Decade in Review: The Rise of Micro-Brands/All Things Vintage and Tudor’s Return

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With the second decade of the 21st century in the rearview mirror, the Worn & Wound editorial team thought now would be a great opportunity to take a look back at some of the key trends in the watch world over the last ten years. It was a period of great change in the industry, with social media becoming more critical seemingly by the week, and traditional points of sale in high end retail stores giving way to direct sales to consumers on the internet. And, of course, the micro-brand began to come of age, creating a vibrant culture around watches unlike anything the hobby has seen. In this two-part series, Zach Weiss, Ilya Ryvin, and Zach Kazan explore the last decade in watches, and how the last ten years may inform the next.


The Rise of the Micro-Brand
Zach Weiss

While there have been many significant moments, trends and shifts in the watch industry over the last decade, few have been so important to Worn & Wound as the rise of the micro-brand. Once quickly dismissed as a fad, micro-brands are a rapidly growing facet of the industry that only the most stubborn of industry veterans would deny. Small by definition, nimble, and not beholden to the same market pressures or margins as larger watch brands, micro-brands have been at the forefront of many trends, from smaller cases to the revival of vintage designs. In an industry where the household names have continually raised prices, leaving watch fans new and old behind, micro-brands came in to not only fill the void but to reenergize a generation of watch enthusiasts that had been shut out.

The Mk II Crucible-Hellion. Mk II is a micro-brand operated by Bill Yao in Pennsylvania.
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So, what is a micro-brand anyway? What once might have connoted cheap, insignificant, and even low-quality has turned into a non-traditional model. According to Bill Yao of Pennsylvania-based Mk II, he would define it as “…a small watch company that is/has been nurtured by the collecting/enthusiast community…The term to us implies a level of passion that goes beyond return-on-investment.” While the brand’s scale is part of the definition, it’s more the style in which it is run that gives it that unique “micro-brand” flavor. Micro-brands typically focus on value as a core pillar of their model, generally working on direct-to-consumer margins, offering more bang-for-the-buck than like-priced retail watches. These aren’t get-rich-quick schemes or brands that desire to be the next Rolex or another household name. They are driven by a genuine love of the product and the culture around it.

They also appeal directly to enthusiasts, and therefore customers, through social media and other direct channels. “Social media that has facilitated small, digestible chunks of show-and-tell has been instrumental in the propagation of enthusiast culture. People no longer have to trudge through forums or suffer through highly clinical watch brand marketing to get a pretty compelling sense of why they need to own a watch (or two or three)” says Jason Lim of Halios, a beloved Canadian micro-brand. Social media has become one of, if not the most powerful marketing tools available, but a brand’s success is often tied to authenticity given the personal nature of the platform. This made it a perfect fit for micro-brands as the people behind the posts are the same people behind the products, telling their story in a genuine manner.

Halios had a breakout hit with the Seaforth model, selling out almost instantaneously.

A side factor in the rise of micro-brands, at least early on in the decade, was the recent creation of crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter. By simultaneously funding, selling and acquiring new customers, a savvy brand could go from nothing to selling hundreds or even thousands of timepieces at launch (which can be both a blessing and a curse). This concept reflected the value-focused approach of micro-brands, as well as the alternative approach to marketing. Now essentially a marketplace unto itself, Kickstarter has gained a negative reputation as a type of flash sale site. Rather than using it solely to launch their brand, many return over and over as their primary sales platform, with success tied largely to their marketing budget. Additionally, larger companies have begun to use it purely for exposure purposes, drowning out smaller brands.

Windup Watch Fair in NYC.

Then, there was us, Worn & Wound. When we launched in 2011, no other watch media was focusing on the topic of affordable watches and micro-brands. Though we had no idea that things would grow so fast, we felt that these smaller brands were being ignored by larger and older media, and needed a place where they could be in the spotlight. We gave it a shot, and it seems to have panned out. Then, in 2015 we launched the Windup Watch Fair, which gives micro-brands an opportunity to do in-person retail, meet fans, and engage with new customers. Between the site, the fair, the podcast and all the other ways we try to communicate, it’s our goal to not just reinforce the existing enthusiasts but help bring new ones into the fold.

