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.

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 9.54.00 AM.png
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.

Screen Shot 2018-09-27 at 5.01.08 PM.png
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:

GT_LM16_front-342x500.jpg
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.

42mm_2_zoom_b2fff9b1-8474-46f7-869c-67504212c135.jpg
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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 4.31.50 PM.png
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.

OXLEY_GMT_MASTER_FRONT_BLACK_1024x1024_f32b60be-c191-4009-97d6-b80ad1c0de9b_1024x1024.jpg
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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 4.55.45 PM.png
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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 4.57.15 PM.png

 

 

Apple Watch Series 4; Instagram’s Story; Re-discovering The Beatles

After a summer hiatus, Codebrief is back! I’ll be experimenting with the format over the coming weeks, so let me know what works and what doesn’t. The general charge will be to “organize the internet“; There’s so much good content out there, my goal is to put it in front of readers each week. Additionally, I wrote two articles this week, one about the Apple Watch Series 4 (below), and one highlighting the history of watchmaker Patek Phillipe, for the rappers out there.

Main Course

In 2017, Tim Cook announced to the world that the Apple Watch was the “#1 watch in the world” – in revenue – not just in units sold. So how does the new Series 4 move the needle? Unlike most categories, Apple doesn’t make the “nicest watch” (leave that to others (my history of Patek Phillipe). But, wearing an Apple Watch does convey a different type of status, one equally coveted in today’s world: “Taking care of one’s self is the newest status symbol, and the Apple Watch might just be the best way to communicate to others that you live a life worthy of such status… Usually, an Apple product is a symbol that you own the nicest product in that given category (as John Gruber deftly put it in his review). The Apple Watch though, is something slightly different: it’s a symbol that you’re living the nicest life possible.” Read my full take here.

Screen Shot 2018-09-27 at 4.29.08 AM.png

📷 Why Instagram’s founders left: TechCrunch has an in-depth, well-sourced analysis of why Instagram’s two founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, have put in their two weeks notice at parent company Facebook. Perhaps this paragraph explains it most succinctly: “Systrom and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg historically got along, but they had occasional diverging opinions. A source said that a few times a year they’d clash before resolving things. Those clashes included “Sharing back to Facebook. Kevin wanted to keep the sharing on Instagram but at some point Mark wanted content production on Instagram to flow to Facebook. But things got more heated lately. “Recently Mark decided to pull all of the links to Instagram from Facebook.

In short, Instagram’s co-founders built a spectacular product and sold it to Zuckerberg before they had to worry about making money. The relationship was perfectly symbiotic: Instagram could build its ad business off the back of Facebook’s already well-developed network, and Facebook could continue to grow, even as its main product (Facebook.com, that is) stagnated. And now that it’s increasingly looking like Instagram has won the product battle against Snapchat by introducing Stories, it’s again up to Facebook to figure out how to monetize a well-built Instagram product. Oh, for another tale of founder-is-acquired-then-leaves-Facebook check out Forbes’ great profile of WhatsApp founder (and recent Facebook defector) Brian Acton. Key quote: “Facebook ‘isn’t the bad guy. I think of them as just very good businesspeople.’ Sound like the Instagram story?

Continue reading Apple Watch Series 4; Instagram’s Story; Re-discovering The Beatles

Thoughts on the Apple Watch Series 4; Or, What Even Is a Watch?

“#1 watch in the world.” That’s how Tim Cook opened the Apple Watch portion of the September 2018 Apple Keynote. At 2017’s Keynote, Cook explicitly mentioned that Apple was actually the largest watch brand in terms of revenue – not just units sold – surely sending chills down the spines of Rolex and other Swiss watch execs in the old boys club.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 11.46.59 AM.png
Top 5 watch brands, by revenue

What Even Is a Watch?

Since Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 and became the most ubiquitous product since the Furby, there’s been a common chorus: “why do I need a watch, my phone tells time just fine?” There’s some truth to this sentiment: if we were really wearing watches primarily for their functionality, we’d all be wearing minimalist, time-only, quartz-powered pieces that cost a couple bucks to manufacture in China (oh wait, there’s one company that built a nice business selling just that, and another that was just acquired for some $100 million). But the truth is we wear watches for a variety of reasons: what they say about us (e.g. wearing a Daniel Wellington says something like “I’m a minimally aware millenial that makes most of my purchasing decisions so that I look more like a well-crafted Instagram post”), an aesthetic we’re trying to communicate to others, or an appreciation for the movement and craftsmanship that goes into a well-made mechanical piece. A watch is so much more than its functionality; it’s an item we wear daily that subtly communicates status and taste. In the old days, people bought divers to be like Cousteau, Daytonas to look like Newman, Explorers to feel like Hillary.

But in a modern world increasingly defined by the “consumerist church” of SoulCycle and Lululemon, spending time and money on your own health and fitness is the most ostentatious display of wealth. Instead of wanting to be divers, drivers or climbers, we simply want to get a bike for the 8 a.m. SoulCycle, with a watch to match that lifestyle.

Apple Watch: Flawed Genius

Any watch collector will tell you: “90% (or some arbitrary, but high percentage) of a vintage watch’s value is in the dial.” Is it an original dial? How’s the patina? This is the crux of the problem for the Apple Watch: the attribute that most limits its functionality and elegance is the lack of an always-on dial. If you’re in a meeting, you have to deliberately turn your wrist towards you to wake the screen. But by then, your boss is looking at you with that “oh is this fucking boring to you?” face.

And we can’t yet have an always on dial because of battery-life limitations. Further, there is an old-world charm to having something on your wrist that doesn’t require a battery, that relies on mechanical power alone (like the good old days!). In a world where we feel little connection to our electronics products – manufactured in a Chinese factory thousands of miles away – you can almost feel the master watchmaker toiling away on the hundreds of tiny pieces inside your mechanical watch, made to last for hundreds of years, and not until the next upgrade cycle.

