From April 22nd to April 24th, 2022 the masses gathered from far and wide for Windup Watch Fair San Francisco, for what turned out to be the largest watch fair held in North America. I attended all three days of the event and was able to take stock of not only the watches present, but the people representing them. Brands ranged from those opening their doors only a few short months ago to Swiss watch brands with over 100 years in the industry, making for an interesting dynamic. Here is a link to the full list of brands that were present. Although the fair was undeniably fun and exciting- it was also overwhelming. I saw hundreds of different watches over the course of the three days and at some point, everything started to blend together. This recap will discuss my major takeaways and the moments that stuck out as memorable.
There were 40 brands at the show, and all had come with their latest releases, some not even released yet. The inside of the fair was two rows of tables side by side and then a larger area to the side dedicated to the Windup goods and of course the bar. Along with Everett, our dedicated co-host of 40 & 20, I meandered the rows and gave my best effort to meet as many of the brand representatives as possible. Everett even came prepared with microphones to record short interviews with several key industry figures. See below for photos of him doing his best Lester Holt impersonation. You can listen in on what was said here for his audio recap and exclusive interviews with industry leaders.
In no particular order I would like to discuss some of the watches and brands that made lasting impressions on me, and hopefully we will be able to cover more in depth in the future. What better place to start than the latest release from Christopher Ward, the Aquitaine.
The CEO of Christopher Ward, Mike France, and his team was nice enough to show us the new line over a cup of coffee on Friday and the new line of Aquitaine watches did not disappoint. The watch was a breeze on wrist and seems to fit perfectly in line with current trends of vintage inspired divers with modern construction. The line borrows its name from the French region famed explorer and diver Jacques Cousteau hailed from. Aquitaine also happens to be a beautiful word to say and hear.
The latest release from Monta watches, a new Syquest featuring an opalin dial with gold indices. An instant classic.
I am not sure if there was another booth that had me closer to pulling my wallet out than the Monta table. The Oceanking has been on my radar for years and somehow it managed to exceed expectations.
Even more impactful than their watches were the interaction I had with Monta’s owners Justin Kraudel and Michael DiMartini. Justin may have given me the quote of the weekend “We are about people not watches”. That pretty much sums up the fair at large. Sure, the watches at everyone’s booths were incredible! However, no one is under any delusions, what these brands are peddling is not just their watches, but community.
Monta even goes so far as to have a working telephone line that you can actually call. I joked with Justin that I had called back in 2018 to inquire about the likelihood of seeing a Syquest with a 60-minute dive bezel, and he remembered the call! I had spoken with him. I was floored by this, by no means do I recommend pestering them just because they have a number to call but it speaks to just how committed they are to being present for their customer base, rather than building an infrastructure to further separate the brand from the consumer. He also reaffirmed that there are still no plans to make a Skyquest with a dive bezel.
Vortic is a company I have followed for a few years, and they are based locally for me (Fort Collins, CO). They recently completed a battle of seismic proportions with Swatch over their right to make their product, you can read more about that here, hopefully we will have some coverage on this at some point on the site.
If this is your first-time hearing about Vortic, they are a CO based watch company that restores vintage American pocket watches to working order and machines custom titanium and steel cases for them to convert these incredible works of art into modern wrist watches. Machining cases in America is something that is exceedingly rare within the watch world and is something owner, RT Custer is passionate about.
Pictured here with his right-hand Bella, RT’s enthusiasm about what Vortic is doing and trying to accomplish in the future with their company is nothing short of infectious. On the wrist, I was stunned at how wearable their 46mm watches were due to savvy case design and use of light weight titanium.
Formex was easily the brand that was most surprising to me once actually seeing them in person. Their designs are not only innovative and clever, but highly functional.
Pictured here is the Reef which is equipped with a swappable bezel, no tool required. Literally, you can pull off the bezel with your hands and replace it in seconds. Markus, from Formex, cited the push to create this came directly from customer feedback. Customers had written in that as much as they love whatever color Formex they purchased; they would like to have the option to bezel swap. Formex understood the assignment. You can read about the reef from an earlier Watch Clicker review here. See below image for Markus enthusiastically discussing Formex with a fair visitor.
I do not think it is going to surprise anyone that I was excited to see Nodus and their owners in person. I have owned six different Nodii over the past few years and converse regularly with Wes and crew, but this weekend was my first opportunity to finally meet IRL (in real life for you non gamers).
Their latest release, the Avalon Bronze, fondly referred to as the Bronzalon, was proudly on display. Had I not already purchased a yellow Avalon, I would have probably left with one of these. A close second had to be their latest issue of the Sector Pilot Flyer. I owned an earlier version of this watch, and the updated version is just that, an update in all regards.
What separates Wes and Cullen is their commitment to improving their line of watches, even doing so between restocks! Nodus’s commitment to their core consumer base is not unlike what I previously mentioned about Monta. The community aspect of the brands that were present is a common theme.
Aside from being able to meet Andrew and discuss all things from his other endeavors with Sō Labs to upcoming releases, the latest being the Fortitude Lite in new colors, is a gem. A common remark I read upon the initial release of the professional grade Fortitude was that they were a little thick. The Fortitude Lite does feature additional metal within the case to offer some resistance to magnetism but is thinner than the original and comes in at only 10.9mm wrist to crystal. The watch is fantastic, while still providing enough resistance to magnetism to give you peace of mind at TSA.
