Fort Collins, Colorado
Industry: Lifestyle & Consumer
Co-founder R.T. Custer resurrects timepieces from another era, breathing life into the domestic watchmaking industry.
Custer was golfing with Vortic co-founder Tyler Wolfe in 2013 when the pair were in college. "Tyler and I had the idea on the Penn State golf course," says Custer, who was studying industrial engineering at the time, with a special focus on 3D metal printing. Wolfe was a math major, he adds, who "really loved watches" and restored old pocket watches as a hobby.
They rebuilt their first watch with the help of a 3D printer on campus. "It took six months to make that first one," says Custer. After graduating, the duo relocated to Colorado to launch the company with a Kickstarter campaign.
About 500 watches later, the company sources old pocket watches from estate sales and antique shops, restores them, and adds a 3D-printed titanium case, leather strap, and hand-forged buckle to make them wrist-ready.
"We never find two [watches] that are the same," says Custer. "Each pocket watch movement has about 200 parts." Restoration involves taking the movement apart, oiling and cleaning the parts, and reassembly, and "praying that it works when you put it together," says Custer. "If not, you do it all over again."
He adds, "A good watchmaker can restore an old antique pocket watch in two to three hours. That's if everything goes perfectly, which is maybe 25 percent of the time." He likens it to a car's engine: "If one screw is loose, it can ruin everything," he says. "And some pocket watches can't be restored."
Several parts are made in-house, including the watch dials, or faces. "We're bringing back some of the original manufacturing processes," says Custer. "Nobody makes the dials anymore, so we figured how to do it from old films." The process involves dusting a copper water with powdered glass, baking it in a kiln, and pounding it flat, and repeating "over and over again," says Custer.
The company also works with a number of partners across the U.S. to produce parts, including Swiss-O-Matic in Montrose, Colorado, which makes screws and other miniscule parts for Vortic. "It took us a while to find Claude [Rocchia, Swiss-O-Matic's owner]," says Custer. "He's pretty much the best in the U.S. at what he does."
After most machine shops no-bid the job, Claude welcomed them with open arms. "His grandfather was a watchmaker in France," says Custer.
Dubbed the American Artisan Series, the watches sell for $1,000 to $5,000. The company pre-sold 50 watches with the initial Kickstarter campaign, then another 80 in 2015, 250 in 2016. The target for 2017 is 400 watches, with the company launching a number of new product lines to catalyze the growth.
By summer, Vortic will launch the Journeyman Series, a modern watch ($3,000) with movements made in California; the American Artisan Series for Her, using smaller pocket watches mounted on necklaces; and the Railroad Series ($3,000 to $5,000), akin to the American Artisan with "very rare watches that kept time for the railroad," says Custer.
Challenges: "The workforce is a challenge," says Custer, 26. "I can buy a CNC machine. That's easy. Finding someone that's qualified to operate that machine is extremely difficult."
"There are hardly any Millennials who want to get into technical trades," he adds. "The average age of a professionally trained watchmaker in the United States is over 60."
Opportunities: "Private-label watches and product development are opportunities," says Custer. "We've been approached by a lot of companies. . . . We're working on a few things we have NDAs on."
Vortic makes the official watch for Red Rocks Amphitheatre that's sold to fans and bestowed upon musicians who are inducted into the legendary venue's Performers Hall of Fame. Jackson Browne and Jimmy Buffett were the first recipients in 2016. "They were both really stoked about it," says Custer.
Needs: "We're in the process of raising some capital right now," says Custer. "We'll buy some machines once we raise the capital. We're just starting with those conversations now." He says he's looking to acquire a CNC mill and lathe as well as a better laser engraver and kiln.