Vortic: Making great American watches again

July 22, 2016 08:16 AM

American companies aren’t that American anymore.

It wasn’t too long ago that the trademark “Made in the U.S.A.” actually meant something when America was once a powerhouse for its own manufacturing. However, as product manufacturing has been contracted to companies overseas, some of our most iconic American brands, from clothes to appliances, have succumbed to the economics of offshore currency manipulation, lower labor and manufacturing costs and more favorable tax advantages.

In the process, they’re losing their red, white and blue heritage. This is especially true of the American watch industry. But one company, Vortic, which has just launched a crowdfunding campaign, is poised to bring back quality American-made watches.

Between the 1860s and 1880s, American-made pocket watches became synonymous with the railroad industry and the idea of being “on time.” The ability of keeping time was something many Americans valued because it allowed people to become more efficient and reliable in their daily lives -- no second was wasted. However, the Swiss soon took over the watch market around World War II as American watchmakers struggled to keep up with consumer demand, a reasonable price and better designs. Fast forward to now, where American watchmaking industry is making a comeback as Swiss watches are becoming too expensive to most consumers and American watches are getting a much needed touch-up.

“With the luxury industry coming back [and] the economy doing well, people are buying more and more expensive watches,” says RT Custer, co-founder and CEO of Vortic. “Guys and girls are willing to spend more on themselves. And with the rise of the Swiss franc -- it was getting more and more expensive to buy Swiss watches. So now other companies are starting to get into manufacturing. There's this boom in the United States, where people are really interested in American-made.”

After researching the market further, Custer and his team realized that this left a huge gap in what could be a key target audience of the watch market in the United States.

“Everyone loves ‘American-made’ right now. Everyone's asking ‘Why can't we have an “American-made wrist watch?”’ So that's what my company is trying to solve along with several others.”

Three Penn State graduates – Tyler Wolfe, Frank Barber and Custer – founded the company in 2013. Vortic watches are unique in more ways than one. He explains that the big differentiator between his watches and his competitors’, such as Shinola, is that Vortic watches are truly an all-American brand. From the sourcing of leather in Florida to manufacturing in-country, Vortic watches are one of the only truly American manufactured timepieces on the market.                 

“Shinola is definitely a competitor,” he says. “Shinola makes quartz watches, so they're just cheaper to manufacture. They assemble them in America, [but] they don't actually make the components here. They put them together in Detroit.”

Custer notes that Shinola sells at a different price point, and says he is in the business of making luxury watches. This targets a different clientele.

But even more unique is the actual manufacturing of the watches, which is done through 3D printing.

“When we started we were converting these antique pocket watches, which are all one of a kind. Every single one is different. And to make a case for those and standardize it was almost impossible. We literally had to 3D print the cases and that's what I studied in school,” said Custer.

What began as out as a convenient way to less expensive watch casings in-house has become one of his biggest selling points, creating the image of a new iconic, American watch that’s becoming synonymous with cutting-edge manufacturing technology.

"We still use it [3D printing] because, first, it's cool. The only industry using titanium 3D printing on a large scale is the aerospace industry,” says Custer. “But the other beauty of it is, if I'm talking to a customer and the customer has a great idea for how we can make the product better, I can literally change my entire design in an hour. That's why the cutting edge technology's very valuable to us. As a young company we're still learning, and every time we want to make a change, it doesn't cost us an arm and a leg.”

Even if you don’t wear watches, Custer argues that they’re perfect for anyone in a professional environment, particularly as a means of networking, says it’s “the perfect conversation starter.”

“You always need something in common with that business connection that you're trying to make and watches are a great thing to start a conversation on. If you know that it's a Rolex or an Omega, or you know it's a Vortic, that's an awesome way to get something rolling and connect to somebody,” said Custer.

So how does one get their hands on a Vortic watch?

Starting with its American Artisan series inspired by pocket watch conversions, ordering from the Fort Collins, Col.-based company is like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet: you pick out everything from the model to its case finish to the movement grade. With models ranging from $795-$1,745, the watches offers a perfect blend of flavors: a new, creative tech-inspired design as well as the classic feel of a vintage pocket watch.

“We learned a lot about the history of those old American watch companies and were inspired by that and a lot of those old pocket watches used enamel dials, so it's almost porcelain-like, the white base of the watch,” says Custer. “And then all the movements were highly decorated; when you put the watch over on its back, you could see the pristine, high-quality manufacturing that was used to make it. We wanted to make a modern watch with our name on it that's completely ours.”

But Custer and his team soon found that they were taking on more than they bargained for since making custom watches are hard to build on a large scale. In addition, negotiating a reasonable price point can be difficult when inventory is small.

In hopes of reaching a larger clientele, Vortic is kicking off a new round of watches titled, the Journeyman watch, which is anticipated to be sold in retail stores.

Vortic has just launched its crowdfunding campaign. The firm says it will receive orders until Sept. 17, while Custer hits the road for trade shows and other venues around the country. During his tour, the firm will raise additional capital to take the small watch company to its next stage.

“We just need pre-orders to be able to make 1,000 [Journeyman watches]. Potential customers will get to hold the prototypes, they'll get to meet us as the founders of the company, they'll get to see our current products. [And] they'll see that we make something that's already high quality so the trust factor can be built,” says Custer. “We get to have fun with them and interact with our customers [and] we'll learn a lot. And get a lot of feedback from the customers is just makes the product better as we go.”

Customers have a number of options for the Journeyman series through the company’s Kickstarter campaign, which include: The Manual Wind model will be $795 (discounted from $1,000 MSRP), the Automatic model will be $1,495 (discounted from $1,800 MSRP) and the Power Reserve model will be $1,745 (discounted from $2,000 MSRP).

Custer notes that while the new series will take some time to establish themselves in retail stores, customers will be first in line to receive the new watches and save money at the same time.

Vortic’s Kickerstarter campaign mirrors the story of Shinola, which also launched a Kickerstarter campaign to built up momentum in the company. A few years later, the small watch company that started in Detroit now has stores all over the U.S. and Shinola watches are now in big retailers like Neiman Marcus and the Colette in Paris, making $60 million in revenue by 2014 alone. The same story is starting to unfold for the up-and-coming company of Vortic now, who after seven hours after of starting their Kickerstarter campaign yesterday, has already reached its $50,000 fundraising goal.

However, surpaassing one benchmark is not holding the company back from furthering new heights with its campaign. Custer said they will soon place “stretch goals” for their customers by offering additional perks and benefits such as bonus offers and upgrades to further their fundraising. It’s this “think big” approach of Custer’s that will have Vortic watches becoming a household name soon enough.

Click here to visit Vortic's Kickstarter campaign.


About the Author

Caroline Vakil is an intern for Futures Magazine. Caroline currently studies journalism in Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.