May 22, 2023
by Ed Rhee
It was the summer of 2017 when Ben Küffer began working in earnest to answer the question dancing around in his head: What would it look like to start a new watch brand? He was already no stranger to the industry; he’d just logged a commendable 11-year stint at Breitling, and both his father and grandfather had spent many decades in the Swiss watch world before him. Less than a year later, in March of 2018, NORQAIN was officially born, with Küffer assuming the role of CEO. The first NORQAIN timepieces would arrive a few months later, grouped into three collections named for the brand’s core values: Adventure, Freedom, and Independence. And while each of these distinct lineups has continued to evolve throughout the years, it’s only fitting that, in 2023, NORQAIN is commemorating its fifth anniversary as an independent Swiss watch brand by releasing five new timepieces in the Independence collection.
NORQAIN is celebrating the occasion with its inaugural NORQAIN Fair, a joint partnership event between the brand and Zermatt Unplugged, a long-running annual music festival held each spring in the iconic Swiss ski town. Zermatt also happens to be the home of NORQAIN’s flagship boutique, which is where I recently got a chance to sit down with Küffer to get his thoughts on the company’s milestone anniversary, as well as go hands-on with all of the new releases.
Starting any endeavor from the ground up is no small task, much less a new watch brand in a hyper-competitive market. When asked if there was a singular challenge for NORQAIN from the outset, Küffer responded, “Obviously, there are a lot of setbacks, especially in the beginning. When you launch a new brand, the first year is very tough because you’re literally just trying to explain why you should even exist. You have to be mentally strong enough and positive enough to overcome it.” This self-determined spirit is a particular point of pride for Küffer. “It was a big decision not to purchase an existing brand and to instead start with a totally new name, knowing that everyone would say, ‘NORQAIN? What’s that?’ But today, I think we can say it was the right way because we wrote our own story.”
NORQAIN has carved out a niche for itself in the industry as a brand squarely associated with an active, outdoor lifestyle, thanks in no small part to its many athletics-related limited editions, such as those created in collaboration with the National Hockey League Players’ Association and the New York City and Zurich Marathons. While you could certainly wear any given NORQAIN with a suit, there’s nary a traditional dress watch to be found in the catalog. The brand’s many ambassadors — dubbed NORQAINERS — help further this sporty credibility with a number of Olympic skiers, hockey players, and other professional athletes found amongst their ranks.
The new NORQAIN Independence pieces hew closely to this sports watch aesthetic, albeit with a slightly more modern bent, especially with the two updated skeletonized watches: the Independence Skeleton 42mm DLC and the Independence Skeleton 42mm Blue. The former features a DLC-coated case with red gold-plated hands, while the latter sports a deep navy handset with matching chapter ring. Each case is largely brushed and sandblasted with polished edges, and inside is NORQAIN’s chronometer-certified NN08S caliber, which is a modified version of the tried and true Sellita SW200-1 movement with 41 hours of power reserve and a beat rate of 28,800 vibrations per hour.
Two new three-handers join the collection as subtle updates to their predecessors: the Independence 40mm Green Gradient and Brown Gradient watches. As their names suggest, both feature colored gradient dials, a first for NORQAIN. The perceived effect of the gradient changes quite a bit depending on the viewing angle, which is heightened by the hand-applied scratched finish to the dial. I’ll admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of the scratches at first, but they grew on me the more time I spent with the watches. It does add some geometric patterning to the dial, which is something I generally appreciate, as well as the fact that each dial is finished by hand, meaning each watch is unique. I suspect this will likely be a polarizing design element, and that opinions on the matter will correlate strongly with opinions on purchasing pre-ripped jeans. Each watch is powered by NORQAIN’s calibre NN08, which retains the same specifications as the NN08S, minus the skeletonized bridge structure.
Rounding out the new references is the Independence 40mm Mint watch, with a light green mother-of-pearl dial, 12 white diamonds that accompany the applied hour markers, and 60 white diamonds surrounding the fixed stainless steel bezel. It is, by far, the most elegant piece of the five new releases, though still retains the sporty essence of the collection as a whole. The same NN08 movement that powers the Independence Gradient models can be found here.
Arguably the most notable element of the new Independence lineup is the introduction of NORQAIN’s first on-the-fly micro-adjustment bracelet, available on all of the new models (and it will make its way into other NORQAIN collections throughout the year). In my opinion, micro-adjustment is an absolute must for any brand producing a modern steel sports watch today, and it’s a travesty that there are still watches being made in 2023 that don’t include it as part of the standard offering. NORQAIN offers 9mm of adjustability, which is more than plenty to account for intra-day fluctuations in skin temperature and wrist size. Alternatively, a limited variety of luxuriously comfortable rubber straps are available for the watches, and given that the straps are produced by Biwi SA (which produces straps for Richard Mille and Hublot, among others), the level of comfort on the wrist comes as no surprise.
Outside of the timepieces themselves, NORQAIN has enjoyed a number of defining highlights in its first five years: securing a long-term partnership with movement maker Kenissi, bringing watch industry legend Jean-Claude Biver on board as an advisor, and extending its sales network to 45 countries around the world. These are all impressive details in their own right, but for Küffer, the thing he’s proudest of is the very spirit of the company. “I hope you feel it when you’re around our people,” he says. “I’m most proud of being able to say that we’ve built a community and that the brand is quite clear that we stand for adventure. It’s really easy for us to be passionate because we’re just being us. We’re making watches with that passion.” I wonder if Küffer realizes he’s answered his original question from 2017: This is what it looks like to start a new watch brand.
The NORQAIN Independence Skeleton 42mm DLC is priced at $4,790 USD on matching bracelet, while the NORQAIN Independence Skeleton 42mm Blue is $3,990 USD on the blue rubber strap and $4,290 USD on bracelet. The two NORQAIN Independence 40mm Gradient dials are priced at $2,990 USD on bracelet, and the NORQAIN Independence 40mm Mint is priced at $6,250 USD on bracelet. Learn more about the entire Independence collection at www.norqain.com.