December 11, 2019
by Rob Nudds
In early November, I had the chance to visit the Watch It All About (WIAA) microbrand event held just outside of Rugby, England. With a humble motorway hotel as the easily accessible (and reassuringly secure) location for the event, several emerging (and one or two more established) names made the journey to show off their latest wares. The effective headliner of the event was Christopher Ward, with other well-known British micros like Pinion and Hamtun joining the line-up. I’d seen many of the brands in person before, but getting the chance to see brands like Vapaus, Isotope, and Alkin for the first time was a treat. The presence of Art of Horology was a bonus, with company owners Clare and Liam on hand to answer curious customers’ questions about their fledgling business.
I spoke briefly with event organizer Joshua Clare-Flagg about the future of these microbrand gatherings, and he enthusiastically explained his desire to hold them more regularly (perhaps biennially) and maybe in different locations to improve attendance. As an ardent follower of microbrands (especially those with their roots in the UK), this is incredibly exciting news. Given the affordability of the venue (and the low cost for brands to participate), it seems to make perfect sense to increase the frequency of these occasions, to give brands that have no hope of ever commanding a retail space of their own to get out in front of their would-be customers and pitch their passion projects directly.
So, without further ado, here’s a snapshot of the brands present at the WIAA event and a quick look at some of the most enticing releases and exciting developments on the cards for the British micro scene.
When it comes to name-recognition, Christopher Ward is streets ahead of the other brands present, but that, in my opinion, is what makes the brand’s presence at a small-scale, low-key event like this all the more impressive (and remarkably astute). It would be easy for a brand with such international credentials to turn up its nose at an event that promotes the up-and-coming players in a field Christopher Ward has already traversed with success. But to not do that, and instead to turn up with a consciously curated selection of novelties (including the recently released military-inspired pieces and the new “Black and Red” C65 Black Gold Limited-Edition model) — and to humbly engage with every passer-by and brand owner present — speaks volumes of this brand’s ownership and self-awareness.
Being a popular microbrand is as much about the maintenance of a philosophy that people can buy into and a genuineness that trumps the need for total transparency. Christopher Ward is doing a great job of remembering where it came from while bolstering the brand’s burgeoning reputation with a raft of impressive releases. Also on show was the new Christopher Ward C60 Apex Limited-Edition Dive Watch, which looks an awful lot better in real life than the press shots suggested it might — yet another reason for a brand with limited physical exposure to take part in these ground-level shows. Check out the range at christopherward.eu.
Ross Davis is no stranger to Kickstarter success. Earlier this year, we covered the release of the Hamtun H2 Kraken and spoke to Davis in the process. November’s WIAA fair was the first time I got to meet the man in person, and I found him to be energized by what is to come, rather than dwelling on the success he’s experienced so far.
The Kraken smashed its Kickstarter target in hours. As such, Ross decided to upgrade several aspects of the design, which resulted in slight delays in the delivery process, which he’s still wading through now. A pained expression flickers across his face when I ask him how he feels about the delays, but there is a resolve beneath that, underpinned by his (I think justified) belief that getting the product right, rather than delivering it quickly, is always preferable. Continuing with that product-first philosophy will likely stand Hamtun in good stead as it prepares to build on stellar sales so far. Find out more at hamtun.co.
Of all the brands present, Pinion is the one I’ve known intimately for the longest time. I couldn’t tell you exactly what year it was when I first met founder Piers Berry at SalonQP (I would guess around 2012), but it remains one of my earliest memories of talking to a microbrand owner in person. I met both Berry and Giles Ellis of Schofield the same year and have followed both companies with interest since. While Schofield has always ranked in my top 10 brands for Ellis’s unwavering commitment to high-level design (I see his products more as wearable works of art than watches), it took until this latest exposure to Pinion before I felt well and truly grabbed by something in the catalog.
