The Smart Start-Ups of the Watch World

The Wall Street Journal - These days, watch microbrands are proliferating like mushrooms on steroids. “I would define microbrands as the startups of the watch world,” said Adam Craniotes, co-founder and president of RedBar Group, an international community for watch collectors. These operation are small—typically one- or two-man shops that revolve around a singular vision for a timepiece that probably wouldn’t be made by an established, traditional brand, said Mr. Craniotes. Some are self-financed, while others use crowdfunding, but their efforts usually result in an unusual and affordable mechanical watch.

Microbrands are most often started by watch lovers—ones who aren’t watchmakers or industry veterans. These entrepreneurs keep costs low by using components from Japan and China. Many also assemble their watches in Asia. Most important, microbrands are grounded in the internet. Supply chains are set up online, and sales are direct from brand to customer, eliminating retailers and their often hefty markups.

These grass-roots brands started sprouting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2011, two New Yorkers, product and graphic designer Zach Weiss and nonprofit fundraiser Blake Malin, launched Worn&Wound, a blog that focused on microbrands and then branched out to other non-astronomically priced watches. “We thought the internet lacked content on inexpensive, value-driven watches,” said Mr. Weiss. “At that time, microbrands were popping up all over.” He also notes that such manufacturers are nimble and able to respond quickly to customer feedback and trends. Traditional watch brands have a product cycle of three or more years, while small factories bring new watches to market in less than 12 months.

While microbrand watches are usually simple in design, many offer serious scope for customization. Because production numbers are low, you are unlikely to see your model on another wrist.

If a microbrand watch appeals to you, consider a few caveats. Like all start-ups, some will prosper; others will fail. The brand you buy today might disappear tomorrow. Also, producing a watch inexpensively in Asia is one thing, but building adequate post-sale service is another. That’s a weak point for many microbrands. Before buying, look for online reviews and comments about the brand you’re considering. Also contact the company if possible (it always should be). Talk to the founders and get a feel for their motivation.

Speak with John Tarantino and you’ll learn that he spent two years laying the groundwork for his microbrand, Martenero, before leaving his job in New York real estate in 2014 and launching the company. Today its annual output is about 1,000 watches across five different models, a solid achievement. The latest, the Edgemere (Japanese movement, Chinese case, assembled in Brooklyn), is a low-key take on marine-chronometer watches used on ships since the 18th century.

Another good example is Meshable Watches, founded in 2014 as well, by husband-and-wife team Nemanja Vucicevic and Mina Baldauf, former ad executives based in Düsseldorf, Germany. Their new watch, Meshable 003, delivers a serene but functional simplicity with its Bauhausian, easy-to-read dial. Famous mechanical watch brands should emulate its visually refreshing design.

You can find microbrands that make more elaborate pieces if that’s your thing, however. Wilk WatchWorks, launched by trained gemologist and metalsmith Scott Wilk, offers a skeletonized timepiece that shows off its intricate guts. If you like looking at a mechanical movement, this watch is a superb choice.

It’s hard to say whether the microbrand surge will last. Right now technology has enabled an energetic and dedicated band of watch lovers to offer consumers good, stylish mechanical watches at bargain prices. The advice: Be cautious, but take advantage of the situation.

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