Shinola is an American luxury lifestyle brand which specializes in watches, bicycles, and leather goods among other items. Founded in 2011, its name is a nod to the former Shinola shoe polish company that operated in the early- and mid-20th century. The current company is owned and operated by Bedrock Brands, a privately owned Texas investment group, and was launched by Tom Kartsotis, one of the founders of the Fossil Group retail conglomerate. In June 2016, the FTC ordered the company to stop using “made in america” as a slogan as “100% of the cost of materials used to make certain watches is attributable to imported materials.”
The original Shinola shoe polish brand was founded in Rochester New York in 1877, and went out of business in 1960. In 2001, the name Shinola was acquired by Bedrock Manufacturing, a venture capital firm based in Dallas, Texas (later rechristened as Bedrock Brands). Kartsotis wanted to create an American watch-manufacturing brand to rival Swiss-makers at a lower price point. The management at Bedrock Manufacturing chose the name “Shinola” when a Kartsotis associate used the World War II era colloquialism, “You don’t know shit from Shinola,” as a rejoinder to Kartsotis’ stated ambition of building a great company. Unexpectedly, the joke generated a serious discussion about restoring the Shinola brand. Market surveys established that consumers—when faced with a choice of paying $5 for a pen from China, $10 for one made in the United States, and $15 for a pen made in Detroit—would be willing to pay a premium for the last one.
Today, every Shinola product is, technically speaking, made in the United States. However, many parts used in Shinola watches are manufactured in Switzerland. At the time of the company’s founding in 2011, no American watchmaker had produced watches at scale since the late 1960s, with U.S.-based watchmaking relegated to select specialty companies such as RGM in Lancaster, PA. Shinola’s current tagline is “Where American is Made,”[A] and the company has actively utilized Detroit‘s reputation as a worldwide manufacturing hub in its marketing of the brand.
The company’s headquarters and watch factory are housed within the College for Creative Studies (CCS) on the fifth floor of the Alfred A. Taubman Building in Detroit, a former automotive research lab. Shinola’s occupation of the CCS space at first occurred by accident when Bedrock officials, seeking a manufacturing site after resolving to rebuild Shinola, visited the College and the elevator unexpectedly opened on the fifth floor, which was vacant at the time. They decided to transform the 30,000 square feet of vacant space into their watch factory and company headquarters. To build out the watch factory, the company partnered with Ronda, which also brought in expert watchmaking veterans to train Shinola’s watch assemblers, all of whom had no prior experience in watchmaking. Currently, the factory has the capacity to produce 500,000 watches a year.
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A blogger has derided Shinola for using cheap, easy-to-manufacture quartz movements, noting that the battery-powered movements utilized—manufactured by Ronda AG, an independently owned Swiss movement manufacturer—are worth a mere $20. Other brands, such as Tag Heuer, have also faced criticism of this sort. Shinola has further faced criticism for its failure to use the automatic, self-winding mechanisms found in nearly all higher-end watches, ones which require substantially more skill to produce.
Detroit-based journalist Jon Moy has suggested that the choice of Detroit as the location of Shinola’s factory was a calculated act of “opportunistic marketing” intended to yield feelings of nostalgia on a purchaser’s part. He wrote about Shinola: “Shinola is using my city as its shill, pushing a manufactured, outdated and unrealistic ideal of America.” On the other hand, many commentators to this article consider this criticism unfair, given that the company has created American manufacturing jobs. Moreover, the company has invested intensely in its employees, flying in watchmakers from Switzerland to train its employees. Additional criticism is noted by Professor Rebekah Modrak in her article Bougie Crap. She writes:
Texas-based Bedrock Manufacturing notoriously attached their Shinola venture to Detroit after test studies showed that consumers would pay three times as much for a product associated with the tenacity of a bankrupt city. What do you call the adoption of one culture by a second group whose only culture is profit? “Cultural appropriation” sounds too innocent and even potentially transformative (like a cool mash-up) and doesn’t convey the imperialism at play. A better description is consumer culture scholar Jeff Pooley’s “the colonization of the apparently earnest.” …participants in the CCS/Shinola union enact the racial and class divide at play in the gentrification of a Detroit that’s “rising from the ashes” but also pre-existed within the Fordist automotive industry.
Shinola’s first watch was released in March 2013. Produced in an edition of 2,500 and available in two sizes, The Runwell Limited Edition 47mm sold out in one week, with the last 40mm watch selling out in under two weeks. The watches sold for $550, and approximately 35% of the sales came from Michigan.
In October 2013, Shinola released their second limited edition watch, The Wright Brothers Limited Edition watch, the first watch in the Great Americans Series, which was released in conjunction with a limited edition bicycle.[B] The watch was produced in two sizes, 40mm and 46mm, with each size available in a limited edition of 500. Purchase included a leather-bound coffee table book about the Wright Brothers, as well as enrollment in The Foundry, the brand’s collectors club.
