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These Micro-Brands Are Making Watches the Right Way
As I began to fall deeper into the watch wormhole and looked to drop some real cash on my first time piece, my natural inclination was to find the best direct-to-consumer internet-first brand out there. Hey, if it works for my favorite cashmere sweater, fresh pair of white sneakers, and other wardrobe staples, why not watches? Of course, watches are a little different; many watch manufacturers have built up brand equity over centuries. Consumers connect to vintage pieces in a company's collection and identify with the story their branding tells. And over those centuries, these brands have cultivated manufacturing expertise allowing them to craft beautiful in-house movements. But, more than one microbrand has managed to break through, often acquiring a cult-like following who devoutly snaps up their favorite brand's new release minutes after it's released. While distribution channels for major brands like Rolex or Patek Phillipe are often difficult for consumers to navigate, these microbrands leverage the internet to cultivate consumer relationships and brand loyalty.
Some websites do wonderful work covering microbrands (Worn & Wound and Gear Patrol among them), but they often don't gather information about these brands into one easy-to-access resource, forcing you to search their archives for holistic information. I wanted to take some time to consolidate information about some of the best microbrands I've seen out there, what they're about, and why they might be for you.
First, an attempt to define the term "microbrand". It's a term ambiguous almost by its very nature, but what these brands generally have in common is a direct-to-consumer model driven by ecommerce. Wikipedia defines microbrand watch companies as those selling 300-2000 pieces a year, which sounds good enough to me. They're typically priced much lower than luxury watches (think a few thousand dollars, at most), and leverage global manufacturing to source movements from ETA or Miyota, which also provide movements for some of the most well-known watch companies in the world (ETA is owned by Swatch Group, Miyota by Citizen Group). The brands – which are typically operated by just a few proprietors – then do the dial and case design or outsource the work to a shop. If you dig into their stories, you'll also often find these brands got their start from a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Check these watch micro brands out before you purchase that new Daniel Wellington or MVMT (or even Rolex)
Christopher Ward is something of a pioneer in the online-only microbrand space, launching from Maidenhead, England in 2004. Three English buddies, all with a common passion for watches, decided to start a company selling watches with Swiss movements at a fraction of the price you might see from a legacy Swiss brand. The company got its start by packing Swiss ETA movements into clean, well-designed dials, but has since begun building its own in-house movements. They supposedly caused a bit of a firestorm on watch forums when they released their first watch (leading to user bans when forum moderators thought the users were posting paid Christopher Ward content). In true Barbara Streisand-effect irony, the brand only grew from there. Their in-house caliber is actually the result of Christopher Ward's 2014 merger with their Swiss manufacturing partner Their automatic SH21 contains an impressive 120-hour power reserve, and is now available in a variety of watches from the brand, including the Grand Malvern Power Reserve, their best-selling watch. It's priced at $1,900, about the sweet spot for most of Christopher Ward's collection.
Now, the company has a comprehensive line of watches, including dress, dive or sport, aviation, motorsport, often with fun and subtle design quirks. For example, watches in their new Trident line contain a seconds hand with trident spear counter balance.
Instagram (25k followers)
Oak & Oscar was founded in 2015 by Chase Fancher (full disclosure: I'm biased towards this company because they're based in my hometown of Chicago). They've been hard at work ever since, releasing three models over the preceding years: the Burnham Date, the Sandford GMT, and the Jackson Chronograph (update: they recently dropped the Humboldt, see our coverage here). Every design is beautifully executed, something you'd expect from a company that named its first model after Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the Flatiron Building and many of Chicago's greatest structures. Previous models have sold out, but the Jackson Chronograph is still available for purchase on their website (as of October 2018). Often, they'll post on Instagram about their Oak & Oscar owner retreats, and it's honestly pretty cool to have created a passionate community of watch collectors who also want to hang out together. Midwest nice.
The Jackson comes in three variations: a stainless steel case with either a navy or grey dial, or a PVD case with darker grey dial. All went through limited production runs put remain available on Oak & Oscar's website. It's a powered by a manually-wound Eterna movement (Swiss) that beats at 28,800 vibrations per minute, with a 60 hour power reserve. The case is 40mm in diameter and slightly thick at 14.5mm, giving the watch a nice presence on the wrist. One can also see through the sapphire caseback that the 25-jewel movement is nicely decorated, with four stars cutout of a bridge, referencing the city of Chicago's flag. The stainless steel Jackson is $2,850, while the PVD-coated version is $3,150.
