The Micro-Brand Watches You Need to Know

Check out these watch brands before you buy that Daniel Wellington or MVMT

As I began to fall deeper into the watch wormhole and looked to drop some real cash on my first time piece, my natural inclination was to find the best direct-to-consumer internet-first brand out there. Hey, if it works for my favorite cashmere sweater, fresh pair of white sneakers, and other wardrobe staples, why not watches? Of course, watches are a little different; many watch manufacturers have built up brand equity over centuries. Consumers connect to vintage pieces in a company’s collection and identify with the story their branding tells. And over those centuries, these brands have cultivated manufacturing expertise allowing them to craft beautiful in-house movements. But, more than one microbrand has managed to break through, often acquiring a cult-like following who devoutly snaps up their favorite brand’s new release minutes after it’s released. While distribution channels for major brands like Rolex or Patek Phillipe are often difficult for consumers to navigate, these microbrands leverage the internet to cultivate consumer relationships and brand loyalty.

Some websites do wonderful work covering microbrands (Worn & Wound and Gear Patrol among them), but they often don’t gather information about these brands into one easy-to-access resource, forcing you to search their archives for holistic information. I wanted to take some time to consolidate information about some of the best microbrands I’ve seen out there, what they’re about, and why they might be for you.

First, an attempt to define the term “microbrand”. It’s a term ambiguous almost by its very nature, but what these brands generally have in common is a direct-to-consumer model driven by ecommerce. Wikipedia defines microbrand watch companies as those selling 300-2000 pieces a year, which sounds good enough to me. They’re typically priced much lower than luxury watches (think a few thousand dollars, at lost), and leverage global manufacturing to source movements from ETA or Miyota, which also provide movements for some of the most well-known watch companies in the world (ETA is owned by Swatch Group, Miyota by Citizen Group). The brands – which are typically operated by just a few proprietors – then do the dial and case design or outsource the work to a shop. If you dig into their stories, you’ll also often find these brands got their start from a successful Kickstarter campaign.

In other words, check these brands out before you purchase that new Daniel Wellington or MVMT watch. Enough housekeeping, let’s get to the watches!

Christopher Ward

Christopher Ward is something of a pioneer in the online-only microbrand space, launching from Maidenhead, England in 2004. Three English buddies, all with a common passion for watches, decided to start a company selling watches with Swiss movements at a fraction of the price you might see from a legacy Swiss brand. The company got its start by packing Swiss ETA movements into clean, well-designed dials, but has since begun building its own in-house movements. They supposedly caused a bit of a firestorm on watch forums when they released their first watch (leading to user bans when forum moderators thought the users were posting paid Christopher Ward content). In true Barbara Streisand-effect irony, the brand only grew from there. Their in-house caliber is actually the result of Christopher Ward’s 2014 merger with their Swiss manufacturing partner  Their automatic SH21 contains an impressive 120-hour power reserve, and is now available in a variety of watches from the brand, including the Grand Malvern Power Reserve, their best-selling watch. It’s priced at $1,900, about the sweet spot for most of Christopher Ward’s collection.

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Christopher Ward’s Grand Malvern Power Reserve with in-house caliber

Now, the company has a comprehensive line of watches, including dress, dive or sport, aviation, motorsport, often with fun and subtle design quirks. For example, watches in their new Trident line contain a seconds hand with trident spear counter balance.

Instagram (25k followers)

Oak & Oscar

Oak & Oscar was founded in 2015 by Chase Fancher (full disclosure: I’m biased towards this company because they’re based in my hometown of Chicago). They’ve been hard at work ever since, releasing three models over the preceding years: the Burnham Date, the Sandford GMT, and the Jackson Chronograph. Every design is beautifully executed, something you’d expect from a company that named its first model after Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the Flatiron Building and many of Chicago’s greatest buildings. Previous models have sold out, but the Jackson Chronograph is still available for purchase on their website. Often, they’ll post on Instagram about their Oak & Oscar owner retreats, and it’s honestly pretty cool to have created a passionate community of watch collectors who also want to hang out together. Midwest nice.

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Oak & Oscar’s latest model, the Jackson Chronograph

The Jackson comes in three variations: a stainless steel case with either a navy or grey dial, or a PVD case with darker grey dial. All went through limited production runs put remain available on Oak & Oscar’s website (though the warning “Low Stock!” sits on each version’s page). It’s a powered by a manually-wound Eterna movement (Swiss) that beats at 28,800 vibrations per minute, with a 60 hour power reserve. The case is 40mm in diameter and slightly thick at 14.5mm, giving the watch a nice presence on the wrist. One can also see through the sapphire caseback that the 25-jewel movement is nicely decorated, with four stars cutout of a bridge, referencing the city of Chicago’s flag. The stainless steel Jackson is $2,850, while the PVD-coated version is $3,150.

