Shinola, known for its striking watches assembled in Detroit, continues to broaden its wares, from custom bikes to journals, leather goods, candles and other curios. The watch factory is housed in the city’s College for Creative Studies, where Shinola also leads student design workshops. Bridge sat down recently with Jacques Panis, the company’s president, to talk about Shinola’s growth and its investment in Detroit’s future.
Do you know that you only have one circulating bio on the Internet? Just one paragraph that tells everything about Jacques Panis.
That’s the way you want it?
I guess, man. I don’t know...The thing about this thing is that it’s not about a person. It’s about a community of people wanting to make a change, make a difference in this community.
How do you see Shinola fitting into that change? Because I can see how some people might be judgmental of a luxury goods company moving into a city desperate for basic needs.
We believe that this city is a city that has produced goods of the highest quality that are meant to last. And that’s what we’re producing. This city has such a rich history of manufacturing; it is rooted in building quality goods. It’s rooted in story. The history of the place is incredible. So when you look at it from that point of view, it’s a city that’s prime for something like Shinola. It’s a city that’s prime for Quicken Loans. It’s a city that’s prime for things like The Henry Ford Museum. You name it, there are world-class institutions that are here. There are world-class businesses that are here. We see nothing but good in this city.
What would you like to see more of in Detroit?
We would love to see a company that could make watch cases for us. We would love to see a company that makes watch dials, that could make crowns. Traditionally, when you have a watch assembly facility, such as we do here at the College for Creative Studies, what happens with those assembly facilities is you get these OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) that pop up around the assembly facilities, and those OEMs are supplying those assembly facilities with the components to make watches.
Here in Detroit you have a ton of OEMs, those guys that are supplying the auto industry. All the assembly facilities around town that are building the cars, they’re not making every itty-bitty little part that is going into the car. They are taking parts from all over the city, all over the world for that matter, and assembling those parts. We’d like to see business like that. We welcome other bicycle manufacturing companies here into the city, other small leather goods manufacturers here into the city. We welcome all sorts of business and think that any businesses that can create jobs and help build infrastructure here would be amazing.
What is Shinola’s relationship with its partner companies?
Waterford makes our frames and forks for our bicycles, and they ship them here to Detroit. So, they’re a supplier for our bicycle business. A company such as Edwards Brothers Malloy in Ann Arbor, who are producing our journals, they make the entire journal books out there in Ann Arbor for us, and then ship them here to Detroit, and we obviously sell them. They are branded (as) Shinola. They are, again, a supplier of Shinola goods for us.
We work with a company in Largo, Florida called Hadley-Roma who produces our leather watch straps, for example. We work with a company in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri who produces our small leather goods right now called Eric Scott. The company is called Eric Scott. They are all suppliers and we have, I would say, healthy, very rich, very meaningful relationships with those suppliers. We are on sort of first name basis, if you will, with all those guys. We tell their story. We tell what they are doing because they are on a similar mission. They are manufacturing goods here in the U.S. that are goods of the highest quality, that are built to last.
Is there any chance watch components will be built here in America?
Sure. And just to be clear, the components that make up our movements, all the gears and the coils, and the screws, and the plates, all the different pieces that go into the movements come from Switzerland. The components for the watches come from the far east, so we bring in those parts that make up the entire watch from all over the world and assemble them here. We partner with a company called Ronda who is a Swiss movement manufacturer. They helped us set up and do all the planning, and sent us the machinery and equipment, and helped us with training.
Did they help you develop the Argonaut Movement?
Yes, they helped us develop that movement.
What’s special about that movement?
What’s special about it is that it’s built right here in Detroit. That’s really what’s special about it. It’s a quartz movement that has the heart, soul and spirit of this city built into it. And it’s built by hand right here in Detroit! That’s what’s special about that quartz movement. You know, quartz movements haven’t been assembled in this country for over 40 years.
This is the first place this is being done in this country in 40 years?
