When it comes to watch consumers' interest, there has over the past several years been a rising level of interest in watch brands that deviate from what might be viable for the mass market luxury watch brands but appeal to a niche but passionate audience. These so-called microbrands have represented one of the fastest-growing segments of the mechanical watch market, in which small shops can produce quality products that compete for connoisseurs' attention with the titans of the business. In the past three years, we've handled hundreds of watches from different microbrands out there; In this blog, we take a closer look at some of the best microbrand watches that the market has to offer in a variety of price ranges.
First, it is important to classify for the sake of our list what a microbrand is and what it isn’t. For the purposes of this list, a microbrand is a limited-production watch company that typically specializes in a particular style that does not have extensive resources to produce its own in-house calibers or other proprietary parts. This classification can get a little grey in the area of independent watchmakers that typically either have higher levels of watchmaking — like a Habring2, which has a master watchmaker like Richard Habring at the helm — or with a brand like Christopher Ward, which produces a relatively high number of pieces year after year and has access to some in-house production capabilities. For the sake of consistency, we'll avoid the inclusion of any brands that I would classify as "independents" more than "microbrands." That said, there will undoubtedly be a few inclusions that push the limits of this classification.
Scotland based microbrand AnOrdain is one of the most unique brands on this list as, with their inclusion, we are already straddling that line between microbrand and independent. AnOrdain's founders pride themselves on their expertise with enamel dials. Enameling is a very complex process of fusing glass to metal and takes a considerable amount of time with attention to detail in order to successfully nail the process (click here for more details on their process). The Model 1 was the genesis of the collection and put into motion AnOrdain's unique dial manufacturing process. Its fumé dials really stand out, with the Model 1 Green Fumé being an outstanding example. AnOrdain watches traditionally range from $1,000-$2,500, feature Swiss mechanical movements within, and are hand-assembled within the company's own facility.
Chicago-based microbrand Astor & Banks was founded by watch lover Andrew Perez and has quickly carved out a niche creating some very attractive looking mechanical tool watches. Their newest model, the Fortitude, offers a really versatile look based on a traditional Officer’s watch in a more than reasonable 38.5mm stainless steel case. It’s equipped with the brand's excellent bracelet, a Miyota M9015 movement, and a handful of nice dial color options. You also get 200m of water resistance and an extra suede strap that can be quickly and easily swapped out with the installed bracelet.
The marrying of watches and cars seem to be a match made in heaven, given the mechanical undertones of both. Of the many brands that aim to harness the inner spirit of motorists in their watches, many struggle to do it as well as Autodromo. The brand was founded by Bradley Price, an industrial designer that aimed to develop a brand that could embody the golden era of motoring while offering pieces with modern components and has become one of the most respected boutique watch brands. The designs evoke dashboard instruments of vintage cars, like the Group B model pictured that calls to mind the eponymous rally cars of the 1980s with its minimalist aesthetic. Its titanium case integrates into a steel bracelet and contains the Japanese Miyota 9-series automatic movement from Japan.
The past five years (or longer, actually) has seen a resurgence in the collectibility of vintage watches. Yet with this resurgence, we also have seen rising prices on coveted vintage models, which make it daunting for many enthusiasts to dip into this world. This demand opened the doors to microbrands that answer the call of higher demand for watches with vintage looks at more affordable prices. French microbrand Baltic has leaned into this theme, releasing the excellent Aquascaphe and recently launching the dressy MR01, which features applied Breguet numerals over a lovely textured dial in three different colors: Salmon, Blue, and Silver. The most interesting element for many enthusiasts will be the micro-rotor-equipped automatic Hangzhao CAL5000A movement.
Similar to the trend of having vintage-inspired designs, the same can be said for that of watches that have minimalist aesthetics, which brings us to our next brand. Swedish microbrand Bravur assembles all its watches within its Stockholm-based facility, all of their pieces featuring Swiss movements and very clean-looking dials.
