This is my review of the most inspiring micro brand watches (producing <300 watches annually) that I’ve had a chance to take a look at in 2016. These are not endorsements, rather a nod to things these companies have done. This is not an exhaustive list — there are quite a few out there and this list is a small sampling of those I have been most impressed with this year. I can’t speak for pricing or value, just for the fact that they have done something unique or “cool” from an entrepreneurial perspective.
I have sampled watches from all of these companies (except the in-production TiMe22) through company provided product samples. After reviewing them, each of these watches does something unique or noteworthy for specific reasons. Micro brands, Entrepreneurs, and small businesses are the engine of the economy; micro brands represent the companies willing to put it all on the line to be successful. My criteria for giving a micro brand or an entrepreneur an “award” is they must have met 3 of 4 guidelines:
- Producing something original (i.e. not copy what’s already been done)
- Advancing quality yet affordable watches to a target niche
- Showing entrepreneurial spirit — where others see a problem, they see opportunity
- Boldly executing — not playing it safe, not doing the same thing everyone else does, and not settling for the status quo
I have sampled (or in some cases bought) all of the watches listed. None of these are sponsored or compensated posts and all represent my honest opinions. These are not endorsements of these watches or the companies as I cannot speak for pricing or value. Rather, these awards are strictly based on the criteria above. Additionally, there are many other inspiring micro brands out there. These are just a few of them that I have had a chance to learn more about this year.
The Most Innovative Award
Whether you like the look is not the point — TiMe22 has created a watch that is very divisive. Some will love the retro-70’s vintage style watch and others will hate it. Yet these two Dutch founders get the award for innovating in more ways than one. In an industry that seems to be fairly consistent with little variation, this micro brand created a new look, but most importantly, brought grade 5 titanium to the affordable category. They figured out a way to produce a virtually scratch-proof watch made from aircraft grade titanium for under $1,000 in both Swiss ETA quartz and automatic movements (under $500 if you were lucky enough to get in on their Kickstarter).
Another innovative thing they have done is added an electronic maintenance tracking system so you can QR-scan the back of the watch and see the maintenance history of the watch on the web, which assists in administering the lifetime warranty they are offering. This is an innovation in itself that many watch enthusiasts would love to see — a company that stands by their work forever.
These are two gentlemen that stand by their work, and having spoken to them, they are businessmen that put the customer first. TiMe22 has watches for sale outside their Kickstarter which are available on their website. The watch delivers this spring. You can read the original profile I wrote on Stephen and Marc here.
The Most Design-Focused Award
While on a trip to Hawaii this winter, I looked up local watchmakers Richard Paige and Mark Carson. I wanted to interview them for an upcoming article on watchmaking in America. These two watchmakers each make their own watches and also do collaborative work with each other. The watch that gets the Design-Focused award is their collaborative Sky Scraper watch, which is an Art Deco inspired watch designed by Mark and made by Richard, who is a fourth generation watchmaker.
This watch is not for the faint-hearted, coming in at 46mm and a retro Art Deco design. It is probably not your first watch or even a second watch, rather a collector’s watch for the collector looking for something that is unique and will clearly stand out. This watch is beautiful, featuring a Swiss manual wind movement (though you can also get it with an original 100-year-old American-made pocket watch movement to mirror the Roaring Twenties it represents) in a stainless steel case. It is a watch that guarantees to catch an eye and be a conversation starter.
The watch sold successfully on Kickstarter from $925+ depending on movement but has yet to be released for regular retail sales. The reason this watch wins is because it is a bold move in a direction of growing popularity and demonstrates a willingness to break the mold of the standard dive, aviation, or dress watch. Contact Mark or Richard if you want one of the few remaining — they are a limited run. These are two watchmakers that I look forward to writing more about in 2017.
Showing True Grit Award
Nick Harris gets this award (who has also founded a micro brand). Nick Harris, founder of Watches by Nick and maker of the Orion Watch gets the award for True Grit this year for quitting his job, going to watchmaking school, and starting a whole new line of watches. Nick initially got his introduction to selling watches when he learned how to repair watches through trial and error by modifying Seikos. He had success with this and decided to quit his job and head to a watchmaker’s school in Seattle.
