HollenWolff Cufflinks: An Interview with the Founders

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If you’ve seen the pics, you’re probably intrigued; and if you’ve had a chance to hold one of these sleeve-mounted machines, you know exactly why we’ve been so excited to share the new HollenWolff cufflinks with you. A legacy. A good story. American ingenuity. And a skilled take on one of our favorite ‘accoutrements.’ Read through our interview with HollenWolff founders Kyle Stoehr and James Lohmiller to find out why you’re not supposed to call these ‘accessories.’

Set the scene for us with some background on Milwaukee and its reputation as “The Machine Shop to the World.”

Milwaukee was a natural epicenter for immigration of skilled tradesmen during the 1800s. In the early 20th century, more residents in Milwaukee spoke German than English. In addition to German immigrants, Irish, Polish, Hungarian, and other central Europeans brought their skill and work ethic to the area. And it never left.

Wisconsin ranks first in the United States in percentage of industrial employment with 18% of our residents employed in manufacturing. It’s an honest heritage we’re proud of–we like to think of it as ‘blue-collar romanticism.’ We want people to understand the heritage of Milwaukee. Maybe fashion doesn’t originate here, but machinery does. We always felt like, “Where else could a product like [these cufflinks] possibly come from?”

Where did you, James, sell custom clothes?

I met Kyle when he was a client of mine when I was with Tom James. As part of the Individualized Apparel Group, along with Gitman Bros., Individualized Shirts, Corbin, H. Freeman, English American, Holland & Sherry, and Oxxford, it’s there where I truly learned to appreciate craftsmanship–particularly American craftsmanship, as it relates to a tailored experience. We continue to work closely with the company, including work on our forthcoming line of shirting, which will be produced by Individualized Shirts in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

Where did you, Kyle, work in the ball bearing industry?

I’m a second generation owner of Oconomowoc Mfg. Corp., which takes its name from the city just west of Milwaukee where my family’s 50-year-old business is located. Our niche is domestic production of custom ball bearings. Although the markets couldn’t be much further apart, HollenWolff’s manufacturing operations mesh seamlessly with that of OMC–custom bearing design, precision machining, and intricate assembly. I was reluctant to return to the family business 15 years ago, as I thought the technical nature would be at the sacrifice of creativity. However, HollenWolff is evidence that there are many outlets.

Hollenwolff_pull_quote4Was HollenWolff really formed over the course of a single party?

It was–at a Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation benefit. Although the paths that led there for James and me both started some time earlier. In 2009, in what was the darkest hour of the recession for us (and with construction and automotive as its two largest markets), OMC was reeling from a 45% decrease in revenue from two years prior. With a lot of equipment sitting idle and many livelihoods at stake, virtually all my thoughts at the time were consumed with generating opportunities for survival. While for James, he’d always had a desire to blaze an unconventional path within a fashion context. Over cocktails, and after a flippant complaint about the difficulty of installing the flip-closure cufflinks I was wearing, and, further, that there must be a better way, James revealed on his phone that he’d just been researching “snap-together” cufflinks that were popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s. We immediately recognized that that an opportunity to combine our skill sets had just come to a fortuitous light.

Where were you researching old cufflink patents?

It was online to begin with in order to get a rough idea of what else was out there, and later through our patent attorney during the application process. It was amazing to learn of dozens of patents that were granted for mechanical means of simplifying or improving cufflink locking technology prior to World War II, and then to see how this all these efforts ceased with the advent and emerging popularity of the button-down dress shirt, as well as the automation of the cufflink t-bar or flip closure near the same time. Due to our bearing expertise, we wanted to incorporate a bearing-lock from early on. It was even more amazing to find that this idea had already been patented in 1924–humbling from the standpoint of learning you weren’t the first to think of something, however also beneficial to know the idea had previously been accepted as a men’s furnishing and perhaps was just ready to resurrect.

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Milwaukee Journal advertisement, April 11, 1920

Tell us about the HollenWolff namesakes, and the legacy you are fulfilling with your enterprise.

