- Associated Press - Monday, November 17, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Depending on your generation, or frame of reference, the word “wristwatch” conjures up anything from cheap Timex timepieces to images of “smartwatches” that are, essentially, miniaturized computers worn on the wrist. No matter the technology or features, the watch you choose likely will be electronic.

But old-style, high-end wristwatches with purely mechanical innards and refined exteriors are still very much around — and are coveted by an avid subculture of timepiece enthusiasts who snap up the latest devices from an elite assortment of watch designers and makers.

One such watchmaker is in the Twin Cities — and he’s not entirely low-tech. Leo Padron builds his watches by hand, but largely designs them on a Mac and funds his brisk business on Kickstarter, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1swDNVZ ) reported.

Padron Watch Co. has now released three distinct wristwatch versions. The latest is the Hennepin, named in honor of his home county, and features on its metal back an etched version of the logo used to designate snow-emergency routes in Minneapolis.

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Padron, a onetime Web designer, got interested in mechanical watches because of a German mid-20th-century Mulco watch he inherited from a now-deceased grandfather.

The watch was not working, and Padron set out to repair it — a quest that was, at first, a disaster.

“I’ve always been kind of a tinkerer,” he said. “But working with very small machines has its own unique challenges. When I first tried fixing the watch, I failed miserably. I didn’t have the right optics and I didn’t know how to work with tweezers.”

Padron eventually caught on, and kept going. For a time he had a booming side business restoring watches and selling them on eBay as he continued to work his Web-design day job.

But Padron developed a yearning to design something of his own.

He is a creator by nature.

He has an art background and is a trained sculptor. He worked as a cartoonist in college. He has dabbled with robotics, and for a time was obsessed with bicycle building.

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So he fired up the computer-aided design (or CAD) software on his computer and got to work.

Creating a new watch design did not take long. He had a solid draft in a day, and then a refined design in about a week or two.

He didn’t have to conjure up the watch’s “movement” — its mechanized internals — from scratch, after all, since such analog technology is readily available from sources in Hong Kong, Japan or Switzerland, and there was little point in reinventing it.

Padron’s creative contribution is a watch’s aesthetic — how it is shaped, how it looks on the outside and what elegant materials he chooses to make the timepiece a work of art.

“What I do with my watches is definitely about a clean design,” he said.

“It is not heavy on ornamentation. The design is definitely structural and a little aspirational. It is fresh but with a midcentury inspiration behind it.”

It is a kind of sculpture, he said, with minimalist industrial-design elements rather than explicit, mundane watch features, he said.

He made his first timepiece, the dark and clean-looking Vuelta, out of stainless steel with a sapphire-crystal front, and he called it “a modern reboot of the gentleman’s mechanical-wind timepiece.”

The Vuelta did well on Kickstarter in April 2012 with $98,022 in pledges to propel Padron past his $20,000 campaign target.

But he said he had been leery about crowdfunding his project.

“It sounded like putting your hand out and begging for dollars,” Padron said. “It seemed a little unsavory at first.”

Still, Padron went on to crowdfund his next two watches, the Mulco-style, waterproof Tessera with $71,141 pledges on a $32,000 goal in August 2013, and the classic-looking Hennepin with $101,371 in pledges on a $24,000 goal in July.

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The Kickstarter backers for each watch notably numbered in the low hundreds, suggesting a cadre of wristwatch super fans willing to pay hefty amounts.

Such people range in age from the 30s to the 50s, according to Padron, and include lots of women — presumably wives and girlfriends purchasing the timepieces as special gifts.

Padron has long since ditched his Web-design day job and now devotes himself full time to his business while scarcely believing his good fortune as he tinkers in his Minneapolis basement workshop.

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “This is great. I make my own hours, I call my own shots, I don’t have a boss, and I joke that my cat is my H.R. director.”

He is proud that he makes and ships every watch himself.

He manufactures only about 1,000 watches a year at prices ranging from $249 to $659.

He isn’t sure how his company will evolve or morph in coming years, if at all, but sees a trio of hypothetical scenarios.

He could branch into the smartwatch market, in some fashion, but such a product would have to be something special and not just a smartphone companion.

Smartwatches today are “terribly uninteresting,” he says, though he does kind of like the Apple Watch design.

He could take his company mass-market with watches built in larger quantities and at lower prices. But he stressed that he’s “a boutique watch manufacturer. To fulfill bigger orders, I’d have to be a different company” — and he is not sure he would have as much fun.

Or he could take Padron Watch Co. in the opposite direction with fancier watches made in smaller quantities.

“I could get into more rarefied territory, using higher-end Swiss movements and using exotic materials like tungsten, titanium and ceramics,” he said.

But, for now, he is remaining true to one of his mantras: “I want to make the kinds of watches that my friends can afford … yet with extremely good materials that will last.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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