These brands are showing an interesting combination of watchmaking and marketing skills. In today’s cluttered world it is difficult to make any brand thrive, let alone in the watch industry, with such a vast range of choice, from beater to luxury watches, and within many different categories (diver, pilot, field, racing, travel, dress, sport).
This is why brand narrative is important. After the quartz crisis (1967-mid 80’s) that threatened mechanical watches, with the hipster crave for Casios, a handful of Swiss watch visionaries turned the industry around by emphasizing its own attributes of craftsmanship, tradition and innovation. Telling time is a byproduct of timepieces that embody fascinating history and fine arts engineering.
But for the newcomer microbrands, there is no history to build upon. Their story is often about how the passion of an individual for watches resulted in the creation of unique (mostly affordable) watches. It might be a reputable collector, an industry insider or an eager enthusiast with access to the means of production. For microbrands it’s not as much about legacy as it is about watchmaking knowledge and credibility.
How these watches are made is a whole different game. For starters, as stated by Dan Henry in an interview to Worn&Wound “it is no place for amateurs”. To make the watches affordable, they must be for most parts sourced in Asia. “In China you get what you pay for” says Dan Henry, meaning there is quality available at a cost.
Most microbrands offer mechanical and automatic movements (Chinese Seagull, Japanese Seiko and Citizen/Miyota, Swiss ETA and Sellita). Not being quartz makes the watch more interesting, horologic-ally speaking, and creates better cost proposition for the “watch enthusiast”, the most likely profile of microbrand consumer.
If the microbrand is able to control the complex, frustrating and financially liable manufacturing process, the competitive advantage may come down to assembling the watch. In most cases the watch is assembled in China. This allows for the watchmaker to keep costs down. There are microbrands that assemble their watches in countries with tradition of watchmaking (Switzerland, Germany, France, USA) to increase credibility and quality expectation.
The rules for the “Swiss Made” stamp state that a percentage of the watch manufacture must be done in Switzerland. If we consider the Swiss labor cost to assemble a watch made from Asian parts it’s not difficult to reach the 60% production cost threshold for the "Swiss Made" endorsement.
Smart microbrands now better than to take advantage of the Swiss Made endorsement. The quality of the watch plays an important aspect of pre-orders (many of these brands started as kickstarter projects) and sales. This is why affordable watches often have technical specifications that one expects from expensive timepieces (sapphire crystal, ceramic bezel, ETA instead of Japanese movements). These specs speak for the quality of the watch. Affordable prices help create a sustainable value for money proposition.
The challenge is even harder for microbrands that launch new designs. Homage watches have an easier task, as they rely on well-proven designs for the taste of many that don’t want to pay 5.000 euros for a watch, when they can have the same (?) features from a 500 euros watch. New designs must prove themselves for consumer taste on top of quality.
Consumers have the difficult task of 1) filter the low quality and inauthentic rubbish that is emerging from kickastarter such as platforms, 2) understand when quality microbrand watches are worth the 500+ euros asking price and 3) distinguish the microbrand entrepreneur rooted passion for watches from marketing storytelling.
Favorite microbrands to follow.
Take a look at Just One More Watch youtube channel, great reviews and lots of microbrands.