The Rise and Rise of MicrobrandsBy Bhanu Chopra
The first independent microbrands first began to appear in the early 2000s, thanks to the accessibility of direct-to-customer sales via online forums and e-commerce. Since then, the watch industry has seen a rise in these nimble, niche-centric companies that are driving a surprising amount of innovation and setting new trends that reverberate through the more well-known houses. Their non-traditional model allows these smaller watch brands an agility and freedom that can push boundaries and bring about some exceptional watches.
If you think a pair of Air Jordans is hard to buy at retail, then consider this: for some of the independent microbrands like Kurono and Ming, each new product drop is sold out within minutes! (But of course, you are welcome to pick them up from eBay or Chrono24 for double or triple the original price.)
Ming Thein’s love of photography and affinity for beautiful watches led him to work with collectors to create interesting and personal photos of their collections. His unique eye brought him to the attention of brand principals and opened the door to photography collaborations with iconic watch brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre, Girard-Perregaux and Romain Gauthier. He was also a global ambassador for the legendary Hasselblad professional cameras.
In 2016, his training in mathematics (he graduated from University of Oxford in 2003 with a Master’s degree in physics at the age of 16) and his passion for horology intersected with the changes in accessibility to watch manufacturing and direct-to-customer sales, and he shifted gears to join a group of friends in co-founding MING. Later that year, they began in earnest to create their first watch, the 17.01.
Today, Ming has grown to a team of nine who work with industry partners to offer over 30 models. Awarded the Horological Revelation Prize in 2019 and reaching the finalist stages of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in both 2018 and 2020, the Kuala Lumpur-based Ming Thein expects his team to continue to innovate, develop and intrigue.
The Ming 17.01 and 19.01 series have experimented with various case materials, complications and movements. However, according to Ming Thein, there are certain key features that remain consistent in all Ming watches — strong symmetry, flared lugs, curved strap ends, legibility, and distinct minute and hour hands; elements that beget visual layering so the watches can look very different under different lighting conditions; a distinctive luminous signature; crowns that are easy to interact with; and wearing balance and comfort.
Hajime Asaoka has made his name by creating custom art timepieces, each one a collaboration between the artist and the client. The beauty, personality and horological excellence of his pieces have solidified him as a premier Japanese watchmaker. Like most things custom-made by a skilled artisan, the prices of his services and products reflect their quality and the time spent.
In a move that surprised the industry and delighted his fans, Hajime Asaoka decided to create his first watch for mass production in 2019. Combining his years of experience in custom design work and watchmaking skills, as well as the affordability of a Miyota movement, Asaoka created the first Kurono in a limited run of 50 pieces over two dial variants at the very reasonable price of only USD1,750. These were sold out within a blink of an eye.
When asked why he decided to offer his highly-sought-after watches at such a reasonable price, his response was that he was only creating the “good, reliable and reasonably priced watch [he] can use as a daily wearer”. He laments the difficulty of finding such a watch these days, especially from an independent watchmaker, and decided to fill the gap.
Kurono watches take their cues from the 1960s Art Deco designs of vintage watches. Some of the features include cylinder dials with high-gloss and applied indices, box sapphire crystal, 37–38mm stainless-steel cases, and the strikingly polished and stylized hands.
Miguel Morales Ribas was still a kid when he first began to notice the intrigue of mechanical watches. His curiosity resulted in frustration as he learned that the watch industry tended to hold their secrets close to the vest. The lack of transparency in how things were done drove him to dig deeper and learn more.
He went on to study Architecture in Madrid and develop the skills of tridimensional design that would lend itself well to the day when he transitioned to making his own watches. A classmate from university, Huberto Aldaz, had been a fellow aficionado and they often joked about turning Ribas’s passion for horology into a new watch brand.
In 2014, the architecture industry faced an economic crisis that ended his first career and offered Ribas and Aldaz the perfect opportunity to realize their long-ago dream. Ophion was created in Madrid that year. The brand’s goal and mission statement was to create high-end watches for a wider audience with competitive pricing.
Their first model, the OPH 960, is a contemporary interpretation of the vintage watches of the ’60s with their dome dials, domed crystal and domed hands. That first watch was followed by the OPH 786, which drew inspiration from the pocket watches of the 1780s; and the OPH 786 Velos with roots in Art Deco design.
Torsti Laine studied computer science in Finland and began his career as a computer software programmer and teacher. Inspired by the popularity of Finnish watchmaking around the world, Laine found himself drawn into the world of horology. He switched gears and began to study at a respected watchmaking school near his home.
Disappointed by the purely theoretical work, Laine took his education into his own hands and began to build his first clock from a set of plans. With the help of his teachers and the resources of the school, he completed his education — and his clock — in three years.
In 2014, Laine was chosen to participate in a Lange & Söhne competition for students to complete the design for a moon-phase complication. Inspired by the differences in how the moon appears around the globe, he worked to complete an innovative design that would win him a 10,000 euros prize. He used it to buy tools to continue his work with watchmaking.
He began to grow his skill with a chronograph complication after moving to Switzerland to begin his own watch company. His early work with vintage Valjoux 22 movements was followed by his Unitas 6498-based 1817, and the Gelidus — a Latin word meaning frosty and ice cold, inspired by the frosted surfaces in the movement and dial.
Laine recently released the Gelidus 3, which brings his work with guilloché and frosting together in a wide variety of colors, as well as the V38, based on the Vaucher 5401 micro-rotor automatic movement.
Armand Billard is a self-taught watchmaker, using his education as a designer and his experience working in Paris to define his sense of style and artistry for the bespoke watches he creates for his clients. Working alone in a small workshop, Billard doesn’t offer a catalog or a blueprint. Each watch is a custom project from the ground up.
Using the design tools that he’s mastered over the years, he works closely with his clients to bring their sense of style and horological passions into the sketches for the timepiece. Each watch is a unique creation from the dial to the strap, and Billard is able to create six to eight watches each month in his personal workshop.
According to Billard, the experience is exhilarating as a creator, and the time invested in the collaboration often turns customers into friends. A Sartory Billard watch will take about half a year from start to finish, and includes the kind of personal touches that can only be captured in such a close collaboration. His gallery of finished pieces on social media and website really highlight the unique beauty and personality he’s able to capture for his clients.
The customer has a choice between a stainless-steel or titanium case, and prices start at around USD3,000 for a custom timepiece. Dials are crafted from polished titanium and are offered in colors such as burgundy, blue and purple. Additionally, Comblémine Voutilainen produces special stone and guilloché dials for Sartory Billard.