As we enter the first year of a new decade (according to the Gregorian calendar), it is worthwhile to pause and to take stock. But also to look forward to the future. The past ten years has seen enormous growth in microbrand watchmaking. And while the term “microbrand” is a contentious one—often rejected by its more established denizens—it is the only recognizable term within the industry which has come to envelop all manner of independent, boutique production. In some ways, it is the controversy over this label that is the topic of this article. Originally, the moniker referred to one-man (person) operations, leveraging the crowd-funding capabilities of the Internet and increased access to offshore manufacturing to produce value-priced watches for enthusiasts.
These early disruptors tapped into social media forums and made use of direct sales to build relationships with their clients. Of course, less reputable producers took advantage of these same methods, eventually affixing the term “microbrand” with a whiff of the shoddy. However, as the standing of the quality microbrand watchmakers grew, so did their audiences. Collectors, through these direct relationships, experienced a bit of “toughing the dragon’s tail” and soon became enthusiastic fans. This following and its flow of capital allowed what began as innovations in marketing and sales, to become innovations in design and production.
And then the question had to be asked, “When is a microbrand no longer a microbrand?”
From their initial role as disruptors, microbrands have created their own paradigm shift. And now, certain of these early enterprises are poised to enter the next level of watchmaking (if they haven’t already), establishing themselves simply as “contemporary brands.”
What follows is a list of 5 such watchmakers, who have in ways—both similar and diverse—changed the face of microbrand watchmaking.
High Calibre: Christopher Ward
Three friends took a boat trip on the Thames in 2004. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Their names were Mike France, Peter Ellis, and Chris Ward. None of them were watchmakers. What better place to start then as the heads of your own watch company?
In their initial research, the friends were surprised to discover that certain Swiss brands had markups of up to 34 times the price of production. This was their in. In 2005, on a converted chicken farm, Christopher Ward was born.
Their mantra, produce the “cheapest most expensive watches in the world.”
The three underlying rules of engagement, sell direct, avoid excessive markups, no celeb endorsements.
They began production with the C5 Malvern Automatic and the C3 Malvern Chronograph, which prompted Australian lecturer and watch expert Dave Malone to write, Christopher Ward makes the “best value mechanical watch in the world.” Since then, there has been no turning back.
In 2008, they did the previously unthinkable. In partnership with Synergies Horologieres and master watchmaker Johannes Janke they produced the JJ Calibres for their C9 Jumping Hour and C900 Single Pusher. And then on their tenth anniversary, in 2014, they broke a fifty-year drought in British watchmaking by creating their own in-house movement—the Calibre SH21.
But they haven’t stopped there. In many ways, they are a brand just hitting its stride. You get the impression that at Christopher Ward they are only beginning to flex their creative muscles. Take their trademark light-catcher cases, for example. Or, the newfound inventiveness in their dials, their hands. It’s hard to imagine a more stunning diver than the the Limited Edition C60 Apex, with its exhibition caseback and alluring attractive open heart. But you know the company is trying…
There can be no arguing with the brand’s success, thus far. In 2018, they released the highly desirable C65 retro range and the third generation of their popular Trident. According to co-founder Mike France, the company’s achievement comes from constantly reinventing itself through innovation in timepieces, as evidenced with last year’s C60 Sapphire, the C60 Elite GMT 1000, and their first moonphase watch, the C1 Moonglow.
In the end, perhaps the brand is best expressed in its own words, “Ingeniously English, Unsurprisingly Swiss.”
Custom Adventures: Norqain
On the flip side of the Christopher Ward story, the youngest member of this list is the family owned Norqain, founded only in 2018. However, this date belies the brand’s four generations of watchmaking experience in Tavannes at the centre of the Swiss watchmaking world. Today the company is run by CEO and founder Ben Küffer, his father Marc Küffer (of NHL fame), Mark Streit (another NHLer), and Ted Schneider (a member of the family that owned Breitling).
Norqain is about as close to an industry insider as a microbrand can get. And yet they remain staunchly self-reliant, as their motto declares: Adventure, Freedom, and Independence.
This motto also celebrates the brand’s commitment to a mountaineering heritage at the heart of the Bernese Jura, and explains the sport-influenced line-up of their timepieces. Unmistakeably, the company is positioning itself as a lifestyle brand with the hardware to back it up.
