Upscale Bozeman Watch Co. expands to Whitefish

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Bozeman Watch Company Store Manager Jason Rusch, right, and Brent Steiner stand in the company's Whitefish store, located at 148 Central Ave.

The first expansion outside of its namesake community of Bozeman occurred in July when the Bozeman Watch Co. opened a store in downtown Whitefish.

Store Manager Jason Rusch began work in late October, moving with his family from Bozeman where he’d worked at the home store for two years.

Whitefish seemed a logical site for a new store, Rusch said. He and his wife recently had a booth at a wooden boat show in the Flathead Valley, sold two watches and generated a great deal of interest, “so we thought it would behoove us to have a store here.”

The goal is to open about a dozen showrooms for the watch company, Rusch said. Space was just leased in Jackson, Wyo., with a store planned to open there in late spring.

The idea for the Bozeman Watch Co. was developed in 1995 by Chris Wardle, who lives in Bozeman and Michigan. It took a few years to put the pieces together, so to speak, and in 2001 Wardle wrapped up the paperwork for the startup company. The first watch — the SmokeJumper — was completed in 2005. Endorsed by the National Smokejumper Association, two models of the SmokeJumper were made, the Chronograph and the GMT.

The company manufactures mostly men’s watches, but has created some women’s watches. Most watch names harken to the West, as might be expected from a company based in Bozeman. Other models include the Cutthroat, made in several options — Whitefish to celebrate the second showroom in Whitefish; Yellowstone to commemorate the spawning colors of the Yellowstone species of the cutthroat trout; and Westslope, which mimics the Westslope cutthroat trout. Just 15 of each of the three models were manufactured. One hundred of the original Cutthroat models were made, each individually numbered.

The Snowmaster Telemetric was made at the request of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association as the official watch for the U.S. Ski Team.

The USS Montana pays tribute to Montanans who served in the Armed Forces. Since Montana is the only state without a battleship namesake, Bozeman Watch Co. officials thought it appropriate to create the watch and “sail our own ship,” Rusch said.

The Sidewinder features 100 black dial and 100 silver dial watches, part of the company’s gunslinger series.

In production now is The Herradura, made for Josh Beckett, the Boston Red Sox ace pitcher. Beckett purchased a Sidewinder model from the Bozeman Watch Co. He then asked for a watch design inspired by his 7,000-acre ranch in Texas. It’s the first model to draw on influences not found around Montana.

Just 50 of the Herradura models are to be manufactured and all feature Beckett’s engraved signature.

All Bozeman Watch Co. watches are mechanical.

Wardle became fascinated with watches as a teen, Rusch said. He took watches apart and put them back together. On a visit to Bozeman as a teen, he thought the city bore similarities to Switzerland and knew then he wanted to have his watch company in Bozeman some day, Rusch said. “He’s a true American dreamer.”

Eventually, that dream came to life, after Wardle sold a company in Michigan and started the Bozeman Watch Co.

Each watch model begins with a pencil sketch from which a computer-aided design illustration is created, followed by blueprints. The documents are shipped to Germany where each piece is created by hand by “the highest quality watchmakers in the world,” Rusch said. Wardle and Patrick Ayoue are the design team.

When Wardle was laying the groundwork for the company, he visited Switzerland to talk with watchmakers about his venture, but found the German family he teamed up with a better fit for his company.

Between 200 and 300 watches are made each year for the Bozeman Watch Co. In 2011, seven watch models will be built. The quantities vary, but this is by no means mass manufacturing. As few as 15 of one model is planned for completion next year. The greatest number of any model produced so far has been 140.

It takes about 30 months to complete a full line of one watch model, Rusch said. It costs about $300,000 to develop a new model, he said.

In the next couple of years, a woman’s watch adorned with diamonds is planned for release. Two other women’s models are in the works, too, Rusch said.

The watchmakers literally first create tools specifically designed to make each piece of a watch, Rusch said.

The economic downturn hasn’t hurt the company, which is experiencing its best year ever, Rusch said. The handmade watches sell for between $5,000 and $8,100, but customizing with such features as diamonds can push the price to around $20,000.

Rusch describes the pieces as “functional art. These are heirloom quality pieces,” he said. “If you want to look down and be proud of a watch, come see us.”

Many watches are pre-sold, especially the limited-edition models, he said. Some limited-edition lines sell out completely in advance.

The Montana-based company is faring well in part because “a lot of people want to buy from us because we’re an American brand,” Rusch said. While not the only U.S. watchmaker, the Bozeman Watch Co. is the only U.S. watchmaker using original parts manufactured to meet the specifications of Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronometres. Fewer than 3 percent of all watchmakers in the world are certified by that entity, Rusch said. To gain the certification, every single watch undergoes 15 days of testing under 16 conditions.

Watchmaking has a long history in the U.S., Rusch said. As recently as the 1960s, 15,000 Americans were making mechanical watch parts before the digital revolution in watches.

Besides Rusch, Brent Steiner works at the Whitefish store, too. The showroom is at 148 Central Ave. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. The phone number is 862-0062.

Reporter Shelley Ridenour may be reached at


One of the company's popular model's is the "Sidewinder".

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