The Emperor Has No Clothes: Shinola Watches

A lot of blogs have spotlights and product awareness pieces, but there aren't a lot out there that will tell you when something is NOT worth the money.  This will hopefully become a series of posts focusing on some of the worst values money can buy.  Keep in mind, statements made here are personal opinion.

Shinola watches burst onto the scene a few years ago with some slick marketing, an arguably decent design aesthetic, and a barrage of fanfare focused on the concept "Where American is Made." When you bring up their website, a popup jumps to the center of your screen declaring "The Return of American Manufacturing." It's clear the company places a tremendous amount of emphasis on its American heritage, the premium quality of its products, and a sort of "renaissance" of American craftsmanship.

In a relatively short amount of time, Shinola has enjoyed an impressive rise in consumer awareness as well as commercial success. Awesome, right? Wrong. As a watch nerd who also has a soft spot for all of those things, I have to admit I was intrigued when I first heard about Shinola. However, once you begin to scratch the surface appearances quickly fall apart and you begin to realize how "clever" marketing can affect brand image, price, and product sales without having anything worthwhile to show for it.

Where American is Made Where We Put Together Imported Watch Components Exploiting the Reputation of a City That People Would Pay Higher Prices For

Shinola hail themselves as "the redefinition of luxury—a sensible realization that a brand name is worth nothing beyond the quality of the product it’s printed on, and a deep-seated belief that products should be built to last, and they should be built right here in America." Indeed, the statement "where American is Made" draws to mind images of skilled American craftsmen (or women) at their benches fabricating and assembling American products of American origin.

I usually appreciate a "Made in USA" designation, as it has come to infer a combination of pride, superior skill of craftsmanship and top grade quality components. It is a reasonable question to debate what amount of a product's components needs to be American as well as the amount of skilled work that's required to qualify as something being "Made in USA." There's a lot of grey area, and justifiably so. What we have here, though, are quartz watches pretty much entirely fabricated in China and Switzerland and simply put together in Detroit. These are not mechanical movements, mind you. These are quartz movements - the amount of "craftsmanship" required to assemble one is a joke compared to most mechanical watches (see example pictures below). There's a great article from Gentleman's Gazette detailing their tour of Shinola's facilities. After observing the assembly line, the impression was that literally anyone can do the job if you can turn a screw. An apt comparison I've heard likens it to putting together Ikea furniture at your home - that doesn't make it "Made in USA" by anything but the most ridiculous of definitions. That's admittedly a bit oversimplifying things, but still relevant I think. A little while ago, Shinola announced they were learning to manufacture their own dials in the USA and wanted to be high fived as if they just put a man on the moon.

Regardless of the fact that the watches are comparatively easy to put together, Shinola wants you to believe that a "master craftsman" built the watch you're buying. Each watch come with a serial number and a card that says "Built by Stefan Mihoc [one of the few actual watchmakers employed by Shinola]." Well, guess what. Stefan Mihoc probably didn't even touch the watch you bought. On the aforementioned tour, Mr. Mihoc was out that day, and yet every one of the watches put together at Shinola states it was "built by Stefan Mihoc." Shinola may claim that "built by" doesn't technically have to mean what everyone thinks it means, but the intention is clear. When I eat at chef Morimoto's restaurant, the sushi doesn't come with a claim that Morimoto actually made my meal. That would be ridiculous, right?

Now may also be a good time to note that Shinola started as a now defunct shoe polish company which was resurrected in 2011 by Tom Kartsotis, one of the founders of the Fossil Group, and is owned and operated by a privately owned investment Texas group Bedrock Brands. Prior to the launch of the company, they conducted a study where they found, when given the choice between a pen made in China at a cheaper price, one made in America at a higher price, and a pen made in Detroit at the highest price, many people would be willing to pay the highest price for a product made in Detroit. And thus Shinola was founded there. You see, Shinola didn't rise from organic, grassroots Detroit seed. It was strategically placed there only because people would pay more for it.  The rest is all propaganda to make it seem as if they had more honorable intentions when 100% of the decision was based on profit potential alone.
   
"Built in Detroit" technically is not an outright lie, as someone assembles together the Chinese and Swiss pieces there, but the facts are so far removed from the sentiment it hopes to convey that it's insulting to actual American-made products and real skilled craftsmen who spend their lives honing their craft.