Dr. Stanley Hollenbeck, James’s grandfather, became a well respected physician in Milwaukee after serving his country in World War II. James credits his grandfather’s impeccable sense of style with fostering his sartorial passion at an early age.

My grandfather, Paul Wolff, immigrated to the US from Germany when he was seven. In a classic tale of American opportunity, and starting with very little, he became a successful tool and die manufacturer through hard work and ingenuity. Although he passed away when I was young, I feel a special connection to him through a heritage of manufacturing. He made things that lasted.

The resulting name combination, HollenWolff, therefore represents the intersection of mechanical ingenuity and style, and a tribute to men of substance.

Where do you source your materials, especially the inlay materials?

We’re proud to be able to say that HollenWolff products are made in the United States. From the stones we use for inlay, to the cattle used in the production of our Hermann Oak natural leather packaging, we’ve made every effort to ensure that all composition possible is domestic. The inlay technique was developed for HollenWolff by Wisconsin-based jewelry artist Karen Locher, using a selection of stones that provide not only beauty, but also have long been believed to imbue the wearer with certain powers. For example, black tourmaline is a powerful psychic shield–a useful attribute if your daily regimen involves swimming with sharks.

The surgical grade stainless steel we use is manufactured in Chicago; our machining, assembly and packaging extrusion operations are performed in Wisconsin; our coatings are applied in Rhode Island; even the fasteners in our packaging are manufactured by a father-and-son machine shop in Los Angeles.

Tell us about the natural “as turned” look of the bronze, and the patina you expect from it.

We knew we wanted to use a metal that patinas from the start. At first we prototyped copper, and we also considered brass. Two years later we learned of the highly-coveted Panerai “Bronzo” that utilizes a special alloy of bronze that patinas to a very warm and attractive finish. As the material color falls right in between copper and brass, it was an excellent material for us to use as well.

To accelerate the patinating process (which can take months to a year to get significantly started and depending on how much you handle them), we use sulfur to age the bronze quickly, and then hand-polish the parts to reveal the bronze while leaving low spots of darker patina. The result is a very warm and rich finish that you don’t see every day, outside of the marina.

Hollenwolff_pull_quote3 Any special reason behind the octagonal shape?

It’s important to first understand that every set of cufflinks has up to fourteen components that each start as a solid bar of steel and then are machined to finished tolerances as low as .0002” (two ten thousandths of an inch). Typically bar stock for machining comes in either rounds or hexes, so a six sided would be easier to produce from the standpoint that no milling would be required. The Swiss CNC lathes used to produce these parts are extremely advanced in terms of capability, including being able to mill flats from a round bar in the same machining cycle as turning just seconds prior. So to those who appreciate the craft of metal turning, eight sides subtly demonstrates a higher level of machining sophistication.

What are the personalization options?

On our .68 caliber cufflinks, we can laser inscribe text (i.e. names, initials, dates, messages, etc.) up to approximately 40 characters on each of four cufflink faces–typically one message for each male half, and one message for each female half. In addition to that, a personalized message can also be inscribed on the top of the anodized aluminum housing/packaging.

Of course, we also offer two shapes, two sizes, two metals, five PVD or DLC coatings, as well as the stone inlay. The buttons can be ordered in a different finish than the bodies, as well. Soon, we’ll also be introducing a second, more discrete, .55 caliber size.

We don’t really like the term, ‘accessory,’ because it implies the superficial–the degree of personalization we offer is actually quite the opposite. You can tell a story with these cufflinks.

Why or when should a guy opt for French cuffs and cufflinks instead of a normal barrel cuff?

The “why” part of the question can be answered with another question: Does anyone really prefer the look of plastic buttons? As far as “when,” the proper time to wear cufflinks is when you want to look your best. Which begs the question: Well, when don’t you? Cufflinks are not just for the tuxedo days. The fact is, with the ease, comfort and style of our products, it’s now possible for a man to look his best while still rolling up his sleeves and working for a living.

 

To see a HollenWolff featurette as well as mechanical cufflink demonstrations, check out their impressive videos at Vimeo. If you’re ready to get your own HollenWolff cufflinks, check out our selection.

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  1. Andrew

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