Shinola was originally a brand of shoe polish made by the American Chemistry Corporation in the 1930s and now it is a leading global watch manufacturer. The defunct name was part of an informal lexicon carried through the generations with the oft quoted phrase, “you don’t know shit from Shinola.” The utterance of which inspired the founder, Tom Kartsois, to purchase the name and make it their own brand. But the purpose of founding Shinola was to create 100 jobs in Detroit. They first took 4 months to be trained by Rhoda AG, an independent Swiss watchmaker. Now Shinola employs 300 people. They also hire students from the CCS school. Tom Forrest, Shinola’s Brand Ambassador says he can feel the creative energy and it’s part of what makes the culture of Shinola unique.
Shinola headquarters is located in the Argonaut building in Detroit. The building has a history of its own; the GE commissioned Albert Khan office building was a research laboratory, the birthplace of the Model A. GE gave the building to the College of Creative Sciences. On the 5th floor of that design school there is a watch factory called Shinola. Before touring the factory, we sat down with the founder, Tom Kartsotis. He told us the story of Shinola, and their development: the first product was a watch. The second product was a bicycle. The second product was really important to them because they needed to keep the momentum going. Shinola partnered with the last remaining Schwinn workshop in Wisconsin to produce the “Runwell” bike. The bikes were not made a headquarters, but the watches were. Upstairs in a glass wall climate controlled lab, our tour guide pointed to each person, their name, and explained to us what part of the watchmaking process that person was handling. Technicians wore white coats and paper hair nets, it looked a bit like a chemistry setup. On the other side of the floor we toured the rest of the factory.
Downstairs, we visited a mock up store in the middle of the 5th floor, complete with orange Christmas trees seen in stores around the holidays because Shinola believes the store experience is key to their brand.
As for the watches, Larry, our guide, explained that there are four components to a leather watch strap, brought together to be both flexible and durable. He showed us how the four leather parts are integrated at each stage of the process. Each part is administered by a different technician, by hand. On this side, the technicians wore long blue coats with white Shinola lettering. The employees were happy to let us watch them at work and show us what they were doing; it is clear that from the top down Shinola is committed to craftsmanship. The products also have a strong visual appeal and that is in part due to the creativity of these employees in Detroit. Shinola headquarters was less like a watch factory and more like a studio- the care and skill of these workers is an exciting part of this new era of American manufacturing.
This is my first visit to a factory and this is a happy one with smiling employees, the smell of leather and the clang of machines punching holes in the leather straps to make Shinola’s global customers part of the re-emergence of Detroit.