Oak & Oscar (rightly) claims that watch boxes have little utility and end up buried in a closet, so instead they send the watch with a nicely crafted leather watch wallet which holds three watches and has enough room to hold the spare straps they also send with the watch. Their leather is sourced from Chicago’s Horween Leather Company. Personally I’ve been scouring the forums and Ebay for a Sandford GMT, but to no avail yet, which is probably a testament to the fact that the original purchasers keep these watches.

Instagram (24k followers)

Autodromo

“Instruments for motoring” is the tagline of New York City-based Autodromo. The brand was launched in 2011 by a a vintage car fanatic, for vintage car fanatics. Its collection ranges from distinctive quartz chronographs to more simple automatic pieces. The last couple of years, Autodromo’s collection has been defined by its partnering with Ford to produce the Ford GT Endurance Chronographs, commemorating the Ford GT’s first win at Le Mans in 1966. If you’re into racing at all, you’ll immediately recognize this colorway:

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Autodromo Ford GT Endurance Chronograph with Le Mans commemorative dial

The worlds of vintage car and vintage watch enthusiasts seem to naturally overlap, and Autodromo has leveraged this to its advantage, carving out a nice niche in the sub-$1,000 space.

Instagram (37k followers)

Martenero

Brooklyn-based Martenero launched in 2014 with two models, the Founder and the Ace. They’ve added five watches to their collection since, each with a distinct and customizable style. The founders started the brand to create contemporary, yet classic time pieces; at a time when so many brands just re-release takes on their vintage models, it’s refreshing to see a brand with distinctively 21st-century design, with clear inspiration from classic watch motifs. Their most recent release, the Kerrison, comes packed with an automatic Miyota 9015 movement – the Citizen-built movement that’s a favorite of upstart brands the world over (that I just realized you can purchase on Amazon for about a hundred bucks). The designs are simple with a certain whimsy and punch of color that really makes the dials and hands stand out.

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The Martenero Kerrison, a 42mm watch packed with an automatic Miyota movement.

Instagram (13k followers)

Halios

Halios and its flagship Seaforth diver watch are something of a darling to the internet watch world. Halios is essentially a one-man operation run by founder Jason Lim out of Vancouver. Halios is very much a passion project of Lim’s, but luckily his taste is impeccable; he’s inspired by 60s sport watches that are built to do anything and everything. He keeps his watches priced under $1,000, sourcing production out of Asia. Its Seaforth contains the ever-popular ETA 2824-2 automatic movement, so you know its built to last. It’s got a classic dive-watch build and a steel GMT bezel. Go to any watch forum and you’ll find a passionate base of Halios owners.

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The tough-as-nails Halios Seaforth.

Instagram (23k followers)

Weiss

Weiss Watch Company is one of the few companies that has a legitimate claim to the mantle “made in America”. Weiss Watch Company was started by Cameron Weiss, a California native who learned all his watch making skills in Switzerland – first in watchmaking school, before stints at Audemar Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. He’s truly passionate about bringing fine watchmaking back to the states, and if you flip over one of his watches, you’ll see he’s not messing around. All his watches feature Weiss’ own beautifully finished CAL 1003 movement. Its military-inspired field watch will inspire mid-century nostalgia in even the coldest of souls.Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 4.35.49 PM.png

Instagram (16k followers)

Farer

“British Design x Swiss Made” is the moniker of popular micro-brand Farer. Their increasingly robust collection contains chronographs, GMTs, and simple three-hand designs. The company emphasizes the use of color, detail, and contrasting textures on their dials, leaving the internal movement to the Swiss experts. This means contrasting sub-dials on its chronographs and fun seconds hands, but to me, its GMT is perhaps best served by the inclusion of different colors. The GMT will set you back about $1,500, making it another viable option in the sub-$2,000 price range.

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A Farer GMT. What’s not to like about that green hand?

Instagram (22k followers)

Unimatic

Italian brand Unimatic is all about no-nonsense dive watches. They produce watches in small runs – usually less than 1,000 watches – and its hard to beat the prices too. For example, its Modello Unos will run you about $600. And they contain Seiko movements inside, which some of the most honest, durable (and well-priced) movements you’ll find anywhere.