If you’d asked me to bet on the likelihood one of my favorite watches of the fair would be sporting a plum-colored dial I would have asked for long odds. But here we are. The Pinion TT (Two Timezones) is a feast for the eyes. In addition to the delightful dial color, the pleasingly well-color-matched date wheel, and the divisive but interesting painted rotor weight, the stepped GMT hand is a thing of beauty. Multi-level hands are still (rightly) a rarity, but when they are done right, they are oh-so-worth the effort. See the collection in full at pinion.co.uk.
Sometimes, brands live or die on the personality of the owner(s). If that’s the case for Maals, then brothers Mark and Andrew Sealey should be just fine. For a new brand like Maals, getting out in front of their potential audience is essential. Why? Because while the watches have a very individual appearance, there isn’t (as yet) a consistent brand identity.
There is an argument for this: Customers are individuals, and many of those individuals want products that express their individuality. And the dual assumption that follows is that a) a brand need only produce “good” watches (at the expense of stylistic homogeny) and b) a customer focused on individuality is more likely to buy a second watch from the same brand if it is nothing like the first.
We see fewer brands taking this route to success because it is incredibly difficult to communicate a brand’s message through a disparate catalog. The communication of the brand and its ideals needs to be wordless. Making a brand (at this price point) an academic discussion is risky. It isn’t impossible; it’s just a different route. And it’s a route the Sealey brothers seem more comfortable walking than many in this sphere.
Awesome casebacks with artwork from Chris ‘Okse’ Oxenbury add a dash of consistency to a range that is otherwise deliberately off-the-wall. Check out the Maals website at maals.co.uk.
All hail Alkin (styled by the brand with a lowercase “A” as alkin), king of the day! Before visiting the WIAA, I, a self-confessed microbrand nut, had never heard of Alkin. I left wondering how I’d managed to avoid Charlie Fowler and his crisp, clean, and weirdly captivating creations.
Although the current model (the Model One) is very smart, it is the new, yet-to-be-released piece that has whet my appetite for this company. The Model Two is due to be launched in the new year and I cannot wait! This style of tool watch, with its brushed exterior, compressor-style case, internal rotating bezel, and a well-lumed sandwich dial is so far up my street that I’ve bought all the houses on it and I’m in the process of knocking them through to create a museum full of watches just like this one.
Okay, you may find it a bit on the safe side. To be honest, it is. But the beauty of this piece is in the execution. These watches will be available for pre-order for less than £400. And for that meager investment, you get something that has the general appearance of a Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris (one of my current industry darlings), with the kind of high-legibility and rugged construction that makes it a great daily beater. There are no airs and graces, just good, solid design for a really attractive price. My one gripe? The open caseback. Although I love the no-nonsense movement choice (the time-only Miyota 9039), there’s no need to put it on show (especially considering the movement decoration begins and ends with a word-marked rotor. It’s not going to stop me from buying it (which I am going to once I can decide between the black, white, or blue dials), but I would have liked a cool design stamped or laser-engraved on the caseback. See the brand’s progression on alkinwatches.com.
For some people, the over-engineered look is essential when choosing a luxury timepiece. The fact that mechanical watches are already anachronisms in our hyper-accurate digital world should be reflected in an almost steampunk exterior. For fans of watch designs riddled with references to the past, I give you Zero West.
Before you ask, yes, the crown is a nod the modeled on the joystick gun platform fire button from a Spitfire. Of course. I bet you never knew you needed that in your life. Well, now you don’t have to worry about living without it thanks to Graham and Andrew, the men behind Zero West. With backgrounds in design and high-spec engineering, a move into the world of watches was only a matter of time for these two fanatics. Pictured above is the RAF-C, which is powered by an ETA 2824 movement and priced at £1,995, making it one of the more affordable models in the collection. Find out more by visiting zerowest.watch.
Isotope was the first brand I met with that day. The watches are united by their smart design, rather than a consistent price point or driving concept. The latest diver, the Goutte d’Eau (pictured above), is an affordable installment in a catalog that currently runs between €420 and €2,330. Part of the Goutte d’Eau’s affordability comes from the fact customers can choose between an NH35 or Sellita SW200 to power the watch.
