The Rise of Independent Watch Brands

July 6th 2017

The number of independent watch brands is growing every year, and as watch buyers become more discerning, it’s these companies that are producing some of the most original timepieces. Could this signal a renaissance for independent watchmakers?  

At last year’s SIHH, the annual luxury watch fair organised by Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, the usual big names were there showing off their new designs and directions. In addition, however, SIHH added a Carré des Horlogers series (meaning “square of watchmakers”) featuring nine independent brands – Laurent Ferrier, Urwerk, Christophe Claret, De Bethune, H.Moser & Cie, Hautlence, HYT, Kari Voutilainen and MB&F.

In the 26th year of the fair, the industry finally started to take the independent watchmakers very seriously and right now, it’s independent brands that are not only pushing innovation, but also creating quality watches at a range of prices.

Often, the former employees of big brands helm these smaller companies. MB&F’s founder Maximilian Büsser is one of those people. He started at Jaeger- LeCoultre after leaving college then, at just 31, he became the youngest managing director of Harry Winston, where he turned the company’s fortunes around, making it a huge success. “I had a dream life as seen by most,” he tells MOJEHMEN, but he decided to start his own brand. “It was my father’s passing away 15 years ago that made me realise this is not the life I want to live, not the life I would be proud of on the day I pass away. So I started dreaming about what would later become MB&F.”

MB&F stands for Maximilian Büsser & Friends and he explains that he wanted “a very small company where I create for myself and work only with extraordinary people, who share the same human values – hence the Friends in MB&F – because pride and respect will always trump power and money.” With inventive concepts in movements and creative and original designs, MB&F has changed the way many people believe a watch should look, but starting out as an indie brand was tough at first. “I was the only employee – with virtually no salary – for the first 18 months,” Büsser explains. “I worked the first two years from my small flat in Geneva and even when I hired our first employee in January 2007, we continued working out of my flat for another six months.” Now the company has 20 full-time employees based out of Geneva, and all of its growth has been auto-financed, with no financial investors.

“Among the many dreams I had when I started the company, one was to achieve at some point 300 pieces and 15 million Swiss Francs in revenue a year with a team of 15,” says Büsser. “We hit that threshold in 2013 and decided not to grow from there onwards. We had hit our ‘happiness point’ – big enough to fund a majority of our crazy creative projects while small enough to remain nimble and avoid middle management.” That’s one of the reasons that independent brands have been so successful and creative in recent years.

One of the downsides of big conglomerates owning so many brands is that bigger companies, like bigger ships, take longer to change direction and it’s a lot harder for them to try new things, so it’s not surprising to see some of their top staff heading off to go it alone.

Laurent Ferrier unveiled his eponymous brand in 2010. His father and grandfather worked at Patek Philippe for four decades, but he chose to set up for himself and is now among the industry’s most revered independents, making around 150 pieces a year at his workshop on the outskirts of Geneva. Similarly, Richard Habring is one of the stars of horology. He invented the doppelgraf chronoscope module for IWC – it’s considered one of the major chronograph innovations of the past 30 years – but has teamed up with his wife to create an independent brand in Austria called Habring2.

“Now we can do the products we like, compared with big brands where the marketing influences the product strongly,” Habring tells MOJEHMEN. In 2016 they produced around 200 watches in total. “Habring2 is not a mass product and will never be – small is beautiful.” Thirteen years on from launching as a husband-and-wife team, they now have four staff, which still makes them tiny compared to other brands, but their size is increasingly working in their favour. “It has never been easy, but in the past few years we have been witnessing growing interest in small independent brands as those are the ones bringing the innovations, while the industry just maintains their past work,” he says, again highlighting the flexibility to be innovative if you are small. The company’s manageable size also means that there is a personal touch. “Customers have realised that there are real people behind some brands that carry a brand name. If you call the Habring company, you will have somebody with the Habring surname speak to you on the phone – try that with Rolex, IWC, Breitling and so on.”

