Time is on their side: Shinola manufactures instant vintage

In case you haven’t noticed, watches are hot. As is cycling.

That’s enough for a national company to secure a floor of the Taubman Center in New Center to assemble Swiss-quality watches, high-end bikes, and leather goods. Shinola is the company connecting the whimsical image of an old shoe shine product together with a theme that is catching on in America.

Those products being made in Detroit means something to Heath Carr, principal of Shinola, which is owned by Bedrock Manufacturing.

That "something" may recall stoves, carriages, cars, and the many other things that were once made here. It may also reflect the growing local maker culture. It’s more than an advertising slogan and perhaps more than just Detroit, the city. It’s about Americans making watches, bicycles, and leather goods in the United States; Americans making things well and cost-competitively.

Carr admits that some will argue that the company is riding the wave of popular sentiment regarding Detroit’s entrepreneurial revival.

"Our focus is making quality watches," he says. "For us, we knew that to manufacture watches in the United States we would have to train workers...no matter where we were." But Detroit, a place where manufacturers have shunned?

Shinola wasn’t oblivious to the city’s reputation, but in the company’s analysis, "Detroit always came up at the top of the list," he says. "I don’t know that we could have picked a better city."

Questions of quality and productivity entered the equation, but they differed little by geographic origin. Carr said the company’s decision to locate here was simply about "being in Detroit." Make no mistake, Shinola knows that its success in the watch business will rely on quality. But it also knows that there is some cache to adding that the product is made in Detroit.

Shinola, he says, is a "cottage industry," beginning small with the potential of exponential growth, not only in the company’s capacity, but in its related suppliers. "If we come in and build this watch factory and make this business meaningful around the world, there will be someone who builds an assembly next to us and supply us. There will be businesses created here that help us be successful."

There were some "raised eyebrows" among his business peers when Shinola announced that it would make watches in Detroit, Carr says. But the issue was more about making watches in the U.S., rather than Europe or Asia. "Making watches in the United States is disruptive in the watch industry." There is no other American watch manufacturing facility, he says.

Ultimately, he was impressed by the city’s energy and "spirit... We’re not from Detroit. What we saw is positive energy. Detroit wants us to be successful."

The Shinola headquarters is a cross between a hyper-secure intelligence agency and a post-industrial warehouse -- containing the odd combination of a sterile watch production and handmade bicycle factory. There’s plenty of open space throughout the complex, housing the company’s marketing staff and designers. The Kraemer Design Group was the architect for Shinola’s space in the Taubman Center. 

The watch assembly has 20 employees and will produce 45,000 watches this year. The bicycle assembly (parts are made overseas), which includes a bicycle designer and one assembly worker, will produce 2,000 bikes annually.

Online sales are scheduled to begin in March, followed by retail sales in a Midtown shop this summer.

One of the reasons Shinola established its assembly operations in the Argonaut Building -- not a typical assembly facility -- was its proximity to the College for Creative Studies and young ideas. Design drives products and new ideas from bright young manufacturing designers give Shinola an edge. Likewise, the creative culture in Detroit also impressed Carr on his visits. This is not just a manufacturing town, he says, but an innovative design center.

Shinola’s first engagement with CCS was a competitive project involving student visions of a new bicycle design. Zach Fox, one of several students competing, was pulled aside. His design, "Flat Top" (after the traditional male buzz top haircut), attracted their attention. He didn’t think his immediate future had anything to do with designing bikes, or watches, or leather goods. But Shinola saw talent.

"They shared interest in my design," he says. He was hired immediately after the class ended and was sent for five weeks' training at the company’s Dallas headquarters, then returned to Detroit where he’s a design intern, working 20 hours a week on bikes, watches and leather goods.

Fox relishes the design challenges that Shinola offers, with the chance to work in a region that’s been home. "I'd want to stay around here forever. All my family and friends are here."

When you’re trying to find your future as security guard, it’s not likely to be making watches. Willie Holey III was in uniform patrolling the Argonaut building when he heard about the new company moving in. He says he had no idea what they were doing, but was ready to do something different. He recently purchased a retro Fossil watch, which was curious omen. Within in weeks he’d be a supervisor in a watch assembly plant.

"It hasn't been done here for 40 years (as in the U.S.), something fresh, something new," Holey says with pride of his hometown. Making designer watches and bikes brings back a sense of cool that came with the aura of Camaros and Corvettes.

"It’s hard to explain," he says, about the watch manufacturing process and why it’s here to begin with. "Nobody knows about it, how big a deal it is. It’s something I never saw myself doing."

Are fine watches and cycles a fad? Will Shinola dry up like shoe polish left uncapped?

"Watches don’t seem like something that will go away. It’s a vintage thing," Holey says; vintage, as in classic touring bikes and cities with plenty of old school charm.

Dennis Archambault is a longtime freelance contributor to Model D.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.