Building a Watch Company: The Evolution of our American Made Mechanical

Building a Watch Company: The Evolution of our American Made Mechanical

“Progress is impossible without change.” – George Bernard Shaw

If there’s one inspirational quote we can get behind at Custer and Wolfe, it’s definitely this one. 

Since our inception in 2013, changes have been critical to our growth at Vortic Watch Company. We’ve changed the core concept of our brand, watch designs, and locations — just to name a few.

vortic watch on display

When we launched our first Kickstarter campaign and started building watches, we had zero experience. In a way, that was our superpower as we developed our products. There was no “watchmaking experience box” to frame our ideas, which made it possible for us to push our creative thinking skills and learn how to make something spectacular along the way.

Our initial prototype for the campaign looked like a watch and functioned as a watch, but it was more like “wearable art” than anything. The case was glued together and 3D-printed, which didn’t make for a practical watch. However, it earned the backing we needed to get off the ground.

vortic watch version 1

Our watchmaking knowledge and product have grown exponentially over the years, and we’re incredibly proud of the product we create. Still, we believe there’s always room for improvement.

Join us as we reminisce about the progression of our American Artisan Series watches and talk about future design plans. 

You don’t want to miss it!

V1: The Watch That Started It All

Between launching our Kickstarter campaign at the end of 2013 and shipping our first watch at the end of 2015, we tested and retested our watches to create a minimum viable product for our backers.

Despite our minimal knowledge about what it takes to build a watch that is functional, waterproof, and dustproof, we think the final result turned out pretty great.

However, there were definitely areas that needed significant upgrades, including the watch case itself.

vortic watch case version 1

“It was a two-piece sandwich case over top of each other, with two screws on either side. [We] were putting silicone sealant in there to make it water resistant-ish — we used a lot of marine products. The cases were 3D printed [with] X1 material, which is a mixture of bronze and steel, and [they] would rust over time.” – R.T. Custer

The X1 material created a cool-looking case because it came with a built-in patina, but it made the manufacturing process incredibly difficult. The 3D-printed metal was porous, which created challenges in machining processes down the line.

Drilling and tapping the holes for screws that sandwiched that case together was particularly challenging. We only had a drill press from Harbor Freight and the determination to make it work — but that didn’t mean it worked well.

In addition to material issues, we also ran into delays with building the watches themselves:

“We had to order hundreds and hundreds of parts just to make five watches because all of our orders were custom orders. … And the inserts that went inside were also 3D printed. We would literally measure up every single movement and print a one-off insert for that case.” – Tyler Wolfe

custom vortic watch parts

After doing our best with the V1 American Artisan Series and our machinist telling us we needed to buy a milling machine, we realized it was time to make a change. That’s when we purchased our HAAS Mini Mill and started developing our current design.

V2: Machining Our Current American Artisan Series

We really learned from our mistakes during the transition from V1 to V2 of the American Artisan Series.

One key feature was ditching the old, two-piece design. The patina and aesthetic from the X1 material were unique to those cases, but that’s about all they had going for them. The original cases were heavy, hard to machine and assemble, and were barely waterproof.

The V2 watches were a paradigm shift at Vortic. One significant upgrade was a one-piece case with a threaded back that allowed us to create a significantly better seal. But just because we improved on the initial product didn’t mean we were ready to stop making improvements.

vortic watch version 2

“V2 has changed significantly from when we started making it to where we are now, which kind of illustrates that you’re never done — [you] can always improve. A major inflection point, not only in that product, but in the business as a whole was purchasing the mini mill.” – Tyler Wolfe

Purchasing a reliable CNC machine revolutionized the way we could build watches. Even though we had little experience with the machines, our HAAS mini mill had a significant impact right away. 

“I used a lot of YouTube that year, but once we had that machine, it really opened up our eyes to how much better everything could be. That’s when we started machining our inserts out of Delrin, and we were making them accurate enough that an Elgin 345 insert would work for more than one movement. [Quality] just went up so significantly.” – Tyler Wolfe

In addition to increasing the quality, we could also make incremental improvements on the fly. Instead of waiting weeks, months, or even years for parts prototype designs, we could tweak different aspects of the watch on a model and machine it by the end of the day.

Ultimately, the purchase of our HAAS Mini Mill made it possible for Vortic to grow into the brand it is today. It allowed us to make those incremental improvements, like transitioning from a threaded case back to a cam-lock system that perfectly aligned the back.

But just because we have an outstanding product now doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with staying that way. In fact, the future of our American Artisan Series is just around the corner.

V3: The Future of the American Artisan Series

After nearly nine years in the watch-making game, it’s safe to say that we’ve got a much better idea of what makes things tick. 

We have grown exponentially during the time between our Kickstarter campaign and now. And with the move to our new facility, it’s time to give our American Artisan Series an overhaul. We currently have two new machines waiting to be installed that will open the door to manufacturing every part inside the watch, and we have other excellent design improvements in mind.

SLM Imperial Machine and Tool - printed cases on printed layout

“There’s quite a few things we’ve [got in store] for V3 — we’ve truly redesigned it from the ground up. We took everything we’ve learned [from machining] over the past seven years, applied it, and said, ‘There’s no restrictions.’” – Tyler Wolfe

One of the most significant reasons we’re going through the effort of completely reinventing our watches is that we’ve run into limitations with the V2. We have worked hard to continually improve the design, and it’s about as perfect as it can get.

But we believe that our watches can be better.

“There were a couple of things that I wanted to do that would include pretty major redesigns. So at that point I kind of just went for broke and said, ‘We’re just gonna redesign everything and make this perfect.’” – Tyler Wolfe

The most outstanding improvement between our current and future models is case design. Instead of working with a one-piece design and removable back, we’re developing a three-piece case. The center will house the watch movements securely, and both the bezel and watch back will be removable.

“We made the whole case tube assembly removable. So, if you have an issue with the case tube, you don’t have to completely take the watch apart to fix it — you just remove the case tube. If there’s a crystal issue, you just take the bezel off, fix the crystal, then put the bezel back on.” – Tyler Wolfe

With the V2, we had to disassemble the entire watch to fix problems, but the modular design of the V3 will give us easier access for repairs. Additionally, this feature gives us the freedom to adjust cases to fit different dial thicknesses easily, making the new watches easier to build on-demand and more customizable.

Ultimately, our V3 American Artisan Series will make our American-made watches even better and continue to carry on our mission to preserve history through our one-of-a-kind watches.

Learn More About Our American-Made Watches from Custer & Wolfe

We’re more than excited about everything happening at Vortic Watch Company right now. There is a ton going on, from moving into our new facility to buying new machines to redesigning our American Artisan Series.

If you’re as fired up about it as we are, subscribe to our YouTube channel and sign up for the Vortic Email Newsletter. Both resources will keep you in the loop about the progress on the new location, watch design updates, and everything in between.

Since the first run of our American Artisan Series, we’ve expanded our offerings to two more lines of watches — the Military Edition and Railroad Edition. And if you have an antique watch you’re interested in repurposing, we also custom-convert watches for customers.

Thanks for setting aside the time today to hang out with us while we talk shop and supporting us at Vortic. We’ve got a passion for our watches and enjoy sharing the stories behind them with you.

Our supporters keep the hands turning and the lights on, and we couldn’t do it without you all!

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