By Ed Estlow
on 12.17.13
Photo by Michael Kobold

Stories follow Michael Kobold everywhere. To begin with, he started Kobold Watches as part of an entrepreneurship class project while attending Carnegie Mellon University. At the end of the term, his professor said it might make a nice hobby. Kobold had other ideas. He backed his modest grades with an immodest passion for timepieces and set off to do something about it.

He enlisted family friend and adventurer Ranulph Fiennes (famous for, among other things, sawing a couple of frozen fingers off with a fret saw after an ill-fated arctic expedition) to be his first brand ambassador. He contacted Gerd-Ruediger Lang of Chronoswiss and pelted him with smart questions about watches, eventually parlaying the dialogue into an informal apprenticeship and an abiding friendship. Fiennes and Lang, along with the late actor James Gandolfini, have all had a hand in Kobold watch designs.

His friendship with James Gandolfini is perhaps best known. There was the infamous print ad, “Even James Gandolfini thinks Kobold is No. 1”, complete with a grin and a middle finger salute. Then there’s the oft-retold story of how Kobold and Gandolfini met. The actor called to buy a watch one day. Kobold assumed the gruff voice at the other end of the line belonged to a cop, so he offered his standard police discount. The actor replied he didn’t need a discount. He was an actor on a TV show, The Sopranos. Kobold, who didn’t own a TV, asked him if he was a singer. Perhaps improbably, a deep friendship developed between the two. In fact, Kobold was the one who met the press for the family when Gandolfini passed away unexpectedly in Italy last summer.

These days Kobold Watches, which declares that its timepieces are “conceived, designed, assembled and tested in USA from domestic and imported components”, is branching out from pure adventure watches. Last year they opened a branch in Nepal (well, that’s still pretty adventurous), and recently finished refurbishing a barn in northwest Pennsylvania as Kobold headquarters. Kobold himself is constantly on the move. We were lucky enough to catch up with him recently to hear a few stories and ask a few questions.

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Q.
What’s one thing every man should know?

A.
His calling.

Q.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

A.
Run a marathon with Ranulph Fiennes. It was my first and his seventh in as many days — and he was still faster at the finish than I was at the beginning.

Q.
What are you working on right now?

A.
A new diver’s watch. It will be a replacement for the Soarway Seal that was just retired. I am also working on a new knife, this time a folder. It’s going to be 100 percent non-corrosive.

Q.
Name one thing you can’t live without.

A.
A pair of jeans.

Q.
Who or what influences you?

A.
Gerd-Ruediger Lang, the founder of Chronoswiss, has been a lifelong mentor and friend who influenced my life and my watch designs more than anyone else. He’s my good friend and remains a mentor to this day. I always make a point of visiting him when I am in Germany. Apart from him, I consider Ran Fiennes a great influence on my life and on the decisions I make.

Q.
What are you reading right now?

A.
With a King in the Clouds by Erika Leutag.

Q.
Name one thing no one knows about you.

A.
I grew up in something like a zoo. My parents adopted all these animals: a donkey, a baby deer, a dozen cats, half a dozen dogs, a horse, frogs, turtles and so on. The donkey was my best friend. Go figure.

Michael-Kobold-Gear-Patrol-Ambiance

Q.
It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?

A.
It’s going to be a very large meal consisting mainly of ice cream and chocolate.

Q.
If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?

A.
Don’t be so afraid of the world.

Q.
How do you want to be remembered?

A.
As someone who didn’t betray his convictions.

Q.
Your first brand ambassador was Ranulph Fiennes, the noted explorer, and an early mentor of yours was Gerd-R. Lang, who founded Chronoswiss. Is it who you knew or what you did that has fueled the success of Kobold Watches — or should we say, Kobold Expedition Tools?

A.
For now let’s call it Kobold Watches — most people don’t know yet that we make other expedition tools as well. I met Gerd-R. Lang after I had developed a strong passion for watches. But without Mr. Lang my passion would not have been sustained and fostered, which ultimately led to some success.

If we would have decided years ago to only import everything we sell, we could be far less expensive. But where is the fun in doing that? Our company motto is “Embrace Adventure” and we really live by that creed.

Q.
You’ve made a name for yourself in entrepreneurial and tool watch circles. What’s behind your branching out?

A.
When you’ve been doing the same thing — watches — since the age of 16, you want a new challenge by the time you’re in your mid 30s.

Q.
What’s important or significant to you about Made in the USA?

A.
At first it was the challenge of it all…America had totally lost its mechanical watch industry and that presented a fun and unique challenge to reinstate the U.S. as nation of watchmakers. Now, fifteen years later, you can see that we’ve met with success. Kobold watches are produced Stateside and there are many other companies trying to do the same thing, or at least trying to ride on the coattails of the Made in USA watch trend.

My theory is that if watchmaking in the U.S. can lead the way, other sectors will follow. Because it’s a lot harder to make a good watch than it is to make a lot of other products. The problem we’re facing is the cost of manufacturing in the U.S. We’re working on that because ultimately Made in USA must have mass appeal in order to survive. Right now we’re too expensive for mass appeal. But in a few years that might change.

Q.
What other brands do you admire?

A.
I admire people behind the brands more than brands: Roland Murphy at RGM for being the only other trailblazer in this Made in USA endeavor; Gerd-R. Lang, of course, for doing what he did with Chronoswiss; and Jacques Panis at Shinola for the great things he’s doing with his brand.

Q.
Do you wear any non-Kobold watches and if so, what are they?

A.
My Chronoswiss Chronoscope prototype and my Chronoswiss Regulateur.

Q.
Where do you want Kobold to be in ten years?

A.
The Kobold brand should be regarded as a serious adventure tool manufacturer. From watches to knives to pro-grade climbing equipment.

Q.
How do you respond to critics that say that Kobold watches are overpriced?

A.
If you compare apples to apples they are very competitively priced. Kobold is at the forefront of actually producing components in the U.S., and that costs a lot of money. We’ve also invested a lot into our new Pennsylvania headquarters, including the refurbishment of an historic barn and the construction of a dedicated machine shop. Vertical integration is always costly but in the long run it’ll pay off for everyone. If we would have decided years ago to continue to only import everything we sell, we could be far less expensive. But where is the fun in doing that? Our company motto is “Embrace Adventure” and we really live by that creed.

Q.
What are your feelings about some of the other watches out there that are dead ringers for Kobold but cost thousands less?

A.
Again, apples to apples. A pseudo-German or pseudo-Swiss product that is actually made in China naturally costs a fraction of what an innovative, quality product of U.S. origin costs. There are also research, design, and development costs that are priced into a Kobold watch’s list price.

The companies you mentioned don’t have any of those costs because, as you correctly state, they used a Kobold design as the base for their products. Imitation is the highest flattery and we’re used to it. I find it interesting that some of these companies actually claim to have designed the cases and other elements of their watches themselves when in fact they were designed by Mr. Lang, Ran Fiennes and me.

Despite all this nonsense, we continue to do what we’re doing very successfully and the people who wear Kobold want to wear an original because they, themselves, are very successful and wouldn’t be seen dead wearing copies.

Q.
What’s next for you?

A.
Ran Fiennes and I are planning on driving a fire truck to Kathmandu and donating it to the local fire department. Kathmandu has 3-5 million people, depending on whom you ask, and only five functioning fire trucks, one of which is from the 1960s.

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