This article was co-written by me (Will) and a friend of the site, Furry Wrist Abroad. We wanted to provide two views on this subject, and we hope you enjoy the read.
There was a time when any watch that came across Kickstarter was most likely going to fall apart upon delivery. Those days are long gone, at least for the brands that want to have a following. Smaller watch brands, often called “Micro-brands” have went from fly by night operations to full-fledged watch companies. Brands like Monta even have patents for their bracelet technology.
Modern watch reviews are all but forced to cover micro-brand releases. It is hard to ignore quality watches being made with high grade movements, beautiful case finishing and unique dial design. When I see these reviews drop, there is often a phrase or two which I’ve been thinking need to be removed in the near future. Phrases like “For the money, micro-brand xyz” and “It’s hard to believe they did this for under $500.” This type of thinking implies that the brand is a lesser watch brand. They don’t have the ability or expertise to be able to execute a watch to the level of brands like Hamilton or Seiko. I believe the opposite to be true with recent micro-brand releases. Some of the newer releases from brands like Brew and Orion are pushing quality and originality well beyond the “big brands.”
There is a parallel between micro-brands and independent watchmakers. One of them is generally showered with praise upon a new release and the other is consistently the underdog. I’ll let you decide which is which. I’m not trying to downplay the skill and craftsmanship of independent watchmakers, but I don’t believe micro-brands should be given any less credit. Micro-brands take feedback directly from their customers and direct it into their own artistic vision that becomes their next watch release.
Micro-brand owners that want to survive also need to have some watchmaking skill in their back pocket, if they aren’t trained watchmakers already. Movement regulation and the ability to service their releases are becoming more important to the consumer. Nodus regulates their movements and provides the buyer with a card telling them exactly what to expect from their watch in terms of accuracy. While maybe not possible for bigger brands like Seiko, this type of detail is just another layer to what makes some micro-brands even more legit.
Micro-brands may come and go, but there are going to be a lot that stick around. The brands that pay attention to detail, listen to their customers and continue to innovate with each new release will be the ones to stay. These are the brands that will continue to push their watches to a larger audience. Who knows, maybe one day soon one of these micro-brands will turn the tables and eclipse a larger brand.
Furry Wrist Abroad’s point of view
This day has already arrived, at least from the quality of the watch is concerned. With their most recent release, Nodus has in their Avalon produced a mechanical dive watch that surpasses the brands for which it took inspiration from. These are the offerings from Seiko (below their MarineMaster line), and that of Doxa. In terms of finishing, as presented by Will above, are where the two gentleman behind Nodus have excelled. Furthermore by implementing an appropriate movement (the Miyota 9039), the Avalon is functionally thin. This presents less of a constant concern for a diver as they adorn their buoyancy compensation device. Many dive watches suffer damage on the case and bezel near the 10 and 40 minute indicators. This is because of the angle one passes their arm through their BCD. This timepiece is more substantial than other watches in its price range as well in terms of its overall construction.
With this being said however we shall first take a step back. We first need to gain a better perspective of where this market of micro-brand watches may be heading. We shall go over the historical background and where micro-brands fit in today’s’ landscape, and more importantly where they may be heading. Then we shall go over the risk one takes in dealing with varying watch companies of many sizes. Thus whether discerning if this is a factor that will forever differentiate these brands from the Goliaths in the industry. Lastly we shall look at how we look and talk about these smaller companies. Hopefully then we shall come to a solution as to how this topic is addressed.
