They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Justin Kraudel’s journey to co-ownership of a successful American watch brand started with a quartz watch made by Guess.

“It was probably 26 millimeters, with a little 24-hour rotating bezel on there, and I would spin that bezel in class,” he says. “I went through a ton of straps, because a cheap strap would wear out fast.”

By the time he graduated from college and started working in finance, Kraudel had moved a bit more into watch nerdery: he was running the local RedBar group in St. Louis. He ordered a black rubber strap for his 16800 Submariner one day in 2014, from a well-liked company called Everest Horology. Michael DiMartini, the owner, was also based out of St. Louis, and packed all the orders himself. When he saw Kraudel’s local address, he called him, and they became watch buddies.

A year and a half later, DiMartini asked Kraudel to go into business with him. But Kraudel had a good thing going in finance. “Then he told me about his idea for a watch brand,” Kraudel said. “I was all ears.”

That brand was Monta, which DiMartini launched in 2016 with the OceanKing, a black, Swiss-made diver inspired by the luxury sports watches of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Kraudel came onboard in early 2017, and eventually became a co-owner, and the brand’s president. Today the brand, which still operates out of St. Louis, makes around 700 watches a year, in four models: the OceanKing, a GMT called the Skyquest, a field watch called the Triumph, and a new GMT, the Atlas. We caught up with Kraudel to talk about the brand, the American watch-loving community, and a conundrum involving two Daytonas.

Interview

Michael DiMartini and Justin Kraudel

Q: You wear a lot of hats at Monta, including handling social media and managing a lot of events—Basel, RedBar. What’s your read on the state of the American watch community?
A: That it’s very much alive and well. It seems like there’s a new watch brand popping up every couple weeks. It’s still thriving and growing, even when a lot of people have smartwatches on their wrist — what’s old is new and cool again.

Many of the guys in my circle of friends, they get an Apple Watch for Christmas, and they like having it on their wrist, and then they grow into liking and having a mechanical watch on their wrist. There’s the jewelry component to it: for most guys, outside of a wedding ring, it’s the only thing they wear on their person. And it also tells that story and lets everyone around them know this watches are interesting to them, and makes people ask them why.

Q: What are your customers like? Are they guys buying their first watches, or guys who already own a Speedmaster?
A: It’s a mix. Just today I had a gentleman in here who had a two-tone Submariner on his wrist, and he was really interested in the Triumph. I also today got an order from a good friend of mine. This is probably the most money he’s spent on a watch. And as far as financial resources, it’s all over the board. There’s wealthy guys buying a Monta that could afford to buy 20 of them, and then there’s also the guy who says, I’m halfway there to an Oceanking, and over the next 12 months I’m gonna keep saving till I get there. We’re happy to have anyone on board who wants one, and we’re gonna take care of them.

That said, we’re also trying to branch out, because most of our customers are pretty well educated watch guys in the sense that they know a lot of brands, they know a lot about movements and warranties. So when you really put yourself out there from a quality standpoint, you get a guy who says, ‘Hey, love my watch but it’s running plus-6 a day, and your website says it’s regulated to plus- or minus-5. Can I send it in to be tuned?’ And we’re like, sure, we’ll take a second off of that, if it’s important to you. So we’re trying to get away from that and also trying to reach more traditional guys who maybe would like to have a nice watch but who aren’t going to every RedBar meeting and reading every forum post.

Q: What’s your favorite watch of all time that’s not from your brand?
A: Instinctively my brain goes to the Daytona. I like that sporty elegance.

I also love the Nautilus and the Royal Oak. Because of that ability to look regal and elegant but also very sporty at the same time. That seems most appealing to most guys that are gonna wear a suit and tie a couple times a year but also wanna look put-together in a t-shirt and jeans. I think that style of watch really does it. That’s something I’d like to try to emulate at some point, with our own design language. Take the Atlas and try to class it up a little, more in terms of the case finishing, and maybe come up with a unique bracelet like Genta did on both of those.

I’m still a watch guy. I still love watches, so I’ve got a nice box of stuff at home. I tell people I only wear my Daytona around the house on Sunday, because I can’t be caught at the grocery store not wearing my own brand.

Q: You guys are at a tricky price point, and one that puts you up against a lot of tough competition, especially from other impressive small independent watchmakers. What makes you stand out?
A: They say seeing is believing — I would add that feeling is believing as well. We’ve been doing this for three years now, and we have a lot of happy people out there who love their watches. So I’ve got a lot of people out there that can back me up when I say that the fully articulated links on our bracelet make for the most comfortable bracelet you can ever imagine.

The quality of the finishing on the case, the dials themselves — every piece, the movement, sapphire crystal, feel of crown — all of those things together come across as very high quality. Not that other brands aren’t high quality. But for us, I feel like every piece really fits that same agenda.

And also that the designs: People say that the OceanKing looks like a Submariner, or the Seamaster, or the Fifty Fathoms, or whatever. My response is, it’s black, so same there, it’s a circle, so same there. But the bezel layout’s different, the hands are different, the markers are different, the lugs are a different shape and size. There’s all those different things. But you also can’t get too esoteric, too wild. Because at the end of day this has to be a business that’s going to survive, which means you have to have sales, which means you have to appeal to a wide audience.

Between the quality and the design, and then developing a great customer experience, I feel that we’re doing as good if not better than our biggest competition.

Q: What’s next for Monta?
A: A couple things. I’d say we’re gonna get back out on the road and meet some more people. Windup in New York — I enjoy that more than Basel. You meet so many people there.

Michael [DiMartini] is in Switzerland, working every day with our designer for hopefully a new release next year — that’s all I can say about that. We have our first authorized dealer, in Indiana. A couple more in 2020, maybe one more in 2019.

And then, just continuing to grow the brand, do the right thing, take care of the customer, and at the end of the day, it’s just having fun while doing it, and translating that fun to our customers, and showing them an appreciation for embracing Monta and making us a part of their lives.