum in Pennsylvania. Shinola's decision to move to Detroit was a happy coincidence for Kizy, a watch fanatic who's been working with time pieces for 11 years since enrolling in a high school course on watchmaking.

"I never imagined I'd be working in a watch factory in Detroit. But I love these watches. I'd like to buy a different one every month," says Kizy.
Indira Samuels sits at her immaculate station with a round, blue tray that looks like a watch face itself. A foot pedal rotates the tray, bringing the next watch into position to be worked on. Small clear boxes are filled with tiny movements, dials, and stems. The intricate assembly trays move from worker to worker, each individual adding another layer to the puzzle.

This is Samuel's first manufacturing position and she says that working on the watches requires great care.

"If you want the quality, you have to give your best. It's a great experience. I never thought that I'd be making watches. I appreciate that they're in Detroit and what they're doing for the community. It's something that's totally different."

Patience, precision, speed, and a stern eye for quality control seem to be Shinola's most important criteria for workers. Since the company is so young, several people have only been on the job for a few months.

Jeff MarchOne newer leather department employee, Jeff March, worked for a supplier to Ford for 8 years.

"The job here is similar, but not as monotonous, not as strenuous or physically demanding," says March. "I'd been following Shinola since they opened, but I didn't anticipate actually working there."

Shinola watches retail for between $500 and $1,100, a good value compared to similar well-crafted products, contends Panis. He's a firm believer in the future of American manufacturing, stressing that American-made products can be globally competitive.

"We produce as much as we can here. Some supplies we do have to get from outside the country, but looking at global manufacturing, in China, pay increases happen 20 percent annually. Transportation costs are going up, land prices are going up, and there are tightening environmental regulations. Things are shifting and balancing because of these factors."

They've had some criticism for their use of the city's name and reputation in their marketing. Panis prefers to keep quiet about criticisms, letting the quality of Shinola's products speak for themselves.

"What we're doing is real," says Panis. "People can come in and take a look. We're not going anywhere. We use the name of the city in a respectful way. We love the community and we're proud to call Detroit home."

Glen Morren is a freelance writer and musician.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.