Kobold Watches: Born in the USA
Michael Kobold’s world-class watches have been to the top of Mt. Everest and the bottom of the ocean, but all of them are designed and assembled in Pittsburgh.
In 1998, when 19-year-old Michael Kobold started making mechanical watches in his Shadyside apartment, he was following his passion. The entrepreneurship class he enrolled in at Carnegie Mellon University seemed like the perfect fit, and his hobby of watchmaking turned into a class project. The German-born sophomore wanted to be his own boss. But he never imagined that, one day, he would be making watches for the Boss.
Kobold’s love of stainless-steel cases, precision subdials, polished bezels and gold-plated winding rotors seemed antiquated to his classmates, who were busy mapping out the ones and zeroes of start-up technology companies at the height of the dot-com boom. Some of those students would eventually secure millions in seed money for companies that began as a glorified homework assignment. Kobold’s old-school venture began with the $5,000 in his checking account and a recommendation from his professor that watchmaking was a nice hobby, not a viable business.
“My classmates teased me that the most high-tech part of my company was the website,” Kobold laughs.
Despite spending many late nights winding and tinkering instead of cramming, Kobold completed his Economics degree in three years. With a diploma in hand, he could have moved his fledgling operation to Switzerland or his native Germany, where he could easily source super-premium parts, or even New York City, where the luxury market was thriving. Instead, he chose to stay in Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh has always had a rich history of watchmaking,” Kobold says. “At one time, Hamilton Watch Co. in Lancaster produced the finest mechanical watches in the world—even better than the Swiss.”
The one-man company started selling watches online—primarily to connoisseurs—but Kobold’s reputation for precision and indestructibility soon led to calls from deep-sea divers and polar explorers, including Sir Ranulph Fiennes “the world’s greatest living explorer” according to the Guinness Book of World Records and a close friend of Kobold. Fiennes took his Kobold watch straight to the top of Mt. Everest.
Today, Kobold watches are worn by NASA test pilots, astronauts, U.S. Navy SEALS and CIA operatives. Even Hollywood counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland on Fox’s “24,” rocks a Kobold. Off-screen, James Gandolfini, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Crystal and Angela Bassett are clients. Gandolfini is such a fan that he bought Kobolds for the entire “Sopranos” cast.
Still, despite all of his improbable success, Kobold’s operation hasn’t changed much since his days assembling timepieces in his apartment, where he would stress-test prototypes made for polar explorers by sticking them in his freezer. Every watch is custom-designed by Kobold, now 32, and assembled at the company’s small workshop in Robinson Township. While he still sources some parts from overseas, many watches in his product line feature American-made components—including The Spirit of America, which is proudly signed “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” on its handmade, galvanized copper dial. The company plans to produce its first completely American-made watch by 2025. Surely, longtime client Bruce Springsteen’s name must be on the pre-order list.