Michael Kobold: From Making Watches and Hunting Nazis to Climbing Mount Everest

Features Issue 93 Jul, 2010
Text by Eliz Manandhar

Besides being the founder and owner of the world-famous Kobold Watch Company, Michael Kobold is also a novelist, film-maker and an adventurer. Here he shares his experiences of climbing Mount Everest and other adventures.

In an article by Josh Dean, published in Inc. magazine’s May 2007 issue, Michael
 Kobold receives a call from a gruff- sounding guy who is an owner of a Kobold watch and wants another one made. At first Michael assumes this person to be a policeman and hints at a police discount. Only later does he discover that the person on the other end of the line is James Gandolfini, star of the The Sopranos series on HBO. Michael doesn’t watch television and thus doesn’t know the names of famous movie stars, other than the likes of Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson. During the phone conversation, James Gandolfini tells Michael that he is Tony Soprano of the The Sopranos series. Michael’s retort was – “This Sopranos thing, is it a musical?” To which, Gandolfini answers, “It’s a show about a big fat guy, and I’m the big fat guy.” Later on, when they finally meet, Michael says, “You’re not as fat as I thought you’d be”, to which Gandolfini’s comeback is “And you’re not as old as I thought you’d be.”

They soon became good friends and Gandolfini is currently the most famous brand ambassador for Kobold.

Meet The Man
Possessing an air of pure, unbridled entrepreneurship about him, with good looks and excellent speaking skills and a polished accent, Michael Kobold is the 30-year old owner of the famous Kobold Watch Company, which ranks in the top ten of its kind according to the international watch press. The watches are handmade precision instruments and are renowned for their ruggedness and durability. Kobold watch-wearers range from famous celebrities to astronauts. Some of the famous celebrities are Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Crystal, Kiefer Sutherland (of 24 fame), Gary Sinise (Of Mice and Men, Forrest Gump, CSI: NY), and Don Johnson. Michael Jackson adored his small collection of Kobold watches and on occasion let the young watchmaker visit his Neverland Ranch.

Born into a family of entrepreneurs, Michael graduated high school from the Frankfurt International School (Germany), after which he attended Carnegie Mellon University (in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) where he earned a BSc in Economics. It was in his first year as a full-time student that he founded the Kobold Watch Company. 

Michael is a dear friend of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, whose full title is impressive: ‘Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wickham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet, OBE’ (Order of the British Empire). Michael holds this gentleman in the highest esteem and credits him with introducing him to the life of an adventurer. Fiennes is a direct descent of Charlemagne, the 8th-9th century King of the Franks and Emperor of Europe. Fiennes also holds several endurance records: he was the first man to reach both the North and South Poles and  the summit of Mount Everest (all three). He’s also an uncle of the excellent actors, Ralph and Joseph Fiennes. Kobold was with Fiennes recently in Nepal to climb Everest, which he hails as “the queen of all mountains.” How he came to do this, despite a fear of heights, is an interesting story in itself.

The Worlds Biggest Challenge
Michael’s company makes watches for individual US Navy SEALs. One of Michael’s friends is a Navy Seal who was critically injured in Iraq and is bound to a wheelchair and unable to talk. The two communicate through e-mails. Disheartened and concerned, Michael decided to climb Mount Everest to raise money and awareness for the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund, a charitable organization chartered to provide financial aid for the families of wounded and fallen Navy SEALs. (SEAL stands for SEa Air Land, the environments in which SEALs are trained to operate.) “What better way than to do it publically than by climbing Everest, the grandest and most popular mountain in the world? Everyone talks about Everest. If one climbs K2, nobody pays much attention, although it is the most difficult mountain to climb in the world. With Everest, however, you get to reach out to a lot of people!”

Michael accompanied Sir Ranulph Fiennes to Base Camp while Fiennes was on his second attemp climb Everest in 2008. But Fiennes failed and Michael never even got to see Camp 1. While at Base Camp, Michael cut his hands open while trying to slice salami, of all things. He blames it on himself, saying he was extremely clumsy. Fiennes was evidently delighted by the incident, as it brought a welcome change from the monotony and boredom commonly associated with a long stay at Base Camp. The wound had to be stitched up with six stitches and Michael was forbidden from climbing higher. He remained at Base Camp until the end of the expedition. (Michael showed me the scar between his thumb and the index finger: nasty.) Nonetheless, this year he and Sir Ranulph reached the summit together.

