Building a Watch Company - The Challenges of Small-Scale Manufacturing

Building a Watch Company - The Challenges of Small-Scale Manufacturing

What do you think are some of the most rewarding aspects of running a small manufacturing business?

Perhaps "being your own boss" or "taking pride in your work" come to mind. Although these are both significant benefits, for us, one of the most rewarding aspects is getting the opportunity to showcase our products. Recently, we had the chance to do just that at the 2022 Windup Watch Fair in New York City, and watching people's faces light up when they held our watches was such an awesome experience. 

Of course, running an American-made watch business isn't always smooth sailing. When running a small business, it's your responsibility to take ownership of your problems and strive to overcome them. Recently, we had a time-consuming and costly small-scale manufacturing issue that set us behind schedule with our manufacturing goals.  

In this entry of Custer & Wolfe: Building a Watch Company, you'll learn about our recent challenges as well as our time at the 2022 NYC Windup Watch Fair, frequently asked questions about our watches, and key machining updates. 

The 2022 NYC Windup Watch Fair

Right before we filmed this episode of Custer & Wolfe, we were fortunate enough to participate in the 2022 Windup Watch Fair in New York City, where we had the opportunity to meet other watch enthusiasts, manufacturers, and some of our customers. 

It was an incredibly flattering experience because so many people appreciated our work and were blown away by our American-made watches. 

"I'm just in the shop a lot, so … I [usually] don't have direct contact with customers. … It was just really cool to see people interact with the watches [and] respond to [them]. [It] just reminds me [of] why we do this. … [The experience gave me] those happy inner feelings." - Tyler Wolfe

Tyler and Kyle at Watch Windup fair 2022

photo cred 📸 @wornandwound

We also met several of our existing customers and people who were interested in purchasing our products, some of whom even came to the event to hold our breathtaking watches:

"Several people drove for hours, [and] a couple of people flew to New York just to see us. There [were] 59 other watch brands in that room, but they came so that they could hold a Vortic watch in person and then probably make a decision on whether or not they wanna buy one. … It's so cool to see them hold it for the first time." - R.T. Custer

If you were one of the people who came to see us or stopped by to say "hi," we're so appreciative of your support. We had a great time meeting all of you, and we're looking forward to seeing you again at a future event. 

In addition to meeting some of our customers, we also had the chance to market our brand and participate in an informative event. R.T. served on a panel alongside Michael Pearson from Zodiac Watches and Don Cochrane from Vertex Watches to discuss how modern watch companies can honor the Great American Watch Companies and the rich history of American watch manufacturing:

"[The Zodiac and Vertex] brands are a hundred years old, and so we talked about heritage brands and how we honor the old brands, and I didn't know much about those companies. That was educational for me too." - R.T. Custer

The event was truly a special opportunity for us. For those who were unable to make it, we encourage you to stop by a future Windup Watch Fair, and we also have a video on YouTube chronicling our time at the event. 

FAQ About Vortic Watches 

We received a couple of questions at the 2022 Windup Watch Fair that we've come to know and expect from the general public. We're always eager to answer these questions, but we wanted to clear up any confusion or misconceptions people may have about our pocket watches and wristwatch conversion process. Here are two questions that we often receive from our customers and watch enthusiasts:

Do You Touch Up the Dial?

Many of our pocket watches look incredibly new, causing many people to believe that we put our antique watches through some rigorous cleaning or restoration process before installing them within our stunning cases. This is simply not the case

These dials are incredibly fragile, and if we put them through some meticulous restoration process, we would likely damage them. We clean these dials but only very lightly:

"Even the cleaning that we do is so light — we don't even scrub it. … We want to preserve how it looks now, and, honestly, they're very easy to damage. We've done that before; we've damaged dials. So the cleaning that we do is very subtle. The guys might hit it with a Q-tip and maybe a little bit of alcohol but almost nothing." - Tyler Wolfe

The cleaning process also depends on the dial's material. For example, white enamel dials require a bit of dusting, and we remove the dirt and dust from any hairline cracks they may have sustained through the years. 

Our watches with metal dials are hot-selling items and usually look practically spotless, but that's just a natural characteristic of the dial rather than any sort of treatment. Additionally, some of our hundred-year-old pocket watches have never actually been used, so they have fewer signs of aging. 

vortic watch dial types

We pride ourselves on delivering these antique pocket watches as we found them, so we wouldn't want to jeopardize that by trying to make them look brand new. People usually appreciate the imperfections of these antique watches:

"Some of those dials are basically brand new and have never been used, … [but] oftentimes, you find that people [like] the ones that look more used than the ones that look new because it tells more of a story. It says somebody was carrying this every day. Somebody used this watch. And that kind of lets your imagination run wild." - Tyler Wolfe

Our customers aren't interested in immaculate pocket watches — they appreciate the flaws and signs of aging that make their watches special. 

Where Do You Find Antique Pocket Watches?

R.T. is no stranger to this question. He's received it thousands of times, and around half of the people who come by our booth at events inquire about it. 

The answer is "A lot of places." The exact answer will differ depending on the unique pocket watch in question. 

"I answer it differently every time because it [depends on] the context. It's like, for this particular watch, we probably got it from a pawn shop because we never got the case. And it's been different over time. We've found new sources, [and] we find new sources all the time." - R.T. Custer

vortic watches dials

We buy these antique pocket watches wherever we can, so we'll purchase from people who find pocket watches as part of an estate or another source. Pawn shops and other antique sellers will stumble upon antique pocket watches, and we're happy to buy them. 

