What’s The Deal With Shinola?
The Detroit-based brand cements its place in the annals of American watchmaking with the debut of the Canfield Speedway, an automatic chronograph inspired by the country’s colorful history of car racing.
With the recent proliferation of American microbrands proudly promoting timepieces conceived and designed (if not always made) everywhere from Baltimore to Venice Beach, it’s easy to forget that when Shinola, the Detroit-based watchmaker, debuted at the 2013 Baselworld watch fair, the American watch industry was nothing but a faded memory.
Rising from the Ashes
Once home to a thriving mechanical watch trade centered on the production of standardized timepieces that kept the country’s trains running on schedule, America lost out to Switzerland in the decades following World War II. Not only did the Second World War affect sales, but the most successful American companies — such as Elgin, Waltham, and Hamilton — were forced to shut down commercial operations to manufacture timepieces for the war. Thus, they were at a severe disadvantage to their Swiss competition in the post-war years. Only a few companies survived the era.
Today, a new generation of American watchmakers is once again vying for market share — and none more ambitiously, or more successfully, than Shinola. The company doesn’t get all the credit for the renaissance in American watchmaking that characterizes the better part of the past decade, but it gets a lot.
The brainchild of Tom Kartsotis, founder of Fossil and a Dallas-based entrepreneur, Shinola has parlayed its original quartz watchmaking business — assembling watches with Swiss-made Ronda movements in the heart of Motor City — into a coveted lifestyle brand that also sells jewelry, leather accessories, and high-end audio equipment. And in January of 2019, the company even expanded into hospitality with the Shinola Hotel.
Timepieces, however, remain the heart of the Shinola story.
On May 20th, Shinola released its first automatic chronograph with a tachymeter function, the Canfield Speedway. The 44mm stainless steel model is the brand’s most technical and complicated watch to date. And even though it just debuted, the watch is already sold out. (A second edition featuring a new color scheme, Lap 02, is expected to be released in September.)
“Early on, when we presented the brand, a lot of feedback was, ‘I love the watch, I love the style, but I want an automatic,’” says Shinola CEO Shannon Washburn, who joined the company in 2012 as director of watch development and appointed chief executive in November 2019. “Even back then, we knew that at some point in our journey, we’d do automatic. But we needed a thoughtful roadmap.”
The starting point for the brand’s foray into the mechanical category came in 2017, with the introduction of the Erie Monster. The model, Shinola’s first automatic watch and its first dive watch, was a limited run — “We did 500 pieces, and we sold out in a manner of weeks,” says Washburn — but it spawned a series of Monster dive watches themed around the Great Lakes.
In 2019, Shinola introduced the Runwell Automatic, a mechanical version of its flagship timepiece, featuring a Swiss-made Sellita movement, the SW200-1.
“We were at the Canfield store, our [Detroit] flagship, and in the first five questions, we heard, ‘This is beautiful—when are you doing a chronograph?” Washburn recalls.
The Canfield Speedway limited edition, which retails for $2,995, is the definitive answer to that question. It’s also a sign that the brand is targeting higher price-point customers, even as it promotes its 2-year-old Detrola brand of colorful, sub-$400 watches.
“We’ve proven we can live in both areas,” Washburn says.
Equipped with a Swiss-made Sellita SW510 BH movement decorated with a custom Shinola checkered flag rotor — visible through the full exhibition caseback — the Canfield Speedway draws inspiration from vintage American racing and stock cars of the 1920s.
“We wanted to make sure this was an American story,” Greg Verras, Shinola’s design director of watches, said during an exclusive Zoom event in mid-May for members of The Foundry, a group of Shinola loyalists who receive discounts and early access to Shinola products.
In addition to researching the history of Detroit and its automotive trade, the design team steeped itself in stories from the Prohibition era, when the city’s mechanics tinkered with cars to make them as fast as possible, so they could outrun the police when distributing moonshine.
“We found some real gems that got us excited,” Verras said.
At one point during the ideation stage, Molly Wang, the brand’s senior watch designer, and Zach Fox, the senior designer in charge of creating the Canfield’s singular packaging, took a field trip to the local junkyard. “I started running around, pulling out tools and tearing down parts from cars,” Wang said during the Zoom event.
The outing inspired both the model’s black perforated leather strap and the red toolbox that houses it. “You’re actually able to carry some small hand tools inside,” Fox said. “It allows you to showcase the product nicely, but when you’re wearing the watch, you can throw a few wrenches in here or even a first-aid kit and keep it under the seat of your car.”
The objective details of the new chronograph — such as its 27 jewels, 48-hour power reserve, and fixed tachymeter scale on the bezel, which will allow the wearer to easily measure the speed of a vehicle over a known distance — are all key to its appeal. But without the stories that give it context, harking back to the golden era of America’s hot rod days, the Canfield Speedway would be just another timepiece amidst a sea of competitors.
After three-plus decades in the watch business, Kartsotis knows the formula for success has two essential ingredients: “One is the product — what it looks like and how well it wears — and the other is the stuff and the story around it,” he says. “Today, every category we bring out has to have a reason to be. We did the Champ watch to help first responders during the early part of the pandemic, all the way through the Speedway. We’re in Detroit, it’s about automobiles, their history, and it’s beautiful.”
Shinola’s love for storytelling has even motivated the brand’s most loyal customers to pay it forward. On the Zoom event introducing the Canfield Speedway to members of The Foundry, for example, a commenter from California named Jim joined the chat.
“I have many Shinola watches,” he wrote. “Very proud to tell the story of why I wear them.”