Not much is rockin’ in Rock City these days. In fact, Detroit’s in the same state as many just-graduated undergrads: out of work, in debt up to the ears, down and out in the most recent iteration of the American way. Shinola is like many undergrads, too — but a different vein of them. Like a small portion of those who’ve struck out into the world of late and found stunning success in a short period of time, it’s young, it’s energized, and it has a blue-collar work ethic but an eye for a higher calling. The only difference is that most others in this class are Ivy League business majors; Shinola is a Detroit-based watchmaker.
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Turns out Shinola hasn’t quite left its old Alma Mater yet, in spirit at least. They’re based inside the College for Creative Studies in the old Argonaut Building — an historic Detroit Landmark. That’s the thing about this company: it gives off the right appearances, the right ethics, just the right amount of chip-on-the-shoulder pride; and then those things end up also being true, rooted in concrete examples like a city and the fingers of idealistic workers (who, outside of watches, also build excellent bikes) or abstract things like the American Dream. So it is with the Shinola Runwell ($600), the brand’s flagship watch, which found its way onto my relatively inexperienced wrist with an obvious, immediate question: was this an American watch (the American watch) worth buying?
Before we continue, a little bit about my horological background. Perhaps it’s better to let my father, with whom I share many innate tendencies, do the explaining. In an email after I’d sent him a picture of the Runwell on my wrist and explained how much it cost, he responded:
“That’s a High price. I paid $39 for the one I’m wearing from Bass Pro Shop. I’m not afraid of dropping it in the slush. :)”
His un-hipness in the watch game is largely shared by me (not his emoticon decisions, though). I’d never worn a large watch before this one, and I really didn’t think I ever would. The Shinola Runwell I tried out was the 47mm, their largest size. Yet its reasonable thickness and a healthy heft felt perfectly right on my virgin wrist, none too large itself; I’ve yet to take the watch off due to fatigue or discomfort. Lest we forget, Shinola’s mitigated the size issues by offering the watch in a 41mm size that should fit smaller wrists well.
Calibre: Argonite 1069 (Ronda Swiss quartz)
Hours, minutes, small seconds dial
Material: Matte black stainless steel
Case Back: Signature Made in Detroit Plate with Laser-Etched Serial Number
Crystal: Double curve sapphire
Water Resistance: 5 ATM (50 meters)
Lumed hour markers
American-made Horween leather with natural contrast stitch
The Runwell is available in several finishes, but mine came in a matte black stainless steel case with a black dial and white Arabic numerals. A tiny accent of Shinola’s trademark orange strikes the eye in the arrowed seconds hand at six o’clock and the narrow lightning bolt symbol (it looks like a stretched AC/DC bolt laid horizontally) at twelve o’clock. Just below the bolt sits the plain white “Shinola” name, an “Argonite-1069″ movement designation and a proud “Detroit” reminder. The numerals are slightly raised and give a light gleam, though they’re not lumed; the hour markers are lumed, and display with ease in the darkest spot you can find. The hour and minutes hands taper gracefully with a full, curvaceous profile — though the minute hand could stand to be slightly longer for ease of reading. The seconds dial at the six o’clock position shows off miniscule, beautiful snailing that perfectly fits the understated trappings of the watch. Altogether, these aspects of the dial create a spacious display that is easily read at a glance but is well worth a longer stare.
The bezel is simple and especially sharp in matte black, directing the eye to the more exciting points of the dial, and the rounded lugs are plain, utilitarian and a bit thin. The matte screw-in lug shares the same modesty, its only adornment a raised lightning bolt that sheds the matte to gleam lightly. The American Horween leather strap, in this case a sandy tan that dresses up the black watch nicely, is hand-stitched in Florida; the buckle is matte and sports the largest, albeit similarly clandestine, orange lightning bolt symbol, a nice addition that I didn’t realize until almost a week of wear.
The case back is impressive, and not just for its stamped metal appearance (no doubt an homage to the auto industry) and four screws that sit prominent outside of its circular design. “Shinola”, the thin lightning bolt symbol and “Built in Detroit” are all proudly raised to the touch. Some may find the stamped serial number a bit of a flourish, but regardless, it’s a worthy designation of the brand’s small production numbers.
Most of Shinola’s employees have only one year of experience, and a few have two, facts detailed on Shinola’s site in a crass “what you gonna do about it?” way.
The Runwell’s movement, Shinola won’t have you forget, is hand-assembled in Detroit by a small team (13 or so) of young and burgeoning staff members (most have only one year of experience, and a few have two, facts detailed on Shinola’s site in an audacious “what you gonna do about it?” way). Even their staff photos seethe with a few prideful sneers; all definitely look like happily employed young professionals. How many of the thirteen aren’t from MI? Two. Ohio and Belgium, as it were. If their website is to be believed, and we do, this is a workman-centric company.
That Argonite-1069 movement is quartz and is made up of Swiss-made (partner Ronda AG) parts. Of course we’d love to see mechanical, and bits made right here in the U.S., but quartz and a sensible amount of outsourcing has its upsides — most blatantly in this case, the reasonable price (though not by my dad’s estimations) and the thinness, which allows for long wear.
American watch lovers have bought into the brand with a vengeance, quite literally. The pre-sale run of the Runwell, limited to some 2,500 watches, sold out within days, and the brand now has a waiting list for future production runs. A new flagship NYC Shinola store opened in July. When you’re wearing one on your wrist, it’s easy to understand this response. Commitment stands out. Pride stands out. Utilitarianism stands out, as does reasonable affordability. A beautiful design stands out. Home team pride takes care of the rest.