Norqain build only mechanical watches and have only three collections. However, within those three collections, they offer 25 different references for men, and another 15 for women! More importantly, in the brief history of their existence, they have managed to create a highly recognizable watch. The unique weft dial pattern available in all models and the customizable “Norqain plate”—a small patch of real estate to the left of the dial where you can have a word or an important date inscribed—are only a couple of distinct features. All of their watches offer open casebacks, as well, providing a glorious view of the in house NN20 Manufacture Calibres (produced in conjunction with Kenissi).
In keeping with their sporting image, Norqain have recently entered a partnership with NHLPA (National Hockey League Players Association), which spawned the Limited Edition Adventure Sport Chrono in October of 2020. Among its other robust features is the unique off-white dial designed and executed to appear like the scratched surface of an ice rink.
No matter the collection, Norqain watches exude a rugged sophistication that makes them an attractive option in the luxury adventure market.
Dialed In: Farer
The second British brand on this list is Farer. Founded in 2015 by four friends—Ben Lewin, Jono Holt, Paul Sweetenham and Stuart Finlayson—Farer has made a splash in short order. The company’s name, which means “explorer,” has been the motivator of its direction as a brand. Most of their watches are named after great explorers, madmen (and women), dreamers, and those who pushed the boundaries of the know world.
All four men had varying degrees of experience in the areas of marketing, retailing, and even watch design. And they knew what they wanted: to create vintage-inspired timepieces of the highest quality. As with other other luxury microbrands, their goal was also to provide value for money. This meant inexpensive. Not cheap. British by design, Farer’s watches are produced in Switzerland at Roventa-Henex and provide that Swiss quality directly to the collector—eschewing retailers—with a five-year warranty on all products.
Today, Farer is defined as much by its dial and case design as it is by the Swiss ETA and Sellita movements it uses. They employ state-of-the-art detailing, an assertive use of bold colours, and and bespoke case shapes to set them apart from the herd. They combine these innovative designs with 316L stainless steel bracelets and a gorgeous selection of leather straps.
Their Bernina, one of the most recognizable in the Farer lineup, was built as the official timekeeper of the 2019 Bernina Gran Turismo, and features circular and horizontal brushing on the top and sides, against a highly polished back. It has a domed box case front crystal, recessed steel pushers and a crown capped in bronze. Its perle finished Sellita movement is visible through a flat sapphire crystal and has been engraved with the Farer monogram. Everything about it, from the dial to the band, speaks of thoughtful design.
But my personal favourite is the stunning Aldrich World Timer on Barenia Leather. At the centre of the Aldrich dial is is a map of the world in contrasting hues of blue, encircled by a universal hour ring, which is, itself set amid a pool of sunray blue. All of this saturation really sets off the highly-polished batons and matching numerals. The steel-edged alpha hands, filled with mint green Super-Luminova, also seem to pop off the dial. Encasing all of this is a blue chapter ring with city names printed in white and red, and a soft powder blue. It’s a dial you could almost dive into.
So, in only a few years, Farer, who began as purveyor of timepieces with distinctive nods to the golden age of watch-making, has now reinvented the vintage and won over enthusiasts around the world.
Finish First: Monta
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, we have Monta. Prior to debuting the brand, Michael DiMartini and David Barnes ran the very successful Everest Horology, fashioning aftermarket sports straps for Rolex watches. The men made a name for themselves through their high-tolerance vulcanized rubber bands which sold for upwards of $200. Their experience with Everest situated them well for a watch brand launch in 2016.
While the company is American, the watches themselves are built in Switzerland. The brand made waves immediately with their first model, the Ocean King—a vintage-styled diver with 1000m of water resistance. Enthusiasts were quick to notice a resemblance with Rolex. These comparisons were more than just flattery. At a fraction of the price, Monta has become synonymous with finishing. From the applied markers to the diamond cut hands and the razor-sharp transitions between brushed and polished surfaces, Monta watches speak of quality. They have become particularly notable for their trademark chamfered lugs, which run a polished bevel along the inside where the lug meets the bracelet, and also for their date window, which appears tastefully at six on each of their models.