We're always thrilled to obtain more of these remarkable pieces of history and bring them new life through our stunning wristwatches

Taking Radical Ownership When Making Mistakes

Our watchmaking manufacturing has gone fairly smoothly recently, and we've made consistent progress toward finishing our building and delivering more high-quality watches. 

That said, we did discover an issue when working on our small batches of Military Edition watches. Our original goal was to complete 30 to 40 of these watches before they went on sale on November 11th, but we ran into a problem with our bezels and crystals that thwarted the plan.

The first hiccup related to the patina process. Although our watches' patinas look breathtaking, we found that the patina process is more time-consuming than we initially anticipated, to say the least. This slowed our production of military edition watches, but it was well worth it to deliver such high-quality craftsmanship:

"The patina, though, … is absolutely worth it. They're doing a lot more hand-finishing on the Military Edition this year, and the patina on both [the standard Military Edition and special edition] cases, I think, is spectacular. And when we were in New York, the special edition … was the star of the show — it's just so cool." - R.T. Custer

You can check out our remarkable special edition military watch on our website

In addition to this unanticipated delay involving the watch's patina, we ran into a serious issue regarding our bezels and crystals. 

We purchased our Military Edition domed crystals from White's Crystals in San Francisco — and we're incredibly pleased with William White's work — but we made the mistake of testing the biggest crystal in the batch we received and didn't check others. This meant that although the prototype's patch pressure worked perfectly, we ran into problems with our first batch.

"Since we were using the same crystals and the same gaskets and the same everything as last year, [we didn't think it would be a problem]. We made a small adjustment from last year and moved forward, [but it] turns out the first 30 or so bezels that we made [were] bad. And there's no use in sitting here worrying about it. You remake them." - Tyler Wolfe

crystal lifestyle watch

We made a significant mistake in the development of our bezels, and this is indicative of a common problem with producing products in small batches rather than mass production — it's challenging to find a reliable statistical sample. However, mistakes happen, and we're always prepared to fix issues and guarantee the quality of our watches. 

"That's exactly why we do quality assurance testing on every single watch because when we find something like that, we're like, 'Oh, okay, pause, figure out what it was, and then … remake those parts.'" - R.T. Custer

This problem threw a wrench in our plans of having 30 to 40 Military Edition watches ready by Veterans Day, but we took ownership of our mistake and faced the problem head-on to make things right.  

That's one crucial part of running a manufacturing business that's important to understand — the buck stops with you, and there's no one else to blame when you make a mistake. You need to be able to accept radical ownership for your missteps, meaning that you take full responsibility.   

Fortunately, when you take ownership of your mistakes, you can learn and grow from them to improve your small business.

Machining Updates at Vortic Watch Company

Even though we've faced delays in Military Edition watch production, we've also made some exciting headway with our machines, including our five-axis DMU 50 machine. When we first got this machine up and running, we used it to create some of our fixtures and prototype parts, but now we're starting to create some watch parts:

"The DMU has ... picked up a lot of that fixturing work that the mini mill [was] doing, so … [we’re] making stuff for getting ahead on fixturing and stuff for the new products that are coming out because each requires its own set of custom fixturing. And then, really, the first watch part we've made on it is the railroad bezels. And they're cool because the whole machine is turning on its side and doing each flute one at a time as the whole table's rotating." - Tyler Wolfe

If you want to see some of the breathtaking bezels that Tyler and the team have created using the DMU machine, you can check out our Boston Railroad 002. Unfortunately, we've already sold this remarkable watch, but you can stay up-to-date with our newly-available Railroad Edition watches by signing up for our newsletter on our website

Another exciting machining update that we're happy to share involves our fantastic new FOBA laser engraving machine. This machine offers such crisp, clear markings that we can now include a great deal of text on the back of our watches that we never could before. 

"The engraving on the military case back is insane. … I gotta admit, when [Tyler] first showed me the case back on the computer, I was like, 'That's a lot of text.' But seeing it here, … I think people are just gonna sit and just read the back of their watch[es]." - R.T. Custer

In the inscription, we included details about our Military Edition watch's history and that the Hamilton Watch Company originally manufactured them for the US Army Air Corps. 

Our detailed inscriptions also hearken back to a time when watch manufacturers engraved production information on the back of wrist and pocket watches:

"They put all of that information on the back of the watch because [with] those pocket watches and wristwatches back then, you couldn't take the box and papers in a manual with you into the field or traveling, and so [manufacturers] just engraved everything they had to know on the back of the watch." - R.T. Custer

vortic watch engraving

This FOBA laser engraver is an incredibly useful addition to our machining arsenal, and you can check out more of its stunning results by viewing this year's Military Edition watch

Keep Up-to-Date with Custer & Wolfe and Vortic Watch Company

We're so grateful to have participated in the 2022 Windup Watch Fair in New York City, and we're excited to connect with more of our customers and other watch enthusiasts as we continue expanding our American watch manufacturing company. 

If you're interested in learning more about running a watch company and remaining informed about company news, you can subscribe to our Custer & Wolfe YouTube channel. You can also check us out on Instagram and sign up for our email newsletter

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