The NYC Coffee themed watch company, Brew, is headed by the delightful Jonathan Ferrer. If you are well versed in public opinion, you will know that virtually everyone loves this man. From writers at Gear Patrol putting in print that they would marry him, to comments fawning over his eye for design, I am not sure if there’s poor opinion out there of him. So, with all that, did the watches and Jonathon live up to the hype? Resoundingly, yes. Strategically, I did not go by the booth until Day 2, to insure all his stock would be sold out and remove any temptation. I was correct.
They are able to pull off a unique aesthetic that I am not sure anyone else remotely comes close to. If you were to just describe the watch without additional effort, it is hard to imagine most people liking it. Their latest release, the Metro, Brews most successful yet is a rectangular quartz chronograph, with an asymmetric dial layout, and a date window at 4:30. Yet, they are almost universally adored, and for good reason. They’re spectacular. This feat alone is admirable, let alone at the price point they occupy.
At the Oak & Oscar booth were the latest line of Humboldt GMT watches along with several others and undoubtedly, the best stickers. The white dial is naturally what I gravitated to the most, for obvious reasons. I stayed after checking out the GMT to continue talking to Andrew and Nathan behind the table. I am not sure if anyone else had me laughing as hard as Nathan when I found out he often wears an apple watch on his ankle. The apple watch has obvious fitness and health benefits to wear, but there is no way one could take an O&O off his wrist!
I was not able to spend as much time as I would have liked at the Oris booth, due to the table being absolutely mobbed with people wanting to see all the latest offerings. The few moments I did have to see and photograph the watches, the latest ProPilot watch was what caught my eye.
The lightweight titanium shines. You can easily imagine yourself forgetting you have this on, only to be reminded by the nonstop compliments you’re receiving.
Bill Yao, the man behind MKII has been at this longer than anyone else, launching in 2002. One of the major takeaways from the show was just how invaluable and influential Bill’s existence is to this industry. Consistently, brand owners would cite his guidance as a saving grace when trying to navigate the waters of starting a new watch company. It helps that his watches are incredible as well. You can see him below sporting an incredible tiger print jacket.
The story behind the jacket, as told by Bill, During Vietnam contractors needed to wear the pattern and stay blended in. But they often had leftover fabric. With the excess fabric, and opportunity, they resorted to making suites and dress wear out of it and wearing them out on the town. I could not have dreamed up a fresher fit for the godfather of microbrands to don during Windup.
I did not know anything about William Wood watches going in. But after meeting Michael and his fiancé I am a big fan. They told me their story of reclaiming materials from fire departments across England to build components of their watches and when paired with their thoughtful designs, it was hard not to be a fan. It also helped that they too are avid divers, and we spent a lot of our time talking about our favorite dive locations and upcoming plans.
For every brand I mentioned above, there were at least two more that were just as worthy of my words and time. Hopefully, in the months to come we can bring reviews of their watches to the site.
In the year 2022, does an in person watch fair like this still have a place in the industry? I ask this because heading into the show, I was not sure of the answer myself. In all fairness most of the brands at the show do not even have a storefront, opting to sell directly to consumers. The larger shows across the pond have been ever evolving the last few years with the number of virtual events increasing continuously. The answer to the question though, is firmly, yes. Shows like Windup are invaluable, and they absolutely have a purpose still. The reason being there is not another opportunity similar for these brands to properly convey the message of why they are different. There are only so many words you can put on your about page to prove to the consumer/community who you are and why they should care about you.
All those words seem to pale in comparison to what Justin at Monta was able to convey in a single conversation about having a working telephone number, or a moment where Cullen at Nodus recognized me not as @frendymgee but as Frank A. The latter was telling for me because Wes takes care of all Nodus’ social media, Cullen remains behind the scenes. He had recognized me as Frank A because I was a frequent customer and he took the time to sort out who I was, despite NOT being the outward facing person of the company. Lastly, before we move on to other areas of interest. There was a moment at the end of the show when the brand owners were able to visit the other booths and view each other’s watches. Watching them do this, whether it was the CEO of Christopher Ward, or Sam, the owner of Hesili (The newest upstart present). You could not tell them apart from the regular show goer. They were all JUST as excited and enthusiastic to see what everyone had brought and I captured some of these moments because I thought it was special, you can view in the complete album.
Side notes and other takeaways.
I would like to extend a massive thanks to Worn & Wound and their team for putting the show on, it was my first Windup and now, I do not think I can miss one! To every internet friend that hung out with me or shared a drink, took a photo, thank you! I could not believe the amount of people I knew from online that had come.
If you noticed, I only used the term microbrand in the writeup once, that was purposeful. Perhaps I will have a follow-up on this idea, but I think we should move away from this term moving forward. Many of these brands have been around for years, some decades, continuing to call them a microbrand feels like a way to further differentiate them from the established brands, not in a good way. Leaving the show, I felt immense admiration and gratitude for the people behind the brands that were present, I believe they are owed the respect of being referred to just like any of the other established brands because they are indeed established. What they are doing and adding to the industry is substantial. Just some food for thought, not meant to be a hot take.