The Kobold Watch Company recently moved from Pittsburgh to Pennsylvania’s Amish country. In this article from our archives, we tell the story behind Kobold’s U.S.-made Spirit of America watch, and how the brand ended up in the Steel City in the first place.
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.
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 $3,250, 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.”
In 2006, yet another of Kobold’s celebrity acquaintances — he has cultivated quite a few — called him for a favor. Conservative radio and TV pundit Glenn Beck had the idea to raise money for victims of the September 11 terror attacks and asked Kobold if he would supply a watch to sell for the fundraising effort. Fortunately, Kobold had the perfect project waiting in the wings. “I had registered the name ‘Spirit of America’ many years ago,” he says. “I asked [Beck] if he’d like a whole line of watches with that name instead of just one. He jumped at it. I decided then that I couldn’t just put out a Swiss-made watch, call it Spirit of America and sell it for a 9/11 charity. It’s too gimmicky. So that was the first Kobold watch assembled entirely in the United States — which was a big deal, because we had just started our in-house repair facilities here in Pittsburgh.” That first Spirit of America model was a limited series, sold basically at cost; Kobold claims he neither made nor wanted any profit on it. Several early models worn by celebrities were auctioned off, with proceeds donated to the United Services Organization of New York City. Still, Kobold didn’t believe there would be a demand for more. “I never thought it would become a huge seller because it’s not a typical Kobold watch, in the sense that it doesn’t have a particular function,” he says. “It doesn’t even have a seconds hand. But it was a huge success. That’s when I realized the ‘Swiss Made’ on the dial isn’t always necessary. I’ve wanted to make an American-made watch for a while, but I thought the market wasn’t ready for it. I was wrong. So I decided to accelerate the progress we were already making.” That progress, which I witnessed at the Kobold facilities in a still-industrial corner of Pittsburgh’s Robinson Township, now includes the construction of the watch case, whose pieces are now 100 percent made in the U.S.A., including the crown, crown tubes, lug bars and screws. The stainless steel used in the case construction is made from raw materials mined in Western Pennsylvania. The domed sapphire crystal is grown, cut and polished here as well.
The movement in the Spirit of America Automatic, called K.2651, uses as its base an old German-made movement called a Forster 197, the remaining stocks of which are now exclusive to Kobold. (The movements were made by the Forster company to put into its line of watches, which the company has now discontinued in favor of producing medical instruments.) At Kobold’s Pittsburgh workshop, the Forsters are stripped down to their essentials and new parts are installed. Screws, gears and wheels are among the American-made components. The screws are even blued in the traditional heat-treatment process rather than the chemical method used today by some larger watch companies. Kobold estimates that as much as 89 percent of the movement is now American-made. He points out an amusing irony: “A Swiss Made watch only has to be 50 percent Swiss made — not in terms of components but in terms of value. I’m very proud of the fact that at 87 percent, this watch is more American-made than some Swiss watches are Swiss-made.” Kobold derives a large portion of that pride from the rotors, one of the most difficult pieces to make in any watch movement, which he considers his small workshop’s crowning achievement. He points out that his team of mostly American watchmakers had no diagrams with which to work, only the existing Forster movements as prototypes. One miscalculation in the construction, as one of those watchmakers points out during my visit, and they could end up with something lopsided or so heavy that it snaps off of the movement. “We basically had to copy the existing rotor and make it better,” says Kobold. All the work of decorating and finishing the rotor — engine-turning on a rose engine, gold plating, adding perlage and engraving — is done in the workshop, some of it on antique machines that Kobold’s clever crew must carefully maintain in working order.
Adjacent to the workshop — which also serves as the company’s watch repair center — is the small office building where watches are designed and the business of selling and marketing the watches takes place. In a display case near the entrance, visitors will find an assortment of significant Kobold watches from the company’s first decade, including one once owned by actor Gary Sinise and a model used for the taping of an episode of “24.” On the walls are photos of the brand’s celebrity fans and endorsers, among them Fiennes; Cousteau; the late “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, with whom Kobold was close friends; and members of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, alongside framed pop art works by Pittsburgh-based artist Burton Morris (Morris designed the “Statue of Liberty” dial for the Spirit of America Lady Liberty watch, a unique piece). All of them can be ordered directly from the company’s website, www.koboldwatches.com. Kobold says that his profit margins on the SOA are small; he also acknowledges, despite his progress toward an American-made base caliber, he is not interested thus far in expanding the SOA line to more complicated watches. (Update: This year, Kobold moved its headquarters to the town of Volant, PA in the heart of the state’s northwestern Amish country.) “One of the things about it that works is the simplicity,” he says. While giving a nod to a fellow Pennsylvania watchmaker — Roland G. Murphy of RGM in Lancaster County, who has also contributed to the rebirth of American horology with his U.S.-made movement, Caliber 801 — Michael Kobold has embraced his own role as an ambassador of American craftsmanship, and an unabashed cheerleader for the resurgence of U.S.-made products. “Look at what’s happened here in Pittsburgh, at all the jobs lost to outsourcing,” he says. “I hope that because of what we and RGM have done — that ingenuity factor — there will be other individuals, other companies in the luxury goods business that will follow. We can say to the world, we don’t need to go to Asia. We don’t need to go to Europe. We can do this right here in the United States.” SPIRIT OF AMERICA AUTOMATIC 44 SPECS: Manufacturer: Kobold Watch Company, 1801 Parkway View Drive, Pittsburgh, PA, 15205, U.S.A. Reference number: KD 637111 Functions: Hours, minutes Movement: K.2651, based on Forster 197, automatic; 21 jewels; 46-hour power reserve; Glucydur balance; Nivarox 1 balance spring; blued screws (heat treated); guilloché decoration Case: Surgical-grade 316L stainless steel, brushed and sandblasted surfaces; domed synthetic sapphire crystal with nonreflective treatment on inside; screw-locked caseback; water-resistant to 10 ATM; antimagnetic; shock-resistant Strap and clasp: Calfskin leather strap with stainless-steel pronged buckle Dimensions: Diameter = 44.35 mm, height = 13.55 mm Price: $3,250
This article was originally posted on July 4, 2012 and has been updated with new information.