Talk about the best-laid plans of mice and men. Brother Bark, Danger Girl, Bozi, and I stepped out of the main hall at Cobo to find some lunch, escape the noise of the Detroit Auto Show for a moment, and give my left leg a moment’s worth of peace. When it’s cold outside, the titanium screws in my tibia contract at a different rate from the bone in which they’re set. Putting weight on the leg turns up the volume on that annoyance. I used to have a lot more metal in my body than I have now — when I was nineteen I had my right femur pin removed a bit early so I could try my hand at a Superclass BMX “career” — but I’m not quite as insensitive to pain as I used to be, either.
As I limped by the Shinola booth set up in the hallway, Bark and DG decided they needed to take a look at what the company had to offer. Forty-five minutes later, we had four watches for three people. (Bozi was out smoking a cigarette the whole time.)
My new Shinola 47mm Runwell Contrast Chrono is the most Chinese watch I’ve owned in a very long time. There’s a lot of agitation in the watch-fanatics community about Shinola, and the two most frequent criticisms have to do with the very high price (for a quartz fashion watch) and Shinola’s claim that this assemblage of Chinese case, Swiss movement, and Floridian strap is “Built In Detroit”.
To the first complaint, I have no answer other than to say a $750 Shinola with a $15 Ronda quartz movement is a much lesser sin than a $25,000 Hublot with an $150 ETA 2924. To the second, however, I have a detailed and heartfelt answer that, in my not-so-humble-opinion at least, has implications that extend far beyond the realm of hobby watches into everything from politics to morality.
The case against Shinola, which has been laid out in styles ranging from elegant to merely aggressive, boils down to the following:
- Shinola is not a plucky starup; it’s the side project of a “near-billionaire”.
- The original Shinola brand had nothing to do with watches, extension cords, journals, or luggage.
- Shinola is a watch assembler, not a watch manufacturer.
- Most of the value in a Shinola watch is added overseas.
- Most of the parts on Shinola bikes are Asian.
- Although many parts of Shinola products are American-made, very few are actually created in Detroit.
- The whole thing is basically an exercise in “bougie crap” and cultural appropriation in which a Texas venture-capital corporation trades on the image of hard-working Detroit people of color.
- Shinola is profoundly inauthentic.
I put the last bit in italics because it sums up the rest. Shinola’s critics would have you believe that the company is selling overseas junk that has been “black-washed” by associating it with the ruin-porn hardscrabble appeal of Detroit. This is overstating the case and tilting at straw windmills all at once. True, Shinola was born when its founders realized that the “made in Detroit” label was actually more attractive to customers than a “made in the USA” label. But where is the harm in that? Furthermore, the relative pragmatism of Shinola’s founding has been long since overshadowed by the rather extraordinary commitment of its founder; he has put over $100m of his own money into Shinola, which currently operates at a loss.
In a perfect world, Shinola would have sprung from the ground as a fully-formed, 100%-USA-content watchmaking facility. But to do that would have required far more than the $220m investment used to launch the company. There is no such thing as an American-made watch movement and there has not been one since Hamilton gave up on Stateside production decades ago. Not even the “USA” movement in the new Weiss is fully American — the hairspring and jewels are still Swiss, while the movement itself is basically a publc-domain copy of a Swiss ETA workhorse.
Like it or not, pretty much every new watchmaker to arrive in the past hundred years ago has relied on external suppliers. This includes Rolex; the first Rolexes were assembled from existing parts, and many of history’s most famous/valuable Rolexes use an ETA or Zenith movement. I don’t think it’s worthwhile to criticize Shinola for using Swiss movements in the first few years of its operation.
The use of Chinese cases and components is less admirable, but Shinola had to start somewhere and at least the parts involved are of more than acceptable quality. In the past year, the company has opened an in-house facility to make dials for its watches. Presumably, the cases will be next, as Shinola has repeatedly stated its intent to increase locally-sourced content wherever possible.
As fate would have it, yesterday I also attended Honda’s press conference where they celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the decision to build cars in the United States. Those early “USA-made” Accords were little more than knock-down kits. By 1995 or so, many of the major systems in the Accord and Civic were made in the United States. Today, more than ninety percent of Hondas sold in this country are made here and the average domestic content of those cars is well about seventy-five percent. The only major component that Honda doesn’t make here: manual transmissions, which to my personal sorrow are on their way to irrelevance anyway.
But none of the above will be any surprise to my readers (and there are a lot of you) with experience in production and product logistics. America lost its manufacturing in slow, gradual steps. Shinola is trying to reverse that at high speed. Part of that, somewhat ironically, involves hiring specialists from Switzerland and Taiwan to teach American workers how to assemble movements and make dials, the same way that Americans used to teach people in the “Third World” how to run a farm or build a factory.
We will have to go slowly. Last week, in a book review, I mentioned the Bhagavad-Gita: A man must go forward from where he stands. He cannot jump to the absolute; he must evolve to it. This is true for little things like weight loss and learning a foreign language, and it’s true for big scary things like mass manufacturing.
The problem, if there is one, is that much of modern society is highly acquainted with instant desire gratification, whether it comes in the form of “sign and drive” financing or Amazon Prime delivery or matching on Tinder. We stand on the shoulders of giants and interface with the world through abstractions. The least among us have become Eloi who depend on the unseen Morlocks. You press the gas pedal on your car and you trust that a computer will prevent the engine from stalling and a computer will keep the wheels from skidding and yet another computer will tell you where to make the next left turn. You order an absurdly cheap Lightning Deal on Amazon and you don’t think about the dismal factory where it was made or the concentrated hell of the distribution center where the workers don’t have time to use the bathroom or the UPS driver who has been working overtime for a year now.
I suspect that the future is going to strip us of these misapprehensions one painful bit at a time. We will all become more conscious of resources as they dwindle. Currencies will equalize, water will seek a common level. Your labor will be worth less; goods made elsewhere will cost more. The process by which capital has crushed labor, a process that began in Ned Ludd’s day but which will reach its apex with the autonomous restaurant and the expert-system lawyer program, must eventually reduce most of us to the status of bystanders.
In the meantime, however, most of us are still floating in a dreamland. And part of that dreamland involves ignoring the advice of the Gita. We are more than willing to “let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. This mindset is not the opposite of chabuduo; it’s a fellow-traveler that keeps you from doing anything because it’s not up to impossibly high standards. That mindset criticizes Shinola for not providing a $600 watch that is made from start to finish in the United States. It assumes the following choice:
- A $600 watch made entirely in the USA;
- A $600 Shinola that is not.
The problem is that the $600 American watch doesn’t exist. The real choices are:
- A $600 Swiss fashion watch that most likely includes a bunch of Asian components;
- A $600 Asian fashion watch;
- A $600 Shinola made by a company that employs hundreds of Americans, many of whom are learning skills that were long lost to people in this country.
Looked at it that way, the choice is obvious. For me, at least. I’m proud to wear my Shinola and to support the Americans who were involved in its design, manufacture, assembly, marketing, and retailing. If another company beats Shinola to the goal of a 100% American fashion watch, I’ll shop with them instead. Until then, I’ll heed Lord Krishna’s advice; I’ll work on evolving to the absolute. One day at a time, one hour, one minute, one second, marked by the Argonite-5030 movement, built in Detroit*.
* of Swiss components