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Posted on January 16, 2014

Shinola“Detroit factory” might not be the term that leaps to mind when you enter Shinola’s gleaming,

60,000-square-foot headquarters. With its lines of pristine desks, bright lighting and lab-coated workers, it feels more like a sophisticated research facility than a manufacturing plant. That’s in part because Shinola is doing a different type of manufacturing than Detroit is known for.

The workers aren’t dealing in cars or heavy machinery, but the microscopic parts of watch movements. In 2011, the company set up shop in the city’s historic Argonaut Building, which once housed the General Motors Research Laboratory and GM’s real estate arm, before falling into disuse for a decade. Workers assemble quality watches entirely on site, in two stages—first the 50- to 100-piece movements, then the timepieces themselves.

“It’s busy but quiet,” says Creative Director Daniel Caudill, who has the final word on the design of every Shinola product—not only watches, but bicycles, baseballs, journals, even cola.

He should know: Caudill’s desk looks out directly onto the factory floor, separated only by a clear glass wall. There are virtually no divisions between the different components of the company, from sales to manufacturing to e-commerce.

And “busy” might be an understatement. The company’s watches are a hit with both casual and serious watch collectors, leading it to open a flagship store in

New York City, in addition to distribution through Barney’s, Neiman Marcus and other high-end shops. To meet demand, Shinola’s 70 manufacturing employees (out of a total of 174 at the company) carefully craft about 50,000 watches a year.

But while Shinola points to a potential future for Detroit manufacturing, much of its style and mission is about the past. The Shinola name itself was bought from a Depression-era brand, and the decision to put down roots in Motor City was no accident.

“The base in Detroit is very important,” says CEO Steve Bock. “It provides the brand with a feeling that appeals to the future, but is based on a proud heritage of manufacturing.”

Shinola’s not alone in recognizing the city’s significance in the public imagination. Twitter opened an office in the city 2012, while Eventbrite and Zipcar announced plans to open permanent offices there at the end of 2013.

Read the rest at Rhapsody.

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