Detroit — On the fifth floor of a massive office building in New Center, employees dressed in white lab coats, hair nets and blue shoe coverings are tinkering with microscopes, tweezers and needle-like tools.
But they’re not getting ready for surgery, they’re making watches.
Each of the quartz-powered timepieces, whose assembly involves specialized watchmakers performing dozens of steps, are individually numbered and stamped with the phrase “Built in Detroit” on the back. They’ll sell for $475 to $850 each.
Shinola, the company behind the upscale watches as well as bicycles, leather goods and journals, began making its products in Midtown this year and started taking online orders this week. The aim is not only to make quality products, but also to help revive manufacturing in a city once known for making cars, stoves, cigars and other goods.
“What better place to build an engine for a watch than a place that builds engines for cars?” said Heath Carr, chief executive officer of Dallas-based Bedrock Manufacturing, the company that owns the Shinola brand.
That watch engine — called a movement — is comprised of some 40 to 100 miniscule parts, and its assembly involves between 16 and 28 steps all done by hand.
Because of the intricacy of the process, Shinola flew in expert Swiss watchmakers to teach some of its 25 workers how to properly assemble the movements.
“It is, to some degree, a bit of a science lab,” said Jacques Panis, Shinola director of strategic partnerships. “It’s a process that’s taken years of research to perfect.”
A Detroit love affair
In 2011, Shinola — named after the all-American shoe polish that gained popularity during World War II — chose Detroit from dozens of locations across the country because it wanted to tap into the city’s manufacturing roots.
The company transformed the empty fifth floor of the former Argonaut Building, now used by the College for Creative Studies, into 30,000 square feet of watch- and bicycle-making space. It stands about a block south of the Fisher Building on West Grand Boulevard.
“We really fell in love with the place,” Carr said of Detroit. “There was a big movement there with the art, music and creative side that we found very energizing.”
Shinola’s retro-looking bikes, which retail from $1,950 to $2,950, are available online. A set of limited-edition watches went on sale Thursday; the full line launches in June.
The company will begin shipping all watches in July. Shinola also has plans to open a store in the Willys Overland Lofts in Midtown this summer, and will shift its bike production there from the CCS building.
Its goal is to produce 45,000 timepieces in 2013 (that includes the 2,500 limited-edition watches that went on sale Thursday), and Shinola has the capacity to triple that amount.
Watchmaking today in America is a rare trade, said Thomas Schomaker, a watchmaking instructor at the Ohio-based American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, a national trade organization.
Outside of Pennsylvania-based RGM Watch Company, Shinola is unique in that it assembles its movements and other watch components completely in the U.S., although some parts come from outside the country.
“It is notable to take something we’ve kind of lost over the years to the cost of labor and expertise,” he said. “The fact that somebody’s interested in bringing this technology back, that deserves credit.”
Shinola’s watches — and bikes — are gaining local recognition. In January, Shinola was named the official timepiece and event timekeeper of the 2013 Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. Singer Willie Nelson and his wife have ordered bikes, and actress Ashley Olson has been to the Shinola offices.
More than bikes, watches
Shinola will make two types of bikes: an 11-speed Runwell and a three-speed Bixby. Each type comes in different sizes and bright colors including blue, yellow, green and orange.
Despite the expensive price tag, Panis expects the streets of Detroit to eventually be home to Shinola two-wheelers. “The type of people working downtown I would say is an affluent, educated crowd,” he said. “I can absolutely see these folks riding these bicycles into work.”
But Shinola wants to sell leather goods and journals, and Carr said he wants to expand the product line to include jewelry, footwear and other items.
The company’s passion for its products and its location in Midtown is something retail experts hope will lure other like-minded manufacturers to the neighborhood.
“If the quality is there, if the craftsmanship is there, it’s a good endorsement for the quality of work that can come out of Detroit,” said Ed Nakfoor, a retail consultant in Birmingham. “I would hope it would give pause to similar manufacturers. All you need is that seed to get a new niche industry started.”
Michael Martinez, The Detroit News.