Less a trend and more a new way of entrepreneurialism, micro brands are transforming how we perceive watchmaking and branding. Some have diversified, others are solely focused on producing incredible and solid timepieces. Here are a few who have made an impression.
In an era of retail on the Interwebs, anyone can have the opportunity to develop a product; or at the very least, the idea of a product. For those who dislike this idea, you’ll have to go all the way back to reality television and blame Simon Cowell for initiating this with the music industry. Pop Idol and X Factor, popular reality performance shows, paved the way for anyone believing they had a good set of pipes to become an international celebrity. And if that worked for the entertainment industry, why not retail?
Contrary to what many believe, watchmaking isn’t as disparate from many other businesses. It relies on a chain of suppliers, manufacturing and distribution, much of which can be outsourced to specifications or organised quickly enough on the Interwebs. While much of the industry began to focus on in-house production and verticalisation, this was primarily a reaction to the Swatch Group’s plan to reduce the wholesale business of ETA movements to external parties so the group could build up its own brands, the threat of which was a decade when everyone touted their own in-house movements.
Today, when in-house movements have become almost ubiquitous and also imply a higher retail point, and ETA alternatives are chock-a-block available, micro brands are a convenient option and to some extent, almost remind us of the early days of watchmaking when guilds were commissioned to perform necessary craftwork for watchmakers, who were micro brand entrepreneurs. In the 21st century, however, the stories of these brands are somewhat more varied and vivid. Here are some of our top picks.
Founded by Gautier Massonneau, Trilobe is a brand new startup with just a year under its belt. The French designer, tired of the predictability of three-handed watches, decided to develop a way of reading time that’s just slightly unconventional — moving the indicators rather than the hands. Assisted by Jean-François Mojon, yes he of Opus X, MB&F’s LM1 and Hermès’s Arceau L’Heure de la Lune fame, Massonneau built a custom movement based off a modified ETA 2892 and their X-Centric module (eccentric, geddit?) in which the hours, minutes and seconds run off concentric rings, centered around the fixed fourth wheel that powers the seconds ring. It’s a curious design that has an astronomical reference hidden within it, like the inner planets revolving around the Sun.
One quirk that Massonneau cheerfully points out is due to his French character is the offset “Trilobe” logo hour marker, which rather than riding along the same axis as the minutes and seconds markers, is off by just a couple of degrees. “You know the French,” he jokes. “We never like to follow the rules so strictly.” What’s perhaps a humorous inside joke turns into a unique marker for the brand.
Trilobe’s concept isn’t brand new or ground-breaking, but their latest dial in the Trilobe Secret, is quite a game changer. Using 3D-printing with luminous material, they’re creating unique dials featuring stellar constellations which can be customised to a location and time that you’ve picked. These are printed on the galvanised, sunray brushed dials of each watch, although they take time to create, meaning the brand has a limitation on how quickly and how many Secret watches they can produce. However, it also means that for the creative watchmaker, you could really come up with inventive, custom dials or specialised designs that make collaborative design inevitable, especially with artists. One can almost envision what they can make, and how far they can take it.
The watches range from 7,000 euros or so for the regular to 9,500 for the Secret, which, for a custom dial and movement, isn’t a system shock. For those who believe there’s a lack of interesting options out there, Trilobe is a nice change-up from the predictable.
Malaysia: MING Watches
MING needs no introduction, but a quick recap of its watchmaking chops might help. A horological collective (thank you, Max Büsser, for making this the new hip term in watchmaking) comprising six gentlemen, all of who are in some way affiliated or associated with the watch industry, and headed by Ming Thein (@mingthein on Instagram), they’ve developed several two-handers with a decidedly modern take. Their watchmakers and designers have had plenty of experience working in the Swiss watch industry, and Thein decided to develop their administrative headquarters in Malaysia in order to ensure that they could keep their watches at a highly affordable level for collectors. MING is upfront with clients that they use a Schwarz-Etienne movement, but really, in a daily beater, that’s more than sufficient. Last year, they earned a GPHG nod for their Vantablack timepiece, and their latest 17.06 Copper with a stamped guilloché dial is once more in the running.
MING’s watches are all produced in limited runs per year, and that makes them all the more covetable. Taking after a model developed by the fashion industry and later adopted by MB&F, the brand’s ideology makes perfect sense in a world that sees watch drops online and collectors chase after them like a shark feeding frenzy once some chum has been dropped in the water. Their latest pieces are in titanium and although it does bring up the pricing on their timepieces, they’ve added both aesthetic enhancements and complications such as a world timer.
