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The 6 Best Shinola Watches - A Guide to the Detroit Brand

Posted on October 29 2020

Shinola is a retail company that was founded in 2011 to create high-end American watches. The Shinola name was taken from the defunct shoe polish brand. The company has since grown to a point where it employs over 500 employees and now produces watches, leather goods and jewellery.

Its watches are assembled in their Detroit factory on the fifth floor of the Argonaut Building, with their watchmakers having been trained by the brands Swiss partners. It’s an interesting story that I’d like to take you through, before presenting a selection of the best watches that the company has to offer.

The History of Shinola Watches


The story of Shinola watches really starts with the story of Fossil watches.

Fossil is a young brand founded in the mid-1980s. Founder Tom Kartsotis created the company with a relatively simple aim. To import fashion watches from China to retail in the US. The brand grew and quickly became a watch manufacturer. They produce watches for a selection of household names including, Burberry, DKNY, Emporio Armani, Michael Kors and Adidas.

Part of the Fossil strategy has been to acquire other more established watch brands. In quick succession, they acquired Zodiac watches, high-end Swiss brand Michele Watch and retail chain Watch Station. They’d later add Danish brand Skagen at a cost of $225M and Misfit, a wearable technology company, for $260M.

Fossil is competing with lower-priced fashion brands but Kartsotis wanted to create a business that could compete with Swiss watch companies - this was to be done through his investment company Bedrock Brands.

It has been suggested that during discussions around this idea, a colleague told Kartsotis that he didn’t know shit from Shinola. This throw-away comment lead to a serious debate about reviving the defunct brand name. It’s a fairly common theme in the watch business, with brands like Smith’s, Swan & Edgar and others doing something similar.

The Launch of Shinola


There’s been some criticism of the brands choice of Detriot as its base, although it seems a little harsh to me. The idea concerned studies that showed consumers were willing to pay more for a product manufactured in the US rather than China. When given the choice, they’d also pay more for a product made in Detroit - a city with a history of manufacturing that was now viewed as being in decline.

What Kartsotis and Bedrock saw as an opportunity to create jobs through a new heritage brand, was viewed by others as a cynical marketing ploy.

 



Where are Shinola Watches Made?


Shinola watches are made in Detroit in the College for Creative Studies. The company has transformed the fifth floor of the historic Argonaut Building into its factory. Building a watch factory from scratch is no small feat and Shinola partnered with Swiss watch movement producer Rhonda.

Through this partnership, Shinola was able to train its Detroit workforce in the art of watchmaking and assembly, supporting the founder’s vision of helping to revitalize the area. As mentioned, the company now employs over 500 people, with around 100 involved in the manufacture of watches. They produce between 500-700 watches per day.

The company markets the watches as a continuation of Detroit’s fine manufacturing history and uses the slogan “Where American is Made”.

Are Shinola Watches Good Quality?


Shinola watches are designed and assembled in Detroit using a local workforce trained by the Swiss. The components are sourced from a number of suppliers around the world, with movements coming from Swiss brands like Ronda and Selitta.

The brand had originally produced watches with quartz movements - maybe a bit of a push considering the price-point that they were competing at - but they’ve since introduced a number of mechanical models to their range.

The quality is good - take into consideration the Swiss movements and American assembly. And as you’d expect the watches use sapphire crystals and good water resistance where appropriate. They’ve also experimented with case materials, having produced a titanium model (more on Titanium watches).

The first model that the brand produced sold out in a couple of weeks, with a large part of the customer base being local. They followed this with a store in Detroit and a series of watches inspired by great American’s - this has included Henry Ford, The Statue of Liberty and Muhammed Ali. The reception, on the whole, has been favourable.

The Best Shinola Watches


I’d like to take you through a selection of my favourite Shinola watches. As it’s my personal preference, I’ve missed a couple of collections out that don’t really appeal to me. I’ve not highlighted any watches from the square Guardian collection or the playful and colourful Detrola line.

As usual, my list is a little biased towards tool watches, divers and chronographs. But overall, I think that it’s a fair selection of the best watches that Shinola produce.

 

Shinola Runwell Automatic Watch

 

Following feedback that customers wanted the brand to also produce mechanical watches, the Runwell Automatic was created. It’s a new take on the watch that launched the brand. The black version of this watch comes in two case sizes, 39.9mm and 45mm.

It’s clearly a vintage-inspired piece that reminds me of railroad watches.

It’s priced around the same as entry-level Swiss watches, and therefore, has a lot to live up to. Design-wise, I like it. It has a pared-down look with a round case, simple lugs and pumpkin crown. The matt textured dial gives an authentically vintage feel and is very legible. The date window is small and discrete.

The specs are decent. It has a double-domed sapphire crystal and a smaller sapphire window on the case back. Through this, you can view the Swiss automatic movement with the signed rotor.

It’s a good place to start with Shinola.

Shinola Runwell Automatic 20141490

  • 45mm Diameter
  • 12mm Thick
  • 22mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Sellita SW200-1 Automatic Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 50M Water Resistance


Shinola The Duck Watch

 

Rather than describe this model as a dive watch, it’s marketed as a surf watch - named after the duck dive. Most of the collection consists of colourful models with rubber straps.