The Finest Components Available in the World Budget Components 

In addition to the above, Shinola claims their watches are made using only "the finest components available in the world." Anyone who knows anything about watches knows to look at the components as one of the primary indicators of initial quality (we'll include the level of finishing in this category as well). Anyone who knows anything about watches would also be hard pressed to place a large dollar value on an average quartz driven watch like this with basic materials and finishing. In some ways, that's actually the point - the target market appears to be people who will pay for expensive products without asking any real questions. It's trying to pass off a Civic as a Lamborghini to people who don't know cars.

Here are some examples of a few watch movements:

Standard mechanical ETA 2824-2 Movement (without rotor) - used in many watches comparable in price to Shinola




Patek Philippe ref. 5204 - Much more expensive, but an example of actual premium quality components and craftsmanship

Shinola Argonite 5021 Quartz Movement

Based on the quality of the components, Shinola can find no justification for their asking prices in this regard. It's not even really up for debate. You can't fake having higher quality components than you have. You can just say you have the best and hope no one calls your bluff.

Telling Sh*t from Shinola


So if Shinola watches are not really "Made in America" in the sense that a rational person would think of nor made with anything close to "the finest components available in the world," where else can we look to salvage some semblance of value? When looking at watches, we often look at design aesthetic, complications (extra features like date windows, chronographs, moon phases), originality, and to some extent history and heritage. Whether or not you find Shinola's design to be compelling is up to you (personally I think they look like glorified Timex Weekenders), but I think you would be hard pressed to hang your hat on any particular notable design from them. As for history and heritage, I won't comment on that any further.

The watch community is very passionate, educated, and often hypercritical of the smallest details.  It's an extremely difficult group of people to fool, and one that sometimes tends to evaluate products with poop-colored glasses (or whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses are), sometimes unfairly.  So, while it's no surprise Shinola was written off as overpriced fashion watches very quickly in the watch community, in this case that's exactly what they are.

I honestly don't have that big of a problem with a company overpricing their products and inflating their merits, to a point. It's just the nature of marketing - Fossil brand makes watches for Burberry, Armani, Michael Kors, etc, for example at various unsubstantiated price points. I don't even really think the watches are garbage (like Invicta, for example) - they're simply too expensive for what they are. The greatest offense is I don't like being lied to or intentionally deceived, and what Shinola is doing has crossed that line many times over. Sure, they have created jobs in a devastated city and labor prices are higher in the US, but make no mistake - they aren't helping pull the good people of Detroit up by their bootstraps out of the goodness of their hearts. If people said they didn't want to pay more for the Detroit pen, it's not hard to imagine the company would not have been placed there, or even exist at all. Shinola congratulate themselves as the leaders of a revolution in American craftsmanship, benefactors of the city of Detroit, and innovators in the watch community.  They are, in fact, none of those things.

Don't drink the Kool-Aid.  Save your money. 

*Worth the read - Detroit art and design journal article exploring the concept of "bougie crap," cultural appropriation for the sake of profit, privilege, calculated authenticity, with use of Shinola as an example.
 **Pictures used in this post taken from various online sources


Comments

  1. Tons of hate here.
    "Watch Community" people are the absolute worst. So pretentious.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts - but explain to me what about this is pretentious. From an objective standpoint, it is clearly priced too high. That's not even a debate for any reasonable person. Second, I mentioned that the aesthetic is not bad at all, so it's not like I'm saying they can't do anything right. My main problem with Shinola has nothing to do with watches at all, which I thought I made clear. They're just dishonest about their intentions. I'm perfectly willing to have a rational discussion about this, but aside from saying "I think it looks cool," which is a decent enough reason to value anything at whatever cost you'll pay for it, I stand by my original impression. Looking forward to your further thoughts.

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  2. Hey Dan thank you for your thoughts on these watches. What would you recommend looking at around this price point? I currently have a MVMT watch and really like the 42mm case, I'/d even go larger. I will say I do love the moon phase window on some of the Shinolas, but it seems your criticism of their price point is justified. Thanks!