Perhaps more than anyone, Apple’s designers understand the appeal of a watch. Jony Ive is a watch guy. Steve Jobs was intrigued by Patek Phillipe. In fact, the Apple Watch does contain many subtle nods to haute horology: one of my favorite is the smooth-moving seconds hand, emblematic of a mechanical watch (as opposed to the jumping seconds hand of a quartz watch). Even referring to the buttons on your Apple Watch screen as “complications” is a fun nod to horology. Ives has claimed an affection for the Patek Phillipe’s luxury sportswatch, the Nautilus; perhaps coincidentally, many of the Apple Watch’s faces mimic the hands of a Nautilus (which itself imitates the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak). And honestly, this homage makes sense. To me, the Apple Watch plays the role of “sports watch” in my rotation. I wear it to the gym (wear it has complications no $30,000 watch can match), or out when I know I’ll be having a particularly active day.

On another note, the Apple Watch re-introduced me to the idea of wrist-as-retail space. I wasn’t wearing a watch everyday until I finally bought a Series 3. Not long after, I had re-immersed myself into the world of mechanical watches. I can’t imagine I’m the only person under the age of 40 for whom this is the case. All we’ve known is a world dominated by battery-powered commodity watches; for some reason, the Apple Watch made me realize that a watch could be something more.

Screen Shot 2018-09-27 at 4.29.08 AM.png
I’ve often thought the hands of many Apple Watch faces and those of luxury sports watches bear a striking resemblance.

Health: The New Grand Complication

Which brings us to the Apple Watch. While the first three series of the Watch seemed to wander through the abyss looking for an actual purpose, the Apple Watch Series 4 has finally found its true calling: health and fitness. In 2014, Apple introduced the Watch by highlighting its various functionalities, without focus on any particular one. Four years later, Apple’s focus is decidedly on the Watch’s fitness capabilities (just look at the main page for Apple Watch). Additionally, Apple has clearly been putting its R&D money where its marketing mouth is: two of the Watch’s biggest technological leaps – the ECG and fall detection – are health focused.

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 3.24.06 PM.png
Above: Apple Watch, 2014 Keynote | Below: Apple Watch, 2018 Keynote

In a world where watches tell the world (and ourselves) what type of life we lead, wearing an Apple Watch says something like “I can afford to spend $35 on a SoulCycle class; yes, that’s why I look so damn good in these $110 yoga pants”. And if it’s good enough for Kobe to wear to the Oscars, shouldn’t it be good enough for you? As Kanye himself recently rapped “hospital band a hundred bands, fuck a watch”. This from a guy whose 2011 album Watch the Throne is dripping with references to Hublot, Audemars Piguet and Rolex (mostly from noted watch aficionado Jay-Z, granted).

Taking care of one’s self is the newest status symbol, and the Apple Watch might just be the best way to communicate to others that you live a life worthy of such status. Sure, Apple has always made beautifully designed, elegant products – and the Apple Watch is now designed about as good as it can be – but much of an Apple product’s value is also tied up in the intangible status one gains by owning an Apple product. Usually, it’s a symbol that you own the nicest product in that given category (as John Gruber deftly put it in his review). The Apple Watch though, is something slightly different: it’s a symbol that you’re living the nicest life possible. You’ve got time and money to spend on your own health and fitness, which, in the end, is the ultimate luxury. Yes, more than that New Patek, Mr. Uzi Vert.

So yes, an Apple Watch might technically not be a watch. Call it a small computer on your wrist or whatever. But you’re not wearing that $200,000 Patek just to tell time either (look at you, Uzi).

Lil Uzi Vert and the Timeless Appeal of Patek Phillipe

In Lil Uzi Vert’s latest single, “New Patek,” the rapper makes no effort to conceal his favorite watch brand, singing on the chorus: “New Patek on my wrist / white diamonds them shits hit pink”. He also sings that Franck Muller, AP (Audemar Piguet), and a new Rollie (Rolex) “made me proud of my wrist,” but Patek Phillipe takes the headline billing in a song dripping with references to luxury brands.

It’s the logical endpoint of hip hop’s obsession with luxury Swiss watchmaker Patek Phillipe. Like many trends in hip hop, noted watch enthusiast Jay-Z can take at least partial credit for the trend, but new artists – led by Migos, who mention the brand 28 times in Culture II – have taken the name dropping to the extreme. According to Genius, one of every eight hip-hop songs that charted in 2017 mentioned Patek (that’s Puh-tek). So what do you need to know about the legendary Swiss watchmaking company founded in 1839 to carry on a conversation next time you run into Lil Uzi at New York’s posh Wempe showroom?

A Brief Introduction

Patek Phillipe traces its roots to 1839, when Antoni Patek and Franciszek Czapek started making watches together in Geneva. They separated in 1844 and in 1845 Adrien Philippe joined Mr. Patek to form Patek Philippe & Co. Fast-forward to today, Patek Phillipe is the last truly independent, family-owned watch maker in Geneva. It has been owned by the Stern family since 1932, and Thierry Stern currently serves as the firm’s president. According to recent interviews with Stern, Patek Phillipe now produces between 40,000 and 50,000 timepieces per year; the company brought in 1.3 billion CHF in revenue in 2016. It’s said that less than 1 million Patek Phillipe watches have been created since the beginning of the company. To this day, every individual part of a Patek’s movement is hand finished, making these watches even more beautiful to look at from the inside than from the outside.

Continue reading Lil Uzi Vert and the Timeless Appeal of Patek Phillipe