The steel watches in the 17 collection have been priced at under CHF 2,000 so far, but the titanium pieces, which are produced in grade 5, are a little steeper at CHF 10,000 onwards. Nevertheless, we still think they are a great startup brand to keep up with.
Hong Kong: Undone
It’s been five years since Undone began their life on Kickstarter, and while other crowd-funded watchmaking projects have come and gone, leaving in their wake furious hipster watch geeks who swear revenge while binge drinking old-fashioneds and taking #womw pics for their Instas, Undone has thrived. It’s not a complex or challenging series of watches they produce, but each piece is sturdy and built on good basics, and incredibly handsome for their pricing and value. No, seriously. A great example is their latest watch, the Basecamp Cali, which is a stunning and sporty watch with a California dial and a ghost bezel. But among their past successes are the humorous cartoon-inspired timepieces, with a Peanuts series in collaboration with the Schulz estate, among others. The collections are all limited in production which makes their watches steadily growing in interest, and Undone’s watches are based off Seiko movements, keeping them highly affordable.
The most interesting part about Undone’s business model is that it’s based off a subscription style of watchmaking, i.e. when you purchase a watch, they begin to produce it, thus keeping stocks at a minimum and preventing a stocktaking nightmare. In addition, watches come with a made-to-order model which allows you to customise the case backs and add a bit of personal flavour to their pieces.
These are highly commercial watches, priced well under USD600 and simply an easy daily watch for anyone who has an interest in watchmaking as a novelty. We certainly appreciate the humble cost of these timepieces when it comes to our pockets.
It was our online editor Sumit Nag and founder Wei Koh who alerted us to the presence of the brand about a year or two ago, but once we’d seen what Etienne Malec, the founder of Baltic, was keen on developing as a brand, we were hooked. To be honest, that’s part of the reason why we decided to on-board the brand on our sibling site, The Rake, so that we can get access to the watches for our own ridiculously selfish reasons. In truth, Baltic’s formula has been excellent. Malec himself is a prolific vintage watch collector.
He recalls, “My father was a photographer and collector of watches, cameras and and old cars. He had gathered around 100 watches before he passed away in 1995. I was 5 then, and I took back this collection when I was 16. It was stocked in a small suitcase since all these years.” He began to learn about his dad’s collection and Baltic is an homage to the past, focusing on tool watches.
Baltic was crowd-funded and given its production takes place in Besançon, where chronometric tests still take place and is considered the most challenging of precision tests, it paints a lovely story of an upstart watchmaker that adheres to traditions while using new treatments like Gilt and DLC. The latest release, the Aquascaphe, is an outstanding diver’s watch.
Baltic sets its pricing at sub 1,000 euros, which makes it a very comfortable purchase for the average person. What’s impressive is that it’s earned interest from both collectors and new-comers, which makes it not just accessible, but respectable.
David Lowinger is a self-taught independent watchmaker who, according to our conversation with him, “came up with a brilliant idea for a wristwatch one day, out of nowhere, while I was living in the United Kingdom. This was odd, because up to that point I’d never seen a mechanical wristwatch, let alone know how it worked.” As he began to dive into design software, Lowinger found himself reading George Daniels’s book which offered him perspective in techniques. He describes his watches as unconventional, but we’ll prefer to call it steampunk-ish, with a clear inspiration from the modernist era of design combined with material authenticity.
This is particularly clear in his Series One watch (all gone for now), in which he describes the dial as made from “stress-released brass, with 60 lines to represent the minutes”. A brilliant idea to combine design with function in his watches. The Series Two is a regulator-style display, with separate counters for the hours and minutes, and a skeleton display.
Apart from the fact that each watch is made based on Lowinger’s interpretation of a classic design, more interesting is the fact that every watch is made by the man himself. It brings his work to that of Daniels, Dufour and other independents, and are produced on-demand. More fascinating is that the watches are distinct in every way. The Series Two, for example, has a strap integrated into the case, which harks back to some of the earliest wristwatches produced before wire lugs were formulated during the war. It’s both an old and new way of looking at timepieces.
Lowinger’s watches will set you a fair bit, given he makes each part of the watch, down to the manufacture of components. Series One was at 8,500 euros, and the second is at 18,500 euros.