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Watch the micro brands poised to become macro watch companies

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In 2017, Dr. Nathaniel DeNicola attended a conference at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, where he lectured on the effects of environmental contaminants on maternal and child health. During a break, he went shopping with the allowance from the speaking concert.

“I looked around the watch shops on the main street in Geneva,” Dr. DeNicola recalled in a recent phone call. “I was struck by the craftsmanship and intricacy of the inner workings.”

The doctor, a Southern California-based obstetrician, said mechanical watches, most of which start at around $5,000, were much more expensive than he had anticipated.

“The stipend was around $500 and for me that was already a lot,” he said. “I ended up buying a quartz watch from the WHO gift shop. It sparked interest and like any hobby, you can go down rabbit holes.

Now, whenever Dr. DeNicola travels to a new city for a conference, he says, he looks for a watch from a local independent brand, sometimes called microbrand, to add to his collection of around 100 contemporary and vintage watches. .

“I’m interested in watches in general,” he said. “But the ‘mics’ are much more accessible in terms of budget. For every luxury watch you buy, you could probably get 5-10 from the pickups.

Over the past decade, it has become easier than ever to create a watch brand. From the rise of crowdfunding and social media to the rise of e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, tools enabling low-volume, low-cost production and direct-to-consumer sales have reshaped the watch landscape.

“Technology has made this possible for smaller players,” said industry veteran William Rohr in a recent phone call.

“Ten years ago you had to make your watches, go to stores and they had to sell your watches,” added Mr. Rohr, the New York-based founder of Massena LAB, which collaborates with watchmakers on edition watches. limited.

But how can a potential watch buyer distinguish a quality microbrand from the dozens of cheap imposters on the Internet?

Experts say take control first: understand what you’re buying. Companies that fall into the microbrand category are small in more ways than one. Not only do they have limited production and staff, but they also typically outsource their production, allowing them to sell their watches — usually through their own direct-to-consumer websites — at prices that rarely exceed $2,500.

And yet, perhaps the biggest difference between micro-brands and more established watchmakers like Rolex, Omega and Cartier has less to do with their products than with how the companies are run.

“Micro brands are run by individuals and the designs and concepts are usually the product of a person’s individual taste and perspective,” Bradley Price, founder and owner of Autodromo, a direct-to-consumer automobile brand from 11 years old. inspired watches, said over the phone.

For watch enthusiasts unconvinced by the appeal of a big brand, microbrands offer the opportunity to connect directly with owners, hear their stories, and perhaps even influence the type of watches they buy. manufacture.

“If you tell an owner, ‘I think you should,’ if they get enough of these requests, they’re more than likely to put that request into action and produce what customers want,” said said Jarrod Cooper, founder of the Los Angeles-based collector’s group Neighborhood Watch Club, said by phone. “You don’t get that from big brands.”

Although microbrand owners are relatively easy to access, trying their products only on the web can be tricky. This may explain why there are at least three micro-brand buying shows today in the United States and Britain. These include the Windup Watch Fair, introduced in 2015 by the founders of Worn & Wound, a New York-based online publication covering value-driven watches; MicroLux, a typically bi-annual event in Los Angeles and Chicago founded in 2019 by YouTube watch reviewer Rich Park; and WatchPro Market, a shopping weekend organized by specialist publication WatchPro, in East London’s Shoreditch area.

“What Worn & Wound did with the Windup Watch Fair got those brands that had built social media followings out in front of the public,” said Rob Corder, editor of WatchPro. “We liked the concept so much we thought we’d bring it to the UK”

After a weekend in mid-May, a second WatchPro Market is expected to return to London in early December.

More than two years into the pandemic, the timing of a renewed interest in microbrands may seem odd. Far from diminishing consumers’ appetite for watches, the crisis only fueled them (the surge in prices of Rolex watches was only the beginning).

“The last two years have seen some of the micro brands break through and become much more successful for the same reason that independents like FP Journe and Kari Voutilainen have had some incredible years,” Corder said. “Because people, stuck behind their screens, had time to do a lot more research.”

Back in April, when Windup hosted its first in-person show since 2019 in San Francisco, the pent-up desire among watch enthusiasts to cement the online relationships they’d forged with brands during the pandemic was palpable.

“It was our biggest event yet,” said Worn & Wound co-founder and editor Zach Weiss over the phone. “It was probably 35 marks, a much bigger space. We had food trucks, a lounge, a bar in the room.

“People who came out were so excited,” he added. “They were so excited to be able to handle these watches.”

When it’s not possible to attend a fair in person, potential buyers can always turn to YouTube, where to watch reviews – like Mr. Park with his whatsonthewrist videos; Teddy Baldassarre, a collector who has turned his love of watches into a thriving YouTube channel and, more recently, an e-commerce business; and Tristano G. Veneto, the founder of Urban Gentry, a watch chain acquired by second-hand watch e-tailer WatchBox in 2019, regularly advise new buyers in the micro-brand category.

During a recent episode on YouTube, Mr. Baldassarre spoke to Kevin O’Leary, the Canadian investor who appears in the American reality series “Shark Tank”, about the most popular micromarks, including a GMT at 1 $950 (or two time zones) piece from St. Louis-based watchmaker Monta. “Good value for money,” Mr O’Leary said as he flipped the Monta watch over to get a closer look at its finish. “I always tell everyone: never go into debt for a watch.”

The wave of interest in microbrands has actually helped a number of brands that were initially considered “micro” to no longer merit the label.

“Today we are in a position where we have customers in over 50 countries, we have broken 1 million pounds [$1.25 million] in revenue, we have no investors or debt,” said Jonny Garrett, founder of William Wood Watches, a London-based brand that honors firefighters, such as Mr Garrett’s late grandfather, by featuring recycled firefighting materials in its timepiece. “We literally went from crowdfunding to a loyal community,” he said over the phone.

Many mics also move quickly upmarket. Mr. Weiss chose Ming, the brainchild of Ming Thein, a Malaysian collector, designer and businessman who co-founded the brand in 2017. “I don’t know if they are still considered a microbrand anymore,” said said Mr. Weiss. “They make a small number of watches, but they have made tourbillons before.

“It’s very firmly within a classic luxury pricing,” he added.

For his part, Dr. DeNicola said a good way to test the category was to embrace “what microbrands do best: the $600 diver.”

“If you want a diver’s watch with an automatic movement,” he said, “maybe Swiss-made or Japanese-made, good quality, and waterproof for $600, it’s hard to beat the pickups.”

Other than that, the easiest and most common advice for anyone who wants to try a microbrand is to buy what you like. And to keep things in perspective.

“Most micro-brands are between $500 and $1,000,” Rohr said. “It’s not like they’re selling watches for $100,000. At the end of the day, I think it’s great. It’s a good entry point for someone looking to get into watches, given that you can’t buy Rolex.