Based out of France, Baltic is a relatively young micro-brand that in a short time has grown quite the loyal following.
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Now, it’s 2020, and a whole new decade of micro-brands has begun. I believe the last decade was one of experimentation, figuring out what channels work best for a smaller brand to work within, and this will be the decade where brands realize their potential or lack thereof. For some, this might mean going down a more traditional route and growing out of the “micro” name/ideology; for others, it likely means staying true to the values that built them in the first place, with a greater focus on honing their process. We’ve already seen the general quality of micro-brand watches greatly increase since 2011, as well as the uniqueness of their visions and designs.

Autodromo is an automotive-inspired brand. In the last few years, the brand collaborated with FORD.

And, of course, some turnover is to be expected. Jason Lim explains, “I think that it’ll be the same as any industry in which you see a large number of new companies jumping in – a minority will persist and the majority will vanish (this isn’t to say that only the incumbents will be left standing – some new brands will establish themselves, and a few of the old guard may well close up shop).” It’s hard to deny the “bubble” nature of the current micro-brand boom. With so many brands popping up, it seems unlikely they can or will all sustain. A factor that might contribute to a decline, according to Bill Yao, is that “at the moment we see a lot of feature-rich offerings that are being marketed at unsustainable prices. That we believe will eventually lead to a thinning of the herd during a future downturn in the market.”

Though ebb and flow are inevitable, micro-brands as part of the larger industry are here to stay, and actually occupy an important and underrepresented price segment. While some larger Swiss brands have begun to push down-market, they tend to land in the $3,000-$5,000 range. Smartwatches have begun to kill off fashion brands, and we’ve even heard rumbles of quartz taking an overall downturn. Then, the ever-increasing prices of vintage watches have left a growing gap under $2,000. This leaves the prime $250 – $2,000 micro-brand range still wide open. Where once you went to eBay or sales forums to find something unique and quirky, now you just need to keep an eye on Worn & Wound and Instagram for new releases from dozens of exceptional micro-brands.

Bradley Price of Autodromo, Jason Lim of Halios, and Etienne Malec of Baltic.

For more on the topic of micro-brands, I recommended listening to Ep. 97 of the Worn & Wound Podcast, where Ilya Ryvin and I talk to Jason Lim of Halios, Bradley Price of Autodromo and Etienne Malec of Baltic about the current state of micro-brands, including their opinions on the term “micro-brand” itself.


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All Things Vintage, and Tudor’s Return
Zach Kazan

If you had to pick one watch that truly defines the 2010s, what would it be? This is a tough question given the huge variety of the watch market, but also because we were literally just in the 2010s. Time will inevitably pass and consensus will develop around the hits and misses of the decade, and themes will emerge that we can’t predict in these early days of the 2020s. One thing is for sure, though: There were a lot of vintage inspired watches this decade. 

The emergence of vintage watches as a force in the hobby over the last decade can’t be overstated. According to Eric Wind, proprietor of Wind Vintage and a noted expert on vintage watches, the market has come a long way, and there are signs it hasn’t yet peaked. 

“The growth of the vintage watch market has been serious and steady over the last decade,” Wind told me, citing the rise of Instagram and websites like Hodinkee as major contributing factors. “I expect this market to continue to mature,” he said, “as we are still decades behind the development of the vintage car market and centuries behind the development of the art market.”

There’s no question, vintage was the big story of the 2010s.

The growth of the vintage watch market, however, is only part of the story of the importance of vintage watches to the industry over the last 10 years. As prices have sky-rocketed, new opportunities have emerged for brands to capitalize on an interest in all things vintage while selling new watches at a rapid clip. The carryover impact of the vintage craze and rapid expansion of the pre-owned market into new watch design has been profound. 

