w&w Round-Table #15: What Is Your Favorite Microbrand?

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Welcome to our 15th worn&wound round-table. Today, we ask our editorial team,“What is your favorite micro-brand?” Now, micro-brands are a dime a dozen. And there are certainly plenty of bad ones. But there are also great ones, and we like to think we do a good job at separating the good from the bad here at w&w. These are brands often led by a small team (or one very passionate person) dedicated to a singular vision, trying and producing things you’d likely never see from the bigger players. Now, micro-brand doesn’t have to mean cheap, or even relatively affordable, as you’ll see from the answers below. The sky is the limit, from brands rooted in the sub-$1000 price point to high-end independent shops admired from afar.

And as always, let us know your answer in the comments section below.

Mark McArthur-Christie

Micro-brands are, at their worst, a wonderful illustration of how difficult it is to design something as apparently simple as a watch. Three hands, a crown, a case and a dial. How hard can it be?  Have a look around Microbrandland and you’ll soon see what happens when insufficient talent meets CGI software.

Then there is Autodromo. Founded, managed and run by petrolhead and Alfista Bradley Price, Autodromo is a fine example of what a micro-brand can be. Take just one example—Autodromo’s Prototipo Redman. Special editions are tough to get right, but the Redman aces it. The historical nod to Redman’s Ferrari-whupping Porsche 908/02 is there in the green center seconds. The back of the watch case carries an etching of the Nordschleife and is held on with six tiny Allen bolts. The watch case itself is a mix of polished and brushed surfaces that adds another dimension to the classical cushion shape. It’s this eye for design and detail that differentiates Autodromo.

AUTODROMO_PROTOTIPO_REDMAN_LE_DIAL11I’ve put my money where my pen is—I have four of ‘em. And if anyone is selling a Prototipo Nero, get in touch. Seriously.

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James Enloe

The choices in micro-brands have grown leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. There used to be a time when modding was the micro-brand, but now the choices are truly plentiful. My favorite of the bunch is a brand that has been around for a while—Steinhart. When it comes to affordable and well built, Steinhart has the formula down. Though some of their designs are certainly derivative of more expensive pieces (which gives those who cannot afford them a similar-looking, yet quality built, piece), they do occasionally mix things up with other more original designs.

Steinhart_Nav_b_Uhr_Dial2Their Pilot line is one of my favorites, with Steinhart offering classic Nav B-Uhr styles in different case sizes and materials, dials, and even as chronographs; you can go automatic or hand-wound, 47mm Type A dial or 44mm Type B, stainless steel or bronze. The Pilot series provides lots of choices to suit most tastes, and all at affordable prices coupled with quality service.

Jon Gaffney

The time it took to look at my own wrist was as long as I needed to know what micro-brand is my favorite. MKII, the brain child of Bill Yao’s twin interests in watches and military history, is my pick. (Full disclosure: I am consulting with MKII on marketing and branding as of this year. However, my ownership and interest in their watches far predates my current affiliation.)

Based outside of Philadelphia, MKII produces homages to some of the most famous, as well as obscure, military-issue watches ever made. What I’ve always found most intriguing is that MKII has no interest or intent in simply copying these historic watches, but is doggedly focused on reengineering with today’s technology. They’re evolutions and improvements; they’re the Icon 4×4 of the micro watch world. Reinterpreting classics is a dicey proposition and at times thankless, but MKII has always approached it with an eye for detail. The results have a rabid following and can be incredibly hard to track down.

mkii_paradive_2Back to looking at my own wrist. My favorite offering by MKII is the Paradive, which I own as a result of a trade with a friend. It’s an homage to the Benrus Type 1, a dive watch originally issued to special operations troops in the ‘70s and ‘80s and an exercise in creating a minimalist tool watch. I’ve had mine for two years and it’s on my wrist 75% of the time because it fits perfectly with my lifestyle. Navigator bezel for traveling, 300m water resistance, double domed AR crystal, and a simple matte dial with 7-hours worth of Super-LumiNova BGW9 all add up to more than what I need most days. I look forward to continuing to accrue my own patina from adventures had in the years to come.

Watch Curmudgeon

Choosing my favorite micro-brand was a difficult decision. Initially, I wanted to select from one of the many wonderful and affordable brands discussed on w&w. But I realized I had to follow my heart to a highly obscure, highly unaffordable brand that’s absurdly micro. And that would be none other than Roger W Smith.

If you’re saying, “Huh? WTF?” then you’re in for a treat. A quick Google search will reveal that Roger W. Smith and his eponymous brand represent the ultimate in quality and exclusivity. For many years, Roger W. Smith was apprenticed to George Daniels, a recently deceased, legendary genius who is, and always will be, compared to Abraham Louis Breguet and others of that ilk. Under Daniels, Smith learned all the disciplines of not just designing an incredible watch, but making every tiny piece by hand with a fanatical attention to detail.

