It’s tough to pinpoint the exact genesis of the “microbrand,” but sometime in the early 2000s, the horological landscape shifted.
Bill Yao founded Mk II in 2002 after tinkering with watches on his own and offering customization services for other brands’ wares. Jason Lim spun up Halios in 2009 to offer 1960s-inspired dive watch designs. Many, many others joined the fray around 2015, when the watches seem to take over the sartorial zeitgeist like a Swiss tidal wave. (And yes, that’s a metaphorical tidal wave — Switzerland is indeed land-locked.)
But what even is a microbrand? We’re glad you asked. A microbrand is a small watch company, generally staffed by just a single founder or a small team, that often operates on a direct-to-consumer business model — although many have since begun distributing their wares through the likes of Worn & Wound’s WindUp Watch Shop, or even in select stores. Microbrands, through the virtue of independent ownership and the use of off-the-shelf movements, are able to offer their wares for significantly less than equivalent watches from brands owned by major luxury conglomerates. (Though, to be fair, some of them do not, but rather, offer extremely high-end watches.)
So while a dive watch by, say, Longines might cost say $2,500, a dive watch from Halios might cost less than $1,000. (This is not, to be clear, a knock against Longines, which makes excellent watches for the money. It’s merely the result of Halios not having the enormous overhead costs that Longines has as part of the Swatch Group.)
One should be slightly wary in today’s watch landscape — new brands pop up seemingly every day, but not every one of them is founded by passionate watch lovers who genuinely love designing timepieces. (Indeed, there was a time when seemingly everyone and their mother was funding a watch startup via Kickstarter, and many of these brands never delivered a final product.) So be careful before you fork over a few hundred bucks for a watch that, logically, seems like it should cost a bit more. Get to know different brands as well as the greater industry, and spend lots of time perusing sites like ours, and especially the WindUp Watch Shop — founded by friends of ours with tons of passion for microbrands, their shop carries only the best such watches.
What follows is a list of some of our favorite microbrands, but it’s necessarily an incomplete list; the amount of small companies who have joined the watchmaking business in the past 15 years or so (and especially the last 8-10) is truly staggering. We hope the variety here — of watch types, price points, nationalities, designs, and more — will be inspirational as you search for your next watch.
Since 2018, Scottish brand anOrdain has been producing enamel-dial watches with prices beginning at roughly $1,000 — an unbelievable value considering the work (and rejection rate) inherent in this labor-intensive process. Colorful and beautiful, the enamel dials are paired to stainless steel cases and supple leather straps that make for excellent everyday watches.
Having expanded its workforce, space, and product range since then, anOrdain continues to produce some of the most compelling and original watches of all the world’s microbrands.
Astor & Banks
Andrew Perez founded Astor & Banks, in his own words, “Because I wanted to do something I absolutely loved.” A military veteran, Perez imbues his wares such as the Fortitude field watch with classic styling, robust construction, and good looks. One thing we love about his watches is that while they’re clearly inspired by classic models, they don’t at any point venture into “homage” territory. Rather, they have a distinct, identifiable character that makes them all their own — and at well under $1,000, they’re truly an excellent value.
Inspired by automotive culture, Bradley Price spun up Autodromo to offer timepieces with the sleek designs and eye-catching looks of vintage rally cars. With dials that look like dashboard gauges and color schemes taken from 1980s race cars (among others), his designs look like nothing else. The Group B and Group B Rallysport chronograph, in particular, are so darn unique and cool looking — with truly excellent pricing, to boot — that it’s enough to bring a tear to a watch (and car) lover’s eye.
If you love the look of vintage watches but not the hassle of rickety old movements, then you owe it to yourself to check out Parisian brand Baltic. For just a few hundred dollars, you can cop a mechanical, vintage-inspired watch that looks like something from the 1940s or 1960s, but is built with modern parts and comes with a two-year warranty. From simple, time-only dress watches to robust dive watches and complicated chronographs, Baltic does it all — and does it beautifully.
Talented industrial designer Jonathan Ferrer founded Brew in 2015 after interning at Movado while studying at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Coming from a family of jewelry designers, Ferrer turned his hand to creating unique (and highly affordable) timepieces inspired by all sorts of personal interests (including espresso culture). Powered by both meca-quartz and mechanical movements, they’re truly some of the best values in the microbrand landscape, let alone the greater watch world.
British watch company Farer manages to synthesize vintage watch-derived inspiration into modern products that don’t look derivative — a difficult task, to be sure. Having launched with quartz-powered watches back in 2015, they now offer mechanical timepieces in a staggering variety of models, with complications such as pointer dates, chronographs, GMTs, world timers and more all found in their current catalog. Familiar yet colorful and inventive, Farer is a company that truly makes something for everyone.
When Swiss industrial designer Andrea Furlan and collector Hamad Al Marri joined forces, the results took the watch world by storm. Ranging from sub-$1,000 meca-quartz models to more expensive, mechanical fare, the company’s watches are (unabashedly) inspired by some of the rarest, most desirable vintage watches in the world: While a Patek Philippe ref. 1463 chronograph will run you many hundreds of thousands of dollars, for example, a Rosso Grigio Ref. 1085-A costs just ~$618. Designed by two passionate collectors, Furlan Marri is certainly a brand to keep an eye on.
