How Shinola Won, Lost and Reclaimed the Wrists of Watch Fans

After a run-in with the FTC and a string of bad press, the Detroit-based watchmaker has quietly regained its credibility by releasing some of the best timepieces around

August 11, 2021 7:53 am
The Shinola Ice Monster, an automatic watch, encased in a block of ice. It's just one timepiece that's heralded the brand's comeback.
The Ice Monster, featuring a brushed titanium case, is just one of the many standouts Shinola has released in the last five years.

Have you heard the story of Shinola? It doesn’t get more American than this: facing insurmountable odds, the company pulled itself up by its bootstraps, kept its nose to the grindstone and eventually found success and adoring fans.

No, we’re not talking about its origin story, the one where the watchmaker sold itself as a beacon for Detroit and American manufacturing wrapped up in a heritage name that was swiped from an 1800s shoe polish brand. We’re talking about Shinola’s comeback, where, after running afoul of the Federal Trade Commission in 2016 and inspiring a slew of bad press that decried the brand as “fake” and “phony,” the company quietly went back to the work of developing new wristwatches, eventually ascending to the status they hold today, as the watchmaker arguably having the most fun and producing some of the most desirable timepieces in their class. 

Take, for example, the Canfield Speedway, the brand’s first automatic chronograph. The polychromatic-liveried watch was heralded as their “most technically advanced watch to date” when it was unveiled in May, and watch lovers responded by snapping up the 250-piece run in less than 24 hours. Then there’s the Monster Collection, a series of spectacular dive watches that began with the limited-edition Lake Erie model in 2017, the company’s first-ever automatic watch; today the Monster line has gained enough clout that men’s retailer Huckberry started stocking them this month. And finally there’s Sea Creatures, a funky extension of the quartz-powered Detrola line, a watch that won over the folks at Hodinkee, the kind of people who normally scoff at anything not mechanical. 

One person who’s had a hand in all of these successes, and weathered the ups and downs at Shinola, is Greg Verras. The 40-year-old watch designer, who started at the company just a few months before it launched in 2011, has been the design director for watches since 2019. 

He was there when, in 2016, the FTC told Shinola to stop using the phrase “Where American is Made,” noting that the watches are made largely of imported materials, and thus should not have labels that evoke the “Made in America” sentiment (even if they’re assembled in Detroit); during the review, Shinola also began adding the phrase “Swiss and Imported Parts” alongside their “Built in Detroit” slogan. He was also there when, around the time of the ruling, a number of unflattering portrayals of the company were released, including an Inc. feature that called it “America’s most authentic fake brand.” After that, the herd mentality took over and Shinola, a company championed by regular Americans and presidents alike, appeared to be on the outs.

The Shinola Canfield Speedway, the watch brand's first automatic chronograph. The timepiece sold out in less than 24 hours.
The Canfield Speedway sold out in less than 24 hours. A second version is coming this September.

“The chip on the shoulder was existing already I think in a lot of ways,” Verras tells InsideHook, when asked about whether he felt the need to prove Shinola’s worth after the FTC fallout. “It added an additional chip on the shoulder, motivation to keep going forward and dig our heels in and just keep making beautiful stuff that people love — and that everything will be OK.” 

Based solely on design — in a watch market that is dominated by the milquetoast utility of Apple and other smartwatches on accessible end and the we can release anything and people will still buy it mentality of high-end makers like Rolex and Patek Phillipe — Shinola is more than OK. They’re thriving.

The current Shinola lineup, which sits alongside the brand’s leather goods, bikes, eyewear and other products, runs the gamut between affordable $395 quartz models and mechanically respectable $1,600 automatics with coveted materials like titanium and bronze (as well as the aforementioned limited-edition models, which ran as high as $2,995 for the Canfield Speedway). What brings them all together is that, at least among the watches that have been released since 2016, they each possess an eye-catching quality that makes you want to strap them on every morning and makes even horological novices ask, “Where’d you get that?”

Don’t take my word for it, listen to actor Sterling K. Brown. When the This Is Us star was interviewed by Hodinkee this year, he said as much about his Shinola Runwell, calling it a “statement” watch that is also his “go-to easygoing choice.” Isn’t that what most watch fans are looking for, after all? Something that isn’t precious but is still worth wearing in the age of smartphones? My personal favorite in that regard is something called The Duck.

The Shinola Sea Creatures, a version of the quartz-powered Detrola watch that is made partially of ocean-bound plastic.
The case and strap of the Sea Creatures sport watch, part of the Detrola line, is made from ocean-bound plastic waste.

According to Verras, Shinola’s outlook on watchmaking has never changed with the times, good or bad. He says it’s always been about two things: “creating quality products” and “creating opportunity and jobs and job training and believing in manufacturing in Detroit.” As for the company’s especially fruitful period of the last five years, he partially attributes that to the release of the first automatic in 2017.

“We definitely had to up our game when we’re speaking to that consumer who is more discerning and going to notice more of the details that we put into it,” he says of the first Monster watch. “We knew there were going to be a lot of eyeballs on it. With that pressure, we definitely took our time. It took two or three years to do that first one … Then once you set that bar you can’t go backwards. So I think maybe not something consciously noticed, but we always try to do better than our last project.”

It sounds simple enough, cliche even. But for Shinola, that one-up formula has actually panned out thus far under Verras’s direction. 

As for what the future holds, Verras says there will be continued focus on the Runwell, the brand’s flagship watch that now comes with an automatic movement, though he notes that quartz remains “super important” to the company. 

“And more and more story continues to be important for us,” he adds. 

He’s talking about the story behind the watches. As we’ve seen from the first decade of Shinola, it really is the end product, not the behind-the-scenes turmoil, that will define the future of the company.

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