*SEE BELOW: Update included due to Nepal Earthquake
In 2010, watchmaker Michael Kobold was recently married and climbing Mount Everest for the second time with his bride, Anita. The two had met on Mount Everest the previous year, after Kobold’s close friend, the British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, convinced him that his eponymous expedition watches would only be authentic if their creator himself pursued expeditions. Fiennes is considered the ”World’s Greatest Living Explorer” by the Guinness Book of World Records, and thus Kobold couldn’t pass up the challenge. He joined Fiennes on his 2009 Everest expedition after two months of training at the Navy SEAL base in Coronado, California, and chanced upon Anita, who at the time was Hungary’s most accomplished and famous female mountaineer.
Michael Kobold founded his namesake company while majoring in entrepreneurship at Carnegie-Mellon University and based it in his small one-bedroom apartment in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. When it was time to renew the apartment’s rental contract, Kobold found himself at Mount Everest Base Camp and decided it was time to buy a home in the countryside. Using a laptop and a satellite Internet connection, Kobold found a farm for sale near the village of Volant, dispatched his assistant and her husband to scope it out and purchased it sight-unseen.
Merry Oaks Farm sits between Volant and Grove City just beyond an old one-lane bridge. A greenhouse and an abandoned train station sit at the base of the property, and then just beyond on the hillside stands a white farmhouse. The home overlooks a mid-19th Century barn and a creek. Looking at the pictures online at Base Camp, Kobold thought the bright-red bard would be the perfect place to house his company’s operations. In the middle of Amish country, it is here where Kobold envisions to someday produce the first 100% American-made watch in generations- in a quintessentially American environment.
Upon their return from Mt. Everest, Michael and Anita were able to visit Merry Oaks for the first time and immediately fell in love with the land. The buildings, on the other hand, were in bad shape and the barn posed a liability. Fortunately, with Merry Oaks sitting in the middle of Western Pennsylvania’s Amish Country, Michael hired an Amish crew and began rehabbing the farm in the winter of 2009.
A few months later, Anita convinced her husband that their first ascent of Everest “didn’t count because it was done with supplemental oxygen.” According to Kobold, “in the elitist climbing world, this is considered cheating.” Thus, Anita felt a second ascent was necessary, this time without supplemental oxygen. For a risk-averse watchmaker, this was a paradigm shift. “I thought the no-oxygen idea was ridiculous and I haven’t changed my mind after all these years”, explains Michael, regarded as one of the pioneers in the recent renaissance of American watchmaking. The couple returned to Nepal and reached the summit of Mt. Everest a second time – with the use of supplemental oxygen.
On the descent from the summit, while daydreaming of their new home near Grove City being renovated in their absence, tragedy struck. At Camp II, an elevation of 21,500 feet, Anita collapsed on the mountainside. After a couple of minutes, Anita stopped breathing and turned blue. A doctor who had climbed with the couple rushed to her side only to pronounce that she had died.
Michael dispatched the couple’s two Sherpas, Namgel and Thundu, to find a medical bag containing adrenaline and steroid syringes. After the shots were administered, Anita came back to life. Thanks to the Sherpas’ efforts, Anita survived. Out of gratitude, Kobold hired the two Sherpas to make watches. They would be able to make a good living without having to risk their lives climbing Everest, he thought. Kobold has since opened an outpost for his company in Nepal, but first he had to bring the Sherpas to Pennsylvania for them to learn the art of watchmaking.
Merry Oaks became home to Namgel, Thundu, and the Kobolds. The two Sherpas could be seen walking the Pennsylvania country roads while the barn was being renovated. For nearly a year locals would stop and stare, and occasionally ask them if they were lost. They were not. They were on their way to making a life for themselves outside of guiding deadly expeditions. Today Namgel and Thundu make watches in Nepal that sell for between $3,000 to $16,500. In the coming years, Kobold plans to open the Kathmandu Watchmaking Institute, with facilities to train 30 to 50 Sherpas per year.
Back in Pennsylvania, the barn was renovated and painted a traditional bright red. Large windows were added and a second barn was built to house the company’s expansive machinery. Kobold had already made a mark in the watch world but he had even bigger ambitions. At Merry Oaks Farm, Kobold established the first American in-house watch case production in over 50 years.
At the grand opening of the new Kobold Expedition Tools in April of 2014, a diverse group of speakers and guests mingled at Merry Oaks. A U.S. District Judge, Navy SEALs, State Department officials, German diplomats, Amish workers, Nepal’s royal family, local officials, and Sir Ranulph Fiennes all amused the 250 guests with their personal stories of Kobold.
Today, a passersby would have no idea what lies behind the façade of this picturesque Pennsylvania farm. To an outsider, all seems as it would anyplace else in rural Western Pennsylvania – an 1800’s farmhouse, a red barn, an Amish buggy parked outside, a meandering creek and a historic covered bridge in the distance. Nothing is out of the ordinary. However, on the inside Merry Oaks Farm is a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility that has pioneered a rebirth in American watchmaking. When Hamilton, the last major American watch manufacturer, closed its doors in 1969, critics said watchmaking would never come back to America. Kobold is proving them wrong. Today, thanks in part to Kobold, America is seeing a boom in domestic watch production.
Even though Michael Kobold was born in Germany, he is turning his own American dream into reality. As he gets closer to completing the first 100% American-made watch in decades, his farm near Grove City isn’t just turning out watches, it is making history.
**UPDATE: Since publishing “The ‘American’ Watchmaker,” an Earthquake has ravaged Nepal and destroyed Kobold’s watch factory in Kathmandu. Thundu Sherpa, one of the Sherpas that saved Anita’s life, was on Mount Everest during the Avalanche that took at least 17 lives. He is believed to be OK, but currently trapped on Mount Everest. Namgel Sherpa is also OK, but both of their homes are destroyed, along with thousands of others. Prior to the earthquake, Michael Kobold had begun to plan an expedition to deliver much needed firetrucks and equipment to Kathmandu. The valley of 5 million people has ONLY 5 firetrucks, many of them decades old and now destroyed. If you would like to learn more or donate to this expedition, go to www.soarway-foundation.org.
by Alex DeGroff. Contributions by Michael Kobold. Visit Kobold Watch website.