Vortic: Reimagining the Custom Wristwatch

Sep 27 2016 | 7:24pm ET

Editor’s note: American watch manufacturer Vortic, which started out restoring antique pocket watch movements made during the U.S. railroad era and building them into custom wrist watches, has announced a new offer for its upcoming "Journeyman" line – a limited edition series of individually serial numbered watches sold on a first come, first serve basis.

Some American companies aren’t that American anymore.

It wasn’t too long ago that the trademark “Made in U.S.A.” actually meant something. 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 lower labor and manufacturing costs, favorable tax advantages and moved manufacturing overseas. 

In the process, they’re losing their red, white and blue heritage. This is especially true of the American watch industry. But one small Colorado company called Vortic is bringing back quality American-made watches.

“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. “[Millennials] 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.”

Vortic solves the problem and builds a 100% American-made watch by salvaging and restoring antique pocket watch movements made during the railroad era of the United States, and building those timepieces into custom wrist watches. Between the 1860s and 1930s, American-made pocket watches became synonymous with the railroad industry and the idea of being “on time.”

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 those of his competitors, such as Shinola, is that Vortic watches are truly an all-American brand. Vortic’s 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 (Detroit), [but] they don’t actually make the components here.” 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 watch cases, which is done through metal 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 build 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 is 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, and 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 great conversation starters. 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,” Custer says.

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, Colo.-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 to $2,495, the watches offer 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,” Custer says. “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.

But Custer and his team soon found that they were taking on more than they bargained for because building custom watches is hard to do on a large scale. In hopes of reaching a larger clientele, Vortic is kicking off a new round of watches titled the “Journeyman Series,” which is anticipated to be sold in retail stores.

Vortic has just announced “The Power Reserve” on www.vorticwatches.com. The firm says it will accept 10% deposits on the new watches until it reaches enough customers to build the first run of 100 pieces. The series will be limited edition and individually serial numbered on a first come, first serve basis.

Customers have a number of options for the Journeyman Series through the company’s Journeyman Watch Builder Application, which include unique dial options, hand options, leather strap colors and hardware finishes.

Custer notes that while the new series will take some time to establish themselves in retail stores, these customers will be first in line to receive the new watches and get the lowest serial numbers.

Vortic’s story is similar to Shinola’s. What once was a small 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 Vortic of today, which is selling truly “made in America” watches at a very prime price point.

(This article originally appeared in the October issue of Modern Trader)

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