And speaking of bracelets…Monta has developed a stainless-steel band that is the envy of the industry with fully articulating, beveled links and an attractive monogrammed flip lock.
The brand built on the success of their Ocean King with the Triumph Field. Again, fans heard echoes of Rolex—this time the Explorer. But rather than shrug off these comparisons, Monta has chosen instead to embrace them. The Skyquest GMT, their third model, is admittedly based loosely on the 6542 made for Pan AM pilots in 1954. DiMartini, who spent time in Italy as a child while his father attended medical school, fell in love with Swiss brand he saw on wrists everywhere—including that of his father, who wore a two-tone Datejust.
It was his appreciation for Rolex that first lead him to unveil Everest years earlier.
With the Atlas, Monta looked to capitalize on a market trend for smaller, slimmer case sizes. This response to consumer demand is something microbrands are positioned to do best. They tend to have their fingers closer to the enthusiast’s pulse, but smaller production runs and less bureaucracy also allow them to react quickly without creating a ripple in the space-time continuum (as Rolex did with their OP late last year).
It appears as though Monta will continue in this vein into 2021, as they add a fifth model to their lineup, the Monta Noble. At 38.5mm in diameter and a mere 9.7mm thick, the Noble makes clear the brand’s shift toward the dressy sports watch.
A Collected Man: Dan Henry
Dan Henry’s passion for watches and watch collecting began at the age of ten when he received a Roskopf pocket watch for his birthday. The mystery of the timepiece’s functionality—without batteries or outside power—intrigued him. He was hooked there and then.
Today Dan Henry’s contribution to the world of watches and watchmaking can be witnessed viscerally and visually on Timeline.watch—a vast chronological storehouse of beautiful horological exemplars.
Long before he became a watchmaker himself, Dan was a committed collector, scouring through flea markets and estate sales to unearth his finds. Timeline.watch is the result of decades of personal watch hunting. And into this encyclopaedic gamut watch collectors all over the world have been invited to add their timepieces. In 2016, Hodinkee called it, “The most amazing vintage watch site nobody’s heard of.” Things have changed since then.
The growing scarcity of these watches, coupled with the climbing price of vintage pieces, are what eventually prompted Dan to launch his eponymous brand. He wanted to make beautiful watches that the common man could afford.
As a collector, Dan looks for three things:
- Beauty and Aesthetics
- Dedication to Craftsmanship
- Historical Significance
The same litmus test is applied to the creation of Dan Henry watches today. Each reference harkens back to an era—from the 1937 Dress Chronograph to the 1972 Chrono Alarm. The models are not exact copies of specific watches, but rather a confluence of design cues which typify watchmaking from the age in question. His designs draw on the numerous examples in his own collection so that what he is producing is an archetype of sorts—that is not one thing, but many all at once. When you look at the 1963 Pilot you might ask, Is it a Brietling? A Heuer? No. It is neither and it is both. It’s a Dan Henry.
All Dan Henry watches to date, with the exception of the 1970 Automatic Diver, are chronographs. To keep production costs in check—and ultimately the sticker price—the brand employs quality Miyota quartz calibres from Citizen (6S20/0S80), and mecaquartz movements like the Seiko VK64. As with a mechanical watch, these calibres maintain the satisfying click of the pushers.
With sapphire crystals, sandwich dials, 316L stainless steel bracelets, and elaborately engraved casebacks, the value proposition is second to none in the market. Detailing of this calibre is generally reserved for luxury brands. However, clients are happy for the exception.
Dan Henry sells directly to the collector through its website, and after thousands of reviews, the brand manages a near-perfect five-star rating.
While many microbrands will rise and fall by the wayside as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, certainly others are here to stay. Lithe and agile, the best of these brands have captured the attention of enthusiasts around the world through impressive innovation and renewal. What remains to be seen as these brands grow and change, is whether they can preserve the characteristics that propelled them to success—direct sales, highly competitive pricing, and personal contact with collectors. Already brands like Monta and Norqain are looking for ways to have their timepieces in retail shops, recognizing that for some, touching the watch is important prior to purchasing. How will this change the relationship with their devotees? What will it mean for retail mark up? As others look to produce calibres in house, how will they fund the necessary research and development? Is the natural evolution of every microbrand to become what it railed against? Only time will tell.
About the author
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