By Matt Gulielmi | Published: September 27, 2023
Vortic, the America-first watchmaker out of Colorado leans into the success of their main-line heritage timepieces with their spinoff label Colorado Watch Company. I got to meet with co-founder RT Custer for a tour of their Fort Collins facility to see how they wield century-old engineering to craft wearable heirlooms and get a first look at their upcoming brand launch.
When RT Custer and Tyler Wolfe decided to join forces to start a watch company, there wasn’t any generational watchmaking legacy between them. No Swiss family tree or windfall inheritance, just a lot of ticking patience and a desire to reinvigorate the United State’s timekeeping legacy. Most people inherit their timepieces, but they started from scratch—kind of.
Vortic is different from other key players in the watch space. Instead of designing custom movements and casing, they repurpose early 20th-century pocket watches from the ten US companies that designed them. They were:
- Illinois Watch Co.
- Rockford Watch Co.
- Elgin Watch Co.
- South Bend Watch Co.
- Hampden Watch Co.
- Ball Watch Co.
- Hamilton Watch Co.
- Waltham Watch Co.
- Seth Thomas Watch Co.
- Howard Watch Co.
The company scours estate sales and other second hand sources for the heirloom clocks and through their talented watchmakers, their heartbeat is restored 100 years later. Limited by the tedious process of retrofitting the mechanisms, Vortic puts out one watch per day. Compare that to industry behemoth Rolex, which purportedly releases close to a million units annually. With that being said, Vortic’s scarcity is largely due in part to their hands-on manufacturing, but RT shared that their watches have appreciated in value in line with the Swiss giant’s.
Hamilton Watch Ltd. v. Vortic LLC
Most of the listed watchmakers have since dissolved, but one name might perk the ears of watch enthusiasts: Hamilton Watch Co. Browsing Vortic’s assortment will reveal that some faces bear the name, but it didn’t start out as an amicable partnership. In fact, the Swatch owned brand took them to court once they caught wind of Vortic’s rising popularity.
Originally hailing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Hamilton once claimed over half of the country’s timepiece market. Following suit of seemingly every company these days, they gradually moved all of their manufacturing outside of the US by the 1970s, eventually being taken over by The Swatch Group.
Hamilton took note of Vortic’s rise in popularity and interpreted their use of old Hamilton watch faces as an infringement of their trademark. In 2021, the court came to the conclusion that the use of vintage parts would not confuse consumers. Have you ever stumbled into a rickety antique shop that’s selling lamps made of an old bottle of Jack Daniel’s? Same situation.
Overview of Facility
In our globalized economy, anyone and their brother can hop on Alibaba, conduct awkward negotiations with a manufacturer in China, and have 10,000 units of their crudely illustrated mockup shipped by the following week. Other than examining one of their impeccable watches, a tour of their facility is the only other way to understand the craftsmanship that sets their product apart.
For the launch of their sister brand, Vortic invited me to see how it all goes down. I met with co-founder RT and we began our tour viewing the watchmaking room. Behind a wall of glass, their experienced artisans delicately assemble century-old watch components surrounded by watch calibrators and oscillating winders. It reminded me of the scene from Jurassic Park where the tour concludes with observing the geneticists monitor the velociraptor hatchlings. Like cloning dinosaurs, they’re reviving something lost to time.
In the machine shop, I was granted a run-through of their major manufacturing operations. The room is filled with sophisticated, European machinery that carve metal with sub-millimeter precision, which is how they fashion the housing that cradles the watch movements. Commemorating the admission of Colorado into statehood, a 38-star flag hands on the back wall, symbolizing Vortic’s admiration for their home turf.
As a water-cooled drill hollowed out blocks of metal for their Colorado Watch Company cases, RT revealed exciting details behind the motivation of launching the new brand.
Colorado Watch Company
Assembling a Vortic watch takes time, but that isn’t the only factor that bottlenecking their output. They’re working with a fixed supply. A dwindling inventory of pocket watches in the market makes it hard to scale, so Vortic takes the US-built, freedom-forged culture that makes their brand so successful and applies it to their first batch of watches designed completely in-house.
Five years in the making, Colorado Watch Company will soon deliver on their pursuit towards making an unequivocally American, automatic wristwatch that starts at less than $1,000. Partnering with Fountain Hills, Arizona based Fine Timepiece Solutions, the Field and GCT Watch utilize FTS’ “Americhron” movement to achieve an 87% USA-made by cost benchmark.
The collaborative efforts of Vortic, Colorado Watch Company, and FTS are reshoring skilled American trade that’s become increasingly rare as production has moved overseas.
The Field Watch
The Field Watch, deeply inspired by the dynamic Colorado environment, stands as the quintessential timepiece for those who appreciate a blend of ruggedness and elegance. The watch offers two meticulously designed dial options. The White variant emanates sophistication with its warm white enamel set against a stainless backdrop, while the Steel version stands out with a sand-blasted finish, beautifully adorned with distinctive Colorado stripes.
Paying homage to Colorado’s flag, both styles are equipped with blued steel hands, accentuated by a bold, attention-grabbing red second hand. Encased within a 40mm frame, the watch maintains a slim profile with its 10.5mm stainless steel case. Buyers have a choice between a classic steel finish or a modern, sleek DLC-black. Additionally, the Field Watch is fitted with American-made sapphire crystal, exhibition back, and water resistance of at least 50m, targeting 100m after final testing.
The opening price point for Colorado Watch Company’s two new models, the Field Watch will start at $995 and can be bought for as low as $795 as an early bird backer through their Kickstarter.
The GCT Watch
The GCT is a modern homage to Vortic’s revered Military Edition, mirroring the precise timepieces utilized by the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Presented in either Matte or Machined Dial, paired seamlessly with a Steel or DLC-black Case, the GCT reimagines the tactical aesthetic of an armed forces timepiece with modern appeal.
Sized at a modest 42mm, this watch is rife with unique features. It showcases vintage radium-style luminosity, a standout 12 o’clock screw-down crown, and a robust 13mm stainless steel case, promising durability with at least 100m water resistance. While the GCT pays respect to the legendary Master Navigator’s Watch of the past, it also introduces current innovations, including an exhibition back and automatic movement.
The GCT is set to retail at $1,395, but early bird backers can get it for $1,195.
How You Can Get One
As for the much-anticipated timeline, their Kickstarter campaign goes live from September 26 to October 26, 2023. The ensuing months will be dedicated to relentless prototyping, with production kicking off in January 2024. By March, VIP backers will have the first glimpse with their prototypes, followed by Early Bird backers in April and May. The subsequent wave of deliveries will proceed in May and June 2024.