Sagamore announced Wednesday that it has taken a 25 percent stake in Towson Watch Co., run for 16 years by two prominent watchmakers who craft custom handmade timepieces that range in price from nearly $2,000 to more than $13,000. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Sagamore said it has an option to purchase the company over time.
Towson Watch fit the venture capital arm's focus on investing in growing businesses that make unique products in the Baltimore area and are poised to create jobs, Sagamore officials said. Towson Watch was founded in 2000 by George Thomas and Hartwig Balke, master watchmakers who met by chance at an Irish pub in Annapolis.
The deal will give Towson Watch the ability to expand, raise global awareness of the brand and increase distribution, Sagamore said. The watches are sold at Little Treasury Jewelers in Gambrills, Grenon's of Newport in Newport, R.I., and Smyth Jewelers in Timonium.
"Hartwig and George have amazing stories," said Tom Geddes, managing partner of Plank Industries, Plank's private investment firm, which includes the Sagamore Ventures subsidiary. "We felt like these timepieces were beautiful objects ... created right here in the Baltimore area.
"While they have a terrific product and terrific partnership, there was not much in the way of a succession plan," Geddes said. "We were in a unique position to help turn it into a longer-term legacy."
The Sagamore investment means "the brand will continue to grow and thrive for a long time to come," said Balke, who is in his mid-70s.
Thomas is in his 80s, so, Balke said, "we are constantly thinking about how the brand will live on 20-plus years from now."
Demian Costa, Sagamore Ventures' managing partner, first learned of Towson Watch when he saw one of the timepieces at a Towson jewelry store several years ago. After discussing potential investments later, he recalled having seen the watches and tracked the business down.
Balke is known for having designed a watch worn by a NASA astronaut during a space shuttle mission in 2000. In 2009, the watchmakers were called in by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History to examine and repair a gold pocket watch that belonged to Abraham Lincoln, and helped discover a message engraved by a watchmaker who repaired it in 1861.
"I am a mechanical engineer, so the movement of mechanical watches always intrigued me," Balke said. "I saw them as 'machines,' but on a smaller scale. Neither George nor I went to a traditional watchmaker's school. Instead, we learned by doing."
On its website, Towson Watch says its timepieces appeal to "watch connoisseurs, collectors, successful people in sports, arts or professionals like engineers, aircraft pilots, astronauts."
"Our customers are mostly watch collectors," Balke said. "They want a watch that is made in the U.S. and feels truly special on their wrist."
Sagamore recently invested $1.25 million in CWIST, an educational technology firm that relocated from Annapolis to a Plank-owned property in South Baltimore's Port Covington. It also invested $5 million last year in Tessemae's All Natural, a family-owned salad dressing and condiment maker based in Essex.
Plank, Under Armour's chairman and CEO, named his venture capital operation after Sagamore Farm, the storied horse racing farm in Baltimore County he now owns. The name is also on the whiskey distillery, Sagamore Spirit, that is under construction in Port Covington, where Plank has accumulated more than 200 acres and plans to develop a new corporate campus for Under Armour amid a larger-scale mixed-use development.
An earlier version misspelled Demian Costa's name. The Sun regrets the error.