Before he climbed Everest, however, the SEALs volunteered to put Michael through a rigorous training course at their base in California. For two months, eight burly Navy SEAL instructors taught Michael about climbing, physical fitness and nutrition. Once on the mountain, Kenton Cool, another British mountaineer, was his mentor. Thus, the three of them – Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Kenton Cool and Michael Kobold – after a rough and tough climb, reached the summit on May 21 2009 at 5:50 am. As a result of the climb, they hoped to raise a quarter million U.S. dollars for the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund. After successfully reaching the summit, Michael explained that the SEAL training he underwent was far more demanding than actually climbing the world’s highest mountain. “I could never, ever have done it without the SEALs; they literally helped me help their wounded buddies.”

What It Is That He Does
Michael also spoke about watch-making and mountaineering; he thinks there is a very important relationship between the two. High altitude climbing requires strong, reliable, rugged watches that should be able to stand low temperatures, he says. Time is very important while mountain climbing. If one were to wear just a common watch there could be a timing error and the watch might even stop functioning – and this is certainly not wanted at extreme altitudes.

He also talked about other aspects of his life, like arm-chair exploring and motivational speaking. His motivational talks draw on his unusual and colorful experiences to relate lessons learned in life and how those lessons can be applied to the business world. Team-work, efficiency, and time management include are some of those lessons. While resting in Kathmandu at the end of the expedition, he gave a number of talks at the Hyatt Regency hotel, which was among his expedition’s sponsors (the expedition was also sponsored by Land Rover, Fuisz Technologies, Honda, Continental Airlines and Hershey’s Chocolate, to name a few). The talks were so well-received that Michael also gave other presentations, including one at the request of the Nepali Tourism Board, which also made him an honorary ambassador of Nepal. The audience was surprised to learn that among other things, Michael has taught tactical and defensive driving to members of Germany’s police and to security details of dignitaries. But the most interesting and daring thing he has ever done is tracking down a Nazi war criminal, Michael Weingaertner, along with the famous Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal and his friend Ranulph Fiennes. Weingaertner was a mass murderer who had allegedly killed several hundred Jewish women and children on a death march at the end of the Second World War. Fifty-six years later, Michael found him hiding in Austria, so he and Fiennes paid him a visit and alerted the local authorities. The Austrian authorities weren’t interested in prosecuting him, however, so he ultimately went unpunished, something Michael regards as preposterous.

Books, Education, Movies And The Future

Michael has also worked with Sir Ranulph Fiennes on four books: The Feathermen, The Secret Hunters, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know and Captain Scott. For The Secret Hunters, a novel about hunting down the Nazi war criminal, the two of them had to do a great deal of research. Michael wrote parts of this book that ultimately went on to become an international bestseller. The Feathermen, also a bestseller, was about a group of SAS soldiers hunting down social misfits, and is currently being made into a Hollywood movie. Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know is Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ autobiography, which Michael helped out in parts. Captain Scott was about Robert Falcon Scott, who led the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole between 1910 and 1913.

Currently, Michael is working on a new book entitled Embrace Adventure. He plans to complete it by the end of this year. He’s also working on an educational program for environmental concerns with Philippe Cousteau, a professional diver and grandson of the legendary Jacque Cousteau, one of the most famous underwater explorers of our time. Michael has also made a couple of interesting documentaries and is soon releasing a film about his buddy, Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Also, Secret Hunter is in pre-
production and Michael, along with Sir Fiennes, will be documenting it.

How often do you meet one person who is all these things: watchmaker, author, motivational speaker, adventurer, film-maker, and successful Nazi hunter? Not to mention successful Everester. Michael Kobold is all of that, an unusual, charmed figure who has an immediate and positive impact on all those he meets. He’s done a lot in his first thirty years, and most of it impeccably timed.