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February 12, 2016

Craftspeople
Watches

Overcoming Dictatorship and following his dream: Meet Stefan Mihoc, Shinola's Senior watchmaker

Photograph by Christian Witkin
Craftspeople
Watches

February 12, 2016

Stefan Mihoc was born and raised in Romania and has wanted to be a watchmaker since he was 13 years old. He attended the country's only watchmaking school and worked in his uncle’s watch repair shop until he was drafted into the army. Read more about our senior watchmaker's story below.

The country was gripped by a dictatorship at the time and military service was compulsory. Following his service, he tried repeatedly to flee the country, to no avail. Then the revolutions that swept through Europe in the late ‘80’s changed the government, enabling him to eventually move with his family to the U.S. Unfortunately, there was very little watchmaking work in America, so he trained and worked as a machinist in the Detroit area for over a decade. Then, one day, an unexpected phone call from Shinola changed everything. 

How did you get into watchmaking?

On summer vacations I would stay with my uncle. He was a watchmaker and he kept finding me playing around with his watchmaking equipment. When I was about 13, he just asked me, do you like playing with this stuff? I said yes, so he took me with him to his shop and gave me a working table clock. He told me to take it apart, and to make sure it was still running when I give it back to him.

That was my first test, and I passed! After that he talked my dad into sending me to the only watchmaking school in Romania.

Stefan checks the movement in the final quality check operation.

What did you do after that?

After school, I started working in my uncle’s watch repair shop, until I was drafted into the army. After the army, I tried to get out of the country, because we were living under a dictatorship. I tried to escape many times.

One time I managed to cross the border into the former Yugoslavia. I was there for 6 weeks, and then they sent me back. They could’ve put me in jail after that, but there were so many people trying to escape that the jails were full, so they docked my paycheck by 60% for one year. They only managed to do it for 8 months, though, then we had the revolution and everything changed.

When did you come to the U.S.?

In 1996 I immigrated to the United States. I tried to find work as a watchmaker around here, but I couldn’t find anything. So I started learning machining and worked as a machinist for 10 years.

Then the economy got bad and I was laid off. When I looked for another job, I found a place that needed a watchmaker, so I went there, applied for a job and they took me in. I worked there for 1 year. After that I opened my own watch repair shop.

A glimpse of Stefan's workstation.

What do you do outside of work?

I go home and I fix watches because I still have my watch repair company that I had before I came here. I work from my home and I have clientele that have been coming back to me for years. I love working with old watches and I love American pocket watches that were made up to 200+ years ago. It’s amazing to see what they could do back then and see that the watches are still working.

Outside of watches I love politics, watching soccer, and spending time with my family — they mean everything to me.

What is the rarest watch that you own?

I have a Fusee pocket watch that is about 350 years old and it used to be a pirate’s watch. You can tell by the way it’s built because Fusee is the type of mechanism that is inside and back then people would ask a case to be made for that specific mechanism. This particular one I have matched perfectly to the style of a pirate by looking at the style of the case.

What are your favorite restaurants in Detroit?

I like the skinless sausages from Bucharest Grill. I love the duck from Selden Standard. But really I don’t eat out much, I love my wife’s cooking, especially her fig cake with chocolate.

This interview is part of a new series called JOBS that highlights the people that make Shinola tick. Find their stories right here on The Journal or on our Jobs page.

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