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Unimatic’s minimalist dive watch | Instagram

Instagram (28k followers)

Raven

Raven has been quietly building classic-looking dive watches out of Overland Park, Kansas since 2008. Many of them have a Submariner feel, with case sizes varying from 40mm (Trekker, a classic dive watch) to 47mm (Titanium Deep, a monster of a watch). Most models come in at around $1,000, and all use the Swiss workhorse ETA 2824 automatic movement. It’s a movement also used by many Hamilton and Tissot watches in the $500-$1,000 price range, so you know you’re getting a quality Swiss movement inside the well-built stainless steel cases.

Instagram (6k followers)

Ochs Und Junior

Okay, this one’s a little different than those previously mentioned, but come on. Ochs Und Junior produces about 130 watches a year, most of which are custom made. Its perpetual calendar might just be the perfect watch: the perpetual calendar movement takes only nine additional parts, displaying what (in my opinion) is a modern horological wonder. The minimal, brutalist design might turn some off, but I keep coming back to the company’s video illustrating the build of the perpetual calendar. They’ll set you back about $30,000 though, so start saving your francs.

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The technology and culture sites you need to know

Technology is a fast-paced industry, and staying up on what’s happening at the intersection of technology and culture is tough. There are a number of sites I admire and use as resources when aggregating stories to publish Codebrief. In no particular order, these are some of the best technology blogs and websites, and the best culture blogs and websites. Enjoy on your own, or subscribe to Codebrief, which will refer and link to many of these sites on a weekly basis. Of course everyone can visit the technology section of their favorite newspaper or find news about movie openings or stars from Variety, the New Yorker, or any other number of nationally recognized publications, but that’s not what this list is about; it’s about recognizing the often unrecognized publications that do great work in synthesizing the news and make sense of it.

Technology

Stratechery

The preeminent technology analysis site, written by analyst Ben Thompson. It’s a must read for anyone remotely interested in the business and strategy of technology companies and the impact of these companies on society at large.

CB Insights

CB Insights is a firm that makes its money by providing in-depth analysis and reports to paying subscribers. For non-subscribers though, they send out fun newsletters about startups and disruptive technologies once a week or so, which give high-level overviews of their latest research, as well as brief commentary on other trends and news. It’s a newsletter that provides a lot of levity to an industry that often takes itself to seriously.

Lean Luxe

A multi-weekly newsletter (is that a thing? they usually publish two or three times a week) covering everything DNVB (that’s digitally-native vertical brand, for the uninitiated – think Warby Parker, Glossier, Everlane, and all those other companies that started as a mere ad in your Instagram feed). They provide great coverage of the businesses reshaping consumer habits and the venture capital behind these businesses. They’ve also cultivated an active and passionate community via Slack and other channels.

Exponential View

A self described “wondermissive,” this weekly newsletter is delivered every Sunday, providing links to articles from around the web on self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and other so-called “exponential technologies.” A great newsletter to understand the high-level trends impacting every industry and person today.

Hacker News (Newsletter)

Okay, suggesting Hacker News isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but their weekly newsletter does a great job of distilling all of the headlines that pop to the top of the site for those who can’t stay on top of it every day. It provides the best in programming, design, business, and more. A great window into the hacker world, for non-programmers (like me).

Techmeme

The preeminent technology news aggregator. For the more aurally inclined, also check out their daily podcast, a 15-minute roundup of the tech news from the day.

The Information

I can’t afford the hefty subscription to The Information, but their weekly newsletter still provides a great overview of what they published the week prior, as well as characteristically cogent analysis from founder Jessica Lessin.

The Interface by Casey Newton

Casey Newton is an editor for The Verge (probably my favorite online technology publication), mainly covering Facebook and other social networks. This is his nightly newsletter, providing an overview of the day’s news. I don’t subscribe anymore, mainly because I became overwhelmed by the constant stream of FB controversies of the past few years, by Newton describes and analyses this controversies better than anyone else out there.

Daring Fireball

John Gruber is the Apple blogger to listen to.

Aeon

Publishing some of the best long form pieces out there, often analyzing how technology is impacting what it means to be human.

Techdirt

Mike Masnick’s Techdirt does a great job covering the lesser-covered technology policy and legal news of the day, and the site takes stronger stances than almost any other I’ve read.

Benedict Evans’ Newsletter

Benedict Evans is VC Andressen Horowitz’s big thinker – he sends out a weekly newsletter of links from around the web, often providing a blog post that synthesizes his thoughts on the big trends in tech.

Culture

Business of Fashion

The Wall Street Journal of the fashion industry. Quiet simply, this is the go-to resource for business people in the fashion industry. Founded in 2007, BoF provides daily analysis about whatever’s going on with fashion and the businesses creating the trends of tomorrow.

