Defining a microbrand is one of those willowy discussions those of us covering one of the latest (and greatest) phenomenons to hit watchmaking like to have at any opportunity. Is it purely price-oriented? Is it entirely down to production numbers? Is it the size or vision of the company that makes you a microbrand or not? Or is it all to do with your target demographic?
Well, truthfully, it’s a little bit of everything (and often a whole lot more). And, quite frustratingly from the perspective of someone who likes to package everything in neat little boxes, what makes a microbrand a microbrand isn’t all that consistent across the board. Rolex is very much independent, but certainly anything but micro; other watch brands are tiny in their operations, but are part of much larger parent companies. But for the sake of this exercise, I went ahead and drew up a few (semi-flexible) criteria that explain what it means (to me) for watch brands to be a true micro.
What Defines a Microbrand?
Firstly, it comes down to the company ethos. Microbrands aren’t filed in the same mental drawer as small brands in my mind. Small brands are on the path to becoming big brands. That is the goal, to grow. A microbrand, however, forever intends to remain micro. Not because they don’t want to see massive profits and have their products met with widespread acclaim, but because they want to send a different message.
The watchmaking industry, like politics, and like most any commercial enterprise has rules. Many brands/politicians/entrepreneurs enter their field to change things, before very quickly realizing that the established order is set up to run a certain way and, if they want to get big/powerful/rich enough to change that order, they must first play the game to get to the top of the tree.
Unfortunately, most of these ladder-climbing examples are irreversibly changed by their ascent. They reach the top and can no longer see, or even recall why they started climbing. And so the machine churns on.
Microbrands want to change that. They want to stay small, so they can stay fast. They want to make better products than the established brands in their price segment and can do this by selling directly to the end consumer, thus side-stepping the massive retailer margins that create so much air between manufacturing and retail costs.
Microbrands appeal to those in the know. They appeal to lovers of horology. That means their audience is intelligent and aware of the industry. They can’t be hoodwinked by flashy ambassadors, event sponsorships, or cross-industry partnerships. They care about the product, and often about the people behind those products. They care about a relatable story. Not going to the moon. Very few of us will ever go to the moon. Buying an Omega Speedmaster does not make it more likely that you will go to the moon.
However, buying from a microbrand does make it more likely that you might one day start your own microbrand. Because buying into a micro means you are funding a community that might one day fund you. And even if you have no intention of starting your own brand, your purchase funds the hobby of a group of like-minded people that give you a sense of belonging in the same way a gold Rolex gives a successful businessman with no interest in watchmaking a sense of superiority.
Sometimes microbrands are expensive. That’s okay. Quality costs money. Sometimes they are really affordable. That’s okay too because these brands are pitching different products to different consumers. What is most consistent with microbrands, however, is that they have a heart and a character that really shines through in the end product. So even though the name recognition of the brands on this list is basically zero to anyone outside of the industry, the individuality of your purchase offers a huge emotional return. And you never know, if you get in early on a micro, it could become quite collectible in time. And that’s a really fun game to play.
Unimatic Modello Tre U3-A
Unimatic is a plucky Italian microbrand that is creating seriously cool watches, using a mixture of quartz and automatic movements to power their timepieces. The Modello Tre (Model 3) U3 is driven by a meca-quartz chronograph module that means this watch is incredibly accurate and much more affordable than a mechanical alternative.
So what’s so good about these weirdly simple Italian tool watches? Well, for me, it has a lot to do with the thoughtfulness of the design. Yes, they have removed basically all unnecessary embellishments rendering these watches an homage, not to any particular model, but to dive watches as a whole. It can be seen as a not-so-subtle two-fingered salute to the industry. There is a message here. A message delivered very quietly, with the kind of self-confidence that would leave conscientious watch designers wringing their hands.
By reducing the watches to the basics, Unimatic is drawing attention to the build quality, which is surprisingly good. When I say surprising, perhaps I should frame that in the context of the industry, and the incessant push by major brands to shave cents off their manufacturing costs in any way they can. Choosing a simple case design, an affordable and replicable case finish that matches the style of the watch, and investing a little more time and effort in the engraving of a closed case back (which wisely hides the functional but uninspiring movements) takes experience, restraint, and self-belief.
And one of the coolest things about Unimatic is that some people just won’t get it. They just won’t see what the brand has done in removing so much of the assumedly obligatory noise from the design. The Modello Tre U3 specifically picks-up on the current colorway trend of faux-vintage lume on a black base. The look is sharp and clean, and the versatile sizing of these watches (40mm case diameter) paired with a smart stainless steel case means it will look as at home in the office as it would on your off day. With just 600 of these units available at a tantalizing $600, these won’t be around for long.
Magrette Moana Pacific Professional
You don’t hear of much watchmaking going on in New Zealand, but Magrette is trying to change that. For the would-be Paneristi, Magrette offers a range of cushion-shaped diving watches powered by Swiss made Sellita SW200-1 automatic movements, and available for very accessible prices.
The build quality of this microbrand’s output feels way beyond the price tag. And the Moana Pacific Professional boasts a high degree of functionality that puts rivals in this bracket in the shade.
Generously applied luminescence makes for a bright and easily readable display in low light conditions. The high contrast colorways are perfect for a tool watch of this nature. Smart little touches like the red ring on the crown that is only visible when the crown is unscrewed (so you don’t forget to screw down your crown before submerging your watch) are normally the preserve of much pricier brands, but Magrette throws this tidy package together for a remarkable $698. It’s well worth reaching out across the waves to check out one of the most interesting microbrands beneath the Southern Cross.
I’ve long been a vocal proponent of this brand, so I will keep this brief: Laventure is the perfect example of a microbrand making a huge investment in the product itself. The photography on the website is really great, but nothing communicates the real quality of this product like getting it on the wrist.
In the past, I’ve had questions (and plenty of derision) thrown at me for my overt support of this brand given the most recent model’s price tag of around $2,743 in bronze. The truth it, I really do believe in paying for that extra bit of quality. These watches are almost entirely made in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Having that level of true Swiss manufacturing in your timepiece sounds a lot like marketing bumf, but it shows in the metal.
Yema Superman Heritage
Yema was founded in 1948 in France, just five miles away from the Swiss border. The company was very highly regarded during the last days of mechanical watchmaking’s original run in the sun, and now it’s making a bit of a comeback. The Yema Superman Heritage is the iconic piece from the brand and is also available in trend-aware bronze. And the best bit? These watches retail for around $1,000.
Visconti Abyssus Scuba 3000m
This original run of this watch was released several years ago before the term “microbrand” had really caught on. I still class the Visconti watch division as such (even though their main business is the manufacture of luxury writing instruments) because of the company ethos criteria I mentioned at the top of this piece.
These are not watches for everyone. In fact, they are watches for the very few. The styling is a mad mix of high luxury and steampunk insanity, but it comes together really, really well. The retail price of these watches is high because the build quality is also. Retailing for the best part of $6,000, this is the most expensive watch on this list. But oh my goodness, it’s a cool one.
While the only current strap option is a black leather band, the original release saw one of the only bronze bracelets I have ever seen. And not only was it fantastic to see the material used in that way, but the style of the links themselves was absolutely show-stopping. It stayed in my mind, and the whole brand in my heart, for many years.