When they were undergrads at Pennsylvania State University, R.T. Custer and Tyler Wolfe had a business idea. So they pitched it at entrepreneurship competitions. Custer says all the other students were coming up with smartphone apps and web products.
“And when I walk in and pitch my physical product, all of the investors and everybody there immediately tunes out,” Custer remembers. “Because ‘Who is this guy and what is this physical product that’s 3-D printed that he’s putting in front of me?’ That was so frustrating.”
But like good entrepreneurs, Custer and Wolfe did not stop at frustrated.
They wanted to make mechanical wristwatches with all the the parts manufactured in the United States. They didn’t know it then, but that dream would lead them to resurrect Massachusetts’ manufacturing history and salvage vintage pocket watches produced for decades in Waltham. They forged ahead with their experiments at the 3-D printing lab on campus.
“We use a stainless steel 3-D printed piece that’s then infiltrated with bronze,” Wolfe says. “So we get this incredibly unique look of the molten bronze actually coming out of the pores of the stainless steel. Which is something that’s impossible to achieve using traditional manufacturing methods.”
They use that cutting-edge technology with the Bronze Age-look to make the cases for their contemporary wristwatches.
“Before we started the company, we had no idea that nobody makes a 100 percent American-made watch,” Wolfe says. “So as we were looking for a timepiece to use in our watch, we were forced to look vintage.”
Vintage Boston — Waltham to be specific. From the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century, “Watch City” was home to the American Waltham Watch Company. Thousands of workers crafted millions of “scientifically-built” pocket watches, as Waltham watches were marketed back in the day, in a sprawling brick factory on the Charles River.
Those pocket watches since went out of fashion, ending up in attics, closets and dresser drawers. Many of their cases have been melted down for their gold and silver, leaving the mechanical watch movements intact.
“We started on eBay, just buying watches,” Wolfe says. “We bought probably 20 to 50 watches before we ever launched our company on Kickstarter. I sat in R.T.’s basement and I took apart a watch every day and tried to put it back together to find out how it works and what makes one watch better than another.”
“It’s a tiny, little engine that was built over 100 years ago,” adds Custer. “And we cleaned it, oiled it and wound it. And it worked. We don’t make things like that anymore, and we need to.”
Today, the company they founded revives those Waltham pocket watches for daily use as wristwatches — not in Watch City, but on an old farm at the edge of Fort Collins, Colorado. Outside their workshop, a sign says the name: Vortic Watch Company. Inside, ball-peen hammers and leather punchers hang next to a 3-D printer and a laser engraver.
“When we need a dial, we can rummage through here and see if we can find anything,” says employee Jimmy Luper as he sifts through a bag of vintage watch faces.
One dial, from 1908, is crisp, white enamel with Arabic numerals in sharp black and a recessed circle for the second hand. Another, from 1936, features Roman numerals under a golden patina of light metal scratches. Luper says both dials were made on the banks of the Charles.
“The first thing I think of is ‘What’s the history of the watch?’ ” Luper wonders. “Who wore this? Who used it? What has it been doing the last 50 years? Has it been sitting in a drawer or whatnot? And yeah, I definitely wonder, who put this together? Was it just a job, or was it their passion? I like to hope the latter.”
When Luper flips over in his hands the watch he’s working on, he can see the metal pieces engraved in cursive with “American Waltham Watch Company” and “17 Jewels.” The steel springs inside pivot on small pieces of ruby. Bigger plates are burnished with cross hatching and waves — patterns that Luper says were never visible while these mechanisms were tucked inside their metal cases.
“I absolutely love that it’s a functional piece,” Luper says. “But they said: ‘Well, why not make it beautiful? There’s no reason not to.’ And so I just think that they’re gorgeous.”
Vortic Watch Company wants to show off that scientifically-built beauty. Luper sandwiches the century-old timepiece between two pieces of Gorilla Glass, the same glass that’s on the iPhone.
Then, with a vise, he lodges the watch and glass inside the 3-D printed steel housing and adds thick leather straps. He winds it up to test the timing with an electric tool, flipping it over to watch the gears clicking away through the glass.
Last year, Vortic sold 250 of these fairly big and bold wristwatches. The customers who shell out more than $2,000 each tend to be watch fanatics, tech workers with disposable income and baby boomers.
Steve Perlman bought two of the wristwatches. The former archaeology professor runs an inn on Martha’s Vineyard. He says many of his customers see his Vortic watch and tell him, “Wow, that’s a fascinating watch, it really looks very old!”
Perlman believes the attraction has to do with people’s complicated relationship with time.
“Some people have almost a fascination with something that is old and how it survived that long,” Perlman says. “And then to bring it to the modern world, to a time that they can associate with, I think is an interesting transference for them.”
Wolfe, the Vortic’s co-founder, says the company plans to make 500 of these wristwatches this year and another 1,000 in 2017. But eventually, he says his and Custer’s goal is to transition from custom to batch manufacturing, making and assembling all the hundreds of pieces for a watch here in the United States.
“This isn’t the end of the line for us,” Wolfe says. “We want to spread our ideas and our passion to more than just the people that can buy a $2,000 watch.”
That’s a daunting business challenge in a market dominated by Swiss manufacturers. But at 23 and 25 years old, Wolfe and Custer have got time.