Joel Jacobs was running a little-known yet successful leatherworks business in Largo called Roma Industries when he took a call two years ago from a start-up watch company called Shinola, based in Detroit, of all places. They were new to watchmaking, and eager, he said, and even wanted Jacobs to build a factory next to theirs.
Now Jacobs is pretty glad he took that call seriously. Shinola has turned into a runaway success story, selling luxury watches in the finest stores in America, and that's helped drive Roma's sales of watchbands up about 50 percent in just a few months.
“We've done quite well with Shinola,” Jacobs said with a wide smile, waving a hand toward the production floor — where he's added more than 30 artisan leatherworkers, with more likely to come. “They wanted the absolute finest, and that's what we do.”
Roma traces its roots back to 1905 in Massachusetts and had made leather watchbands for luxury brands like Movado and Hamilton, but the name Shinola only rang a bell as an old-time brand of shoeshine. It's where the phrase, “You don't know s--- from Shinola” came from — Shinola being a top-notch product.
When Jacobs first took the call, Shinola's project seemed almost outlandish. They wanted to try making all-American-made, high-precision watches in unused factory space in Detroit — of which there is a lot available. Shinola wanted American-made leather watchbands, too.
For Jacobs, the pieces soon came together when it became clear that Shinola was a brand being resurrected and backed by Tom Kartsotis, who founded a rather successful watch company called Fossil.
That fit perfectly with a powerful current in American consumer culture now: Handmade artisan craftsmanship made domestically and a somewhat defiant embrace of long-ago brands and methods. Everything from handmade suits to handmade hatchets. From typewriters to artisanal bourbons, cruiser-style bicycles and handlebar mustaches.
If Shinola wanted handmade leather watchbands, the list of potential providers was pretty short. “We're pretty much the only ones left doing that,” Jacobs said. “Most of the production has gone abroad.”
The Roma Industries factory is an unassuming brown building on Starkey Road across from Thornton's gas station and a few warehouses and distributors.
Inside, the factory is abuzz with activity and filled with the scent of fresh leather. The hides are organized and stacked by species, breed and color. There are shelves for alligator, crocodile, lizard, lamb, cow, horse and others. Twelve-foot high bookcases hold hundreds of spools of thread of every color imaginable, from basic brown to electric green. Craftspeople huddle over benches.
Roma buys leather for Shinola watches from a supplier in Chicago called Horween that dates back to 1905. Ironically, some of the finest leathers are “Cordovan,” an industry term for leather from a horse's backside. “That's horse butt,” Jacobs said, picking up two wedge-shaped pieces and putting them on his own backside to illustrate where they came from on the horse.
Despite the potential snickers, Cordovan tends to be smooth, uniform, durable and unblemished, Jacobs said, perfect for luxury shoes and watchbands. From a whole cow hide, Jacobs can make more than 100 to 150 watchbands, if craftspeople cut them properly, and there begins the toughest part of Roma's work.
Making a watchband from beginning to end can take more than 50 steps, each handled by a specialist. One person “skives” (thinning leather to a specific thickness). Another cuts the leather to shape with an industrial press. Another stacks them and paints the edges with a preservative coating. Another uses a 1940s-era Singer industrial sewing machine to stitch bands and linings together — carefully — no faster than one stitch every few seconds. Some stitching is done by hand, with thimbles and needle-nose pliers.
Though Jacobs needed to expand rapidly for Shinola, he said training someone to do just one step can take six months. Some of his best craftspeople have been handling leather for decades. One worker, Francisco Manges, has been at Roma for two decades and makes only prototypes and single-unit orders. “Sometimes, a watchmaker needs just one watch for a special customer,” Manges said, flipping through stacks of templates with thick, scarred fingers. “We can do that.”
For Shinola, Jacobs had a few prototypes made last spring. Meanwhile, Shinola hadn't even started selling watches but was becoming the talk of social media for a quirky, defiantly and proudly Detroit ethos. Shinola pre-sold 2,500 watches before it even started shipping in June last year and soon was selling watches through Barney's, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. It sold 45,000 total last year, and the goal for 2014 is 180,000 from boutiques in Detroit, New York, Chicago, Washington, Paris and Berlin.
Shinola is a breakout success, said Pam Danziger, founder of Unity Marketing, an independent consultant to the luxury retailing industry. “That is not just because they are made in the USA — but in today's consumer market that is a powerful draw,” she said. “The styles are distinctive, kind of retro-cool, even a little wonkie, and the prices are spot on. ... The fact is that nobody needs to wear a watch anymore — our cellphones keep better time — so watches are now a fashion statement, and Shinola sends a powerful message about the person wearing it.”
There's a powerful cultural current, she said, among luxury shoppers who could easily afford a Mercedes but choose to drive a Ford 150 instead because of its authenticity, ruggedness and almost defiant style, and that's helping quirky, American-made brands like Shinola take off.
As for Roma, “The toughest part,” Jacobs said, “is making sure all your existing customers are happy, too. If you just chase new customers, and neglect your existing ones, you're in trouble.” He's expanding somewhat into items like cigar cases and other leather goods, but he keeps close tabs on his longstanding lines of work, like metal watchbands and clasps for all sorts of luxury goods makers.
For now, Shinola remains on a growth tear. They're expanding into handmade bicycles, leather journals and quirky “curated” items like fine leather footballs and chess sets. And many items come with a largeprice tag. Watches can range from $500 for a basic model to $950 for a more sophisticated chronograph. Of the 48 different men's watches, 13 are sold out.