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    1. Tyler - that's a great question. 42mm is on the larger size of watch sizes over the entire history of wristwatches, though by today's standards it's certainly more of the norm and fits certain people or aesthetics well. If you like the way it sits on your wrists, by all means go for it and enjoy. You'll hear a lot on watch communities about >40-42mm being too large, but in contrast many of the vintage 34-36mm watch sizes can look strange sometimes, especially on a bigger wrist.

      The question of a moonphase is harder, because on a mechanical watch a moon phase complication usually raises your price significantly, though I know Orient makes a pretty affordable mechanical moonphase that doesn't quite match the level of aesthetic on the Shinola, though, at least in my eye. I'm not sure if your question is in regards to quartz vs. mechanical, or if you have a preference towards one or the other, but in quartz watches your options are significantly deeper. I'm sure there are other nice looking quartz moonphases out there, but to be honest it's not something I'm terribly familiar with. Jomashop sells a lot of quartz watches (and watches in general), and has pretty easy filters to sort through.

      If you're interested in getting into mechanical watches a bit more, or even just want to explore watch styles, the best site hands down for affordable watch reviews and brand information is wornandwound.com, where you can enter in a watch size, price point, and more filters on watches they have reviewed in the past. I'd suggest spending some time on there and getting a feel for what you like. At the end of the day, if you really like something and don't have any objections to price/ethics after checking it out, just pick what you want to wear. I hope that's helpful, and good luck with your search!

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  3. What do you think of Victorinox Watches?

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  4. I have three Shinola watches for fashion reasons. I am happy that these guys chose to Detroit to market and assembly their watches. Their marketing has been adjusted from "Made in Detroit" after hue and cry and FTC pressure. More shocking was fashion photog Bruce Weber's Shinola ad campaign shot in Detroit with local African American school kids and (wait for it) tall, white, blonde fashion model Carolyn Murphy imported for the shoot. Embarrassing.

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  5. I'm a long-time collector of mostly American-made vintage watches from about 1915-1965. I also have a few European watches, mostly chronographs, from about 1935-2005. I also live near Detroit and have been exposed to the Shinola myth almost since day 1. All of that said, I do not own 1 quartz watch, abd I do not want to. BUT, I I did, I sure would not see any sense to pay $500-$1000 for a cheap fashion watch made with a $25 Chinese movement. I have 2 friends who own them, and both needed to return their watches for replacement movements in less than a year after purchase. Their original movements were unserviceable and merely thrown away!

    That said, some Shinola cases are pleasant to look at -- but I'd rather buy a WWI-era Elgin or Waltham trench watch which looked VERY similar, with far better movements, and likely at a similar price -- but a watch with a service or 2 will likely still be running in 50 years, long after the Shinola will be thrown away. The Shinola dials are also interesting, but I'd prefer a nice old Hamilton or Illinois dial any day.

    Shinolas are made for uneducated watch buyers who wants a quality watch but likely can't afford one. And, generally, when I see one worn, I classify the owner accordingly. BTW, a nice vintage Omega or Tudor from the 1950s or 60s can be found easily for the same $500-$1000 price... a smart person would buy one of them instead. (And for maybe $1200-$1500, it's possible to find a nice Omega Speedmaster or Seamaster... an EASY decision!

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    1. Totally agree. I don't have any problems with the Shinola aesthetic, per se, aside from the fact that their watches seem monstrously big in person overall. Dubious morality aside, from a cost perspective alone it just doesn't add up, as you said. There are tons of better options, even in the new market. Vintage understandably scares a lot of people (myself included - it's a large and intimidating world to delve into), but I imagine the kind of person settling on a Shinola is not the same sort of person willing to invest the time in finding something like a quality vintage Seamaster. It's something I've always had in the back of my mind to do, actually. Thanks for your thoughts.

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  6. I am amazed how many somewhat smart people have bought into the Shinola hype! They are using Detroit as nothing but a punch line in ther marketing gimmick.Thank you for telling the truth. The reality is a $18 (RETAIL)Thailand-made Ronda movement, $6 Chinese case, $2 hands, $8 dial, and $20 strap are NOT worth $400 to $1500. People buying these watches are too ignorant and prideful to realize how foolish and naive they are. It's not that the watches are ugly, but if a buyer wants the same look they can buy a cheap Times for $80 or less... or buy a vintage WWI-wra trench watch with a mechanical movement for less... and it will still be running in another 100 years as long as it's properly maintained.

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