Preserving American History One Watch at a Time
For Industrial engineer R.T. Custer, one of the great feats of manufacturing may well lie in the vintage pocket watch.
“To me, it’s the fascination of, ‘How the heck did they make this 100 plus years ago without any modern engineering equipment?’,” says Custer, co-owner of Vortic Watch Company with Tyler Wolfe. “They made these before electricity.”
The intricate bronze and copper pocket watches made over a century ago are at the core of Vortic Watch Company’s mission to preserve American history through vintage watch restoration.
At Vortic, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, heirloom pocket watches go through a restoration and preservation process before they are merged with a modern wristwatch design made of bronze or titanium. The face and mechanical parts remain the same in the transformation process.
“We have a black carbon coating for the titanium, but the bronze we just leave as is, because bronze is an amazing metal to work with and it patinas over time,” Custer says of the copper-based alloy typically made up of approximately 82% copper and 12% tin. “When it patinas over time it compliments the antique pocket watches very well.”
Custer says he feels as though they are cheating at Vortic in the making of their wristwatches given the circumstances under which pocket watches were made in the past.
“As an engineer, I run a company where we can make anything out of metal, but it’s because we have a million dollars in machines,” he says.
Custer and Wolfe, who both studied industrial engineering at Penn State University, came up with the idea of centering a business on watches after experimenting with 3D metal printing at Penn State in 2013. Given their shared love of engineering, they have a fondness for how things are made and how they work.
“We started prototyping ideas in college with ExOne at that time, and you could 3D print a really cool mixture of bronze and steel,” Custer says.
Vortic’s first 200 watches were 3D printed until they switched to titanium printing in 2016. In 2018 they rolled out their machined cases made using traditional, also known as subtractive, manufacturing.
“We start with a block of bronze or titanium and then we mill it down with CNC mills,” he says. “We start with the block and we cut away the metal until we get the case.”
They still use additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, for some of their watches.
“It’s the origin of how we started,” Custer says, adding it is an ideal approach when making small batches of approximately one dozen watches at a time. “It provides a really cool aesthetic and almost looks cast or forged because the edges are very rough.”
Custer shares what he most appreciates about using bronze to make their watches.
“Being known as a softer metal, it’s easier to work with and it’s still hard enough and durable enough to be worn on the wrist and not scratched easily day to day,” he says. “Its patina that happens over time adds a lot of character to the metal.”
The look of their bronze watches transforms over time in contrast to their titanium watches.
“Titanium will look the same 50 years from now, but the bronze is going to be a different watch next year and that is very cool to customers,” he says.
Vortic offers customers different approaches to selecting their timepiece. They can send in their heirloom pocket watch to have it turned into a wrist watch with their Convert Your Watch service. This is a way to get everyday use out of an heirloom pocket watch that might have been tucked away for years.
There are certain specifications needed in order for a pocket watch to be suitable for a Vortic conversion.
“It has to be an American pocket watch made between 1900 and 1950,” he says. “That fifty years was the heyday of American watch making.”
Custer shared the history of the evolution of the pocket watch to wristwatch.
“The wrist watches as we know them today didn’t really come into existence until after WWII,” he says. “It was invented way before, but as far as mass production and a bunch of people wearing them, that was later.”
He discussed how the original conversion was conceived of during WWI out of necessity.
“During WWI people strapped pocket watches to their wrists because during trench warfare, your job was to stick your head out of the trench and the point was to keep your eye down the sight of your gun, so if you had to look at your pocket, it defeated the purpose of looking out over the battlefield. People would literally strap pocket watches to their wrist to make sure they could see the battlefield.”
Another service Vortic offers is called ‘Watch of the Day’ where every Monday through Friday they release a new, one-of-a-kind watch at noon. They are centered on pocket watches they found at pawn shops and estate sales and curated and turned them into wrist watches.
“It’s a unique piece that is totally one-of-a-kind and we sell it,” Custer says.
All of Vortic’s watches are made using the internal mechanisms of American made pocket watches. The guts are taken out of the case and are restored and incorporated into one of their designs that includes a metal case with glass front and back, a window knob, and leather strap that are modern attributes made by Vortic.
In instances where they have to replace a part of the inner watch mechanism, they will use antique parts to make sure it functions correctly. They attempt to save as many pocket watches as they can through acquiring a few hundred to up to one thousand watches each year.
“In the early 1900s over 100 million pocket watches were made in the U.S,” he says, adding they were made by ten different watch manufacturing companies during the heyday of American made watches. “From the ones we find, we try to pick the best of the best of the best and those are the ones we turn into wristwatches.”
Aside from the guts of every one of the wristwatches they create, almost all of the other work is done in-house at their 4,000 square foot workshop. They have four CNC machines and cut their own metal components. Vortic sources their metals from the U.S. based company, Thyssenkrupp Materials, based in Michigan.
“We have an assembly team of watchmakers that build our watches,” Custer says. “They take the watches made and the restored pieces and they assemble them into wristwatches.”
There is a piece of American history in every watch Vortic makes. A glass display is not only on the front, but also the back of each watch, so that all of the inner mechanisms -- the mechanical movement and the gears - can be on full view. This also serves as an ideal conversation piece.
“That is why we call it preservation and restoration,” Custer says. “The value is the guts of those pocket watches -- that is where all the engineering is."
Also in this Issue:
- Preserving American History One Watch at a Time
- Rare Grant Wood Copper Sculpture Revealed at CRMA
- Rachel Rose Dazey: Connected Through Copper
- Studio G7: A Lineage of Copper
- Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum Acquires New 7-foot Bronze