RogerSmithToday, the Roger W Smith Series 2 watches are dearly sought by the world’s most fastidious collectors, people who demand the ultimate in quality, classic design, mechanical integrity, and utter exclusivity. If you want one, place your bespoke order now; Smith only makes about ten watches a year, so be prepared to wait. And wait! And how much do they cost, you ask? Well, as the old saying goes, “If you have to ask…”

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Sean Lorentzen

With the major role micro-brands have played in the WIS community in the last few years, it’s not going to be easy to pick a favorite. Halios, Aevig, and so many others deserve recognition here, but for those who know me it’s no surprise which one is nearest to my heart—Autodromo. Ever since the release of the Prototipo in 2014, Autodromo has been on an absolute tear. Every design blends diverse influences from Heuer, Seiko, Omega, and a host of others with the dashboards of legendary racers from Ferrari to Ford to Lancia.

What makes it really impressive, however, is how these watches become more than the sum of their parts. For example, I could look at the Group B and list off half a dozen different sampling points, but taken as a whole the design is uniquely Autodromo. There’s a strong language of design there. That’s rare enough in established brands, let alone the Wild West world of micro-brands.

AUTODROMO_GROUP_B_GROUP_2On top of that, what I really love about Autodromo is their authenticity. You can feel a real passion and understanding of the subject matter in their work. With a lot of watches, there’s the impression that what you’re holding is the product of a focus group—that someone behind a desk called a meeting to say, “Heritage racing chronographs seem to be hot right now, get a design team to look into it.” Autodromo feels like the real deal.

Christoph McNeill

What is my favorite micro-brand? That’s a tough question! While I have only a handful of modern watches to my name, there are several micros that I’ve tried and really like. To name a few, Halios, Dagaz and Helson all make fantastic watches at a great value. However, there is one brand that really stands out to me, and that’s Crepas. Yeah, “Crepas” isn’t the most alluring moniker, but their bang-for-your-buck watch making Kung Fu is Matrix-level (if you don’t get that reference, rent “The Matrix”). Crepas has carved out a niche in the micro-brand business by making modern interpretations of classic vintage divers, and they’ve pretty much nailed them all. They stay true to the spirit of the original pieces, but they update their creations with contemporary sizes and specs. Their watches are made to the highest standards, with superb quality and finishing, and most have insane depth ratings as well.

Crepas TektiteA couple of my favorites would be the Tektite and the Cayman 3000. The Tektite takes its design cues from the vintage Certina DS PH500M, and is really quite faithful, except the Tektite is of course considerably larger. The Cayman 3000 is an homage to the Jenny ref. 702 cased O&W Caribbean 1000m diver, and looks a lot like the original on steroids. Both of these are huge chunks of steel, but with refined finishing, sapphire crystals and bezel inlays, top-grade ETA 2824 movements, He release valves, and an overall incredible attention to detail. All for less than $1500! No other brand makes watches of this quality for this price with such great vintage style.

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Ilya Ryvin

I’m going to have to go with Damasko. You’re probably thinking, “But isn’t Damasko an in-house manufacture? They can’t be a micro-brand.” I’d argue that they are. Last I checked, Damasko’s annual production numbers are, relatively speaking, quite small, and the company is wholly independent (the business is very much a family affair). My own personal experience buying one confirms as much, with my having to wait a few months for a standard model to come back in stock from one of the two authorized dealers in North America.

So why did I go with Damasko? For starters, I’m a clumsy one, with the spatial awareness of an overexcited 6-year old. In other words, I can be hard on my watches. Luckily, Damasko’s timekeepers—each and everyone of them, from the entry-level models to the higher-end pieces—are cased in ice-hardened steel, a proprietary alloy known for its incredible hardness. And that’s not all. Damasko watches are chock full of crazy tech—much of it developed by Damasko themselves—from a patented crown system to their EPS spring. The lower-end models don’t feature all of the brand’s cool tech, but they have enough to put most other brands at this price point to shame.

DAMASKO_DA36_WRIST1The da36 series—a contemporary take on the iconic flieger—is a good introduction to the brand, and it’s the model I own. It’s perfectly sized, wears well, and is one of the most legible watches in my stable. It’s also quite grabbing in the metal; I’ve had quite a few strangers ask me about it on the NYC subway. If you’re in the market for a tough beater, Damasko is definitely a brand to consider.

Zach Weiss

Well, I don’t like to choose favorites when it comes to anything, let alone watch brands, so I’m going to take the stance of “micro-brand I admire.” And with that said, I’m going to go with Gavox. Founded and run by the very genuine Michael Happé in Belgium, Gavox is one of those brands that marches to the beat of their own drum, pursuing interesting spins on classic concepts while maintaining approachable prices. From their unexpected and handsome Legacy Navy series to their new pilot-diver hybrid the Avidiver, Gavox makes an interesting array of timepieces that stand out in the sea of new micro-brands.

GAVOX_AURORA_DIAL7But the one watch that fully embodies why I admire Gavox is the Aurora. This watch took guts to make, especially for such a small company. First off, it uses a Soprod mecatronic movement that no other brand has yet to use, which is a risk from a manufacturing standpoint, but also from a sales perspective. People love to say they want something new, but when presented with it they’re often hesitant to buy in. Second, it had to have a relatively high price point for a quartz watch because of the movement, but one that was justified by its incredible capabilities.

