Looking for something a little bit different? There are upstart watch brands everywhere: these are some of the best
By Justin Mastine-Frost
Throughout the last decade, the watch industry has seen an incredible boom of upstarts in the watch industry, especially at the more approachable end of the spectrum. In those earlier days, self-driven entrepreneurial watch enthusiasts deployed their hard-earned savings, found the appropriately-skilled manufacturing partners, and released waves of new watches into the universe hoping that their fellow enthusiasts would appreciate their vision.
Since the dawn of Kickstarter that model has further evolved. On one hand, those with the vision to strike out on their own no longer have to part with the significant up-front costs. On the other hand, and as anyone who’s ever looked up watches on crowdfunding sites know all too well, for every one good crowdfunded watch, there are dozens if not hundreds of cheap, heavily marketed, poorly designed pieces of schlock all touting themselves as “a new and innovative way to tell time”.
Kickstarter rants aside, there’s good reason why these kinds of brands continue to see significant success. In the earlier years, especially in the time of the recession which caused a great slowing of the luxury watch market, the watch industry’s heavy hitters quickly dialled back their investment in new models, instead launching new dial variants and casing options for things already in their roster. In many ways, things grew a bit stale when looking at well-established brands, opening the doors for new brands with a new vision to insert themselves into the marketplace. What’s more, by not being bogged down by the costs of corporate structure, and free from the rampant inflation that plagues the Swiss watch industry, many of these upstarts found favor in offering honest pricing structure that delivers serious bang-for-your-buck when compared to a similarly spec’d and finished model from traditional brands.
While there’s a pretty significant variance when it comes to the design of these brands, ones that have found long-term success have a handful of key points in common. Aside from offering something new and relatively different from the norm, a keen sense of quality in execution is a crucial factor. In this segment—loosely the £300-£1,500 window—there’s a heightened awareness within this buying demographic about the different movement options out there, and general expectations of reliability. Those who’ve succeeded in the segment have mostly leaned on the same calibers, primarily ETA, Miyota, and Seiko. At this price point of entry buyers aren’t expecting chronometer-level accuracy, however there is certainly a demand for reliability and general accuracy that these calibers are all more than capable of delivering. These calibers are also anything but obscure, ensuring simple and straightforward service long beyond the available warranty period. When dealing within warranty, not having decades of track record to rely on means these newer brands are both quick and mindful of addressing repairs, not wanting to compromise their standing amongst their budding clientele.
Given the depth and breadth of this ever-growing segment I could easily present a list of brands that’s many miles long. That said, there is a condensed collection of stand-outs that I’ve had the opportunity to see blossom over the years, upon whom I continue to keep a watchful eye to se what directions their latest releases might take.
Founded by Vancouver-based Jason Lim back in 2009, Halios is arguably one of the most consistent brands in the category. While never skewing too far outside the lines of conventional watch design, Jason’s watches also have a very distinct look to them that keeps fans coming back year after year. Not wanting to expand the business beyond his comfort zone, Halios watches have become harder and harder to acquire first hand—the latest 3rd generation batch of his much-loved Seaforth managed to sell out in only 3 minutes when online sales opened this past month.
Born in rural Sussex, Schofield is another unique offering with a very strong sense of design DNA. Starting with the Signalman in 2011, and having since worked their way through a small series of other models of vaguely similar ilk (my favorite being the Patinated Bronze Beater seen here), Schofield is still alive and well after its last seven years in the business. While its calibers and cases are sourced outside of England, much of the brand’s leather goods, as well as their recent strap sales platform are locally manufactured.
Though very much a newcomer when compared to many of my other selections, Monta made quite the impression on the industry when launching their Oceanking Diver in 2016, quickly becoming a fan-favorite amongst those with the opportunity to see the piece first-hand. Founded by the team behind Everest Bands—one of the best premium rubber and leather Rolex strap makers in the business—Monta’s watches (the Ocean King as well as its 2017 sibling, the Triumph) are all about the details. Using Sellita SW 300 calibres for both the Oceanking (which used to use an Eterna-sourced caliber) and the Triumph, both watches feature an impressive level of detailed finishing at a relatively modest price.
Ming Watches very much came out of the blue late last year with the launch of the 17.01—arguably the most talked about freshman watch launch we’ve seen in ages. Boasting exceptionally finished grade 5 titanium case, an elegant and complex sapphire and machine guilloché dial, and a simple yet reliable Sellita SW210-1 manually wound movement, the entire industry was floored that this piece came in at a very approachable 900 CHF for the 300 examples produced.
Their first effort was a case study of what could be done for under a grand when the focus was entirely on manufacturing, and their sophomore effort—the 19.01 proved a similar exercise, looking at what would be possible in a luxe time-only watch in the sub-$10k range, using movements provided by Schwartz Etienne.
Just recently the brand unveiled their third creation, that once again did not disappoint. The new 17.03 features similar case design to the 17.01, and uses an inner disc on its dial to display a GMT complication. Available in black or burgundy, and on a titanium bracelet for the first time from the brand, the first series of the 17.03 is already sold out, but series 2 is on sale either with bracelet and two straps (CHF 1700) or just with the two straps (CHF 1300).
For the vintage automotive/racing geeks in the room, Autodromo’s founder Bradley Price has a knack for drawing very thoughtful inspiration from the automotive realm when crafting his new watches. The execs at Ford clearly picked up on this, as the brand recently announced the Endurance GT series of watches executed for Ford as a tribute to the GT including a high-spec “owners’ watch” as well as a more approachable piece for GT fans to acquire. More personally, his lightweight Group B EVO remains a favourite, shown above, featuring a slim profile, pass-through lugs, and a dial configuration that screams ‘80s performance car dashboard.
While no longer fair to be called a “micro-brand” considering the current volume of production, and a significant model range, I can’t help but include Deep Blue in this list considering the decade-old firm started in the same fashion as its contemporaries on this list. A passion for dive watches, for diving in general, and wanting to offer professional and recreational divers something solid and task-focused that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Starting off using Seiko and Miyota calibers, the brand has now expanded the range to include both those, and Swiss ETA and Sellita movements for certain models. Combined with ceramic bezels and a healthy smattering of Superluminova (or in some cases Tritium tubes), Deep Blue’s offerings continue to tick all the boxes in the incredibly popular category.