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Bringing manufacturing back to Detroit, one watch at a time

(MoneyWatch) Detroit's old, abandoned car factories may seem frozen in time, but things are "ticking" again at a new factory: Last summer, watchmaker Shinola opened its factory in the Motor City with just 14 employees. Today, the company has 25 workers and is planning to hire 10 more in the next few months.

It's a sign of life in a city where the unemployment rate hovers above 10 percent and the landscape is dotted with 70,000 abandoned buildings. In a place full of harsh economic realities, Detroit is welcoming this watchmaker with open arms.

Shinola is the story of an American brand trying to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. Every watch is stamped with the label "built in Detroit" and has a unique number. Assembly line leader Willie Holley, a Detroit native, considers it a "real privilege to work for Shinola." Like others in the factory, they believe in the American-made mission. Shinola's target is to sell 45,000 timepieces in the $500 to $800 price range, with profit estimates of up to $36 million later this year.

"When you think of Detroit you think of the Motor City, as far as manufacturing goes," explained Holley. Assembly line worker Courtney Hayes said a watch factory in Detroit "is mind blowing. It shocked a lot of people." Detroit is not exactly known for manufacturing watches. That's why Shinola partnered with Ronda, a well-respected Swiss watchmaker. Olivier DeBoel, who previously worked for Ronda, is the company's head of manufacturing. "Shinola is new company but experience from Ronda," said DeBoel.

Courtney Hayes, 24, feels fortunate to find a job. She believes "there are jobs out there but not a lot of jobs you can actually live off of." The problem is that the jobs available are paying minimum wage and it's barely enough to get by. "Shinola pays well and you don't have to come in with special skills. No special watch making skills are required as long as you're willing to learn and [are] patient," said Hayes. Shinola trains you to assemble watches.

Holley takes "a lot of pride in everything here at Shinola, because everything is handmade."

Shinola will make an entrance at BaselWorld later this month, the biggest industry event of the year. It will be interesting to see how Shinola ("built in Detroit") watches goes up against the best watchmakers in the world.

Manufacturing in Detroit is making a comeback. According to the data provided by Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, manufacturing is up 30 percent to 223,000 jobs since the low of June 2009. And the unemployment rate has also recovered somewhat to 10.2 percent from 16.4 percent in June 2009. But there's still a ways to go.

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