In this special HODINKEE feature of Inside The Manufacture, I will recount a four day experience that completely changed my perspective on the world's most important watch maker – the time that I got to spend inside all four of Rolex's actual production facilities in Switzerland. I had many ideas of what I would see, and while some were accurate, others could not have been further from the truth. Below, you'll hear and see what it is like to go inside Rolex in a way that few have, or will ever get to experience. This is inside Rolex, like you've never seen it before. ... Rolex is one of the few watch manufactures that has two completely separate but totally equal strengths – an amazing history of innovation (truly – like, not one bought with naming rights), and world-class manufacturing capabilities today.
Five years ago, after growing Fossil into a $2 billion accessories behemoth, Kartsotis hatched Shinola, a high-end watch brand famous, mostly, for being manufactured in Detroit. ... This is just the latest postmodern layer Kartsotis has baked into Shinola, which is no longer an experiment in manufacturing authenticity, but a fast-growing business. "The coolest brand in America"--as recently ordained by Adweek--can now be found in boutiques from Paris to Singapore. Shinola retail stores have surfaced in more than a dozen cities; plans are to almost triple that by late 2017. The brand isn't slowing down for anyone--not even the Federal Trade Commission. In November, the government agency went after Shinola's "Built in Detroit" tagline, accusing the company of embellishing its made-in-America claims. ... Kartsotis has spent his career finding creative ways to boost the value of ordinary products. Born to a Greek American family, he dropped out of Texas A&M, discovering his entrepreneurial flair as a ticket scalper. In his early 20s, he ventured to Asia with a plan to import cheap toys, until he was tipped off that the market for moderately priced Asian-made watches was growing. With $200,000 that he'd earned scalping, Kartsotis opened Overseas Products International, an importer of watches from Hong Kong. But it wasn't until Kartsotis came across Life and Look magazines from the 1950s that Overseas morphed into the brand called Fossil.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch universe. The fair’s organisers claimed 150,000 paying visitors and 1,800 brands spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition space. Admission cost 60 Swiss francs a day (almost £50) ... The show was a celebration of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that go into making objects of beauty and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist merely because they can, like animal acts at a circus. ... These days, no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time – or a watch from any country. The time displayed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the world’s big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The export value of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the east Asia. But it is up 62.9% compared with six years ago. In 2015 the world bought 28.1m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs. ... the most complicated limited-edition watches sell for £1m or more. These watches have a waiting list, as the world only contains so many squinting master craftsmen who can make them, and even they haven’t found a way to extend the day beyond 24 hours. ... Exclusivity is a key to desirability. ... In 2014, the Swiss exported 29m watches. This was only 1.7% of all watches bought globally, but 58% of their value. ... To classify as Swiss Made, a watch must a) have a Swiss movement (that is, the basic mechanism consisting of cogs and springs that make the watch tick) b) have this movement incorporated in a case that is made within Switzerland and c) be checked and certified in Switzerland.