Microbrand watches are enjoying unprecedented popularity. What’s the appeal of these affordable watches and the watch companies behind them?
Let's talk microbrand watches with their focus on a limited range of watch types, online-only marketing and fair pricing. New brands encouraging buyer-involvement in the development experience, with an independent approach that only entrepreneurial watch enthusiasts can deliver. Microbrand watch companies are a talking point of the affordable watch sector. Whether for dive watches or Fliegeruhren with contemporary twists, the best upcoming watch brands are here to stay.
A 'microbrand' or 'micro brand' is a specialist brand at the smaller end of the SME continuum, offering some originality, quality and affordability in watches for an identified target niche? Typically, microbrands demonstrate clear entrepreneurial spirit, production outsourcing, bold execution of their vision and predominantly online sales. This could be for a one-off watch or several watch collections encompassing micro brand dive watches, pilot chronographs and other styles.
'Microbrand' is strongly associated with watches
The term 'microbrand' is strongly associated with watches. Indeed, it seems to be 'owned' by the watch community and eschewed by other products' marketing. Uché Okonkwo's Luxury Online: Styles, Systems. Strategies (2010) doesn't even mention microbrands despite plenty of luxury timepiece references.
At their least-inspired, microbrands produce 'replicas/copies' of other watches including many of the world's best automatic watches. Contrast this with the best new watch companies offering genuinely novelty or, as respectful homage watch brands, taking classic watch design elements and adding contemporary twists. Bearing in mind that watches have functional and artistic roles, if their design is particularly 'edgy', an affordable microbrand delivers a striking occasional wear without an astronomical cost.
History of microbrand watches
Horology has long had mass-market affordable, mid-range and luxury brands, smaller specialists and low-volume independents. Many, but not all, will appear on any Swiss watch brands list. Arguably, these firms, many now defunct, are prototypical microbrands. However, modern microbrands are products of the internet and the new spirit of entrepreneurship that it facilitates.
Micro brands, or 'indie watch brands', are an established part of the market that's enjoying surging interest based on outsourcing and focus on design, marketing and sales. It's an idea whose time has come, amid arguably demonstrable belief that watch micro brands can deliver lots of traditional luxury brands' value for a fraction of the price. Lovers of expensive big brands will of course maintain, correctly, that no up-and-coming watch brands can offer their heritage or brand values.
The appeal of microbrand watches
So what's the appeal of microbrand watches from small, startup watch brands? It's easy to compare microbrands with affordable mass-produced timepieces such as the ubiquitous Seiko diver and wonder what they offer over mainstream counterparts. The following factors seem to recur.
Complementing more expensive watches
If you own a couple of expensive watches, carefully chosen timepieces from upcoming watch brands help you build a more extensive collection. Despite the Rolex Submariner's history as a serious diver's tool, do you really want to wear yours while snorkelling on Kos? Maybe that Geckota Vintage Diver or another of the best micro brand watches will ensure a less-stressful vacation!
Try before buying
Microbrands let you try different watch designs before making an expensive purchase. Fancy a classic diver, but unsure if you can live with a chunky, expensive, Planet Ocean or Fifty Fathoms, both ranking among the best divers ever? Buy a microbrand diver, inspired by the classics, and find out. Even if you aren't seeking a luxury wear, well-executed microbrand watches affordably deliver a certain look or style, maybe with contemporary twists. Some microbrand watches may even hold value better than similarly priced mass-market timepieces.
Support budding watch entrepreneurs
You'll be supporting other watch enthusiasts who've turned their hobby into a microbusiness. For many people, that's reason enough to support micro watch companies. Plus, you're supporting our industry's future. Just as now-revered luxury brands had to start somewhere, who can say none of today's up-and-coming watch brands won't become the next Sinn or Bremont. Or that Scurfa Watches or Geckota won't become known beyond the microbrand world
Affordable watches without middlemen
Microbrand watches are often more affordable than big-brand watches - and can look and wear as well for a fraction of the price. As well as including some interesting watch brands, some microbrands offer genuine entry-level luxury watches - based on a definition of 'mid-range' luxury ranging from CHF500-3000 (Europa Star Time.Business 2017 Ch. 2).
Given watch collecting's addictiveness, and many enthusiasts' tight budgets, it's no surprise that the best low end watch brands' value:price ratios are attractive. You crave an ETA 2824-2 or Miyota 9015 movement? Microbrands often offer these more affordably than big brands' similarly powered products.
Big brands inevitably carry a massive marketing burden. Describe Omega's Seamaster 300 as 'a great £1000 watch' and the implication is that two-thirds of the price is for marketing. Yes, there's a good argument for buying into Omega's brand history. But also for good microbrand watches having lots of the functionality and less of the cost of low-end luxury watches such as Omega's Seamaster.
For many, there's appeal in the Omega's branding. For others, however, there's inverted snob appeal from eschewing big names for the best 'up and coming' watch brands with quality, original design and their own story. It's the Snob Effect's antithesis. Like the Veblen Effect, it's about expressing preference for goods different to those commonly preferred. This time, expressed at the market's affordable end. Surely Naomi Klein, author of 1999's influential No Logo, would approve.
Engage with a microbrand
Another reason for microbrand watches' appeal is because micro brands are often easier to engage with and buy direct from. TAG Heuer or Omega's teams may be passionate about watches, but their involvement in watch design, development and marketing is significantly different to that of Jason Lim (Halios Watches), our own Jonathan Quinn and other microbrand owners.
As an enthusiast, you've experimented with watches and straps and thought hard about your preferences. You'll probably engage more closely with a microbrand - enthusiasts like you who've gone one entrepreneurial stage further... These microbrands have more freedom to act on your feedback. Particularly with Kickstarter watch projects, you can participate directly in their business. Send product suggestions to Rolex and you'll be politely acknowledged. However, if you contact the best watch microbrands you'll engage directly with their team. And microbrand culture means your suggestion really could influence their products.
Microbrand appeal summarised
Microbrands aren't about to replace big watch companies and are unlikely to make this year's top-10 list of best watch brands. However, chosen wisely, they're a great way for the budget-conscious to complement a special watch, collect different watch types or try different styles. Or simply get a certain look, interesting brand story and almost as much quality for a fraction of the price of many luxury timepieces.