There are nearly endless examples of brands reintroducing vintage watches to the contemporary market, and they’ve done so in a variety of ways. Dan Henry, for one, is a brand that found a rabid fanbase at the end of the decade by recreating iconic watch designs with impeccable finishing at a price point that any enthusiast can access. Yes, they’re quartz, but if you’re a genuine fan of, for example, Porsche Design chronographs from the 80s but don’t want to shell out thousands for something that literally can’t be worn, lest the 30 year old DLC coating flake off, you’ll happily pay a few hundred for Dan Henry’s version.

Dan Henry has built an entire business around repurposing old designs.
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Other examples abound. Precise replicas are sometimes created with an extreme fidelity to the original. Omega famously used still developing technology to image vintage cases to recreate them down to the micron for the watches in their “Master Trilogy” set, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Speedmaster, Seamaster, and Railmaster. These watches were essentially exact aesthetic recreations of what you could walk into a jeweler and purchase out of the case in the late 50s, but with build quality and movement technology that weren’t possible 60 years ago.

Similarly, Omega’s Caliber 321 was reintroduced just last year in a $50,000 platinum Speedmaster that made use of similar technology to ensure that every tooth and spring in the vaunted chronograph movement was exactly like the historic examples, made before we set foot on the moon. This watch, ostensibly a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, was also a prime example of how brands combine vintage aesthetics (the Speedmaster is the rare heritage piece that truly hasn’t changed much since it was introduced) with modern technology, a marriage that has been irresistible to so many of us over the last few years. It’s a formula that brands have employed again and again with success virtually guaranteed: recreate a mid-century design, use modern materials, update the movement, repeat as necessary.

Omega brought back three icons with their Trilogy set.

And there’s no sign of letting up when it comes to the trend of capitalizing on vintage designs in brand new, mass market watches. I returned to Eric Wind to ask him for his thoughts on this practice over the last decade.

“I absolutely think this trend will continue and get more popular in the coming years given how popular these releases have been,” Wind told me in an email. He cited Breitling as another prominent example of a heritage brand reaching into the archives to reproduce a classic, hard to find watch. 

“Just look at the success of the vintage-inspired Breitling Navitimer Ref. 806 1959 Re-Edition,” says Wind. “It was almost immediately oversubscribed by retailers ordering them for their clients and I think that was unprecedented for a new Breitling watch.”

Can you tell which one is old and which is new?

Just in the last few weeks, Breitling has again gone back to the well with a similar limited edition reissue, this time of the AVI Ref. 765. In both cases, the new watches look so much like the originals, the brand’s own marketing shows images of the vintage example alongside the freshly minted version, begging the consumer to identify the modern watch. At a glance, I found this surprisingly difficult to do, and I literally look at photos of watches all day,

No brand, however, fully represents our collective fascination with vintage more than Tudor. 

Tudor’s Black Bay is perhaps the answer to my lead question, in the sense that it encapsulates our current obsession with pulling from mid-century designs while making the absolute most of today’s technology. The Black Bay is, in many ways, the consummate tool. What more could you ask for in a dive watch? Impressive water resistance? Check. A large, imposing case that can be tossed around a bit? Check. An in-house movement with a 70 hour power reserve, silicon components, and COSC chronometer certification? Also, check. All that, and it looks an awful lot like a Rolex 6538.

The Black Bay has spawned a web of Tudors under the BB banner that now includes chronographs, a GMT, and even the incredibly curious Black Bay P01, a remake of a Tudor mil-spec diver that never saw the light of day when it was conceived in the 1970s. The rise of Tudor, and the associated glut of vintage inspired divers that they themselves brought to market, plus those from their many competitors, is all the more impressive when you consider that ten years ago, the brand didn’t even have a presence in North America.

The Black Bay gets the GMT treatment.

While collectors in the know knew that vintage Tudor Subs and Date-Days were inexpensive ways to get, essentially, Rolex made cases outfitted with common ETA movements, Tudor had been out of the US market for 17 years when it came back in 2013, and they were hardly the player they are now. But with David Beckham and Lady Gaga on billboards wearing their products to close out the decade, it’s safe to say that the brand’s fortunes have shifted dramatically, and the impact on the rest of the industry will be felt for some time. 

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