While starting in school, Nick created the Orion line of watches which are a perfect looking 38mm automatic watch with a premium croc strap for around $450-500. I’ve had the chance to get to know Nick over email, talk about his schooling, project, and ideas for expanding his success. I’ve also had a chance to try both his prototype and his final production run watches for a few weeks each. Nick wins the True Grit award for being the entrepreneur who puts it all on the line and gets after to pursue his dream. I’ll be writing more about Nick’s experience learning to be a watchmaker in 2017. You can read my original profile on Nick here.
Pioneering New Methods Award
RT Custer and his team at Vortic Watch Company win the award for pioneering new methods in watchmaking through the use of 3D printing. Vortic Watch Co uses 3D printing to make both stainless steel and titanium cases. Many companies use 3D printing for prototypes, but Vortic Watch Co is exploring using it for market production, which once perfected will completely democratize watchmaking for future micro brands and entrepreneurs. No longer will watchmakers need to make 100 cases to make a watch affordable – they will be able to make a custom case in the metal of choice for no additional cost.
3D printing isn’t perfect yet, so RT and his team are continuing to experiment with 3D printing methods and designs to improve case finishes which shows in their newest titanium model — the American Artisan Series 2.0. Hats off to Vortic Watch Co for leading the way in experimenting with these methods that many entrepreneurs will benefit from for years to come.
Anyone who has been following Watch Ponder long enough knows that I have an appreciation for pioneering new methods. I look forward to continuing to follow the improvements in 3D printing as it could truly revolutionize watchmaking for all micro brands. As a side note that I found very cool was their special edition Chicago Cubs watch to commemorate the Cubs’ World Series victory. Vortic Watch Co integrated original Elgin, Illinois movements from 1908 (the last Cubs win) with vintage ball glove leather for the strap to make a victory watch. That is a creative use of heritage.
The Totally Custom Award
The Montana Watch Company is exactly what it sounds like — a watch company operating out of Montana. It is owned by watchmaker Jeff Nashan who produces about 100 premium watches a year for those lucky enough to get one. Jeff has 13 base models but is most known for his custom work for customers that include a former US President, a governor, NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Richard Childress, world-famous chef Mario Batali, international royalty, and most notably on the company’s Instagram page, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Jeff custom designs his watches upon request and will create a design that he will never make for anyone else except you. Apart from his custom work, the standard Montana watches are inspired by classic American watch designs and harken back to the early railroad watches. I had a chance to try out the Officer’s Watch for a few weeks and really enjoyed it. The watches use Swiss movements but are otherwise sourced in America, almost entirely in Montana.
The non-custom watches start at about $3,500; all models and pricing are available online. This is a company that represents the American entrepreneurial spirit.
A few notable micro brand trends:
The Good: First, micro brands are generally using social media very well and are also posting transparent pricing online – something I believe the mainstream industry needs to do. Micro brands are leveraging the power of crowdfunding which is great in many ways. It sifts out the projects that have no demand, leaving a set of micro brands that produce quality watches. Micro brands are also becoming more sophisticated, and just as social media and the internet have more or less rendered Porter’s 5 Forces of Strategy obsolete (Harvard Business School no longer teaches them in its core curriculum), so has the internet and social media shown that micro brands can compete in a well-entrenched watch industry. Finally, micro brands are innovating! They are pushing the limits and testing consumer demands that the mainstream luxury industry has been unwilling to risk.
The Bad: While there are many inspiring and innovating micro brands, there are unfortunately many more that are selling watches that are poorly made and extremely overpriced. There are many that are peddling watches that cost $3 to make, have elaborate (and sometimes deceptive) marketing stories. 2016 was the year of fashion watches and minimalist design with very few quality watches emerging from the trend. I have encountered a few of these companies, one of which even asked for my coverage and changed the story of their founding to create a more advantageous story. Some micro brands are not micro brands at all. They are actually owned by large companies looking to create a marketing image that gets the sympathy of customers but is completely disingenuous.
If you remember one thing, remember — not all watches are equal, nor are all micro brands worth your money. For each example of reputable hard work mentioned above, there are dozens of companies producing watches that are suspect or a total sham. Do a Google search on the brands you plan to buy and know what you are buying — the micro brand-world can be a dangerous place if you don’t do your homework.