The story of American watchmaking is long, complex, and undertold. It’s regrettably easy to consign the period of this country’s history as a global titan in watch production to an appendix in the greater history of watchmaking writ large. But the fact remains that the United States, in the 19th century and well into the 20th, produced millions of timepieces at an incredible pace, developing manufacturing technologies that would scale and improve both here and abroad. We don’t make watches at such a scale anymore, but there is a growing movement in the American watchmaking space that looks to that period as inspiration, and as a reminder that if it can happen once, it can happen again. The Vortic Watch Company is one of the key players in a new age of watchmaking in America, and they’ve just announced a major step forward that redefines what the company does, and where it might be heading in the future.
I have always thought of Vortic as one of the bedrock companies in the burgeoning microbrand space. They are a mainstay at Windup Watch Fairs, and carry many of the hallmarks of the most successful and well established microbrands. The watches are original and purely their own thing, their team is accessible, and the identity of the brand itself is well considered and established. But it would be incorrect to think of them as purely part of the pack, or even as part of an upper tier of the pack given their longevity and success. They occupy a truly unique niche that no other brand has even attempted to cover.
If you know anything about Vortic as it exists today, you probably know that their specialty is pocket watch conversions. The brand was born out of a question posed by co founders R.T. Custer and Tyler Wolfe: what can a watch company really make in America, today? Over the last decade, Vortic has been testing this idea, and the answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.
Vortic’s watches are made exclusively from parts salvaged from antique, often discarded, American pocket watches. The dials bear names like Hamilton, Waltham, and Elgin, because these are Hamiltons, Walthams, and Elgins that are sometimes around 100 years old, repurposed through Vortic’s own process as wrist watches that are unlike anything else on the market. These dials and movements were made in large American factories in mass quantities, but many decades before what we think of as modern manufacturing technologies would add a level of precision and finesse to the process that most watch lovers take for granted. The pocket watch dials and movements that Vortic sources have a charm and beauty (not to mention historical significance) that doesn’t come off a modern production line.
So, the dials and movements are American made, even if their original manufacture date might stretch back a century. Obviously, that’s only part of the equation. To make these watches wearable, Vortic has developed a case design that protects the historic antique components, and can be worn on the wrist. To do this, they’ve reverse engineered new components to the unique specs of American pocket watch manufacturers, and fabricate cases and other critical components in their Fort Collins, CO facility. The result is a wristwatch unlike any other. They are fairly large (most coming in at 47mm, with some approaching 50mm), use 12:00 crowns, and the cases have a contemporary, overbuilt aesthetic that makes for a fun contrast with what are often ornate, classically styled dials.
Above all, Vortic’s watches have a homemade quality to them, because they’re made one by one, by a small team, with every detail considered. Their headquarters in Fort Collins has all the trappings of a modern watch manufacturing facility, but with a vibe that is far less stuffy and more welcoming. Indeed, Vortic welcomes the public, and provides tours by appointment. Part of their mission is simply to get the word out that watch manufacturing is happening here.
Vortic’s latest project, the Colorado Watch Company, raises those stakes considerably. After years of making watches with vintage components, the watches made by Colorado Watch Company are brand new, and completely modern, though if you’ve been following Vortic for any length of time, you’ll see plenty of their DNA here. The first two Colorado Watch Company watches, the Field Watch and the GCT Watch, are available on Kickstarter today, beginning a campaign that Vortic hopes will raise $250,000 over the next month.
While I think it would be a mistake to say that the previous decade of pocket watch conversions was merely a dress rehearsal for Colorado Watch Company (speaking with Custer and Wolfe, it’s clear how much they genuinely care about preserving America’s watchmaking history, and that feels like a core Vortic value that will never change), there’s no doubt that the team is better positioned to launch the new brand after years of trial and error building their primary product. The watchmaking skills that Vortic has in-house are obviously quite valuable, and the company employs multiple watchmakers who work both at Vortic’s manufacturing facility in Fort Collins, and out of their own shops elsewhere. When R.T. showed me and a handful of other guests around his facility a few weeks ago, the watch nerd in me gravitated to the clean room where the watchmakers do their thing, and where a treasure trove of American watch history is kept in large, nondescript cabinets. Dials and movements, too many to count, can be found just about everywhere. Vortic purchases as many old movements as they can – even if they can’t be salvaged, they likely contain many parts that can be used as spares. And there are still treasures to be found in terms of dials as well. When I asked R.T. if he’s seen everything, or if there are still dial variants that come through after 10 years of doing this that surprise him, he said that a week doesn’t go by that he doesn’t see something new that gets him and the team excited.