Brew Watch Company is a New York-based microbrand founded by industrial designer Jonathan Ferrer and has developed a reputation for a fresh take on watch design. Brew tends to be a little bit slower than many to release new products; however, when a new model does appear it is almost always a hit and quickly sells out. If you want more insight into the mind of Brew designs, check out Teddy's discussion with Jonathan back in 2018 at a local NYC park. Pictured here is the Metric, a model released in 2021.
Speaking of New York, Carpenter Watches is a boutique watch brand based in the heart of Brooklyn, where all of its watches are designed. Carpenter's portfolio of timepieces all feature mechanical movements, vintage aesthetics, clean designs, and modern reliability. The brand was founded by Neil Carpenter, a Savannah College of Art graduate whose fascination with watches sprang from his family's collection of mostly American vintage pocket watches, whose classical, minimalist looks each Carpenter watch strives to evoke.
Founded by watch collector, Dan Henry, this microbrand was created to encapsulate the 30 years he has spent collecting and acquiring over 1,500 watches in his lifetime and offering classic designs at affordable prices.
Deep Blue got its start back in 2007 and has become one of the fastest-growing microbrands that specialize in dive watches. The brand at this point has rather high production numbers for its size, offering more watches than many mainstream brands if we are talking total number of SKUs. This brand presents lots of options for the serious dive-watch enthusiast who wants a variety of different dial colors and case styles to choose from.
Dufrane was founded in Austin, Texas, an area whose influence is felt throughout the collection, whose timepieces offers many stylistic nods to the city. The brand prides itself on those Texas roots, and the hand assembly of all their watches in the United States. The brand first made its way onto the scene with the competitively priced and capable dive watch called the Barton Springs. As a shift away from those sporty undertones, Dufrane unveiled the Waterloo, a dressy watch with everyday capabilities, and the Travis (pictured), named after Austin's Lake Travis, with a dial that captures its dazzling shades of blue.
Model featured: X02
One of the newest yet “oldest” brands on our list, Elka traces its heritage all the way back to a Ducth watch brand, founded in Amsterdam in 1877, which opened a branch in Switzerland in 1949 and disappeared from the scene entirely in the 1970s. The modern Elka, which opened its doors in 2022, is fully Swiss, a project of former Swatch Group design veteran Hakim El Kadiri (nicknamed Elka, in a bit of serendipity), and leans not only into the vintage styles of its defunct predecessor but also into eccentric, unconventional aesthetic elements, as on the X02 model pictured, whose dial puts the emphasis on the minute markers rather than the hours. Also classically Swiss are the movements, from the artisans at La Joux-Perret (actually owned these days by the Japanese Citizen Group), which offer extended 68-hour power reserves, an extra bonus at the watch’s very reasonable price point of around $1,500.
In early 2018, we released a video of the best dive watches under $1,000, and among the featured pieces was this model of the Eza Sealander, which quickly became a favorite thanks to its understated vintage looks and its use of high-quality components at a reasonable cost. Eza is a brand that was restarted after the German brand that carried the name fell victim to the quartz crisis decades ago. In 2016, the brand was rejuvenated by two Dutch gentlemen that made it their mission to develop high-quality, vintage-inspired watches, produced in Germany and containing well-regulated Swiss movements.
In the microbrand community, there are several companies that most would agree occupy the the upper echelon in terms of materials, and the British brand Farer falls in this category. This British brand's unique and fun design formula is recognizable throughout its catalog, defined by a use of vibrant colors. With most of Farer's pieces falling within the $1,000-$2,000 price range, they are among the more expensive watches on this list, but the prices are warranted thanks to the elevated Swiss movements within and the quality finishing throughout. Highlighted here is the Bernina, a sports chronograph with a manual-winding movement and a fun colorway combo of red, white, and blue.
REEF Automatic Chronometer COSC 300M Green Bezel$1,725
Formex is one of those brands that are certainly on the cusp of being classified as an "independent" — which one could make a strong argument for, as the company has been around for a considerable amount of time by microbrand standards — founded in 1999 — and is today producing some fantastic pieces for the money. Many Formex watches are COSC chronometer-certified. Based in Biel, Switzerland, Formex has become increasingly popular thanks to the Essence model and its stylish and sporty dive-watch companion, the Reef, pictured above.
