How Watches Are Made: Vortic Watch Co. (Fort Collins, Colorado)

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Fort Collins is Colorado’s fourth most populous city, but you wouldn’t know it from the sleepy street where Vortic Watch Co. runs its operation. Situated in a small business park on North Link Lane, Vortic’s workshop, which the company moved to in 2017, measures about 2,000 square feet and is already nearly filled to the brim with machinery, equipment, workbenches, and people. I commented about the company’s growth, and R.T. Custer, one of Vortic’s co-founders, replied, “We’ve come a really long way since the golf course and Kickstarter.”Founded by R.T. Custer and Tyler Wolfe, Vortic was first hatched on the golf course in 2013 . The pair met the year before when they both worked at College Works Painting. They would get together often for a few rounds of golf at Penn State, where they were both attending at the time, and they’d discuss what they wanted to do next. They were also tried-and-true watch nerds, so eventually they came to an obvious conclusion: they wanted to make a watch. But that’s not all. Not content to make things too easy, they added another layer of difficulty to an already-difficult task: they wanted to make a fully American-made watch. The next step was figuring out how.

R.T. studied industrial engineering at Penn State. That’s where he discovered metal 3D-printing. “I worked with my professors to really understand the potential of the process” he explains.

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Tyler Wolfe
R.T. Custer

After successfully experimenting with metal 3D-printing, R.T. and Tyler realized that the process could most certainly be applied to producing watch cases—it was simply a matter of figuring out what sorts of watches made the most sense with the unique, somewhat rustic look of a 3D-printed case. Enter vintage pocket watches.

A recent haul of dials and movements.

R.T. learned that there was a relatively large cache of vintage American-made pocket watches in existence, many of which were being scrapped for the gold or silver in their cases. We’re talking beautiful dials and hands and robust, high-end movements being tossed to the side for a bit of precious metal. A real shame, and R.T. and Tyler thought so, too.

And that’s when the two worlds came together. “No one was doing this. No one was 3D-printing cases for these great old dials and movements.” And so Vortic Watch Co. was born.

The American Artisan Series

The American Artisan Series, the pocket watch conversion which remains to this day the bedrock of the company, launched on Kickstarter in 2014. The campaign was a success, and the pair got to work on producing the watches. In 2015, the two put together 100 watches and sent them out to their eager backers. The feedback was resoundingly positive. “We were actually one of the first to 3D-print a metal consumer product” explains Tyler. “It was really exciting.”

3D-printed case.
The American Artisan Series.

The first watches were made out of R.T.’s garage. Tyler, also a Pennsylvania native, moved out to Colorado where R.T. was living at the time to give Vortic an honest try. Tyler worked full-time, and R.T. worked a day job and spent nights and weekends raising money to fund the equipment and inventory. R.T. came onboard full-time in 2016.Sourcing the movements was a challenge, but the team quickly built up a reliable network. “We’ve partnered with pawn shops and estate buyers from across the country to find these great movements, dials, and hands.” But they can’t use all of the movements that come in. R.T explains, “Unfortunately, we can only use about 1 in 5 of the ones we find. Some are too far gone. And there’s so many different sizes, so we had to standardize what we do. We cherry pick the best ones.”

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The Railroad Edition

When R.T. and Tyler first started Vortic, they wanted to build a case around railroad-grade pocket watch movements. What makes these movements distinct is that they were lever set, as opposed to pendant set where you can just pull the crown out to set the time. Railroad-grade pocket watches had a lever actuator around the one o’clock position, and to access this lever one would have to remove the bezel and crystal, exposing the dial to the elements in the process. This was a safety mechanism so that railroad personnel 100 years ago couldn’t accidentally change the time.

A Rockford railroad-grade pocket watch.

Of course, a modern watch with an exposed dial is far from ideal, so the Vortic team had to solve that engineering problem.

“We wanted to make a watch using these movements, but it was a huge engineering headache,” admits Tyler. “When we decided that we finally wanted to tackle this and when we realized how complex it would be, we knew that we had to go a step beyond 3D-printing cases.” The cases of the Railroad Edition are CNC-milled out of solid blocks of titanium.

Vortic started out using Sherline manual machines, which were effective but extremely time consuming. After a series of funding in 2017, Vortic acquired two CNC mills: a Haas Super Mini Mill and a Haas VM2. Tyler, who is today responsible for most of the engineering at Vortic, still uses the old Sherline manual machines for making one-off parts. The Mini Mill is mostly used for R&D and special projects, and the VM2 is used for production.

The Railroad Edition cases are milled from solid blocks of titanium.
The bezel comes on and off via a cam lock system.

From sourcing tools and figuring tool paths to understanding how to best work with titanium, milling cases presented new challenges for Tyler. There was a lot of troubleshooting, iteration, and, as Tyler explains it, “thinking outside the box. …They would throw out a crazy idea, and I would say ‘I guess I can try to make that, and we’ll see if it works.’”

Designing a new lever, which is also manufactured in house, for the Railroad Edition watches.

The final product was well-worth the effort. “The result is a really high-end case that’s been precision-milled. Honestly, this was the watch we always wanted to make.”

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The Future

From just two friends working out of a garage, Vortic has grown into a highly-capable, six-person team. In addition to R.T. and Tyler, there’s Thayne (Operations Manager), Haley (Customer Service Manager), and Mike and Joshua (both Watch Builders). Vortic also works with five contract watchmakers from Dallas, Boston, Seattle, Boise, and Washington D.C., and Darren Sqaushic is their contract web developer and photographer.So what’s next?

“We’re working on a new line that will feature fully modern watches that we’ll design from the ground-up. We’re calling it the Journeyman Series,” explains R.T. “We’ll make them in small-batches, hand-crafted, made just for you. All the reasons people buy our current products, but in a fully modern product.”

“I definitely think of us as a manufacturing company” explains Tyler. “And as we progress further, I want to invest more in that. That way, we can make what we want to make, and do it in-house, which will allow us to produce the best product for our customers, be it a watch or even something else.”

Words by Ilya Ryvin

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