At scale, yeah. There is a guy for example a guy named Mike Kobold who is over in Pennsylvania, and Mike makes a limited number of watches a year. But this factory can make 500,000 units a year. We’re not quite there. You know last year we produced 55,000 watches here in Detroit.
And I hear there is a demand for more?
There is a demand for more, and that will scale out over time. We can’t say that we are the only watchmakers in the U.S. Our GM, a guy named Richard, a guy making watches in Pennsylvania as well, makes beautiful, beautiful timepieces, but a very limited number of timepieces. We are the only operation doing it at scale in the U.S.
Is there a store opening in Paris?
We do not own a store in Paris just yet. We launched in Paris at a store called Colette. We launched there last fall. This year, we are looking at opening more stores here in the U.S.
Does the American Made image translate overseas?
We believe that America has always had a cachet about it for producing products that are of quality. Whether it’s a car, an airplane, a washing machine or jeans or boots, we here in America are known for producing quality goods. The built-in-Detroit thing is quite powerful over there. People know about Detroit. People know that Detroit has had its issues, but people know that Detroit is rising again and that Detroit is producing quality goods.
How do you evaluate success?
We evaluate success by the number of jobs we create.
How many is that right now?
Right now, we have about 175 here in Detroit and around the country we’re north of 200. The success of this business will be determined by the amount of jobs we create. It’s gotta be sustainable obviously as well. I think the two key factors are jobs and sustainability.
We’re in the College for Creative Studies right now. What do you see as the benefits of combining business and education?
The College for Creative Studies is a world-class institution that educates students on industrial design, on graphic design, etc. Here, it is really about the students having a place, that place being Shinola’s workshop and factory, where they can actually see things being made for an industrial designer. That’s a very important part of their education, one could argue. This is also a place where when those kids graduate, there is opportunity for jobs. We have hired a couple of students out of the school. We have several interns who are constantly here.
We collaborate with the school just about every semester. We are responsible for class: a watch design class, a bicycle design class, a graphic design class, or a marketing class. We are very much integrated in the school. We are learning from the school; the school is learning from us. It is a very cohesive, collaborative type relationship between Shinola and the College for Creative Studies.
You know, it’s just a complete fluke that we ended up here. We were touring the school one day, and the elevator stopped at the fifth floor here. We stuck our heads out, and there was nothing here. There was nothing here, period. So, we asked them what they were doing with the space. They told us they didn’t know what they were going to do with it. One thing led to another, and we were able to form a partnership with the school and put the factory here in the fifth floor.
What kinds of skill training does Shinola offer?
When you get a job, you are trained in that skill.
So, you hire unskilled labor and train them?
We do for the most part hire raw talent; however, we do have skilled talent as well. We have master watchmakers that are working for us, manufacturing folks who come from a skilled trade background.
Don’t you have one guy who was a watchmaker from way back that just happened to be living in Detroit?
Yeah, that’s Stephan. He’s back there.
How does Shinola’s retro brand or mentality benefit or clash with current world globalization?
I don’t know that it clashes. We have a modern design aesthetic. I think it works well, and I think it speaks well to the language of the company, to the tone of the company. The consumers have responded very well to the look, design, and feel of all Shinola products. I don’t know if we would ever call anything retro. The way we look at Shinola is that it is a design brand. It is not a lifestyle brand; it’s a design brand.
With that said, when you look at design and you look at the aesthetic of Shinola, we have been lucky and fortunate to have formulated these products that all work in a very cohesive way and tell a very cohesive story. When they are merchandised together, as you can see over here and over here (pointing at the leather goods and bicycles), that resonates with people. It is really just that.
Would you mind drawing something for me?
Drawing something. I’m a horrible artist. What would you want me to draw?
Whatever you feel like drawing.
Draw. What can I draw… (After a few minutes, Panis returned the small white square with his addition of a neat, simple drawing of a watch and a quote: “American watch making is crafting a comeback in the city that always does.”)
Alex Moroz is currently a high school mentor at the W-A-Y Academy in Detroit. Although a graduate of MSU, he resides in Ann Arbor where he writes and paints.