Our salute to American watchmaking continues with a profile of Pittsburgh-based Kobold Watch Company and the story behind its U.S.-made Spirit of America watch, which brand founder Michael Kobold proudly launched in 2008. Click here to read the story and see photos of the watch. While it is still known far and wide as the “Steel City,” it has been quite a while since Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has lived up to its historic reputation as one of America’s leading manufacturing centers. The city’s industrial factories and mills, with their soot-belching smokestacks, are mostly memories; in their place stand gleaming skyscrapers housing financial services firms, technology companies and healthcare providers. A glance at the nation’s shrinking gross domestic product, one component of its challenging economic climate, reveals Pittsburgh to be emblematic of a larger concern: namely, an overall decline in American-made goods. However, one small watch company is determined to bring some of that manufacturing clout back, along with the national pride that comes with it, even if only on a small scale. While the making of mechanical watches in Pittsburgh will hardly make anyone forget the glory days of U.S. Steel, it is a significant breakthrough for the watch business, and a particular point of pride for Michael Kobold, the founder of Kobold Watch Company. In business since 1998, Kobold had planned since 2006 to create a watch for his company’s 10th anniversary that he could truly say was “made in the U.S.A.” In 2008, that watch finally became a reality — the aptly named Spirit of America, which instantly became the flagship of the Kobold collection. The Spirit of America Automatic, which sells for $5,650, is by far the most minimalist of Kobold’s portfolio, which is known for its tough, rugged chronographs and GMT models. It’s a two-handed watch, with simple indices (no numerals) and a stationary bezel. Its case is made of steel rather than gold, platinum or any of the now-trendy materials finding their way into watch cases; there is no silicon or carbon fiber or aluminum-lithium alloy anywhere to be found on the outside or inside of the watch. Instead, what makes the Spirit of America (SOA) a triumph — and one of the most popular Kobolds out there — is the fact that fully 87 percent of its parts are manufactured in the United States, including 100 percent of its case. “To me, it was a matter of prestige and pride,” says Kobold. “I wanted to put the U.S. back on the map again — even in a small way — in the world of watchmaking.” Kobold’s attachment to the U.S. — and specifically Pittsburgh — was forged early on. Born in Germany, he began spending summers in “Steeltown” at age 10, around the time his father started his industrial manufacturing company, Kobold Instruments, there. His love of watches followed very shortly thereafter. At 12, Kobold decided he was going to work in the watch business. By 16, he was writing letters to the big companies in Switzerland, and a few in Germany, offering his services as an unpaid intern while still in high school. Only one took him up on the offer: Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, the German founder of Chronoswiss. Kobold could not have imagined a more ideal mentor than Lang, who had long been his idol. On weekends and breaks throughout high school, Kobold would travel to Lang’s Munich headquarters to train in all aspects of watchmaking and the nuts and bolts of running a watch company. It was Lang who encouraged his precocious young student to start his own watch business. Shortly thereafter, while attending Pittsburgh’s prestigious Carnegie-Mellon University to pursue a degree in economics, that’s exactly what Kobold did. “I had my name put on the dials because I couldn’t find another one that wasn’t already copyrighted or trademarked,” he admits. “I was just a college kid. It was just a hobby, a school project to receive credit in my entrepreneurship class. I never thought it would turn into a real business.” Immediately upon his graduation, he devoted his full time to building his young company, at first contacting outside suppliers for the parts and having the watches assembled in Switzerland, even while he ran the company — one of the first direct-to-customer, Web-based watch companies — out of his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh.
As his first major decision, Kobold needed to establish his brand’s identity. Whereas some watch brands were known for pilots’ watches or divers’ watches or high-complication styles, Kobold wanted his creations to be classically sporty but unique in their look and functions. Eventually, it was a famous friend who provided the direction: Ranulph Fiennes, the celebrated explorer and climber of Mount Everest. He suggested Kobold focus on “explorers’ watches” — models that were tough enough to withstand harsh conditions and that incorporated functions tailored to specific adventurous pursuits. Fiennes himself contributed ideas to one of Kobold’s most popular watches conceived in this mode: the Polar Surveyor Chronograph. Introduced in 2002, it is the first wristwatch to combine local time, a GMT/UTC-based second time zone, an AM/PM indicator, a date function and a chronograph. The reasons for this array were logical: polar explorers such as Fiennes often face situations such as whiteouts, which can disorient them from knowing the time of day; or will spend entire seasons in either perpetual sunlight or perpetual darkness, which can make them lose track of both day and time. Kobold also outfitted the movement — a modified ETA 7750, renamed K.751 — with a special lubricant that will not freeze, and hence hinder its operation, in extreme temperatures. Fiennes, the brand’s first “celebrity” ambassador, remains involved with promoting the brand today. In fact, Kobold even accompanied him on an expedition to climb Mount Everest while wearing a prototype Spirit of America watch.
Kobold consulted professional and military divers for the design of another model, the Soarway Diver. The watch has a simple, functional design and meets the technical standards of the German Industrial Standards Bureau (DIN), which regulates diving equipment. Another well-known explorer in Kobold’s Rolodex, Philippe Cousteau, son of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, assisted the company in the development of the Large Soarway Diver, a limited-edition model (150 numbered pieces) designed in the style of a 1960s-era divers’ watch, with a deep black dial, a water-resistance of 500 meters (1,650 feet) and an internal soft-iron case to protect the movement from magnetic interference. The largest watch in the Kobold lineup, with a 45.85-mm diameter, it includes two straps, one of calfskin leather and the other of the waterproof nylon preferred by professional divers. Proceeds from the watches’ sales benefit Cousteau’s Echo Earth International group, devoted to environmental issues. As the Large Soarway Diver sells out, Kobold is replacing it in the collection with a non-limited model, the new Arctic Diver. “It’s not just a divers’ watch,” he says of the model’s toughness. “It’s for people who swim among icebergs.” The Soarway Diver is also the model that has lent its name to Kobold’s signature case shape. The Soarway case, now used for a majority of the company’s watches, is notable for its notched sides, oversized screw-down crown with crown guards, and, in its steel version, three surface finishes: brushed, polished, and satin-finished.
If you’ve ever watched Fox TV’s prime-time action drama “24,” you may have caught a glimpse of another popular Kobold watch, the Phantom Tactical Chronograph. An early forerunner of the current hot trend of all-black watches, the Phantom made its national debut on the wrist of series star Kiefer Sutherland, in his role as tough-as-nails counterterrorist operative Jack Bauer. As with Kobold’s other models, he solicited design input from the people for whom he envisioned it — military and law enforcement professionals, including some Green Berets. It’s got a black stainless-steel case and bracelet, which make it an ideal “stealth” watch for nighttime missions. The case has three layers of black PVD (physical vapor deposit) for extreme scratch-resistance. The countdown minutes scale on the bezel is useful for planning forced entries and other time-sensitive operations. The red-lacquered chronograph hands are a boon to snipers and sharpshooters, whose timing often needs to be accurate down to the exact second. According to Kobold, the watch has indeed found its intended audience. “At first, when I saw the design, I thought, ‘Who’s going to want a completely black watch?’” he muses. “Now it’s been out quite a few years and it’s very popular. It’s been embraced by just about every law-enforcement agency in the country — CIA, SWAT teams, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines; we got a special order from the LAPD. It’s become one of our leader models.” Continue to page 2…