From Tinkerer to Timekeeper
Talking Shop with Leo Padron, a New American Watchmaker
Minneapolis isn’t exactly America’s hub of fine watchmaking (although neighboring St. Paul did once boast the country’s oldest watchmaking school). But that’s where Leo Padron was when he decided there was a gap that needed filling in the genre of affordable mechanical wristwatches.
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When he was six, Padron rewired the doorbell in his parents’ home in New Jersey. His parents always tell that story, much to his chagrin. “I guess it was a big deal”, he says. He was born in Venezuela and emigrated to the New Jersey with his family when he was a toddler. Encouraged by his father, who taught him to tinker with things from a young age, he grew up with an intense curiosity. Along the way, Padron developed a mechanical aptitude and a penchant for self-teaching. By his teens he was an experienced bicycle mechanic and robotics designer; as a young man he taught himself web design, then spent several years in the professional world coding, ending up in Minneapolis after a stop at IMG in New York City. But the whole time he was pursuing a career, he was tinkering and fixing things, just like his dad taught him. So upon inheriting his grandfather’s non-running mechanical watch, Leo decided that he could fix that too.
Padron failed miserably in his first attempt, so he went looking for someone to help him repair it — only to be told over and over that “no one repairs those things anymore.” Or, “Yeah, the guy that we had fixing those retired.”
Unfortunately, he embarked on these efforts just as the St. Paul Technical College was shuttering its historic watchmaking school. Otherwise he’d have ended up there. Instead, he snatched up some tooling and a small stock of movements, and made his own curriculum through the University of the Internet. He read everything he could find online; he dug up old reference materials and found the Chicago School of Watchmaking’s textbook. He joined the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors; Watchuseek and other online forums became his horological community. He put his newfound knowledge to work and finally fixed his grandfather’s watch, and continued on to repairing other vintage pieces.
This passion for watches built over the following years until Padron decided to try a hand at building his own. Three successful Kickstarter campaigns later (his first watch, the Vuelta, was only the second watch project ever funded on Kickstarter), Padron’s watch company, Padron Watch Co., is thriving, debt free. His watches, the Vuelta, the Tessera, and the new Hennepin, funded on Kickstarter at 490%, 222%, and 422%, respectively.
Padron’s one-man company is based in a single large room in the downstairs of a repurposed school building. Along two walls are his assembly and stock areas. In the middle is his CAD system — a subtle tip of the hat to Padron’s willingness to get his hands dirty with design throughout the creation process. Along another wall is a second bench for occasional part-time assemblers, whom he brings in during the busiest time of the Kickstarter fulfillment cycles. Beyond that occasional overflow assembly help, Padron handles everything himself — from concept, to mechanical design, supplier management, routine assembly and quality assurance.
Padron’s watches have a singular aesthetic, but not an overblown one. The first two designs, the Vuelta ($489 – $689) and the Tessera ($519 – $529) have an angular, somewhat contemporary look, with hooded lugs and crown guards. In fact, hooded lugs — or no lugs at all, as on the new Hennepin ($245 with quartz movement, $389 with Miyota automatic movement) — are a signature for Padron watches. The round-cased Hennepin pays homage to a major thoroughfare in his adopted town of Minneapolis. Hennepin Avenue is just a block from his shop. The Hennepin’s standard case back is emblazoned with the local icon for snow emergency routes in the city.
Padron knows he’s indebted to the concept of crowd-funding and without it, he wouldn’t have a company. But he believes the best part of the crowd-funding model is its usefulness in building a customer base and community of watch enthusiasts. He’s gained a lot of extremely loyal followers through his three projects — people who say to him, “When you get your next watch project going, please let me know.” He listens to his buyers and, while he doesn’t implement every suggestion, he has put some to practice. It was an enthusiastic watch community that spurred his start, after all.
Besides the U.S. and Canada, Padron customers are found all around the world, but are concentrated in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. They come from northern Europe too, and a smattering from Japan and Singapore. Given that, does Padron look at his company as an American one, in the vein of Waltham, Elgin, Hamilton, Illinois, and the many others? He’s proud his company is based in Minneapolis, he says. But he also notes that he has a global supply chain like most modern businesses. He sources cases, bracelets and some movements in Asia. Other movements come from Switzerland — the ubiquitous ETA. Straps and printed materials come from U.S. suppliers. This is simply a reality of his business.
As for the future, Padron doesn’t like to foreshadow too much, but when pressed, he’ll say the next watch is on the drawing board. It might be a tank, it might be a design extrapolation of the Tessera, the second model he released. It might even be a chronograph. “Everybody asks you when you’re going to do a chronograph”, he says. “But I don’t know if that’s gonna be a go or not.”
Padron’s goals for Padron Watch Co. are simple. He wants to create a watch that’s more than a department store watch. When someone wants a really nice, but affordable watch, he wants them to think of his watches. He’s design driven and he wants to appeal to a broad audience. That means an entire line of models. He wants to be big, to be a national brand.
“That takes a lot of work”, he admits. “I’m not sure I can get there, but I hope I can.” A lot of his fans do, too. There’s a lot to like about a man and a company that pay homage to parking restrictions during nasty winter weather.