Shinola’s new owners are trying to figure out how to reinvent the mid-century shoe polish company for the 21st Century.

The driving idea was to establish a line of high-quality accessories that were made in America.

That means a higher price point, but ultimately, the company says, customers will be willing to pay a premium for quality goods with a compelling story behind them.

In the case of Shinola’s new watches, part of that story is construction in a fifth-floor factory above a Detroit design college.

"We didn’t want to try to invent a name that had heritage and pretend there was history behind it," says COO Heath Carr.

The company’s product line will also include some high-end bikes, wallets, journals, and other leather goods.

Quality, Carr says, is a must: "Our focus first and foremost is quality. If we’re gonna make it here and it’s gonna have the Shinola name on it, it’s gonna be … a very high-quality product."

Their products bring together a wide range of suppliers and craftspeople.

A view down the watch assembly line.

The logistics of the watch assembly are being overseen by Ronda, one of the last independent Swiss motion manufacturers in the world.

"The whole idea is to create product that is somewhat evergreen," artistic director Daniel Caudill told me, "where it’s not about the bells and the whistles and all of the accessories, it’s really about getting to the base of what that product is."

"It’s taking things back to a time where the craftsman is the hero," he says.

How An Upstart Company In Detroit Is Building An American Heritage Brand

An ambitious new manufacturing company is repurposing the Shinola brand (as in "you don’t know s**t from … ") to tell a unique story of American craftsmanship.

Having your brand name become part of the common lexicon is a marketing coup of the highest order. It’s debatable, though, whether or not that applies when the expression in question is "You don’t know shit from Shinola." But with the idea that any name recognition is good name recognition, the folks at Bedrock Manufacturing decided that Shinola, the popular mid-century shoe polish brand, was just the right mark to reintroduce for their new line of American-made watches, bikes, and other leather goods. As they’ve started putting their manufacturing operation in place, however, Shinola has proven not only to be a familiar name but also a reminder of how products can benefit from the stories behind them.

The brand revival started last year, when Bedrock set out to create a new line of high-end leather accessories. From the start, the venture was not only about the products themselves but where they would be produced: Here at home, in the U.S. In Bedrock’s eyes, the new company would be a throwback to a time when goods were built to last, when customers weighed price points with quality, and, most importantly, when those customers had an interest in who was building the products--and where.

It would be a company steeped in the values of an older era, and the founding team wanted a name to match. "We didn’t want to try to invent a name that had heritage and pretend there was history behind it," COO Heath Carr says, so they looked for inactive brands that were on the market. They eventually came across Shinola, along with the "ever-so-famous saying that comes with the name," Carr says.

Next came finding a new home. After looking at a number of cities, the team decided to establish the company in Detroit, the former manufacturing powerhouse and something of an American throwback itself. It’s a tidy fit that, like the Shinola name, Detroit too is in the early stages of a 21st-century reinvention.

In Detroit, the first order of business was finding a building to house their new watch factory, and the location they settled on was one that surprised everyone involved. The visiting Shinola team had been invited to tour the College of Creative Studies, a design school located in the historic (and recently renovated) Argonaut Building, simply to get a taste of Detroit’s young creative talent. An elevator malfunction, Carr recalls, led to a serendipitous discovery: "The elevator, for unknown reasons, accidentally stops on the fifth floor. And the fifth floor is completely empty. And we looked around and said, 'This is perfect! You guys mind if we build a watch factory here?'"

Building a state-of-the-art watch factory above a design school isn’t what anyone had in mind, Carr admits, but "both parties said, 'let’s give it a try.' We didn’t sit down and talk about all the reasons not to do it," Carr says, "we just talked about the reasons to do it." The watchmaking logistics of the factory itself were handled by Ronda, a family operation that’s one of the last independent Swiss movement manufacturers in the world. The fifth-floor factory, staffed with Ronda-trained local workers, is currently nearing completion, built with a manufacturing capacity of 500,000 watches a year.

Making sure they partnered with a trusted name in watchmaking from the start was important, Carr says. "Our focus first and foremost is quality. If we’re gonna make it here and it’s gonna have the Shinola name on it, it’s going to be … a very high-quality product." And of course, a good story can only get you so far if the products don’t live up to it. But Daniel Caudill, Shinola’s creative director, explained how that quality was, in many ways, a driving force behind the design of the watches themselves.

"The whole idea is to create a product that is somewhat evergreen," he told me, "where it’s not about the bells and the whistles and all of the accessories. It’s really about getting to the base of what that product is: How do you use it, what are you using to make it, how are you making it. So it’s really about stripping it down to its bare essentials and, whatever it is, making it with the best materials and the absolute best construction."

Of course, that dedication to quality and insistence on domestic manufacturing means a higher price-point--Shinola’s looking at the $400 to $800 range. But Carr thinks there’s another part of that equation that will work out in their favor. "Having 'Made in the U.S.A.' comes at a premium, there’s no doubt about that. But we believe that the consumers that are interested in our product care a lot about the story, about what’s behind it," he says. "It’s not just a leather good, it’s not just a watch. It’s a watch that’s made in the United States that has a fantastic story behind it."

The company’s currently finalizing the designs for the watch, and they’re planning on rolling out a line of bikes, wallets, journals, and more in coming months, each pulling together suppliers, craftsmen, and manufacturers from around the country. Now that the pieces are in place, the challenge the company faces next is equally timeless. "We’re about to begin the very first [watch]," Carr says. "So our path is 'how do we get from one to 500,000?'"

Find out more on the Shinola site.