Right across the board, the smaller independent brands are finding their niche and making their presence felt – and the internet has blown the market wide open. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have now made it easier to start an independent watch company. Where once a business loan or large amount of savings were required, the Kickstarter model means that now people can commit to buying the product, thus supplying not only an indication that there is demand for it but also a financial boost to help get the company off the ground.

Instrmnt is a small watch workshop based out of Glasgow, UK. The founders, Ross Baynham and Pete Sunderland, had studied together and then gone out to work as designers both as freelancers and for large studios. A couple of years after graduating they got back together and decided to start their own product design studio. As both were big horology fans, they settled launching with a watch. Via Kickstarter, they set a £20,000 (around AED 91,700) goal – about the amount you’d pay for a good Rolex Submariner – to launch their watch brand. When the pledging time period ended in August 2014, a total of 978 backers had pledged £93,344 to help bring the company to life. “We felt there was room in the market for a high- quality but accessible, industrial brand,” Baynham tells MOJEHMEN.

The company has now grown to six staff, but as a smaller operation there are many advantages. “It’s good to have full control of every element, and being small and lean enough to make big changes or change direction with relative ease. We’re also not limited by investors or corporate red tape – we do what we want in terms of social, business, design and brand decisions; plus it’s also nice to hire local talented staff and build a community. We can confidently say that we wouldn’t be a company without the advent of the internet – we ship to 80 countries internationally to customers who have found us online via articles or social media then purchased from our web store.”

Bremont founder Giles English is another who has taken an indie watch brand forward to great success and also credits the internet as playing a part in the independent brand’s success. “I feel it is a difficult market at the moment in terms of retail, but for the online brands it has never been easier with online marketing, social media and so on, even though manufacturing continues to be just as difficult as it always has been.”

He started the company with his brother, Nick, in 2002 and spent five years developing the brand before launching their first timepiece in 2007. Again, it was a life-changing moment that prompted them to start their own company. “Life changed for us in 1995 when my father was in a plane crash with my brother. My father died and my brother, Nick, broke 30 bones and was in intensive care for many months,” he tells MOJEHMEN. “When he recovered, Nick and I agreed life is very short and wanted to do something we both loved doing, so that’s exactly what we did.” They now have 90 staff and make around 8,000 watches each year and again, as a small company he says they can also take a long-term view on the business and don’t have the investors’ pressure to make that quick return.

As for the cost of the watches you buy from major brands, it’s constantly increasing to cover the cost of ad spend. Someone has to pay for all those expensive brand ambassadors... A sizable portion of what you pay (around 45 per cent according to one report) is the advertising budget. In 2014, for example, Rolex spent more than AED 205 million on advertising in the US market alone. But for the independent watchmaker, huge ad spends and brand ambassadors are often not economically viable. They have had to rely on other methods. Due to Bremont’s smaller size, they have not been able to pay famous sports stars or celebrities to wear their products or get involved with marketing, but the products have largely marketed themselves with many big names simply choosing to wear a Bremont, including Tom Cruise, Bear Grylls, Ewan McGregor and Ryan Seacrest – all watch lovers who are buying them because they’re fans.

In many ways, it’s like horology is returning to its roots. If you ever visit the maisons of some of the big brands, then the first thing you notice is that watches are made in huge sterile rooms by rows of workers and parts are created by CNC (computer numeric control) machines running off computer software. For mass production this is necessary, but we now live in bespoke times and small-batch is considered more desirable than mass market.

The independent brands are helping return horology to the traditional image of a watchmaker with eyeglass at a workbench in a small room. The very fact that they don’t make many of each model has made some of the brands’ releases more sought after, and for collectors and aficionados, this is now where many are looking to find that special timepiece.

They’re no threat to Patek and Rolex globally, but when everyone else at the company is wearing a Patek or a Rolex, then a watch from one of the lesser-known brands will stand out. And for the real watch fans, nothing gives them more pleasure than having a person say, “Oh, what make is that watch? I’ve never seen one like that before?”