With this movement, Gavox was able to build in features ranging from a perpetual calendar to a countdown timer (where the hands move backwards) and a central minute chronograph, to name a few, all displayed via analogue hands. In the end they made one of the more unique watches we’ve come across in the last couple of years. If more brands took risks like Gavox, there would many more interesting watches out there.

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  • Никита

    Totally agree with Mark McArthur-Christie on that microbrands are good illustration on how hard is to draw proper watch. For me, 90%+ of microbrands are either parasiting on old designs, giving 0 value to watch world, or are very badly designed. Tons of “minimalist” DW clones (which already isn’t any original), tons of Rolex/Omega/Panerai homages. But there are some great exceptions like Ophion, Autodromo, and some homages are done so well, that okay, I have to agree it makes sense: like MKII, Steinhart, Crepas.

    All in all, I would choose Magrette. They try to make bold looking cushion-cased watches, try different materials like carbon, try cool engravings as well.

  • Bill Hicks

    Halios hands down is the micro champ

  • Legaser

    Can’t disagree with the choices mentioned in the article but Magrette has proven over their short existence that they can deliver the goods and provide excellent after sale services. I would also like to add Halios and Lew&Huey (the Phantom looks awesome!). I’ve purchased watches from both companies and was satisfied with the quality of their watches. Even though their models are mostly homage and don’t necessarily contribute to the ‘watch design evolution’ they do offer an advantageous alternative to those of us WIS with kids and mortgages!

    • TR

      Magrette are wonderful watches.

  • TrevorXM

    How big is “micro”?

    Is Squale a micro brand or a regular brand? If they qualify as a micro brand it seems really hard to conceive of how they could be left off this list. Their 1521 50 atmos is a modern legend already.

    In my mind, for a micro brand to really be something worthwhile, they need to make their own watches with their own successful original design as one of the mainstays of their collection. MK2 certainly doesn’t qualify. Steinhart used to qualify when they were making the Ocean 2, but really blew it with the new version. Hopefully in July they will again regain a worthy flagship with the Ocean 2 Premium.

  • Richard Baptist

    My favorite microbrand is hands down Crepas. I have the Cayman, the L’ocean and I also have a couple of watches from their Tactico brand. The best design and features I’ve found in a Micro brand. Every time I wear my Cayman people ask “what is that?” or “Nice watch!” All their watches are limited editions so their early watches including the Tektite are hard to find. I’m looking for a LeGrand (Very hard to find), El Buzo very, very hard to find and the tektite a little easier to find. The best bet is the Spanish watch forums. http://www.crepaswatches.com. I’m also waiting for a watch from Helberg Watches which I’ve heard good things about as well.

  • Svetoslav Popov

    It is very strange to me how Stowa and Laco are left out of anyones mention. For me Steinhart is absolutely zero value brand. They make so many models in almost any watch category and they are all very close to replicas.

    • mrneddles

      Agreed. Steinhart’s replicas are cringe worthy.

    • TR

      Yea, Laco, Stowa are great.

  • Estravon

    Delighted to see Autodromo and Damasko on this list. Autodromo in particular just go in for the design details, not just with the watches and straps but in the packaging and papers that come with them. Have picked up a Stradale and a Group B in the past year, with the Stradale in particular just a never-ending treat to see on the wrist (the Group B is almost too understated, if that’s not a silly complaint). Also have Damasko’s DA36 which is, as said above, a really great beater watch. But I love how each of these watches is distinct and confident in their own design.

  • Richard Baptist

    BTW I agree on Roger Smith, the ultimate micro brand, however I would have to win the lottery.

  • Nelson

    Kari Voutilainen

  • Ken

    Thank you Watch Curmudgeon. Thank you.

  • TR

    JS Watch? Tisell at low end? Archimede?

  • Patrick M

    I just never would have considered Damasko as a micro brand.

  • steve mauldin

    I have to also cast a vote for Lew & Huey as well. I have never gotten as many compliments about a watch as I have on my Spectre Fireball. Now I am getting on my soap box. Too many times I read articles like this one and the watch prices are just out of proportion with what you are getting or are unobtainable either from price or from availability. Case in point Crepas is sold out (see unobtainable), Autodromo’s prototipo Chronograph, which is an excellent design by the way, is $775+shipping. For a meca quartz? ( see price out of proportion), And lastly Rodger W. Smith… Seriously? Why not include Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin in the micro brands group because they cannot be selling that many $20k+ watches a year either. That is right “Watch Curmudgeon”, if that is your real name, I am calling you out. The last thing we needed was another puff piece on an unobtainable or seemingly unobtainable, wait listed watch maker. And a final note to Crepas, there is an old saying “if you are selling them hand over fist, get more hands and fists”. For the love of god Crepas, a limited Edition of only 42 units? An if you have read DecoMaster “DLC” is unbelievably beautiful in red and is still available, for the next few minutes, for less than 865 euros. That is about $925 in US dollars at the moment.

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