My 15 Minutes With Shinola

Before I began writing about the watch industry in 2000, as a fledgling reporter for a business-to-business jewelry trade website, I could name three watch brands off the top of my head: Rolex, Movado, and TAG-Heuer—not that any of them were in my budget. I was more of a Kenneth Cole kind of girl, which meant that I faced a steep learning curve during those first few months on the job.

I became an eager student of the watch trade, studying its nuances—from the collector craze for complications to the shortage of watchmakers that threatened to squelch the mechanical watchmaking renaissance that had recently gotten underway—as if I was preparing for an exam. Soon enough, I was walking the Geneva and Basel trade fairs and visiting watch factories in the quaint villages of the Jura like a seasoned pro. After countless trips to Switzerland over the past dozen years, however, I began to feel a little blasé about the industry: So many Swiss watches, so little time.

This past Baselworld was different. For starters, I had an appointment with an American watch brand. If you haven’t heard about Shinola, the Detroit-based brand that is now manufacturing quartz watches using parts provided by the Swiss movement maker Ronda, I urge you to check it out. We covered the story in JCK’s April “Made in the USA” supplement, but before I wrote the piece, I hadn’t actually seen and handled the timepieces.

When I arrived at the Shinola booth for my appointment, I admired the good-looking displays, which perfectly captured the industrial chic vibe of vintage Americana. Shinola’s quartz watches, assembled in Detroit, were showcased on clean wood blocks paired with Shinola leather goods and Shinola bicycles, also manufactured in Motor City.

A tall man with floppy hair and a casual, friendly vibe that immediately suggested he was American (as opposed to European) approached. It took a few minutes for me to put two and two together and realize this was Tom Kartsotis, the founder of Fossil Watches and the force behind Shinola. As luck would have it, he was going to lead my appointment.

Tom is famously press-phobic—he made it clear that he wasn’t to be quoted—so I can’t replay the session in its entirety. But suffice it to say that he was instantly likeable—good-humored and down-to-earth. We ascended the stairs and slipped into a private room, where I listened to the Shinola story—from the moment in the Dallas boardroom when, in the midst of a brainstorming session, someone made an offhand remark about “not knowing shit from Shinola,” and the name stuck to the video presentation that features Steve Martin playing the banjo, providing the pitch-perfect introduction to the brand.

It was finally time to see the product. Out came Shinola’s first watch, The Runwell, a classic round style on a brown leather strap in the vein of American railroad watches of the 19th century: simple and sturdy. Shinola’s classic lightning bolt logo appears on the dial, above the words Shinola, Argonite 1069, Detroit.

Then came three brand-new models making their debut in Basel. The Brakeman is a vintage-inspired, cushion-shaped model with a 47 mm case and The Birdy a classic round style with a sassy double strap. The third and final watch, a fetching ladies timepiece with a beguiling cushion-shaped case on an ultrathin strap, stood out, but I was told it had yet to be named.

Tom asked if I had any suggestions, but before I could answer, he asked my last name.

“Gomelsky,” I replied.

“The Gomelsky,” he declared.

“That rolls right off your tongue,” I said, playing along with what I assumed was a short-lived joke.

The only people who’d ever commented on my surname were Israeli basketball fans—they recognized it because a Russian relative of mine was a famous basketball coach and the Moscow team he coached, CSKA, played in the same European league as the Israeli team. Beyond that, however, the only story I ever shared about my last name was that it originated in a town called Gomel, in present-day Belarus, not far from the Ukrainian border.

“What about The Victoria?” I offered.

We shared another laugh, I packed up my notebook, and carried on with my day. Later that night, I ran into Gabbi, who works with The Promotion Factory (Shinola’s NYC-based public relations team), and she mentioned that “The Gomelsky” was a topic of conversation in the booth for some time after I’d left.

Ha! I thought. So the joke had legs.

By the time I got back to New York City the following week, I’d forgotten all about it—until Gabbi sent me a text saying that Tom was, well, serious. The following week, when I was back home in L.A., I received a call from Shinola. The lawyer had checked it out and there didn’t appear to be any legal issues. They simply wanted to know if I was cool with it.

“Of course!” was my unequivocal answer. My family would get such a kick out of it. Still, I was dubious. I half-expected Tom himself to call me to say the joke was on me (“Psych!”).

Last week, when I started seeing reports about The Gomelsky appear online—like this piece for Forbes.com by my friend and colleague Laurie Kahle—I understood that it was really happening.

But I still didn’t quite understand: Why would an American watch brand name a ladies model after a Russian-born trade journalist?

Not that I was quibbling. I was—I am—honored, delighted, and proud to be associated with a brand that’s taking the American-made movement in such innovative directions. I shared the news on Facebook and received more comments and likes than I had for any other post, ever. (My friend Mike had this to say: “Shinola, I have been eying their bikes for months. Nice work!”)

Perhaps one key to understanding Tom’s rationale was the sheer word-of-mouth potential that comes with naming a model after a watch industry insider. But that didn’t entirely satisfy me. The more I think about it, the more I suspect the larger reason has to do with authenticity. During my appointment in Basel, the conversation with Tom unfolded easily and without an agenda. He spoke about his desire to bring watchmaking back to America and I listened. It helped that I was already a believer, having covered the American-made watch angle for the International Herald Tribune.

When Tom showed me the unnamed ladies model, there was nothing contrived about the discussion that followed—especially not the laughter. It was an unscripted moment during an unscripted meeting, and I can only assume that it resonated with him. (In fact, I imagine the Shinola name itself came about this way: an offhand remark followed by a hearty laugh, and, finally, an “aha moment.”)

This authentic quality permeates the entire brand, from the Argonite movement that ticks inside America’s first (and only) quartz-powered watches of the 21st century to the Shinola packaging, which is stylish and yet totally accessible—like the best parts of America itself.

Finally, Shinola—and its newest model, The Gomelsky—is an excellent story. You can bet I’ll be sharing it for years to come.