The top-level of that catalog is the Rider Jumping Hour automatic pictured above (with a very fetching blue dial, in this instance). Driven by an ETA 2824-5 fitted with a bespoke jump-hour module, the Rider is no slouch, mechanically speaking. It is an unusual and striking design that performs admirably as a standard-bearer for Isotope’s vision and quality. Brands with this breadth of scope are clearly a direct reflection of one individual’s vision. That individual in the case of Isotope is José Miranda — a charming brand owner who is happy to share with all-comers the story of his career and the genesis of his brand. Understanding the man helps make sense of his designs, and certainly increases the positive feelings I personally have toward them. Discover the collection at isotopewatches.com.
An interesting concept option for the cross-section of society that wants to wear something that looks like the future of timekeeping on their wrist but doesn’t have to be anywhere at a particular time. Why? Because as intuitive as the time-telling process is supposed to be, I found it much harder to read than a simple handset and clearly defined numbers. Perhaps my eyes are going, or perhaps I struggle to get on board with an idea that probably needs a bit more spending on it in the R&D phase to really result in something that offers groundbreaking visuals/performance for the money. As affordable as these watches are (relatively speaking), this is still a hyper-competitive price bracket, as evidenced by the competition surrounding Gauge while I stood at the brand’s table.
I was treated to a sneak peek of an upcoming project, which promises to blow the roof off the current pricing structure but does look a lot more aesthetically arresting than the current line. One to watch for the future, for sure… Explore the range at gauge.watch.
A real gem of the day (and second only to Alkin in my book) came courtesy of Vapaus. The Vorcut is an elegantly sized and styled mecha-quartz-powered chronograph (with a deliciously vintage 38mm diameter) that comes in a variety of colorways ranging from the expected to the delightfully unusual. I wish I could say that one dial stole the show for me, but I vacillated between three: The retro sunburst vibes of the Atomic (orange), Duke (blue), and the unapologetically seventies swagger kicked out by the Salmon (the creative naming team clearly decided to stop pushing their luck with that one, but the description is entirely accurate). With prices around £365 for the Vorcut, it’s tough to find fault with the design and execution of this brand’s wares. Learn more at vapaus.co.
And now for something completely different… Art of Horology was founded by husband and wife team Liam and Clare, in the hopes that running their own business from home would enable them to spend more time with their two young children. A laudable and understandable dream that requires one thing that no amount of hard work can compensate for — talent.
Luckily, Liam, the penman of the duo, has a remarkable ability to take any watch model (seriously, you can commission custom pieces in case you’re particularly attached to your throwback Flik-Flak and want it immortalized in pen and ink) and bring it to life on paper. There’s quite a bit of variety available in terms of style, also, with prints in the style of a pencil sketch, advertising posters (see the Speedmaster example above), and eye-catching full-color images that put the emphasis on dial and bezel design.
Clothing is also available in the online store, which Clare runs from their base in England. Classic dial outlines and some color images (check-out the Tudor Black Bay GMT sweatshirt) adorn these horology-themed threads and make for a genuinely affordable stocking filler (around 30 bucks). Browse the collection at art-of-horology.co.uk.
The importance of these events for microbrands is hard to overstate. Just being there on the ground and seeing the excitement and joy experienced by the visitors to this all-too-rare show-and-tell was heartening. In an odd way, while these microbrand owners tend to be humble — almost to the point of apologetic, in some exceedingly British cases — the crowds have palpable respect for the people they see as the truly disruptive rock stars of the industry.
To say these kinds of small-scale, big-impact events are anything other than essential for the brands making them what they are would be a falsehood. Joshua Clare-Flagg deserves serious kudos for making it happen and should be encouraged to increase the frequency. I, for one, will follow this show wherever the road takes it. Keep up with the progress of these emerging microbrands via watchitallabout.com.