I actually prefer this more traditional piece, with a stainless steel bracelet and a Fifty-Fathoms vibe. It’s less edgy, and less surf orientated, but it does well as a vintage diver. You’re more able to dress up with this model than the more colourful ones, which is handy since there’s zero chance I’ll be surfing.

There are some large watches in the Shinola line-up, but this is a comfortable 42mm. The water resistance is a decent 200M and there’s a screw-down crown. The crown and bracelet are signed with the Shinola bolt logo and the case back is illustrated too.

Shinola The Duck

  • 42mm Diameter
  • 22mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Argonite 713 Quartz Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 200M Water Resistance

 

Shinola The Runwell Watch

 

The Runwell is at the heart of the Shinola brand. There’s a number of variations - a 47mm version and chronographs for example. But I’m quite taken with this modestly sized slate blue model.

The blue dial is almost grey and has silver applied numbers along with a touch of orange. It’s a tasteful piece that encapsulates Kartsotis’ vision for the brand - to create a modern company that sells heritage. The round case, pumpkin crown and Largo leather strap reinforce this vintage aesthetic. The neat sub-dial enhances the design further, particularly with the orange accent on the hand.

The Argonite text on the dial refers to the quartz movement - they are assembled in Detroit using Swiss parts, but branded as Shinola’s own calibre. There’s a sapphire crystal and the serial number details are on the case back.

Shinola Runwell 10000024

  • 41mm Diameter
  • 10.5mm Thick
  • 20mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Argonite 1069 Quartz Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 50M Water Resistance

 
Shinola Lake Ontario Monster Watch

 

The Monster collection is priced significantly higher than the others on my list, primarily because they are powered by Swiss-made Selitta automatic movements.

Where the Duck was marketed as a surf watch, the Monster is sold as a diver’s watch. The depth rating is improved to 300M on the Monster and the case design is modernised and includes crown guards.

This watch will be competing against the likes of Oris, and it’s clever marketing to push the assembled in America line to differentiate the brands. Without that unique selling point, it could be a struggle against other brands at this price-point.

But as Shinola has shown - the made in America tag-line works. There’s been more than one US president who has worn a Shinola.

Back to the watch. It’s a fairly standard divers watch, with this green dial variant catching my eye. The dial is quite spartan and there are none of the complications seen on some of the other Shinola range - but I like that. I like watches as tools.

In terms of design, I prefer the Duck - but it doesn’t have the Swiss automatic movement of the Monster, making the choice a little trickier. I’d suggest that you take a closer look at both to make comparisons.

Shinola Lake Ontario Monster 20169380

  • 43mm Diameter
  • 13mm Thick
  • 22mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • SW200-1 Automatic Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 300M Water Resistance

 

Shinola Runwell Sport Chrono Watch

 

There’s a lot of chronographs in the Shinola line and I’d like to round out my list with a couple of examples. The first being this sporty, 48mm beast.

This is the real monster in the range. The 48mm case will be a dealbreaker for many. If you like large watch you'll be happy - you don't normally find many at this size - maybe an Invitca model, but not much else.

Size aside, it’s an attractive watch with a fairly typical chronograph dial layout. Again, with the round vintage-inspired case and sapphire crystal. The black and white colouring retains this simplicity, but the touches of orange do add the sports element.

I feel that there’s too much happening at the bottom of the dial and the date may have been better moved to 4 o’clock, but overall the design works. The slim bezel allowing for plenty of dial space keeps everything manageable.

Shinola Runwell Sport Chrono 10000090

  • 48mm Diameter
  • 13.8mm Thick
  • 24mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Argonite 5050 Quartz Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 30M Water Resistance

 
Shinola Canfield Sport Watch

 

The final watch I want to feature is an interesting 45mm Chronograph. There’s more going on with this model than may be initially apparent.

The first item is the case. Along with the dial, it has a sandblasted finish. A little unusual, but really effective for adding a rugged appearance. The bezel is also a bit different. It’s made of Tungston. The bezel has a coin edge detailing that matches the crown.

The dial is subtle and maintains a pleasing symmetry, with both the date and month displayed on the upper dial. In addition, there’s a fourth hand that also shows the date around the dial - it’s the one tipped with an orange half-moon.

It’s a good watch to finish this post with, a design that shows Shinola at its best.

Shinola Canfield Sport 20141500

  • 45mm Diameter
  • 13mm Thick
  • 22mm Lug Width
  • Sandblasted Stainless Steel
  • Argonite 5040.F Quartz Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 50M Water Resistance

 

Conclusion


Shinola are a bit of an enigma. A recently founded company that has built its brand around America’s manufacturing history. They’ve managed to bring a degree of watchmaking back to the US, creating hundreds of manufacturing jobs. They’ve done it in Detroit, a city commonly seen to be in decline.

The view from Britain, without a great understanding of the nuances, is that this is a success story. Digging a little deeper reveals quite a bit of criticism - but it still seems mostly unwarranted.

These are the watches that have made it onto some famous wrists. Their fans range from Neil Young to Bill Clinton and the business has expanded year on year. Having introduced the mechanical watches that its customers were asking for, they’re now trying to compete at a higher level.

Do you think Shinola watches can rival Swiss watch companies?

Let know what you think below.

 

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