Sunday, July 3, 2016

Made in America

With the latest toughening up of the FTC's view of what made in America really means, we are now at an interesting juncture for the industry and in particular those smaller brands clamoring for our attention.

One recent development that may (and then again, may not) warrant true attention is the announcement that Weiss  has pipped everyone else to the post and will be premiering their new movement tomorrow (July 4th).  They further assert that theirs will be the first American made movement that will have "scalable" production.  Which opens up a truly indigestible can of worms in the form of a semantic debate not since seen since President Clinton challenged us to clearly define what the meaning of "is" is... I suspect that the word scalable might suffer a similar fate.

Let's start with some basics - Cameron Weiss by all accounts is an extremely gifted watch maker who, with the help of local artisans has managed to design, fabricate and finish cases, dials and other watch necessities save the movement from US (and oftentimes California based) suppliers.  Not only that, he had managed to do this while taking Unitas movements and disassembling them, and reassembling them in his "studio".  We later found out thanks to the Los Angeles Times that the studio may have been his apartment -

And he's doing it from his modest one-bedroom Beverly Hills apartment, where the dining room table has given way to a workbench and the espresso machine shares kitchen countertop space with the tools of Weiss' decidedly anachronistic trade.
And in fairness, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that at least as of October 2014, that was the state of affairs for Weiss.  A watch that was (save for the movement) an American made timekeeper.  And most of us were quite okay with that because with the exception of old stock (often re-purposed pocket watch) movements, this was as close as you were going to get.  It was, however, a bit of a challenge for people like me writing about the brand after going down to visit the set-up in LA, being instead taken to a restaurant (an admittedly very good one), shown several watches, shown boutiques where the watches were sold, then never hearing much further.  In other words, no way to see where the watches were made, where the cases were made, etc.  And it was only a few weeks later when the above referenced article in the LA Times appeared that my story for a magazine got spiked because there were now far too many questions that hadn't been answered and that I was made to understand by the PR / Marketing company representing Weiss - would not be answered in any depth.  So I moved on.  Clearly Tempus Fugit and watch specific magazines are not the LA Times, but as we sort of specialize in watch coverage, we can't take everything at face value based on what we've been told over a Cobb salad in a trendy restaurant with heavily tattooed serving staff.

Now by all accounts, Weiss is doing quite well, and available in a fairly impressive number of retail outlets.  The price points are extremely aggressive and they offer a great opportunity for someone wanting a truly good looking (and by all accounts) high quality watch for a fair price.  But then we get back into the question of believing, and knowing.   And to this end some of us have been struggling with the basic economics of what a Weiss watch costs in retail as it relates to how much a Weiss watch would cost to make, and therefore be able to be sold at a price point above "break even" to retailers.

Let's take some basic presumptions - and I want to stress that word presumption.  This cannot and should not be confused with fact.  But with very little to go on beyond that, this is all we have to work with.

The Weiss basic model is what is referred to as the Standard Issue Field Watch.  it is available with either a white or black dial.  It comes with a canvas strap reputed to be made in the US, so we will presume it is Hadley Roma, but clearly it could be another vendor.  Go to either Weiss online or a retail partner like, say STAG Provisions and the price is indicated as $950 US.

Courtesy of Weiss

Consider the cost of components - 
We of course have no real way of knowing, but we have been led to understand that although the design work is Mr. Weiss's own, the actual work of creating the cases is something that is done by a local craftsman.  And fair enough, you can't do everything yourself.  But this is obviously going to cost something.  Now I of course have no idea what that cost really is, and with these types of things it is always a numbers game - the larger the number being made, the lower the cost.  But I am hard-pressed to believe that when you factor in the cost of the steel, the set-up, the CNC operator, the finish work, etc., that in the US and particularly the LA area you will find someone who will produce that case for you for a price lower than $75 per unit.  Again, maybe I am wrong, and will be happy to know that there is someone out there willing to bring in a case at a lower price.  The same for dials, the same for other items.  And if the movement is as advertised, it is the Unitas 6497-1 / ETA 6497-1.

Courtesy of Weiss
So if you go to Star Time Supply in Texas, you would get a movement that looked quite a bit rougher for the low, low price of $199.  Obviously it is safe to assume that Weiss would be able to find movements for a better price, but to presume that they would be finding them for under a buck twenty-five in the quality finish that the Weiss Field Watch displays is pretty doubtful.  But let's play Devil's Advocate and assume that they can and did.  And we'll say the movement was $124.

Let's assume that all of the finishing work was done by Weiss to achieve the look and finish level of the movement that can be seen in this entry level $950 watch.  Let's assume that the cost of the case was ridiculously low - say $50, the cost of the dial (not labor, but materials and printing) maybe came in around $10.  Strap the same.  Crown, crystals, hands and other sundry items when combined with the case and movement somehow snuck in for a combined total of $237.50 US.  Now we haven't gotten in to the cost of the packaging and other things, but let's just lump those in anyway.  Now the reason why I am sticking at that total of $237.50 is again based on a presumption.  And that presumption is that the retail partner is going to want those watches at "Keystone".  Keystone represents 50% of what the total retail price is going to be - i.e. $475 US.  It is possible that the retail partner might actually only get them for a 60/40 split and that would mean more "meat on the bone" for Weiss.  Also, Weiss does of course sell direct, but with the push to be in Barney's as well as numerous other "hipster" boutiques, it seems somewhat safe to assume that they are focusing on retail.

Okay, so $237.50 per watch seems pretty good!  Let's see, if you sell 10 per week, that's $2,375!  Multiply that by four and you've got $9,500!  And map that out over the course of the year and you're looking at $114,000!  Pretty good!  Except...
Although Mr. Weiss is the "Head Watchmaker" there are others working on these watches as well.  They will need to be paid.  It is also likely (I hope) that Weiss is selling more than 10 watches per week as it seems like a great watch for the money and people seem to be responding to it.  

In addition to the others working on the watches, there is also the agency that has been retained not only for publicity, and marketing but also to establish retail footholds and to some extent act as a bit of a management firm.  I am willing to bet that they are expecting a cut of that $237.50 per watch as well.  After all, Cobb salads aren't free ; )

In fairness, if all is as said, then Weiss has done something that nobody else out there has managed to do - bring in a US made watch (withe the exception of the movement and hands) for a price that is far below what anyone else is able to even consider.  And if so, then Weiss have clearly built a better mousetrap and deserve all of the accolades that will follow.

And now we flash forward to tomorrow where the new movement will be revealed.  Because somehow in between everything else that is being done, Mr. Weiss has found the time to create a new movement that is entirely constructed in the US with all components being from here (the US) save the jewels  and hairspring which are reportedly from Switzerland.  I have received A LOT of questions and comments from readers, collectors, watch makers and watch brand owners that are probably best not listed here owing to their nature.  I will say that I hope that what is revealed, the pricing and the actual provenance and performance of the new movement merit the extremely high level of hype, pomp and circumstance that the people speaking on behalf of the Weiss brand have been putting out.  It's been spread a bit thick.  It's important to promote yourself, but just as was said of Shinola, Weiss is not single-handedly establishing or even saving watch making in the US.

And many have also expressed bemusement from this myopic "Weissocentric" view.  RGM, Keaton Myrick, Kobold, Towson,  and others blazed the trail - and if Weiss is now truly ready to stand in the tall weeds and pee with the other big dogs, it's been made far more possible by those who came before.

So we watch, and we wait.  And let's hope this movement is nothing less than the watch making unicorn that is being discussed on the forums and chat groups.  A US made, serially produced movement would be a great thing for everyone.


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