What do two Sherpas, James Gandolfini and eight Navy SEALs have in common? This guy.
Author CRISTINA ROUVALIS
ANG NAMGEL SHERPA and Lakpa Thundu Sherpa had never heard of a Kobold watch before they shepherded Pittsburgh entrepreneur Michael Kobold and explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes up Mt. Everest back in 2009. But it wouldn’t be long before they did. At an altitude of 17,500 feet, Kobold had a dizzying idea. He would fly the Sherpas home to Pennsylvania and train them to handcraft watches in Amish country, with an eye toward opening a retail outlet in Kathmandu.
Back in Pittsburgh, Kobold’s friends thought it must be the altitude talking. Sure, the man’s overactive imagination had helped him launch a successful online watch business from a college dorm room a decade earlier. But this latest scheme seemed outlandish. “He told us this story about putting Sherpas on a plane, and it just sounded so ridiculous it had to be false,” says Peter M. Lenkov, executive producer of the TV hits Hawaii Five-0 and 24 and owner of eight Kobold watches. “They had never left the mountain before!”
Yet true it was, one in a long string of eccentric notions that paid off for the globe-trotting, adventure-seeking Kobold. With his unconventional ways, the boyish 32-year-old with closely cropped black hair has won a following consisting of, among others, Bill Clinton, Glenn Beck, actor James
Gandolfini and a smattering of NFL players and Navy SEALs, by offering niche timepieces with clean, masculine appeal and price tags between $2,000 and $14,000. He calls them “indestructible tools” because their reinforced cases and thick sapphire crystals help them stand up to extreme conditions. And while much of the American luxury market struggles to emerge from the economic doldrums, Kobold, who wears a watch on each wrist, is on track to sell 1,000 units this year. That’s a good year for his tiny, nine-person operation (though not as robust as 2007, when he sold 2,500 watches, including the 400 Gandolfini bought for his crew at the close of The Sopranos.)
Kobold started out small, selling 100 watches from his dorm room at Carnegie Mellon University. A child of privilege who grew up in Germany, Kobold had been obsessed with mechanical watches since he received one for his 12th birthday. At 16, he wrote to the top 25 watch companies asking for an internship. One answered: master watchmaker Gerd R. Lang of Chronoswiss in Munich.
That experience was the first evidence of Kobold’s uncanny knack for making friends in high places. Consider the story of how he met Gandolfini. Kobold was just 23 when a man called his Pittsburgh office to order a $4,000 watch. The watchmaker just assumed the guy with the gravelly Jersey accent was a cop and asked him if he wanted the police discount.
“I’m an actor,” Gandolfini said. “Oh, do you have a speaking role?” Kobold asked.
“‘There’s an HBO show called The Sopranos,’” Kobold recalls Gandolfini saying. “‘There’s a big fat guy, and I’m the big fat guy.’”
For the record, Gandolfini doesn’t remember calling himself fat. But the actor who played mob boss Tony Soprano remembers everything else about his first encounter with Kobold, who promptly hand-delivered the watch to HBO Studio Productions in New York. Within a few years, the two became such good friends that Gandolfini began marketing Kobold watches for free. In one famous ad, he’s pictured flipping the bird. The tag line:
“Even James Gandolfini thinks Kobold is No. 1.” “He is an interesting character,” Gandolfini says. “I like his style.”
In a renovated 150-year-old barn on his farm located in an Amish enclave an hour north of Pittsburgh, Kobold sits in an office appointed with elegant leather couches and rugs. He gestures to his former Sherpa, Namgel, standing nearby. “He saved my life,” Kobold says, by fixing Kobold’s malfunctioning oxygen regulator on Everest.
“He brought us here to learn how to make watches,” explains Namgel, a tiny man who has climbed the world’s highest peak seven times. “We like it very much. Climbing Everest is very dangerous. Our families worried about us.” The two Sherpas call home every two days and are expected to return to Nepal in March 2012 to assemble $2,500 to $4,000 watches stamped with “Made in Nepal.” Kobold figures that adventurers who often pay more than $100,000 for an ambitious climb in the Himalayas won’t think twice about commemorating it with a $4,000 watch made by actual Sherpas.
Besides Sherpas, Kobold also plans to recruit three or four Amish teenagers this year as part of his plan to make his barn-based workshop into a rustic tourist destination. He said the Amish people’s Swiss-German heritage makes them naturals for the fine motor skills needed for watchmaking, plus they have a strong work ethic. “You should have seen when I introduced the Sherpas to the Amish,” Kobold laughs.
Or, for that matter, when he introduced the Sherpas to Gandolfini, as he did on a recent trip to L.A. The hulking actor towered over Namgel and Thundu. For their part, the Sherpas had never heard of Tom Cruise, Madonna or Michael Jackson, let alone the man behind Tony Soprano. But they were visibly excited to meet an American movie star whose face they had seen on a billboard. They told Gandolfini they liked America, especially lawnmowers and electronic key cards. Kobold grins at the memory. “Sherpas meet movie star,” he says. “Movie star meets Sherpas. Life’s one big adventure.”
Pittsburgh-based writer CRISTINA ROUVALIS’s $30 watch was likely made by neither Sherpas nor the Amish.
Three notable Kobold watches and the people behind them.
James Gandolfini scrawled the design for this giant on the napkin of a pizza joint where he and Kobold were having a slice. Waterproof to 3,300 feet, the watch meets the international standards of professional dive watches.
Phantom Black Ops ($4,650)
Eight Navy SEALs collaborated with Kobold to design this “military wrist instrument” with a stealth-like appearance. It offers countdown bezels, designed for SEALs breaching buildings at night.
Max 46 ($5,950)
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman (and Kobold spokesman) Max Starks helped design this outsized watch, which is set to be released in 2012 to commemorate the Steelers’ Super Bowl XL victory.