Oak & Oscar (rightly) claims that watch boxes have little utility and end up buried in a closet, so instead they send their products with a nicely crafted leather watch wallet which holds three watches and has enough room to hold the spare straps they also send with the watch. Their leather is sourced from Chicago's Horween Leather Company (Nomos also sources their strap leather from Horween). Personally I've been scouring the forums and Ebay for a Sandford GMT, but to no avail yet, which is probably a testament to the fact that the original purchasers keep these watches.
The new Humboldt is a 40mm watch with a 12-hour rotating bezel, striking a balance between dive and field watch.
Instagram (24k followers)
"Instruments for motoring" is the tagline of New York City-based Autodromo. The brand was launched in 2011 by a a vintage car fanatic, for vintage car fanatics. Its collection ranges from distinctive quartz chronographs to more simple automatic pieces. The last couple of years, Autodromo's collection has been defined by its partnering with Ford to produce the Ford GT Endurance Chronographs, commemorating the Ford GT's first win at Le Mans in 1966. If you're into racing at all, you'll immediately recognize this colorway:
The worlds of vintage car and vintage watch enthusiasts seem to naturally overlap, and Autodromo has leveraged this to its advantage, carving out a nice niche in the sub-$1,000 space.
Instagram (37k followers)
Brooklyn-based Martenero launched in 2014 with two models, the Founder and the Ace. They've added five watches to their collection since, each with a distinct and customizable style. The founders started the brand to create contemporary, yet classic time pieces; at a time when so many brands just re-release takes on their vintage models, it's refreshing to see a brand with distinctively 21st-century design but clear inspiration from classic watch motifs. Their most recent release, the Kerrison, comes packed with an automatic Miyota 9015 movement – the Citizen-built movement that's a favorite of upstart brands the world over (that I just realized you can purchase on Amazon for about a hundred bucks). The designs are simple with a certain playfulness and punch of color that really makes the dials and hands stand out.
Instagram (13k followers)
Halios and its flagship Seaforth diver watch are something of a darling to the internet watch world. Halios is essentially a one-man operation run by founder Jason Lim out of Vancouver. Halios is very much a passion project of Lim's, but luckily his taste is impeccable; he's inspired by 60s sport watches that are built to do anything and everything. He keeps his watches priced under $1,000, sourcing production out of Asia. Its Seaforth contains the ever-popular ETA 2824-2 automatic movement, so you know its built to last. It's got a classic dive-watch build and a steel GMT bezel. Go to any watch forum and you'll find a passionate base of Halios owners.
Weiss Watch Company is one of the few companies that has a legitimate claim to the mantle "made in America". Weiss Watch Company was started by Cameron Weiss, a California native who learned all his watch making skills in Switzerland - first in watchmaking school, before stints at Audemar Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. He's truly passionate about bringing fine watchmaking back to the states, and if you flip over one of his watches, you'll see he's not messing around. All his watches feature Weiss' own beautifully finished CAL 1003 movement. Its military-inspired field watch will inspire mid-century nostalgia in even the coldest of souls.
Instagram (16k followers)
"British Design x Swiss Made" is the moniker of popular micro-brand Farer. Their increasingly robust collection contains chronographs, GMTs, and simple three-hand designs. The company emphasizes the use of color, detail, and contrasting textures on their dials, leaving the internal movement to the Swiss experts. This means contrasting sub-dials on its chronographs and fun seconds hands, but to me, its GMT is perhaps best served by the inclusion of different colors. The GMT will set you back about $1,500, making it another viable option in the sub-$2,000 price range.
Instagram (22k followers)
Italian brand Unimatic is all about no-nonsense dive watches. They produce watches in small runs – usually less than 1,000 watches – and it’s hard to beat the prices too. For example, its Modello Unos will run you about $600. They contain Seiko movements inside, which are some of the most honest, durable (and well-priced) movements you'll find anywhere.
Raven has been quietly building classic-looking dive watches out of Overland Park, Kansas since 2008. Many of them have a Submariner feel, with case sizes varying from 40mm (Trekker, a classic dive watch) to 47mm (Titanium Deep, a monster of a watch). Most models come in at around $1,000, and all use the Swiss workhorse ETA 2824 automatic movement. It's a movement also used by many Hamilton and Tissot watches in the $500-$1,000 price range, so you know you're getting a quality Swiss movement inside the well-built stainless steel cases.
Instagram (6k followers)
Okay, this one's a little different than those previously mentioned, but come on. Ochs Und Junior produces about 130 watches a year, most of which are custom made. Its perpetual calendar might just be the perfect watch: the perpetual calendar movement takes only nine additional parts, displaying what (in my opinion) is a modern horological wonder. The minimal, brutalist design might turn some off, but I keep coming back to the company's video illustrating the build of the perpetual calendar. They'll set you back about $30,000 though, so start saving your francs.