The real action, though, as it pertains to Colorado Watch Company, happens on the other side of the building, in Vortic’s expansive machine room. Here, complex CNC machines cut cases to spec from solid blocks of steel, running nearly around the clock. But it’s not just cases. Vortic, and soon Colorado Watch Company, is making dials here, as well as smaller components like crowns, crown tubes, and even pin buckles for straps. There’s an element of enthusiasm for manufacturing that matches the way many of us feel about watches, and a sense that the team will be happy to try making just about anything, and that if they don’t know how to do it yet, they’ll figure it out. That’s how Vortic has evolved to where they are now – they made cases using 3-D printing technology in the company’s early days, a process they’ve since abandoned because of the costs associated with it. In the time since, they’ve become adept at a different type of manufacturing, and have now honed their skills to the point that they’re ready to scale with Colorado Watch Company.
The new watches, shown to us in a prototype state, are extremely promising, offer a character that is similar to what you get in a Vortic pocket watch conversion, but are orders of magnitude more wearable. It’s worth reiterating here that these are true prototypes, the watches were just off the production line at the time of our visit, so machine marks, material residue, and imprecise pad printing should all be assumed to be elements that will be refined. In fact, Vortic has invested in a Swiss pad printing machine for this project that was yet to be fully calibrated at the time of my tour. It’s strange to think of a watch brand that has been around for this long and manufactured so much, but now has to think about making dials for the very first time, but that comes with the territory of rehabbing vintage pocket watches.
The more approachable and least expensive of the new Colorado Watch Company offerings is the brand’s take on a classic. The Field Watch is a 40mm design, with a case in raw steel or coated in black DLC. The dial options at lauch for this watch are a crisp white with an enamel-like finish, and a striking metal dial with a traditional striped finish, resembling what you’d see on a bridge of an old pocket watch movement. The simple Colorado Watch Company logo, outlined with a red rectangle, is prominently and proudly displayed near the 12:00 position.
The GCT Watch is a little larger at 42mm, and is something of an homage to Vortic’s own Military Edition collection of watches, released in limited quantities every Veteran’s Day each year since 2019. The Military Editions are special as they’re made exclusively from pocket watches that were commissioned by the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, and have a distinctive “GCT” 24 hour dial. For the Colorado Watch Company’s take on the GCT, we still get the 12:00 crown that’s essential for Vortic’s pocket watch conversion, but the dial now works on a 12 hour scale, and of course the whole thing is considerably smaller. The exposed screws on the dial are functional, connecting the thick metal dial to the movement below it.
The cases themselves have a similar profile to the standard Vortic case, but sit much more comfortably on the wrist. Seeing them in the metal, even in a prototype state, it was clear that these cases are going to have broad appeal to people like me, who have admired Vortic through the years for what they do to highlight American watchmaking history, but find the watches themselves just a little too large to wear comfortably. Now, there’s another option, and all the better that it takes full advantage of everything the brand has learned through years of building pocket watch conversions.
The Colorado Watch Company watches use automatic movements assembled in Arizona by Fine Timepiece Solutions, a firm that offers final assembly and quality assurance services to watch brands at a large scale. It’s important to note that the components of the FTS movements are sourced internationally, while assembly occurs in Fountain Hills, AZ. Vortic has always been transparent when it comes to where various components that are not produced in-house are sourced, and that’s no different with Colorado Watch Company. According to Vortic, 87% percent of the total cost of the watch originates in the United States, with 48% of the cost coming from Colorado, and 23% from Arizona. Vortic notes that they’ve sourced other components for these watches from American vendors as well, including rubber straps, which are made in Minnesota, and the sapphire crystals, which are made in New Hampshire.
That’s an impressive amount of manufacturing to be done in the United States, and Vortic is convinced that they’ve found the right recipe to scale the Colorado Watch Company project to meet their ambitious goals. They’ve elected to do an initial round of funding via Kickstarter in order to get feedback from the watch enthusiast community, and to give their supporters access in the same way they did for their first pocket watch conversions years ago. The plan is for these watches to come in at around the $1,000 mark, with the Field Watch carrying a retail price of $995, and a pre-order price of $795 for the first 100 sales, and $895 for the reset of the campaign. The GCT Watch is a little more expensive, with a retail price of $1,395, and an early-bird price of $1,195 for the first 100 units, and $1,295 via Kickstarter for that first month.
A big part of this launch, if you haven’t gathered already, is designed to put a focus on Vortic’s manufacturing capabilities, which they are, rightfully, extremely proud of. The tour I took in Fort Collins is open to anyone, and R.T. reiterated multiple times during my visit that he hopes people will come to Fort Collins to see his operation, be inspired, and understand that watchmaking can flourish in the United States again. That might mean something different now than it did at the turn of the 20th century, but the Colorado Watch Company would seem to prove that it’s possible to produce affordable, mechanical watches with components that largely originate in the United States.
The Colorado Watch Company Kickstarter campaign is live right now, and can be accessed through the Vortic website here.
Photos by Zach Kazan unless noted. Header image courtesy Vortic.
Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.