Shinola: Behind the Brand

As the finest purveyor of luxury watches (and the most modest, too), it’s easy to get caught up in all things au Suisse from the Jura to Geneva. Well, haute horlogerie just went transatlantic thanks to a lovely little brand called Shinola – and Alex Doak is here to give us the lowdown.

As any fan of Steve Martin’s The Jerk will attest, it pays to know your sh*t from your Shinola – the ancient all-American brand, whose shoe polish adorned many a pair of wingtips back in the Sixties, entering the profane parlance as the above counterpoint to just plain dumb. But along with pretty much all of Detroit’s auto-manufacturing industry, Shinola was consigned to dust decades ago. That is, until the whole city was declared bankrupt and one bright spark decided to capitalise on the much-publicised death of good ol’ American-made stuff.

Conceived with the belief that their products should be built to last and made by Uncle Sam, the new incarnation of Shinola’s factory sits within the College of Creative Studies – a glorious slice of Art Deco industrialism that once housed General Motor’s research lab, now home to a new wave of industry in Detroit. It is the first company in decades to produce watches at scale in America and its founder, Tom Kartsotis – ex-chief at Fossil no less – has even brought master watchmakers over from Switzerland to train their locally recruited workers in the art of fine watchmaking. The result? Solid, Swiss-powered watches, often for less than £500, bringing youngsters off the streets and onto a noble career path in the process.

What’s more, it’s so hip it hurts. In a good way of course. Utilitarian, robust timepieces with a vintage feel? Check. Sideline in battered- leather journals and sit-up-and-beg bikes? Check. “Curated” lifestyle ephemera sold in an artisanal coffeeshop with exposed brickwork? Check, check, check. But despite the beards and check shirts, this is one revived American brand doing things properly and “just right”. With real respect for the Homeland’s disparate network of remaining artisans, it deliberately and honestly sources from people like the Hadley-Roma strap atelier in Florida (going since 1905) or the Horween tannery in Chicago (providing the covers for Shinola’s journals) and even Waterford Precision Cyles in Wisconsin, who make Shinola’s sister brand Filson’s two-wheelers.

And the watches themselves, despite boasting no homegrown lineage of their own beyond the name, speak for themselves. It’s actually hard to comprehend how so much heft and downright stylishness is realised for such an accessible pricetag from the delicate pastel dials of the women’s Birdy to the railroad-inspired Brakeman and its bulky cushion case in steel. While Kartsotis’s creative director Daniel Caudill (former head of Adidas product design) insists that it is indeed all about this quality and quality alone, it’s hard to deny that Shinola taps keenly into the creative zeitgeist percolating those other former urban wastelands away from Detroit: Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district, Berlin’s East and, yes, the East End of London. But why not?

The protagonists of these urban frontiers all possess a keen aesthetic sense as well as a desire for brand integrity, an appreciation for craft and built-to-last resilience. It’s a modern culture whose principles are actually worth cherishing. Each step of the manufacturing process is held to the highest industry standards, creating a timepiece of beauty and precision. As part of their commitment to quality, every watch is guaranteed for life under the terms and conditions of Shinola’s warranty. Buy one, wear it proudly, and never, ever be accused of not knowing your sh*t from your Shinola ever again.