Lakiska Raybon used to spend five days a week in one of Detroit’s dimly lit auto shops, where the air was filled with oil fumes and the clank and scream of machine tools stamping out car parts from solid metal blanks.
The 36-year-old mother of three still sits on a production line in “Motor City”, but since May 2012 she has found her work far more rewarding – because she now assembles timepieces in her own, pristine work space in the tranquil surroundings of a light-filled watch factory.
Mrs Raybon was among the first nine employees to be recruited by the fledgling Shinola dial name, which was created through a collaboration between Dallas-based Bedrock Manufacturing, the parent company, and Ronda, the Swiss watchmaker.
Taking the name of a long-defunct brand of US shoe polish, the company moved into the fifth floor of the old General Motors Argonaut building, where it occupies a 60,000 sq ft space.
“People often raise their eyebrows when they hear that we chose to start a new watch brand here, because they only think of the Detroit that is facing huge financial challenges and infrastructure problems,” says Steve Bock, Shinola’s chief executive and a former executive with Fossil watches.
“But the idea was to find a city steeped in craftsmanship and innovation, which Detroit clearly is. It is also somewhere with a future as a very different, perhaps smaller city – and hopefully Shinola will be an important part of that.”
From those original nine employees, Shinola’s watch division (it also makes bicycles, journals and leather goods at separate sites) has grown to a staff of 58 working on the production side.
The team is led by Stefan Mihoc, a master watchmaker who graduated from watchmaking school in his native Romania in 1985 before moving to Detroit in 1996, where he spent 10 years making tools, dies and punches in an automotive machine shop. After being laid off in 2006, he set up his own watch repair business before being tracked down by Shinola.
“It was very surprising to hear that someone wanted to set up a watch factory here in Detroit, but I jumped at the chance because it gave me the opportunity to do the work I trained for and that I really love,” says Mr Mihoc.
Since Shinola’s official launch at last year’s BaselWorld watch show, Mr Mihoc has overseen the production of about 50,000 watches costing between $648 and $1,160 apiece.
They are assembled on the Detroit production line using quartz movements shipped from Ronda in Switzerland, with Chinese cases, dials, hands and crystals and US-made leather straps. The target for 2014 is 150,000 units, and there is even talk of one day producing Detroit-made watches with mechanical movements.
“Right now, however, we are very much at the beginning,” says Mr Bock. “The key to success will be to learn slowly, not to rush in.”