At Vortic Watch Co., ‘It’s about time’

Fort Collins watch company winds up for next venture

“It’s about time.”

That could be the motto for Vortic Watch Co., a downtown Fort Collins business for which time is of the essence. Vortic transforms vintage pocket watches into wristwatches, restores old watches as heirlooms or makes entirely new watches as Colorado Watch Co.

“It’s about time” could reflect the start of a typical day at 7 a.m., Monday through Thursday.

It could represent the first tasks of the day for some of the employees, who wind a series of 20 or so watches that are being tested for accuracy.

It could reflect times past, when a series of watchmakers led to U.S. dominance in the watch-making industry.

And it could reflect a determination to revive that industry in the U.S.

“It’s about time.”

At Vortic’s headquarters at 324 Jefferson St., employees work at various tasks during the day, winding, testing and assembling watches; running 3D printers for producing cases and other parts; fulfilling orders by placing finished watches in custom, Vortic-branded cases provided by Fort Collins-based Otter Products Inc.; scanning the web for estate auctions or other sources of vintage watches; or working on design or marketing of the company’s products.

Vortic’s story began in 2013, when Penn State University students R.T. Custer and Tyler Wolfe came up with the idea of creating a 100% American-made watch.

They quickly realized that it was easier said than done, as watch movements — the tiny, intricate mechanisms that make watches run — are no longer made in the U.S., but rather in Switzerland, Japan, China or India.

It wasn’t always that way. The U.S. once led the world in watchmaking, and many of those products from a century ago sit in dresser drawers, in antique stores or in pawn shops.

Their solution? Rebuild those old American pocket watches into wristwatches, manufacturing any needed parts using 3D metal printers, but reusing the original movements, and other parts of the original watch.

As Custer and Wolfe relocated to Fort Collins, Vortic took off, initially producing watches from a condo in Midtown, then in a space at the Innosphere incubator on East Vine Drive, then at Jessup Farm.

Demand was so good that the company in 2022 moved to its location at 324 Jefferson St., occupying 8,500 square feet, where it employs about 10 people.

Custer begins a tour of the company’s operations in a room with a framed poster on the wall depicting “The Great American Watch Companies.” The poster includes once-popular brands of pocket watches, including Illinois Watch Co., Elgin Watch Co., Rockford Watch Co., South Bend Watch Co., Hampden Watch Co., Hamilton Watch Co., Ball Watch Co., Waltham Watch Co., Seth Thomas Watch Co.

The poster provides both a history of the American watchmaking industry but also reflects an inventory of watch brands that the company seeks out through estate auctions, pawn shops and other sources.

“Those companies made about 100 million pocket watches in the U.S. between about 1850 and 1950,” Custer said. “And today, most people have no idea that we were the Switzerland of the world for that 100 years.”

Sometimes, owners of heirloom watches will bring them to Vortic for repair, seeking to have them restored after they’ve languished in drawers for decades.

But most of the watches that the company obtains are transformed into wristwatches, with the company using the U.S.-made movements, manufacturing new parts as needed, and transforming them into wristwatches that cost anywhere from $2,000 to $12,000.

The company made as many as 400 watches in one year, but that proved to strain Vortic’s resources, and the company has settled on producing 300 of those watches annually.

But time is not standing still for the company. It recently launched a new line of wristwatches under the umbrella of the Colorado Watch Co. Those watches use as much material and manufacturing in the U.S. as possible, including Colorado.

“Now, to scale the company and grow, we’re going to come out with more brands and different styles of watches and different brands over time,” Custer said, explaining the Colorado Watch Co. strategy.

The watches are aimed at a younger, active demographic and cost far less than Vortic models, beginning at about $1,000.

While watches under the Colorado Watch Co. brand can’t be touted as “Made in the USA” because of strict federal requirements for that designation, they are promoted as “Built in America.”

The Federal Trade Commission uses a vague requirement that “all or virtually all” of a product must be made domestically to qualify as “Made in the USA,” a far stricter threshold than many other countries employ. Switzerland’s “Swiss Made” label, for example, requires that at least 60% of production cost must be from that country.

Even though Colorado Watch Co. products are 87% U.S. by cost, they don’t qualify for the designation “Made in the USA” label but instead are touted as “Built in America.”

The company already has surpassed its goal on Kickstarter to launch the brand, raising more than $320,000 out of a $250,000 goal.

As orders for Colorado Watch Co. come in — including new models funded by the Kickstarter campaign — workers at Vortic undoubtedly will get even busier.

But they have time on their side.

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