9 Cool-as-Hell (and Surprisingly Affordable) Watch Microbrands to Know Now
We love us some major watch brands at Esquire, but that doesn't mean we're watch snobs. In fact, we always have one eye open for the unexpected steal. And some of the most interesting developments in the watch market in the past five years have happened at the smaller—and often more affordable—end of the business.
Direct-to-consumer models and an ever-expanding digital universe have made it possible to create small-scale yet successful mechanical watch brands. Usually (though not always) that means sourcing movements from Japan and cases and other parts in Asia before assembly in their home market. By cutting out much of the dead wood in the supply chain—from Swiss factories and a hefty retail mark-up to store overheads and traditional marketing—these independent brands offer a significant price/value coefficient, which means original-looking watches that punch well above their weight.
Sure, you don’t always get 150 years of history or a pure Swiss make (and there’s a lot of different kinds of watchmaking here) but in many cases, the club-like way these collectible brands maintain a close digital relationship with their small army of fans means that resale value is often well above what you paid. Here’s our pick of the bunch.
The affinities of watchmaking and the automotive world date back to the first time anyone put pedal to metal. Autodromo was the creation of Bradley Price, an industrial designer and passionate car nut. The instrument panels of iconic sports cars provide inspiration that's then combined with a subtle blend of midcentury and contemporary design cues. Autodromo is assembled in the U.S. using parts from Asia and movements from Japan, which keeps these unique designs—like the Group B Series 2 Safari here—eminently affordable. Group B Series 2 Safari automatic watch, autodromo.com
Relatively new French brand Baltic has made a name for itself with for its tasteful vintage vibe inspired by tool watches of the 1950s and '60s. Much inspiration for its Aquascaphe dive watch that debuted in 2019 clearly derives from iconic dive watches like Blancpain’s famous Fifty Fathoms. But this is no cheap knockoff. With a fine sense of functional and decorative detail that is exceedingly rare under 700 bucks, Baltic has managed to make a new and very attractive watch that feels like it’s been around for ages. Aquascaphe Blue Gilt automatic dive watch, (on rubber strap), baltic-watches.com
Halios Watches was founded by Jason Lim in Vancouver, Canada, in 2009 with a focus primarily on robust daily beater sport watches with a rugged after-sales service. Prices typically range between $650 and $1,000, and the watch is assembled in Vancouver from parts made across the globe. Shortly available for preorder are this 38mm Fairwind diver with a blue dial at $775, and the simpler 39mm Universa at $725. halioswatches.com
Farer is a British brand of Swiss-made watches incorporating Swiss ETA movements and with a very distinctive design language—reminiscent of late 1960s and '70s sport watches—of steel cases and bright color accents on its dials. All that Swiss-ness puts the price up inevitably, but at just under $2,000 for this Cobb automatic chronograph, with its asymmetric reverse panda display in multiple shades of blue, make it worth the extra punt. Cobb chronograph automatic watch, farer.com
Magrette hails from Auckland, New Zealand, where sports like sailing inspire beefy and bold cushion-shape watches with strong colorful accents. But we are also fascinated by its range of watches that are ornately hand carved in Auckland (by a specialist in micro-carving onto expensive shotguns) with symbols and patterns from Maori culture, like the Waka, which takes its visual cues from the carvings on Maori war canoes. Magrette's watches are in steel or titanium with Swiss or Japanese movements, and assembled and finished in Auckland. Waka carved-steel automatic watch, magrette.com
Somewhere out of left field in 2001, during the post-unification renaissance of German watchmaking, came Manfred Brassler with the unlikely plan of making watches with a sharply pointed hour hand that slowly tracks the progress of the day. The premise: You didn’t need the stress of marking the passage of time in minutes or seconds. At 40mm and up in diameter, the watches—like this classic N° 01 watch—have a very open feel that is only enhanced by the lack of minute and second hands cluttering up the dial. meistersinger.com
Pelton was set up in Detroit in 2016 by Deni Mesanovic, a 2013 graduate in sound engineering from the University of Michigan (he also makes intricate ribbon microphones, by the way). Pelton was established as a small-scale manufacturing operation using CNC machinery to make cases, screws, crowns, and even a metal bracelet in house. The focus for Mesanovic was to achieve an American boutique brand with a high degree of hand-finishing which he does himself, incorporating Swiss ETA movements. Sector steel automatic dress watch, peltonusa.com
Arguably the worst-kept secret in niche watchmaking right now, Unimatic is the brainchild of two Milanese chaps: Giovanni Moro and Simone Nunziato. The brand's tight design aesthetic is based on two simple, robust tool watches with pared-down, high-vis displays. The line is assembled in Italy using Seiko movements, and sold in relatively limited runs which boost resale value significantly. The latest launch, a collab with William Massena sold out all 99 pieces at $850 in just 30 seconds. On eBay recently, one of them was listed at $2,400. Most Unimatic editions—like the über stripped-down U1-FMN—are in the region of $600-750, so it pays to buy yours at the source. U1-FMN automatic dive watch, unimaticwatches.com
Cameron Weiss knows a thing or two about watches. Obsessed with their workings from a very young age, he got his first official training at a two-year, full-time, Swiss-sponsored watchmaking program in Miami before working for a year at both Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. In 2013, he set up Weiss to design and make watches worthy of the days when America was the epicenter of watchmaking. And he meant make, not assemble. For what makes Weiss unique in this line-up is that everything, including the Caliber 1003 aluminum alloy movements used in the Ultralight shown here—and, fine, apart from sapphire crystals, hairsprings, and jewels—is made on site in the Torrance workshop. All that know-how and California-make puts Weiss at the top end of our survey. These watches are made-to-order (a six-to-eight-week process) in the facility. Ultralight Titanium American Issue Field Watch, weisswatchcompany.com
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.