Whether of not Halios truly lives up to the accolade it's been given in some quarters — as the "Rolex of microbrands" — you can't deny the parallels at least in the area of the small Vancouver-based brand's quick movement of inventory and the subsequent built-up demand for increasingly scarce models. Halios got its start back in 2009 and made its first big waves with the release of the Seaforth several years back. With successful release after successful release, the brand has developed a cult-like status among lovers of microbrand watches.
Every brand’s marketing strategy attempts to position their pieces as unique product in the marketplace. However, in the watch industry, styles and concepts are constantly recycled and truly unique concepts are rare. Microbrands in this highly competitive environment must find a way to stand out. Hegid is a proudly French brand that does offer something unique in this space: a modular case system that allows the owner to interchange the dial and movement — each one is designed as a so-called capsule — into different cases (or “carrures”) with their proprietary case technology. France-based Hegid has been one of the more interesting brand concepts we’ve seen in recent years
Laventure is a Neuchâtel, Switzerland-based microbrand that creates impressively constructed timepieces for adventurers in limited series. The original Marine caught the attention of many in the press world with its nicely designed case and a rather bold sandwich dial. Laventure fits its watches with Swiss-made ETA movements, nicely executed bracelets, straps, and plexiglass crystals. The newest model, the Sous Marine, is already completely sold out in the six original configurations, cased in either stainless steel or bronze, all of which were limited to just 50 examples. With a price point north of $3000, these pieces sold out quickly and have quickly garnered a strong reputation among the collecting community..
Lorier is a small brand founded by a husband-and-wife team, with a core collection that is heavily focused on vintage-inspired sports watches. With the exploding world of vintage watches and the rush of many that want the vintage looks — but want it with modern reliability and at more feasible price tags — Lorier has carved out a spot for itself in the microbrand market. The company first jumped on the scene with the release of the Neptune and followed up with other favorites like the Falcon, which Teddy reviews on our YouTube channel here.
Lüm-Tec was launched by Mentor, Ohio-based Wiegand Custom Watch Company LLC, which does OEM/ODM production for private label watch brands and counts some major watch brands among its thousands of customers worldwide. Lum-Tec is the company’s showcase brand, taking the first part of its name, as you’d expect, from the incredibly bright luminous material used on its dials, derived from a technology the company calls MVD (Maximum Darkness Visibility), which combines a layer of white titanium dioxide, six additional layers of custom-developed, highly reactive Super-LumiNova, and a final layer of clear glass coat.
Started in 2014, Martenero quickly rose the ranks as one of the leading microbrands with its focus on reinterpreting vintage watch designs with a modern twist. Martnerero watches follow a similar styling ethos of utilizing striking colors while containing reliable mechanical movements inside.
Hailing from New Zealand, Magrette is a watch brand that has caught on the international radar with its value-driven distinction and impressive spec-stacked collection of dive-inspired timepieces. Magrette uses a variety of movement styles across its lineup from ETA, Sellita, and Miyota, and are highly water-resistant, particularly the Moana Pacific Waterman models capable of 500m of depth. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of these models is the price, which ranges from $300 - with a Sellita movement, no less - to $765 for the aforementioned Moana Pacific Waterman model in the bronze case. Positioned at the top of the collection are hand engraved cases that are of extremely limited production.
Brand: Massena LABWatch Featured Above: Uni-RacerShop Their Collection Here
Massena LAB is the brainchild of prominent industry personality William Massena. To know the brand is to know the person, Mr. Massena has done a bit of everything in the industry: he owned retail stores, was the managing director of the Timezone forum, and was even the COO of Antiquorum auction house in Switzerland. His latest project is his startup watch company which produces vintage-inspired chronographs that are heavily influenced by the famous Universal Genève “Big-Eye” chronographs from the 1960s. Currently, the Uni-Racer collection consists of reasonably sized 39mm models in a handful of sharp and interesting colorways and supplied with reliable Swiss Sellita movements.