As Will mentioned above, the parallels between independent watchmakers and that of micro-brands does exist. Modern day micro-brands in essence are doing what smaller brands have been doing for centuries. Today’s micro-brands are essentially the modern day embodiment of smaller watch companies from the past. Both sourced the varying parts of a watch and assembled them together. Thus resulting in a finished product for the consumer. With today’s globalized economy these micro-brands are here to stay for the foreseeable future. This is primarily due to:
- An increased population with post secondary educations
- The ability to support such watch companies either through loans, crowdfunding, or leveraging generational wealth
- Factories in countries with low labor wages becoming better at their craft
- Factories in countries with low labor wages becoming better at communicating with these brands in creating the desired product
Longevity of Micro-Brands
In time, these micro-brand watches may indeed be seen as valuable collectibles and as a significant piece of our horological history. To see the potential of these brands, one only needs to take a look at their progression. Nodus with their first timepiece, the Trieste, to the new Avalon. Autodromo with their early Vallelunga quartz watches to their spectacular new Group B and Monoposto Chronographs. The ceiling for quality is near limitless given the right circumstances for the bright minds behind these watch companies.
There is another perspective which is equally relevant and viable. Keep in mind that this is a very pessimistic view. This is that these brands will actually not be around for many years. Based on the notion that smart devices in some form will entirely take over traditional watches; the current rise in micro-brands signify the violent death rattle of the traditional mechanical timepiece before it fades away forever. For how long has our species in the past endured allocating disproportional resources towards obsolete tools?
A facet of mechanical watches which is all too relevant is servicing these products. The consumer can encounter three types of companies. One is with established brands that fall under corporate umbrellas such as The Swatch Group, Richemont, or LVMH. The next is with smaller yet established brands such as Oris and Nomos. Lastly it is with the micro-brands that we are covering. In the first case, there is a good chance that there is a servicing center near you. You can either drop it off personally or send it to them.
In the second case you will have to send it to another country in most cases. That last case however is where it gets tricky. Not only do you have to send it to the micro-brand, you also have to hope that they still exist. The attrition rate of micro-brands versus those which have been established is obviously lopsided. The data we need on the more premium and established micro-brands is not enough either to make an appropriate risk evaluation to support a purchasing decision. As the quality of these watches rise, this is the biggest downside of buying a watch from a micro-brand.
Watches and Beer
Perhaps this discussion should be viewed from an entirely different stance when it comes to the language being used. The term micro-brand unfortunately encompasses the many half-hearted attempts on crowdfunding sites, to those such as Nodus. These two categories of watch companies should be called something different altogether. Like most things horological, the term “micro-brand” was inspired from another industry. This industry was that of beer distilleries and the rise of micro-breweries. These resulted in a vastly different landscape in the beer market today than what it was twenty years ago. This is unfair to the efforts of some micro-brands. For the level of work required to source the parts, the level of industrial design, and the potential amount of watchmaking education required put them on a different level than that of micro-breweries. Most people think of micro-breweries being small operations that any layperson can accomplish. This is obviously not the case for many micro-breweries, for they create a premium product. They also do so with a level of craft and effort that is astronomical. Sadly there is a stigma with the term “micro” for when it comes to companies.
It is here in the plodding and lethargic use of language by writers and consumers alike that is to blame. The solution in removing the stigma naturally attached to the term “micro” for brands is a simple one. Keep in mind that this is just an example. Calling these companies “Premium-Micro-Brands” would essentially change the way that we discuss such brands. The manner in which this topic is approached would be as follows:
Perspective from a consumer:
“What watch are you wearing there?”
“It’s a watch from a small company in Los Angeles named Nodus.”
“Nice,” said the observer who instantly recognized the brand name. “I’ve never seen anything from a Premium-Micro-Brand before. May I try wearing it?”
Perspective from a watch reviewer:
“Today we have a watch from the Premium-Micro-Brand Halios. Naturally you can expect a certain level of quality with such a brand. So let us move onto dimensions and how it wears.”
Both of these scenarios are better than spending three minutes, or two paragraphs justifying its price and how it lives up to, or how it excels within its price class.
Hopefully in time as Will mentioned above, we can get past this and call these companies what they are – a watch company and nothing else. In order for this mindset to evolve accordingly however, we need mechanical timepieces to continue to thrive. Sadly and most importantly, we need to them to continue to exist.