The name Shinola is most familiar as part of a common expression—which I’m sure you know. As often happens over time, the inherent sense of that expression has become lost (as in the case of “you can run, but you can’t hide”—which I’ll rant about another day). Shinola was a shoe and boot polish, launched in 1907. Known for its high shine, it became popular with GIs in the World Wars, and that expression became common usage. Shoe polish versus… see, in that context, the expression makes sense….
Tom Kartsotis founded Fossil watches in 1984, and eventually sold his interest in the company, which had grown to include a number of other brands such as Relic, Skagen Denmark, and Zodiac. In 2011, Kartsotis and his partners in a new company, Bedrock Brands—yes, Kartsotis is a fan of the Flintstones— were scrambling for a name for their proposed new watch company. After that familiar expression appeared during the discussion, the group went on to license the name Shinola. Since then, the company established a Detroit headquarters in an old GM facility, the Alfred A. Taubman Building. In addition to the company’s creative and administrative departments, the headquarters contains a watch-assembly facility with the capacity to produce half a million watches per year, as well as a facility which produces watchbands and an increasing variety of bags and other leather goods.
The company’s flagship retail store nearby in the Cass Corridor contains bicycle-assembly facilities, behind glass, in full view of store customers. Recently, another assembly area appeared behind glass for the Runwell Turntable, the first product of the new Shinola Audio division.
Director of Shinola Audio is Alex Rosson, familiar to audiophiles as founder and former CEO of Audeze (and for the record, it’s AW-deh-zee, like “Odyssey”, not aw-DEEZ). After leaving Audeze, Rosson was approached by Tom Kartsotis, and they discussed the idea of assembling audiophile-quality turntables in Detroit. Two years of cooperation with VPI Industries’ Mat and Harry Weisfeld and metalworking company MDI Manufacturing followed, and the Runwell Turntable was launched in November.
The Runwell has full audiophile cred: massive main bearing and aluminum platter, coupled with belt-drive and a US-made motor; the tonearm is derived from a VPI gimbaled arm. Shinola’s expertise is evident in the sleek industrial design and ease of use: the Runwell’s solid oak plinth and radiused contours evoke vintage turntables from Thorens and Braun, and the modular phono preamplifier and factory-installed Ortofon Blue cartridge make the unit plug-and-play. Future iterations will include a Shinola-made moving-coil cartridge and a variety of preamp options, including a bypass.At $2,500, the Runwell isn’t inexpensive, but nothing about the unit is cheap; construction is massive, performance promises to be excellent, and it’s a thing of beauty.
On November 21st I accompanied a group of journalists from the mainstream media and audio pundits Michael Fremer and Scot Hull on a tour of the Shinola headquarters, including the watch and leather facilities. At the store, Alex Rosson walked us through the turntable assembly area. That evening there was a block party to celebrate the launch of Runwell, including a performance by J Mascis at Jack White’s Third Man Records store nearby. In the back of the Third Man store, we were fortunate to see an amazing recording and mastering studio,as well as a new record-pressing plant, all presently under construction. We couldn’t photograph that area, but believe me, Mikey Fremer nearly plotzed.
News of the Runwell has provoked the usual skepticism and kvetching from audiophile armchair quarterbacks. But: Shinola has the talent and resources to produce attractive, high-performance audio products, and the marketing muscle to sell them to regular people. What’s not to like?