Inside JN Shapiro: Witnessing the Resurgence of American Watchmaking, Part 1

Inside J.N. Shapiro: Witnessing the Resurgence of American Watchmaking, Part 1

As Josh Shapiro leads his skilled team into a pivotal moment for his eponymous brand, the “American Voutilainen” embarks on an uphill journey to advance the art of watchmaking through world-class craftsmanship and innovation.

By Henri Lee
Contributor

After becoming a contributor for Watchonista covering the US’s West Coast watch scene, I knew that a write-up on JN Shapiro, a top independent watchmaker based in Southern California, would be my priority.

Over the years, I’ve encountered quite a few devoted fans of the brand in my neck of the woods (the San Francisco Bay Area). I’ve even had the opportunity to admire some of these collectors’ Infinity Series watches, the brand’s inaugural creation, up close.

And while these watches were undoubtedly exquisite, I was shocked to learn that, without hesitation, some of these watch collectors went on to place orders for the brand’s second creation, the Resurgence, which has prices starting at $70,000 for steel-encased models and $85,000 for gold.
 

What has been driving the collectors’ love for this brand? Who comprises the team responsible for crafting these extraordinary timepieces that push the boundaries of watchmaking? Can a young American watch brand successfully challenge the Swiss-dominated watch world?

With these questions swirling in my mind, I went to visit Mr. Josh Shapiro, the founder of the brand, at the new JN Shapiro workshop in the coastal city of Torrance, California, in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. And what I witnessed was quintessential American entrepreneurship striving to advance the ancient art of watchmaking to new heights.

From Infinity Series to Resurgence

My visit occurred on a stormy morning in early February 2024, marked by record downpours, but once inside, it felt like a busy factory completely insulated from the tumultuous weather outside. Laid out on the table before me was the final piece of the Infinity Series, a stunning watch with a white dial featuring Josh’s renowned and distinctive infinity weave guilloche patterns.

The lucky owner, Thomas (a.k.a. @watchsymmetry), is a friend of mine and asked me to visit Josh to pick up his watch. “Could you snap a photo of my watch, please?” Thomas had requested before my journey, barely containing his excitement. Since 2018, approximately 100 pieces of the Infinity Series have been meticulously crafted. Thomas is indeed fortunate to lay claim to this last remaining masterpiece!
 

Next on the table was a shining prototype of the Resurgence, Shapiro’s new creation. Unheard of in wristwatch history, purchasers of the Resurgence can actually choose from one of three movement bridge layouts.

With the first Resurgence production piece being delivered to its owner in March, there are already over 60 orders for this new model from collectors all over the world. What an exciting time for this young and ambitious brand as it moves to the next level!

The Workshop Tour

After ogling some watches, Josh gave me a tour of the workshop, beginning with the engine-turning machines that initially propelled the brand into prominence with the intricate guilloche work. Among them are three machines dedicated to crafting straight patterns and four rose engine machines for producing circular patterns.
 

After passing a few watchmakers’ benches, we arrived at a group of lathes making small gears like pinions and wheels. First, there was a Schaublin 70 set up to make sliding pinions with 12 teeth, a particularly challenging part to manufacture.

There was also a lathe originally owned by the Hamilton Watch Co. and another made by Levin in nearby Culver City, California. It is with these lathes Josh is able to build all his gears in-house.

There are several impressive CNC machines from top vendors such as Kern, Haas, and Citizen. Haas is actually an American machine tool builder headquartered in Oxnard, California (north of Los Angeles).
 

Josh also mentioned that Kari Voutilainen uses Haas machines exclusively as well. These are expensive investments, but Josh wanted the best equipment to achieve unparalleled quality.

As we were about to complete the tour, Josh said there was one more machine to see: a damaskeening machine used for beautiful decoration on the movements.

As Josh explained, Côtes de Genève (Geneva stripes) is actually the simplest form of damaskeening. While nowadays Swiss brands mostly use Geneva stripes to decorate movement plates, Josh opted for more elaborate damaskeening decorations.
 

For the new Resurgence Series, all parts (except jewels and springs) will be made in-house at the JN Shapiro workshop. This is to satisfy the strict FTC rules so that the Resurgence will have “U.S. MADE” engraved on the movement.

An In-House Movement with Three Bridge Layouts

True in-house movements are exceptionally rare in the industry, with many “in-house” movements being sourced for external companies and then only slightly modified by the brand so that “in-house” can be used in marketing materials.

But with the new Resurgence movement, all of its components, including the pinions, the balance, screws, wheels, and power fork, are made in the workshop, even though some of these parts, such as the sliding pinions and winding pinions, are extremely difficult to manufacture.
 

To the delight of collectors, the Resurgence movement comes in three bridge layout options: a curved design, a more classic design, and a cubist bridge layout. Josh designed the curved and classic layouts, while watchmaker Michael completed the cubist bridge design.

So far, based on client interest, the favorite layout seems to be the curved design, which has a lot of character and showcases the motion of the movement gears.
 

I asked about the timekeeping accuracy of the movement, and Josh replied that the eventual goal is to get the chronometer certification from the Horological Society of New York.

Top Notch Movement Finishing

The movement finishing on the Resurgence prototype appeared exquisitely and impeccably executed. Curious about the level of finishing Josh aimed to achieve when compared to today’s top independent watchmakers, I posed this question directly.

“In terms of our interior angles and anglage, that’s at the Voutilainen level – that’s where we put ourselves,” Josh replied confidently and pointed out that the cubist bridge layout boasts 14 interior angles, including the particularly challenging interior angle within an interior angle found on the escape wheel bridge.
 

Moreover, Shapiro’s timepieces feature finishing techniques that set them apart. For instance, each gold wheel sports curved spokes – a distinctive detail rarely done by other brands. Additionally, JN Shapiro’s damaskeening process results in mesmerizing wave patterns, departing from the more conventional straight stripes. Such unique finishing touches are scarce in today’s market and demand extensive labor from skilled artisans.

Taking Dials and Cases to the Next Level

Of course, JN Shapiro watches are renowned for their sublime guilloche work on the dials already, so I asked Josh how he aimed to “level up” with the Resurgence. He pointed out two features of the Resurgence.
 

First, the main dial comprises four layers with perfectly aligned guilloche patterns. These separate layers are engine-turned individually, requiring tremendous skill to align the multi-layer dial flawlessly. It’s never been done before, but the result is visually dazzling.

The other innovation is the sub-dial’s miniaturized moiré pattern. Usually, a moiré pattern will fill an entire dial.
 

So, to add this pattern to a sub-dial, Josh designed a custom rosette for the rose engine and worked out the mathematics to shrink it down so that it still resembled a moiré without becoming cluttered. It was the most challenging rose engine pattern Josh had, or has, ever attempted.

The guilloche on the case is another Resurgence highlight.

In the past, only pocket watches could include guilloche around the mid-case because of their lack of lugs. Thus, to accomplish this on the Resurgence, Josh had to do the engine turning around the side, then mill the recesses to put the lugs into.
 

The lugs are then held in by screws instead of soldering; otherwise, the polishing will destroy the guilloche. Truly ingenious!

To learn more about JN Shapiro, visit the brand’s website and stay tuned for part two of my visit with this groundbreaking watchmaker!

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Inside J.N. Shapiro: Witnessing the Resurgence of American Watchmaking, Part 2

By Henri LeeContributor
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