It occurred to Raphael Ickler that he could launch his own watch brand in Germany a decade ago, even if Defakto – as it’s called – has only recently arrived on most watch buffs’ radar with the launch of its award-winning Transit model. But then watch buffs are not really his market. ‘Defakto really appeals to people who like design before they like watches,’ says Ickler, whose business is quite literally a one-man band. ‘They’re not after an investment piece but an interesting object. And that’s what micro-brands are providing now.’
Recent years have seen a boom in small, independent watch companies making proper watches – with sapphire crystal glass, automatic mechanical movements and the rest – but also with an aesthetic somewhat outside of the mainstream. ‘These are watches that go with their customer’s interest less so in movements as art, music and style,’ reckons Ickler. And, he suggests, more esoteric watch brands are quietly overhauling the watch market. Ickler calls it a rebellion against the mainstream.
Certainly, if the quartz crisis of the 1970s caught the watch world napping – most ignored the advent of a technology that threatened to make mechanical watches redundant, with many brands going under – then it looks as though they’re facing a similar challenge now, much as fashion giants are being undermined by the rise of niche labels with insider-ish cachet.
It’s the internet, of course, that’s made this possible. It means micro-brands can find an audience without eye-watering advertising budgets, without the need to produce in huge numbers or, as Ickler notes, the 300 per cent margins expected by jewellers. People will buy watches online now.
‘And, crucially, the internet gives access not just to info or customers, but to Swiss or German suppliers and technicians to actually make the watches, too,’ explains Don Cochrane, the man who revived historic British watchmaker Vertex. ‘White label manufacturers have long been something of a dirty secret in Switzerland, but as more of the big Swiss brands take production in-house, they’re looking for business. While the big brands still sell lots of watches, which is great, micro-brands are forced to create something with a strong, different aesthetic.’
While the watch brand giants may still drive technology and materials science in watchmaking, Cochrane argues that guaranteed sales mean they rarely feel any need to deviate from the aesthetic formula laid down by their most iconic pieces.
That’s good if you want a bona fide classic or heritage watch, but genuinely striking design is the exception. Add in the booming watch investment market ‘which more or less means there are queues at the boutique doors to buy some brands’ watches, and there’s hardly any reason to try any more,’ Cochrane notes. ‘In contrast,’ says Fears’ managing director Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, ‘a small brand doesn’t have to design by committee. You can have personality. You can take risks. And that suits a younger generation that’s more open to not wearing what everyone else is wearing.’
So does that make for a watch world undergoing an evolution or facing revolution? ‘What we’re seeing is what happened with streetwear brands in fashion, they were niche for a long time, undercutting the mainstream, before finally shaping it. That’s going to happen in watches,’ argues Giovanni Moro, co-founder of cool Italian horology house Unimatic. ‘For some of the high-end brands, it’s too easy to rely on that classic business model of luxury brand-building that served them so well in the last century. The fact is that there’s a consumer who’s just not into that dated concept of “luxury goods” any more. Perhaps eventually the giants will learn from the smaller guys, in terms of design and the way they communicate.’
There’s also an argument to make that striking design is set to be all the more important in a world that, thanks to our mobile phones, frankly doesn’t need watches at all any more: that’s an idea 20-somethings are particularly keen on. The enhanced functionality of smartwatches may be one argument to put something on your wrist again, but perhaps it’s the stark modernity of their look that’s the real appeal here as opposed to their practical use.
‘Sure, the mechanical watch is redundant but I don’t see that the ability to read a bit of an email on your wrist will be a long-term draw,’ argues Ickler. ‘Smartwatches are just a different kind of thing. But “traditional” analogue watches keep selling because, more than ever, people are deliberately turning to them for the appeal rather than the utility of the object. It’s an aesthetic decision. The lesson of the micro-brands is that, increasingly, these watches are going to need to be genuinely interesting ones.’