Hodinkee

Started by Ben Clymer ten years ago, this is the go-to stop for all things watches. New releases, in-depth analyses and a surprisingly entertaining podcast make all of Hodinkee’s content a must for mechanical watch nerds everywhere. Oh, and you might even spot a post or two by one John Mayer.

The Goods (by Vox)

RIP Racked, long live The Goods. When Vox shut down the Racked brand in early 2018, it promised to roll its fashion, consumer and retail content into a new sub-brand under the Vox flag. Well, we finally have it, in the Goods, and its content to date has been superb. Of course, Vox’s Eater also churns out great content for the foodies among us.

The Outline

A publication fast gaining in popularity, The Outline provides unique and sometimes odd takes on all variety of culture and society. It was started by the founder of the Verge, who was also one of the founders of Vox Media.

Fast Company

Well-known but by no means a household name, Fast Company focuses on the future of the businesses we all know and love. And, with its recent purchase of Co.Design, the publication is also a destination for understanding the design strategies these companies are pursuing.

Quartzy (by Quartz)

A special publication by Quartz focused on all things consumerism: form design to dining to decor.

Gear Patrol

This one’s for the guys, but Gear Patrol does a pretty good job of putting its readers on notice of the best new tech and fashion gear so its worthy of a mention here.

High Snobiety

David Fischer has built something of an empire at the intersection of sneakers, fashion and music, becoming an authority on streetwear in the process.

2PM

The weekly newsletter of Web Smith, who’s something of an authority in the ecommerce-retail-brand space. Subscribe for his thoughts.

Scott’s Cheap Flights

Okay, this one is off topic, but just subscribe. You never know what you’ll get from Scott.

Of course I try to stay up to date on popular, more general-interest news sources – Verge, Vox, Wired, NYT, WSJ, Digg being some of my favorites – but I think these lesser known sources are worth highlighting.

Welcome to Codebrief

Welcome to Codebrief. It’s a weekly newsletter providing a roundup of tech, privacy and legal news with a point of view, without the bullshit. Its simple goal is to help you understand the week’s news and why it matters – all while providing the occasional lukewarm take. Tech news doesn’t have to be dry and dense, so we’re out to make it enjoyable.

I’ve been blogging since the beginning of 2018, and the newsletter is an effort to bring regular news to readers in a more intimate format.

Continue reading Welcome to Codebrief

Beyond Facebook Analytica: Privacy Law Explained

Cambridge Analytica was bad, but Facebook’s collection of data is just the way the government wants it

It’s been almost two weeks since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke for the third time since 2015, so it’s time to zoom out a bit and look more broadly at privacy law in the United States, and what those laws mean for a company like Facebook.

Like many stories that coastal elites and thought leaders make a fuss about, this one begins at that school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The idea of a “right to privacy” or “right to be left alone” all began in 1890 when two elitist Harvard law students were concerned about the intrusions upon their lives in high society posed by journalists and the fancy new instantaneous camera. Basically, they were worried their dinner parties would be ruined; so worried, in fact, that they wrote a law journal article about it that I assume at least four people have read. This article laid the foundation for the modern formulation of a “right to privacy.”

Let’s walk across the Harvard Yard (is that what people call it?) and skip forward 110 years to the dorm room of a computer science prodigy known by his Live Journal name Zuck On It. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook for precisely the opposite reason as those snobby law students: he was an awkward computer geek and just wanted a way to meet girls. So even at first conception, we see the right to privacy (snobby law students) and Facebook (nerdy computer geeks) are fundamentally at odds. Remember, before Facebook, Zuckerberg got himself in trouble for making Facemash (think hot or not), which he built by hacking into the database of each Harvard house and taking the photos from each face book.

Lucky for us, Zuckerberg documented his every move when he built Facemash in 2003. He’s a little intoxicated!

Continue reading Beyond Facebook Analytica: Privacy Law Explained

An Un-unified Theory of Firsts

Why Codebrief is different, and death to Zuckerberg’s global community.

It’s generally recognized that the first blog was started by a Swarthmore College student in 1994. I didn’t go to Swarthmore. In fact, I didn’t know how to spell it until three minutes ago. Apparently someone got a few marbles stuck in their mouth trying to pronounce “Swathmore” and now we have what US News calls the third best liberal arts institution in this country.

At least I created a blog before US News did. I’m not entirely sure what this blog is for yet, but we’ll figure it out soon enough. I bet when US News got its start in 1948 it didn’t think it’d end up as a floundering publication on some amorphous network called the World Wide Web, having ceased actually printing a physical product in 2010 AD, solely existing to tell malleable and impressionable young teens that 5.4% of applicants were admitted to Harvard in 2016. I didn’t go to Harvard either.

Continue reading An Un-unified Theory of Firsts