by Aaron Recksiek, CW21
This year, the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute has been making a concerted effort to highlight and promote the “American Spirit” of manufacturing watches, clocks, and related parts in the United States. As the 2016 AWCI Annual Convention is nearly upon us, this month we are highlighting the upcoming Keynote Speaker, Michael Kobold, and his brand, Kobold Expedition Tools, LLC.
Kobold started Kobold Expedition Tools, LLC, while a student at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was enrolled in their entrepreneurship program. However, the idea of having a business started when Kobold was just 16 years old. He was taken under the wing of Gerd-Ruediger Lang, owner and master watchmaker of Chronoswiss, who suggested to Kobold that he start his own watch company. Several years later and after a lot of hard work, Kobold produced the first model that carried the Kobold name, the Endurance A pilot’s watch.
In 2008, long before the renaissance of American watch manufacturing that we are currently in the midst of, Kobold gave an interview to Joe Thompson of WatchTime magazine about Kobold’s new “Spirit of America” watch. The watch had a case made entirely in the US as well as several movement components that were also made in the US, a feat that had not been accomplished in almost 40 years. In this interview, Kobold warned Thompson that the return of American watch manufacturing was only just beginning and that major publications like his should be paying more attention to what is going on with the development of brands like Kobold and RGM. The editor-in-chief of the most popular watch publication wasn’t buying it. In disbelief, Thompson asked Kobold to repeat his statement.
Around the same time, Kobold retained full-time legal counsel to try to work with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to establish new guidelines for the term “Made in the USA,” as it pertains to watchmaking. Kobold has always called for transparency amongst the American brands and has fought diligently to bring the “Made in the USA” requirements more in line with the Swiss brands. The current requirements put the American brands at a competitive disadvantage when taking into account that currently a watch bearing the “Swiss Made” title must only have 50% of the components, by value, made in Switzerland.
Fast forward to today, dozens of brands have risen from modest startups to legitimate forces within the industry. Much of the work that it took to carve out this hunger in the market was performed by Kobold and his team. Kobold can also take partial credit for the creation of the collector’s group that is exploding in popularity, the RedBar Crew. Co-founders Adam Craniotes and Dr. Jeffrey Jacques attended a lunch in 2007 hosted by Kobold in New York City and made the decision afterwards to meet every month to talk about their passion for collecting watches. Now the RedBar Crew has expanded to groups that meet monthly in dozens of cities around the country.
In 2006, Kobold was producing about 1,500 watches per year, with projections to increase production to 2,500. After the recession of 2008-2009 hit, business was extremely slow. Three years ago, Kobold made the decision to invest in infrastructure and put together the equipment, mainly a 5-axis CNC, and workshop capable of manufacturing cases out of solid blocks of material entirely in their own facility. So far, Kobold is the only modern American brand to achieve this distinction. With this significant transition, production has evolved and they are capable of producing an annual output of 800 watches. The movements contained inside are mostly Swiss, some models house the Enicar caliber 165, an exclusive among American brands, also used by Chronoswiss. Kobold Expedition Tools, LLC, consists of 10 staff members, all but one participating in the direct production of watches. Kobold also works with many independent artisans to sell their products through the Kobold website. The items are all handcrafted and consist of knives, pens, leather goods, as well as many other “expedition tools.”
Kobold is one of the few American watch brands that has been around long enough to start seeing their watches in need of service. With the transition of their case manufacturing, Kobold has admittedly fallen behind on the backlog of manufacturing and watch services that have come into their facility. This has been a recent criticism of the company among collector’s groups and online forums. Kobold is open to working with independent watchmakers to supply some components if watch owners prefer to have their watches serviced locally. However, Kobold will not ship crowns, dials, or case frames.
Even though setting up the in-house case manufacturing has been quite the undertaking, Kobold hasn’t slowed down on his passion for philanthropy with the Soarway Foundation he founded with explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes to help bring much-needed aid to Nepal. In August, Kobold was in Nepal to meet with new government officials about the Fire Truck Expedition. The Soarway Foundation has procured 12 American fire engines to donate to the Nepali people. It has been a long process with many setbacks, but the plan is finally on track. The fire trucks are scheduled to be transported to Nepal in December via Navy transport assistance, where they will drive them from India through the mountains to Nepal. Kobold had a watchmaking shop in Nepal, where former Sherpas manufactured some components and assembled watches to be sold as an exclusive “Made in Nepal” line of watches. The shop was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Kobold has no plans to rebuild the watchmaking shop and instead will focus on the manufacture of leather goods only.
When Kobold is not busy running his watch company or volunteering his time to help the people of Nepal, he is busy writing a book about longtime friend and brand ambassador, the actor James Gandolfini, who died in 2013.