Recently, the so-called microbrands are getting quite a lot of attention. Why are there so many of them? What makes them so popular? What are the pros and cons?
Let’s try to answer these questions one by one.
It’s only for the last few years, that microbrands gained the attention of watch collectors and the media. The phenomenon can be easily traced to the rise of platforms such as Kickstarter (founded in 2009), which have consistently gained popularity since the early 2010s.
Generally, crowdfunding is the remedy for the basic problem of every new watch entrepreneur; the budget. Even when you’re starting the watch company in a garage or a shed, as so many manufacturers and inventors did (think of Apple, Rolls-Royce), there’s a problem.
Not only do you need the shed, but also the tools and materials.
Preferably, also some employees, unless you firmly believe, that you can handle producing enough watches yourself and at the same time not work yourself to death.
In other words, the bottom budget isn’t always sufficient, and it soon might turn out, that the business will have trouble staying afloat. Crowdfunding has contributed to a steady rise in the number of such projects. It’s an easy means of patching the hole in the beginner entrepreneur’s budget. And by doing so, it’s also a means to remove the major obstacles in starting a watch company.
Surely, if you make an extraordinary piece with an in-house chronograph or tourbillon movement, it will pay the bills for a month or two, but then again, not as much as you’d like. Without having made a name for yourself, you can’t really sell it big, and a Chinese tourbillon for 500 bucks (or euro, or quid, matters not) will win a lot of your customers anyway.
A watch with desirable features, at a given moment being the favorites of the WIS, is not enough to command a high premium. The brand’s reputation constitutes a large part of the price.
Here comes the worst mistake the crowdfunded companies make: selling well above what a reputable manufacturer asks for a similar watch while offering lesser quality/features than the watches of such a company.
I’ve seen Kickstarter watches offered for Omega/Tudor money, while not actually offering anything more than either of them and certainly not delivering the same power of the brand name, which the people are so willing to pay for.
That said, you’re left with producing a fairly low volume of decent, but not excessively fancy watches at a reasonable price. The bang for buck factor has to be good enough to get the attention of the WIS and the regular chaps alike.
Why are microbrands so popular?
One thing that attracts people to microbrands is the feeling that they’re buying something less mainstream.
That’s, to some extent, true. Generally, a microbrand doesn’t produce a lot of watches.
So does that “rarity” have any actual meaning? Yes and no. If it’s about the satisfaction of owning something that you don’t see every day, then yes. If it’s about the monetary value, then no, it doesn’t.
Another big “pro” of microbrand watches is that a lot of the microbrands are generally WIS-oriented. Quite often it so happens, that they ask for opinions and feedback in the forums, in order for the production version of the design to be a product of the general consensus of the enthusiasts.
Who takes care of the warranty?
One thing that always worries me about watches from brand new companies, is the warranty. That’s where Kickstarter really becomes useful.
If a company uses a part of the money gathered via Kickstarter to fund the means necessary to provide warranty service, well and good.
I have once encountered a company, which had essentially every single thing done by third parties, warranty service included. None of the founders was a watchmaker, either. Which is pretty much a scary vision. Your new watch breaks down due to a factory flaw, the contractor performing the warranty service does not renew the contract, and the manufacturer relies solely on them, as they don’t have a workshop and watchmaker of their own.
Good question: who is to do the warranty work then?
Watching one’s sixth is merely a reasonable thing to do. If the company has that covered, it’s a win-win situation. The customer can rest easy, and, for that matter, so can the manufacturer.
What about regular services or repairs?
What about normal servicing, though? Assuming that the microbrand watches will use generic movements, which is the case with the vast majority of them, parts should be available, even if the brand goes belly up.
Of course, if anything happens to any customized parts, like the rotor, you might need a generic replacement.
If a brand uses an in-house movement, doesn’t leave a parts stash, and goes bankrupt, well, the situation doesn’t exactly look good.
Assuming that the parts are not interchangeable with any generic movement, sometimes the only way is to make a new part, but that’s usually costly. Very costly.
Case parts might be very difficult to obtain as well. Assuming that a generic part fits, well… If it works, it works.
Some microbrands take pride in making their own cases, so if they had interchangeability in mind while designing the crown and the stem tube, well and good. If not, a replacement could be next to impossible to source.
Do I need to be on the lookout for scammers?
Of course, Kickstarter watch projects do have a darker side to them. Are there scams among them, or projects that are at least suspicious? Of course. Just like in any other line of business. Massive funds collected, and low quality watches made? It’s there. Watches scheduled to deliver, but with delivery being delayed by months? It’s there. Is plagiarism present in advertising campaigns? It is.
An example of some of these issues was the case of an “Italian” (as a matter of fact, Lithuanian) company, called Filippo Loreti. Needless to say, that none of the founders was a Filippo, a Loreti, let alone both. The issue was covered in a few articles on various websites, well worth reading.
While funding a microbrand watch on Kickstarter, you might want to carefully investigate the watch and the entire marketing part. For example, the “Italian” company had pictures “borrowed” from the sites of established manufacturers, notably Rolex and Zenith.
You should take the slogans stating that a brand is “high-end” with a substantial grain of salt. If it’s not something to rival Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin, then as far as I am concerned, it’s not high-end. The vast majority of microbrands are somewhere between the “very affordable” and lower-tier luxury brands at best, which means the entire range between the cheapest of Seiko and the average Longines.
Also, keep in mind, that it’s good to compare the amount of money that a company wants to get with a rough cost of manufacture. In other words, do the declarations go along with the costs?
So a fashion watch with a Chinese quartz movement, being advertised as a high-end piece, with the project having the goal reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars is out of the question. Quoting Pink Floyd: “run like hell.”
Are there any movements to avoid?
What about the movements? The lowest end of the price range usually has Japanese quartz movements from Seiko and Miyota, slightly more for Seiko and Miyota automatics. Then go the Swiss movements.
Most abundant are the 2824 and the SW200. I would stay away from the STP clone of the 2824, which is built on the base plate of the 2824 Chinese clone by Sea Gull. Then goes the 2892 and Soprod A10, and the “top” range is occupied by the ETA Valjoux 7750 chronograph and its clones by La Joux-Perret and Sellita.
Recently, yet another entrant to the top tier of movements used in microbrands is the Eterna Calibre 39. Eterna, not unlike in the old days, when they created ETA as their own ebaucherie, has yet again entered the market for generic movements. As an excellent base for all sorts of modules, the calibre 39 is already in use by a number of companies.
All in all
Very subjectively summarizing the whole matter, allow me to simplify it to the question, whether microbrand watches are a good idea or not.
Praising the industrious nature of the people behind these projects aside, long story short: the idea seems to be great. There’s quite a lot of brands making good use of the funds pledged.
Would I buy a watch from a microbrand myself? If I wasn’t spending my watch budget for vintage watches, probably yes.
In many ways, the same rules apply. Especially the golden rule, so often repeated in the forums: buy the seller (words to live by). One could even imply, that it’s not unlike the old days (before the quartz crisis).
Back then, countless small brands, most of them long-defunct and forgotten today, merely existing as entries in trademark registers, often made very decent watches. They might not necessarily be very collectible, but surely can be interesting for the movement or the design.
From a vintage watch guy’s perspective, I can only say: nice to see the spirit of the old days again.