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16 Comments

  • MaidenUSA

    1. The company isnt being "funded by Fossil".  The guy who started it, Tom Kartsotis, started Fossil but he isnt involved with them any longer.

    2. I agree that the $400-800 watch range is high for most people, but it is also the luxury watch market that didnt miss a heartbeat when the financial collapse happened.  It was one of the strong growth markets, although it might not be for everyone.

    3. They are clearly throwing a ton of stuff out there and waiting to see what sells, then focus down on that market.  The line "jack of all trades, master of none" seems to apply here.  

    4. While I applaud the "Made in the USA" effort, it is a global economy so Im not sure what that gets you.  Further, they are using Swiss designed movements,assembled in the USA, using parts made in China.  The bracelets will be made in China.  As will the straps very likely (possibly Italy).  

    What this comes down to is just a marketing company trolling for a brand with history it can exploit and trade on (since it has none itself) and brand slap on overpriced products.  Shouldnt "Made in the USA" mean something more than this? Maybe these days it should put out products most of the country it is manufacturing can afford.

  • MCrash

    Agree with all points. Shinola strikes me as an incredibly cynical marketing venture. Its calculated veneer of "authenticity" may fool enough people with significant disposable income to keep them in business for awhile but I doubt it will last. If early reports of poor quality and lousy service continue, it may not make it past its first year. Detroit deserves better.

  • Craig W.

    To your third point, clean your lense off-there is certainly enough overlap between all of the companies that support and make Shinola not only a great brand investment (if you were aware of their history! )but a viable and possibly sustainable business model with the right team behind it!

    1. The watches are assembled in the US which is enough to qualify it as more than an effort, having retired early from a GM plant that was heavily collaborative with its parts and surely was considered American Made-and was warned to park my German car outside the gate of the plant!

    2. The  band is produced with Horween leather at Great Lakes Woodworking Co.-another 100 year American company apart of the Shinola alliance

    3. Great Lakes also produces the saddles (and soon the saddle bags to match!) and bike grips for Runwell and Bixby line

  • James

    Totally agree. Actually the watch movements parts are made in Thailand and "Swiss Designed", all the other parts are made in China except for the actual leather for the  bands so I'm wondering why all these media outlets keep saying it's "Made in America"?   It's simply not.  It's assembled in America.  Clever marketing ploy.

  • Statusquogov

    What isn't mentioned is that this "upstart" is funded by Fossil watch in Dallas TX, so don't think this isn't a well planned venture... they are creating jobs here in the States, so I give them props, however, so does American Outfitters, Ambercrombie & Fitch... 'Shinola, coming to a high-end mall towards you soon.'

  • $27180517

    I'm not sure if I'm the only one thinking this but what does making bicycles have to do with high-end leather goods.  Seems like this company is just looking to slap a brand name that has resonance with consumers already on some products.  Don't get me wrong, all for reinvesting in Detroit and America, but seriously this company's management has an identity crisis and needs to focus on just the leather goods...We can make a compromise, build saddles for bikes...OK but seriously the bike market is overcrowded and they aren't going to jump on the scene and instantly take market share.  In other words, if you want to carry a loss on your books, cause "This bikes made in the USA," frankly that's not enough for me to want to buy it.  And its assembled here, I'd hardly call it made in the USA.  

  • UNBRANDING

    Craig W - spoken like a true Shinola employee, BUDDY. Put your marketing genie back in the bottle.  We get it, you love your company, and good will prevail.....blah blah blah.  But pull back the curtain and see this company for what it isn't. Just be honest and let people decided for themselves.  Stop trading on people's love of country to justify the potential millions in profits.  

    Oh also...stop poaching all of the original Fossil employees trying to recreate the wheel. Its like a freaking "Greatest Hits" with your HR dept. "Were getting the band back together!!"

  • Craig W.

    Spoken like a true checker player-this is chess buddy! The days of one size fits all is over and will not be returning. If you don't learn how to not only to recreate yourself and be flexible to change with vision, you will cease to exist while being blinded by the dream of how market share should be acquired. Shinola is putting their best foot forward, take your foot out of your mouth and help them with the other one!

  • Amy

    Excuse me but 400$ to 800$ in not expensive for a Swiss movement watch. People pay more for watch that operate on batteries. I would rather spend that and get a real watch not a piece of future landfill.
    Having said that, good for Shinola! I wish them all the best and Detroit is a great place to start for the new dawn!

  • Johnbspicer

     They are making battery powered quartz watches, not mechanical movements.

  • judy

    It is, of course a wonderful idea and concept.  However in this day and age where so many people are and have been out of work for up to and over two years, the price range is not something we could afford.  While my husband and I are both employed, times being what they are, I could no sooner afford an $800 watch than I could a $45000 vehicle.  Throw in a few affordable ideas in there...watch it grow!

  • John Eaton

    Nice level of personal and professional investment in Detroit. Homegrown, handmade, affordable premium products...hmmm...not a bad value proposition the way I see it.

    Good luck and keep us posted on your distribution channels.  Scale comes with sales, right?

  • $27180517

    Seriously, take a name someone built a reputation for already and build a story around its heritage.  I honestly am not a big fan of company's scouring disenfranchised brands/trademarks to basically "free ride" off that brand's legacy.  It's not authentic by any means, and putting a high price tag on items because you're incapable of building a brand from scratch is nothing more than an excuse.  I enjoy your "hipsters" reference as well...no doubt Shinola will be supplying Urban Outfitters a product line in the near future.  But who am I to question...I don't know shit from Shinola.

  • artdrectr

    Buy Brand Name.
    Create jobs.
    Make quality U.S. products.
    Profit.
    Screw the sarcasm and enjoy life.