Founded all the way back in 2009, Halios is a watch microbrand “OG.” A watch forum dweller and lifelong watch devotee, Jason Lim decided to take the horological leap by designing and building 1960s-inspired dive watches on his own. His taste and excellent designs speak for themselves, and his small-batch runs of colorful tool watches frequently sell out quickly. Comprising simple dive and field watches, the Halios catalog is a veritable wonderland of excellently made, affordable wares. (Check the Mk II site frequently, as watches are released in batches.)
Panerai’s New Navy SEALs Watches Celebrate One of the World’s Most Elite Fighting ForcesFor the first time, they’re available outside the U.S.
Much like Baltic, Lorier builds distinctly vintage-inspired watches, at affordable prices, but with modern twists. Founded by husband-wife pair Lauren and Lorenzo Ortega, this NYC-based brand offers divers, field watches, chronographs, GMTs, and more — complete with matching, stainless steel bracelets — for well under $1,000. Though their watches have clearer inspiration from specific models than those from certain other microbrands, for many in the watch world who don’t want to shell out for a four- or five-figure watch, this is a distinct boon.
The brainchild of watch industry veteran (and noted collector) William Massena, Massena LAB partners with watchmakers, industry publications, and others to produce both novel limited editions as well as vintage-inspired production models. Though their pricing is higher than other microbrands on this list — it can reach into five-figure territory — their products are exceptional and wide-ranging. While the Uni-Racer is based on a vintage, long-discontinued Universal Genève chronograph, for example, the Silvain Pinaux X Massena LAB Chronograph Monopoussoir is a completely unique piece of haute horlogerie.
Another “OG” of the microbrand scene, Mk II takes inspiration from the world of vintage military watches. Following a stint in finance, company founder Bill Yao turned his horological tinkering hobby into his profession, building contemporary homages to classics such as the Benrus Type I dive watch made for special operations personnel in the 1970s, and, more recently, the Tornek Rayville diver. A passionate watch lover and dedicated military history enthusiast, Yao’s knowledge and perfectionism comes through in his robust timepieces. (Check the Mk II site frequently, as watches are released in batches.)
Michael DiMartini got his start in the watch world when he founded Everest Straps, a maker of excellent, high-end rubber bracelets for Rolex models. Next, he and business partner Justin Kraudel spun up Monta, which produces high-end tool watches that balance Rolex-like quality and finishing with more affordable Swiss movements. With dive watches, travel watches, GMT watches, and other offerings in the catalog, Monta provides a more affordable alternative to blue chip models with five-figure price tags.
Started by two friends with a passion for horology, Los Angeles-based Nodus has been releasing affordable tool watches since 2017. Another brand that eschews direct “vintage reissues” in favor of more original designs that borrow from a variety of sources, its catalog includes watches such as the Sector Deep, a unique offering that combines useful features such as a dual-function bezel with 500m of water resistance and a left-hand “destro” crown. With a vast catalog that comprises a variety of case shapes, Nodus makes some of the best sub-$1,000 tool watches on the market.
Oak & Oscar
Much like anOrdain and Monta, Oak & Oscar builds more premium watches that straddle the line between microbrand-esque affordability and big-brand quality. Company founder Chase Fancher has a clear eye for straightforward, attractive, utilitarian designs that will stand the test of time; priced between $1,500-$2,500, Oak & Oscar’s wares currently include a GMT and a time-only or time-and-date field watch, but have also included a beautiful chronograph in the past. Keep an eye on this space for watches that are sure to become future classics.
Nick Harris came to his current gig following a stint modifying Seikos — something he became so proficient at that he quit his job in order to pursue it full-time. Following graduation from the Seattle Watch Technology Institute, he founded Orion Watches and began producing his own designs. His catalog is wide-ranging, with sub-$1K tool watches such as the Hellcat field watch as well as more artisanal fare such as the Tesseract, which features a stunning, made-in-America dial for roughly $4,000.
Another “OG” of the microbrand world, Steve Laughlin has been producing watches under the Raven moniker since 2008. Consistently delivering compelling designs priced at well under $1,000, Raven has offered a wide variety of divers as well as field watch/pilot’s watch in the form of the Airfield. Powered by automatic, Japanese-made movements from Miyota and paired to stainless steel bracelets, they’re good choices for someone seeking a hard-wearing tool watch that’ll get the job done without breaking the bank.
Unimatic, makers of sharp-looking, minimalist tool watches with a military-esque bent, quickly found an audience among watch lovers upon their launch in 2015. Their U1, while clearly recognizable as a dive watch, does away with all extraneous ornamentation in the name of legibility, affordability, and streamlined design. With field watches and chronographs of both the quartz-powered and automatic variety on offer within the catalog, Unimatic has quickly become a darling of the microbrand scene.
Vero was established in 2015 “to challenge the assumptions that a well made watch had to be bland and unaffordable.” The brand has certainly succeeded in both regards, with its manually-wound Meridian field watch boasting colorful dial options and its Workhorse chronograph offering the types of features that true outdoors types yearn for. Powered by Swiss-made movements and designed in Portland, Oregon, Vero’s watches are the perfect tools for those who prefer their watches to sport a bit of flare.
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