One to Watch
Move over, Swiss watch makers, Michael Wilson has big plans for his KC-based luxury timepiece company, Niall.
Michael Wilson, founder of Niall
Deep inside a restored, century-old brick factory with high ceilings and huge windows in the Crossroads Arts District, Michael Wilson reigns over Niall, his 2-year-old luxury watch company that he plans to make the fastest-growing independent watch company in the world.
Available online and locally exclusively through Tivol, the company’s first watch — a men’s watch called the Niall One.3 (including a sexy Stealth Black version) —came on the market a year ago. Plans call for another men’s watch and two ladies’ watches, under the name of Cairenn, to come out shortly.
“Our eyes are very big,” says Wilson, a 31-year-old entrepreneur in his office at 1810 Cherry St. “If we find Earth 2, and they’re making watches there, I want to make sure that we keep up with them, too.”
Taking on the challenge of making luxury watches not in Switzerland but in such an unlikely place as Kansas City stems from two of Wilson’s passions: his love for watches and solving “massively complex and lofty problems.” When his father gave him a Tag Heuer Professional watch and a pair of Allen Edmonds shoes after he graduated from Shawnee Mission South in 2003, Wilson innately knew that style and taste mean something, especially in business.
Although some people were skeptical, Wilson, a confident, ambitious and tireless young man, was unfazed, even though he had no manufacturing experience before starting Niall with business partner Mark O’Renick.
The two men believed that, through innovation and collaboration, they could craft something as complex as a luxury watch right here in the good ol’ USA.
Watchmaker Justin Walters
Wilson, who earned a business degree from the University of Kansas and a master’s in business administration from the University of Missouri-Kansas, grew up in Overland Park and currently lives there with his wife and two young daughters. Armed with stints in marketing and an entrepreneurial spirit, he knew he wanted to spend his life manufacturing luxury goods.
He created the brand Niall (pronounced “Nile”) and audaciously named it after a 4th-century Irish king to whom Wilson can trace his family lineage. He also adopted the king’s rallying cry “to stand with honor and conquer for good.” The sister brand, Cairenn, is named after Niall’s mother. In Irish mythology, the name Cairenn represents strong women who embrace and encourage confidence.
Wilson devoted two years, working 100-hour weeks meeting with watchmakers, manufacturers, laser cutters and engineers – basically immersing himself in “how to deeply manufacture things” from the mundane to the big picture. He Skyped with Swiss watchmakers, talked with experts in Australia, and traveled to New York City, Los Angeles and Florida.
“You can go look into the history of some of the greatest watch companies in the world, and they were founded by non-watchmakers,” he says. “The first five Niall watches were built by me. The first watch ever bought was by Marc Andreessen, the most respected venture capital firm in the world. He’s also the guy who invented Netscape.”
Wilson, who says those five watches are his “form of Picasso,” is serious about American manufacturing. That’s why all Niall watch components are crafted in the United States, mainly Los Angeles, except for their Swiss automatic movements. Cases, bezels, crowns, straps and buckles are manufactured in America. The watches are assembled, tested for quality assurance and polished in Kansas City, and the watches’ dials and leather cases are made here.
Eventually, Wilson wants everything made locally, including the movement in the watches. He and O’Renick made the strategic decision when they started Niall not to go overseas to have them made, send them to a U.S. facility to slap a USA-made label on them and then call themselves an American-made watch brand.
They just didn’t think that was good enough. They actually thought they could dig deeper to return the roots of manufacturing to the United States, thus creating jobs.
“It’s not enough to say you pay your taxes and that is doing your duty to America,” Wilson says of job creation prompted by entrepreneurship.
Transparency is key to the company, he says, noting that he welcomes questions from customers.
“I’m so deep in the manufacturing process that I feel confident saying that we manufacture more in-house, meaning ourselves, and in America, than any other watch brand that exists in the market today,” he says.
Disassembled movement components of the Niall one.3
According to the company’s website, niallluxury.com, the Niall One.3 case and bezels are individually manufactured from a solid block of the highest-grade, corrosion-resistant stainless steel and then coated in diamond-like carbon. The watch is powered by an exclusive automatic movement with a 65-hour power reserve. In addition, the Niall One.3 is the first timepiece to use revolutionary Corning Gorilla Glass, which is 2.5 times stronger than sapphire glass.
Each timepiece is hand-assembled and quality-tested in Kansas City. Prices start around $4,000. The women’s watches will start at around $2,000.
Tivol began selling the watches this year right before Father’s Day and Big Slick weekend, an annual fundraising event that benefits Children’s Mercy Hospital that brought in many local celebrities, such as Paul Rudd, Eric Stonestreet, Rob Riggle, Jason Sudeikis and David Koechner. More than $20,000 in watches were donated to the Big Slick charity, Wilson says.
Hunter Tivol McGrath, vice president of Tivol, says he is excited to work with Wilson because he loves the brand, with its own unique style and quality that rivals any Swiss-made piece. Plus, he finds Wilson’s enthusiasm infectious.
“He is an amazing personality,” McGrath says. “He and his team have been wonderful to work with. They are very transparent in their manufacturing process. Mike was telling us that he shopped about 30 manufacturers before he could find one that could manufacture the steel cases to be the exact proportions that he needed, which is very, very difficult and very exact. That’s why you don’t see a lot of luxury, American-made timepieces anymore. The timepieces are obviously his biggest passion, but it doesn’t end there. He really does believe in bringing jobs to Kansas City and in the quality of American manufacturing and the power of collaboration.”
Custom royal blue niall created for ned yost when mlb banned his apple watch
Niall currently has six employees including one watchmaker, and is looking to hire a second watchmaker and another 20 or so people, including marketers, salespeople, brand designers and engineers, by the end of the year.
Wilson stresses that he is not trying to build a watch brand; rather he is building a company that manufactures quality goods in America. He plans to expand the brand to luxury items like purses and other goods.
“I really want to stress that we are building a heritage brand,” he says. “What you buy today will be part of a company that will exist for generations.”