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Vortic Watch Company: Watches built from history

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In mid-September, I was lucky enough to travel to Colorado to visit the facilities of the Vortic Watch Company. This company creates watches by integrating pocket watches from 10 American companies from the last century into 3D printed metal cases! It’s an incredible piece of research that puts real works of art on your wrist.

The Idea behind Vortic Watch Company

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Tyler Wolfe & R.T. Custer, cofounders of Vortic Watch Company
Photo : Vortic Watch Company

It was while playing golf with friends that Robert Thomas (R.T.) Custer and his partner Tyler Wolfe (the latter is more reserved, but he’s the mechanical brains behind the company), both industrial engineering students at Penn State University, came up with the idea for the Vortic Watch Company on a golf course just over 10 years ago. It was during his studies that Mr. Custer became interested in the mechanics of watches.

After giving birth to the company in Pennsylvania, the two friends moved and transferred the business to Fort Collins, Colorado. Initially, they moved to pursue career opportunities before dedicating themselves full-time to Vortic. They fell in love with the place and decided to officially establish the company in Fort Collins.

Watch-pieces

Some of the parts used to make a Vortic watch
Photo : Normand Boulanger | Gentologie

With a passion for watches that has driven them since childhood, they revere what they now see as the simple task of recording time with precision and the elegance with which it is accomplished.

The start and choice of watches companies

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The Waltham pocket Watch
Photo : Vortic Watch Company

So, backtracking a little, after seeing that their 3D printed metal prototypes as part of a university design project had a unique retro look, Custer and Wolfe decided to combine cutting-edge metal 3D printing technology with beautiful antique pocket watch movements made in the USA to create bespoke wristwatches. So each watch is unique. They produce around 300 a year.

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One of the original watches for the Military Edition
Photo : Normand Boulanger | Gentologie

And if you’re wondering why make a watch from scratch in the United States (a bit of a crazy project these days), you can’t get more American than R. T. Custer, co-founder and CEO of Vortic Watches. He is the seventh cousin of General George Custer, famous for his last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn. General Custer’s brother was R.T.’s great-great-great-grandfather.

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Pocket watch dials
Photo : Vortic Watch Company

The real inspiration behind the watches in Vortic’s “American Artisan” series is the simple idea that the United States built watches once before. Before the country turned away from watchmaking in the mid-1,900s, our neighbours to the south produced millions of beautiful, high-quality pocket watches that became much more than just a way to tell the time. Pocket watches made in the country became family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation, testifying to the deep roots of quality manufacturing in America that, though covered in grime, still exist today.

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Thousands of dials, some bearing the effigy of Chevrolet
Photo: Normand Boulanger | Gentologie

Recognizing that many antique pocket watch movements had become orphaned from their precious metal cases (many people sell metals for money), the principals of the Vortic Watch Company found the strength to restore and preserve these beautiful pieces in a functional way. By reverse-engineering old parts, they were able to create a wristwatch case that housed pocket watch movements in the same way as the original pocket watch case. They continued to develop this process, and the “American Artisan” series was born.

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The different pocket watch companies
Photo : Vortic Watch Company

The pocket watch companies that Vortic has chosen for its transformations are the following (because of the quantities produced and their condition).

  • Illinois Watch Co. 
  • Rockford Watch Co. 
  • Elgin Watch Co. 
  • South Bend Watch Co.
  • Hampden Watch Co. 
  • Ball Watch Co. 
  • Hamilton Watch Co. (the company is now Swiss and no longer has any links with the American company of the time, other than its company name)
  • Waltham Watch Co. 
  • Seth Thomas Watch Co. 
  • Howard Watch Co.  

A prosecution by Hamilton…

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One of Vortic Watch Company’s “Hamilton” watches
Photo: Normand Boulanger | Gentologie

Speaking of Hamilton, if you didn’t know, the Vortic Watch Company was prosecuted by the world’s largest watch company over 8 years ago. Swatch Group and its sub-brand Hamilton International didn’t want them to convert old pocket watches into wristwatches, particularly those made by the now-defunct Hamilton Watch Company. They received a cease and desist order before they had even manufactured and shipped their first watch.

In February 2020, after surviving years of legal assaults, they finally arrived in Manhattan for their day in federal court.

Cofounder R. T. Custer took the stand and told the whole story to the judge. To make a long story short, after months of waiting, they won the first round in September 2020. Taking a pocket watch and turning it into a wristwatch, regardless of the brand and trademark on the dial, was officially legal! The Vortic team always knew this, but this validation was spectacular.

Swatch Group immediately appealed, and they entered the next chapter. A panel of federal judges reviewed the first judge’s decision and, almost a year later, they won again, hopefully for the last time, because it’s not easy for young entrepreneurs.

“The Court’s decision reaffirms something that the law has long made clear: trade mark law is not a sword that can be used indiscriminately. There must be a likelihood of confusion for the consumer. Vortic Watch Company makes considerable efforts to fully inform consumers about its products, and today’s decision confirms the relevance of these efforts,” commented Jin-Ho King, a lawyer assisting Robert Lantz, Vortic’s lawyer.

The passion

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R.T Custer and Tyler Wolfe during the construction of the company’s new offices in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Photo : Vortic Watch Company

You only need to spend a few minutes with the co-founders of the Vortic Watch Company to understand their passion for creating a product from parts they’ve collected from all over the USA.

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The view from the office in the previous photo
Photo : Normand Boulanger | Gentologie

Whether at auctions, in the back rooms of jewellery stores, on the web or through donations, their watches come to life! It’s a monk’s job to collect all these watches and put them back in working order.

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The different parts of an “American Artisan” dial
Photo: Vortic Watch Company

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A reassembled watch case
Photo: Vortic Watch Company

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The watch cases of Vortic’s “American Artisans” watches
Photo : Normand Boulanger | Gentologie

These watches were your great-grandfather’s wedding present and your grandfather’s coming-of-age treasure. These watches are a piece of history, each telling its own vivid story of a time gone by. And they do so in a language that will speak to future generations, because the heart of the United States is engraved in every turn of the screw on these timepieces. That’s why they will continue to work tirelessly, year after year. The watches in the “American Artisan” series embody the American spirit by adapting these historical objects in a way that is relevant today and preserves the tradition of American manufacturing.

What’s next for Vortic Watch Company

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The Vortic “Military Edition” in Season 4 of the Jack Ryan series
Photo : Vortic Watch Company

Since its inception, Vortic Watch Company has been recognized by New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe, WatchTime Magazine and numerous other publications for its work in preserving American history. In addition, Vortic watches are on display at the NAWCC Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania, and the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, Massachusetts. You may also have seen the “Military Edition,” a limited edition that is released every November 11 to commemorate veterans, on the wrists of John Krasinski in Season 4 of the Prime Video series Jack Ryan (2023) and Kevin O’Leary in the CBC series Dragon’s Den.

The company is currently applying its product-focused attitude, unique aesthetics and fresh ideas to the creation of new products and the perfecting of its craft.

A new project for the Vortic Watch Company.

Speaking of new ideas, on 26 September 2023, the team behind Vortic Watch Company launched a brand new watch company, all with the aim of making a brand new watch that’s more affordable, and made almost entirely from new materials from the USA, but that also stands the test of time. Find out more about their new project, The Colorado Watch Company, by following this link.

To find out more about the Vortic Watch Company, visit their website here.

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