In September 2014, Shinola released The Lattice, a limited edition wristwatch created in partnership with Oscar de La Renta. The 36mm women’s watch was manufactured in Detroit in a limited edition of 250. Purchase included a hardcover book created exclusively for the project which complements the timepiece by offering an in-depth look at Oscar de la Renta and his work.
In 2014, Shinola released The Black Blizzard titanium wristwatch in 48mm and 42mm as well as the next Signature Series limited editions watch, The Henry Ford Pocket Watch. The company also produces a number of different watch styles on a non-limited edition basis, including The Birdy, The Gomelsky, The Runwell Chronograph, The Runwell Sport, The Runwell Sport Chrono and The Brakeman.
Shinola bicycles include three models: the single-speed Detroit Arrow, the three-speed Bixby, and The Runwell with an 11-speed internally geared hub. All three bikes were designed by Sky Yaeger, formerly of Swobo, Spot, and Bianchi.[C] The chromoly steel frames and forks are made by Richard Schwinn’s Waterford Precision Cycles in Waterford, Wisconsin, with complete assembly taking place at Shinola’s flagship retail store at 441 W. Canfield Street in Detroit.
In addition to The Bixby and The Runwell, Shinola produced two limited edition bicycles, including the The Wright Brothers Limited Edition Bicycle and The Shinola Runwell Di2 Limited Edition, as well as a one-off Twinn Tandem bicycle and brass-plated Runwell bicycle.[D]
Shinola makes journals in partnership with Edwards Brothers Malloy, an Ann Arbor, MI-based company. The journals come with paper, soft linen or hard linen covers, with a price point of $12-$20 for a linen covered journal.
Shinola’s leather goods and leather watch straps are made using leather predominantly supplied by the Chicago-based tannery, Horween Leather, which has been in operation since 1905. The tanning of the leather takes months, using a process that showcases the natural beauty and characteristics of the leather. Shinola leather watch straps were once made by Hadley-Roma in Key Largo, Florida, but are now produced at their factory in Detroit. A partial list of Shinola leather goods includes iPad and iPhone cases, wallets, portfolios, backpacks, and more.
Shinola also recently opened its own leather factory in Detroit, and has begun manufacturing leather watch straps under the leadership of Braloba, a Swiss-based, family-owned company run by Thomas Schori. The leather factory is equipped with custom-designed machines produced by Galli S.P.A. The company will also begin producing small leather goods and accessories in-house.
Shinola also sells watch straps individually; leather straps come from Hadley Roma in Largo, Florida and Horween Leather in Chicago, and rubber watch straps made in partnership with Stern Manufacturing of Staples, Minnesota. The company also revived production of shoe polish in 2013, albeit in a different formulation and tin can packaging.
Shinola Pet is a collection of American-made dog beds, toys, leashes and collars, produced in collaboration with photographer Bruce Weber, known for his ad campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Pirelli, Abercrombie & Fitch, Revlon and Gianni Versace, as well as his work for Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, Elle, Life, Interview and Rolling Stone magazines. Shinola Pet supports the Michigan Humane Society and the Best Friends Animal Society in their mission to raise awareness about rescue organizations and to save pets by finding them homes. A portion of the pets toys are produced in partnership with Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based charity organization that employs local women who are living in shelters, training them to manufacture sleeping bag coats for the homeless.
In addition to the Shinola website, Shinola products are available for sale at flagship stores in Detroit, New York, London, Toronto, Highland Park, Plano, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.—each located in affluent shopping districts, and built out at a combined cost well in excess of $100 million—as well as upscale retailers across America and the world. In 2015, an additional store opened in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A Willys Detroit, a sister store to Shinola, is a home for distinctive American brands.
In 2015, Third Man Records partnered with Shinola to open a retail location of its music label in Detroit. Additionally, Shinola has expanded its offerings to include speakers, turntables, and headphones of “audiophile quality.”
In 2014, Shinola gifted the city of Detroit with four clocks, installed at Cobo Center, Eastern Market, at the corner of Milwaukee and Cass (in front of the College for Creative Studies), and at the corner of Cass and Canfield, where Shinola also opened an off-leash dog park in partnership with Midtown Detroit, Inc. in 2014.
In popular culture
In the 1979 film comedy The Jerk, the character Navin R. Johnson (played by Steve Martin) is tested by “Daddy” (Richard Ward) on whether he knows the difference between shit and Shinola before leaving home.
Former President Bill Clinton bought 14 of Shinola’s watches, calling the company an American success story. Other politicians have promoted the product, including current Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and President Barack Obama. On April 22, 2016, President Obama presented United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron with a custom Shinola men’s watch featuring the seal of the President of the United States engraved on the back, presented in a wooden Shinola box customized with the Presidential seal.