After a successful crowd-funding campaign in 2013, the Australian watch brand Melbourne Watch Company set forth on the goal of creating high-quality watches at accessible price points for watch enthusiasts and casual collectors. Since the company's initial launch into the market several years ago, it has expanded its lineup substantially, becoming a leader in the microbrand community from the land down under.
Mercer Watch Co. is a boutique brand designing and producing stylish goods located in New Jersey in the United States. Mercer aims to create watches that deliver great value for the money that combines well-crafted cases and dials with both Swiss and Japanese movements.
MKII was founded in 2002 as a customization workshop for brands such as Seiko and Luminox. Because of its early experience in this arena, MKII was a pioneer of the custom watch market, especially in the United States. The brand built a product line based on homage watches, paying tribute to some of the most iconic and important models to ever be produced. The homage watch category can be a tricky tightrope to walk, but MKII has become very well respected in this space. The build construction and overall quality of the final product, which is assembled in the United States, is what endears MKII to the watch community at large.
Monta is a small brand based out of St. Louis, Missouri that has quickly risen in the ranks since its founding in 2016, developing a great reputation for producing watches with an elite level of finishing at their accessible price points. Along with the strong (albeit somewhat familiar) designs and their use of Swiss automatic movements, this creates a winning formula. The SkyQuest is Monta's sporty travel watch, with undeniable resemblance to the famous (and much harder to get) Rolex GMT-Master and housing a Sellita movement with a 56-hour power reserve.
The brand name Nodus comes from the Latin word signifying the intersection of pathways, and signifies the microbrand’s mission of merging the two worlds of vintage and modern design. The first watch launched by the SoCal-based brand was the Trieste dive watch in 2017, which was discontinued after its initial run but continues to inspire successor models, like the Retrospect dive watch and the skin-diver-styled Sector Dive. Nodus watches are designed and assembled at the company’s HQ in Los Angeles and the bracelets feature the proprietary, button-operated NodeX module that allows for easy adjustment in five positions. In 2019 Teddy reviewed the Retrospect II on the main channel.
A jointly developed project between Swiss watch entrepreneur Ben Küffer, former Breitling co-owner Ted Schneider, and retired NHL player Mark Streit, Norqain is the baby on this wide-ranging list, founded in 2018. It has, however, established itself fairly quickly and decisively as a player in the field of value-driven sports watches with proprietary movements. The movements are made in partnership with a Swiss movement-making firm called Kenissi, which was established as a subsidiary company by Tudor, and boast 70-hour power reserves as well as COSC chronometer certifications. Norqain’s primary collections include the inspiringly named Freedom and Independence lines, and more recently the mountaineering-inspired Adventure Neverest, which Norqain has used as a stage for some very innovative dial colors and textures.
NTH is one of the better-established microbrands out there offering a variety of relatively affordable diver-style watches in the sub $1,000 range. The company's branding is bold and channels the rising consumer demands of all things with vintage looks.
Chicago-based Oak & Oscar hit the scene in 2015 with the launch of the Burnham, a time-and-date model named for American Beaux-Arts architect Daniel Burnham, designed of many iconic Windy City skyscrapers. (Subsequent models have taken their names from other architects, like the Olmsted, pictured, and have included a two-register chronograph and a GMT.) The company’s own name comes from its team members’ love of good bourbon (“oak”) and the name of founder Chase Fancher’s dog, Oscar; dogs, particularly rescue dogs, play a large role in the brand’s mission statement, which includes donating a portion of sales to Chicago-area rescue dog charities. Oak & Oscar watches are hand-assembled, tested, and regulated in Chicago, with Swiss-made movements and mounted on U.S.-made Horween leather straps.
Based in Rochester, New York, Ocean Crawler is a brand specializing in creating colorful, vintage-inspired dive watches with regulated Swiss Made movements. In a short period of time, the brand has established itself as one of the most respected microbrands, producing mechanical watches that enthusiasts love while supporting an active lifestyle. Last year Teddy took a closer look at the popular Core Diver and Dream Diver, two of the coolest divers out there for under $1,000.