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The world's thinnest watch is slimmer than a particularly thick hair

It’s thinner than a dime, lighter than three pencils and looks nothing like your father’s wristwatch.

At less than a millimeter thick, the CST-01 is set to be the world’s thinnest watch when it ships to customers as soon as the end of the year. Nearly 11,000 orders have been placed with Central Standard Timing, a company made up of two designers on sabbatical from Ideo in the West Loop.

The CST-01 involves laying a strip of E Ink (the type of electronic paper used in Kindles) in a thin piece of stainless steel. The watch is buttonless, knobless and, save the time-telling, featureless. It sells for $144, including the base station that charges it and allows the wearer to adjust the time.

The watch may be small, but the challenges have been quite the opposite. Dave Vondle and Jerry O’Leary have had to create many original parts to fit within the watch’s tiny parameters. And waiting on those parts can bog down the process.

The custom parts often have production lead times of eight to 14 weeks, which means it can be two months before the pair sees if something works or if it needs to be reimagined. They’ve been through 40 iterations of the watch, and expect at least five more before it’s complete.

“We have to make sure that everything’s right,” says Vondle, senior interaction designer and electrical engineer at Ideo. “If we don’t get it right, our delivery schedule is eight weeks later. And we’re out tens of thousands of dollars.”

Vondle and O’Leary, Ideo design director, have been working on the project for over a year. They sold the watch on Kickstarter, where they raised more than $1 million, and are now taking orders on the Central Standard Timing website. The company is in final negotiations with Singapore-based Flextronics to manufacture the watches.

In a time when new watches can do everything short of drag you out of bed in the morning and feed you a bowl of Cheerios, Vondle and O’Leary decided to head the other direction with the CST-01.

“What we typically do in design is we add features to something,” O’Leary says. “So by all these people crowding and adding features to all these devices, they’ve left a space here, where there’s been no technological development on the basic architecture of a watch — the basic architecture of a watch has been the same for decades.”

The pair believes that lack of design clutter will give the CST-01 an edge on the competition that’s in each customer’s pocket.

“People say: ‘Why do you even wear a watch? A phone can do all the stuff,’” Vondle says. “You can take all the functions that cellphones duplicate off and it leaves you with just the pure statement of this thing tells the time and goes on my wrist. It doesn’t need to be a stopwatch. It doesn’t need to have an alarm on it. It doesn’t need any of these things because your phone does that.”

Neil Stern, senior partner at Chicago retail consultancy McMillanDoolittle, sees the CST-01 customer as someone who likes to mix technology with their fashion.

“You’re really going to go after a buyer who wants it to be a conversation piece and wants to be unique,” Stern says. “I think you’re talking about an affluent customer — they’re not buying this because they want a time-telling piece, they want it to turn heads.”

The price tag is higher than the bulk of the watch market but still not in premium brand territory, Stern says.

“It does go into that Swatch and Fossil kind of market, but they’re really not bringing the technology piece to bear,” he says. “I think the combination of the two is what is unique.”

Photo of Dave Vondle and Jerry O’Leary by Heath Sharp