In 2017, Dr. Nathaniel DeNicola attended a conference at the Geneva headquarters of the World Health Organization, where he delivered a lecture on the effects of environmental contaminants on maternal and child health. During a break, he went shopping with the stipend from the speaking gig.
“I looked around the watch boutiques on the main drag in Geneva,” Dr. DeNicola recalled in a recent phone call. “I was struck by the craftsmanship and the intricacy of the inner workings.”
The doctor, an obstetrician based in Southern California, said the mechanical watches, most of which started at around $5,000, were a lot more expensive than he had anticipated.
“The stipend was like $500 and to me that was already a lot,” he said. “I ended up buying a quartz watch from the W.H.O. gift shop. That triggered an interest and like any hobby, you can go down rabbit holes.”
Now, whenever Dr. DeNicola travels to a new city for a conference, he said, he seeks out a watch from a local independent brand, sometimes called a microbrand, to add to his collection of about 100 contemporary and vintage watches.
“My interest is in watches in general,” he said. “But the ‘micros’ are much more approachable in terms of budget. For every one luxury watch you buy, you could probably get five to 10 from the micros.”
Over the past decade, it has become easier than ever to build a watch brand. From the rise of crowdfunding and social media to the advent of e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, tools enabling low-volume, low-cost production and direct-to-consumer sales have redrawn the watchmaking landscape.
“Technology has made it possible for smaller players,” William Rohr, an industry veteran, said in a recent phone call.
“Ten years ago, you had to make your watches, go to stores, and they had to sell your watches,” added Mr. Rohr, the New York-based founder of Massena LAB, which collaborates with watchmakers on limited-edition timepieces.
But how can a potential watch buyer distinguish a quality microbrand from the scores of inexpensive impostors on the internet?
The experts say to take first things first: Understand what you’re buying. The companies that fall into the microbrand category are small in more ways than one. Not only do they have limited production and staffing, but they also generally outsource their production, which allows them to sell their watches — typically through their own direct-to-consumer websites — at prices that rarely top $2,500.
And yet the biggest difference between microbrands and more established watchmakers such as Rolex, Omega and Cartier may have less to do with their products than with how the companies are managed.
“Microbrands are run by individuals and the designs and concepts are generally the product of a person’s individual taste and point of view,” Bradley Price, founder and owner of Autodromo, an 11-year-old direct-to-consumer brand of automotive-inspired timepieces, said by phone.
For watch lovers unpersuaded by the allure of a big brand name, microbrands offer an opportunity to connect directly with owners, hear their stories and perhaps even influence the kind of watches they’re making.
“If you say to an owner, ‘I think you should do this,’ if they get enough of those requests, more than likely they put that request into action and produce what customers want,” Jarrod Cooper, founder of the Los Angeles-based collector group Neighborhood Watch Club, said by phone. “You don’t get that from the big brands.”
While gaining access to the owners of microbrands is relatively easy, trying on their web-only products can be tricky. That may explain why there are now at least three buying fairs devoted to microbrands in the United States and Britain. These are the Windup Watch Fair, introduced in 2015 by the founders of Worn & Wound, a New York-based online publication covering value-driven watches; MicroLux, a typically twice-a-year event in Los Angeles and Chicago founded in 2019 by Rich Park, a watch reviewer on YouTube; and WatchPro Market, a weekend buying event organized by the industry publication WatchPro, in the Shoreditch neighborhood of East London.
“What Worn & Wound did with the Windup Watch Fair allowed these brands who’d built up followings on social media to be in front of the public,” Rob Corder, the editor of WatchPro, said. “We liked the concept so much we thought we’d bring it to the U.K.”
After a weekend event in mid-May, a second WatchPro Market is slated to return to London in early December.
More than two years into the pandemic, the timing for a surge in interest in microbrands may seem odd. Far from diminishing consumer appetites for watches, however, the crisis only stoked them (skyrocketing prices for Rolex watches were just the beginning).
“The last two years allowed some of the microbrands to break through and become much more successful for the same reason independents such as F.P. Journe and Kari Voutilainen have had an incredible few years,” Mr. Corder said. “Because people, stuck behind their screens, have had time to do a lot more research.”
In April, when Windup held its first in-person fair since 2019 in San Francisco, the pent-up desire among watch lovers to cement the online relationships they’d formed with brands during the pandemic was palpable.
“It was our biggest event yet,” Zach Weiss, the co-founder and executive editor of Worn & Wound, said by phone. “It was probably 35 brands, a much larger space. We had food trucks, a lounge, a bar in the venue.
“People who came out were so enthusiastic,” he added. “They were so excited to be able to handle these watches.”
When attending a fair in person isn’t possible, prospective buyers can always turn to YouTube, where watch reviewers — such as Mr. Park with his whatsonthewrist videos; Teddy Baldassarre, a collector who parlayed his love of watches into a thriving YouTube channel and, more recently, an e-commerce venture; and Tristano G. Veneto, the founder of the Urban Gentry, a watch channel acquired by the pre-owned-watch e-tailer WatchBox in 2019 — regularly advise new buyers in the microbrand category.
On a recent episode on YouTube, Mr. Baldassarre spoke to Kevin O’Leary, the Canadian investor who appears on the American reality television series “Shark Tank,” about the most popular microbrands, including a $1,950 GMT (or two time-zone) piece by the St. Louis-based watchmaker Monta. “Good value,” Mr. O’Leary said, as he turned over the Monta watch to get a closer look at its finishing. “I always tell everybody: Never go into debt for a watch.”
The groundswell of interest in microbrands has actually helped a number of brands that initially may have been deemed “micro” to no longer warrant the label.
“Today we’re in a position where we have customers in over 50 countries, we’ve broken 1 million pounds [$1.25 million] in revenue, we don’t have investors or any debt,” said Jonny Garrett, founder of William Wood Watches, a London-based brand that pays homage to firefighters, such as Mr. Garrett’s late grandfather, by featuring upcycled firefighting materials in its timepieces. “We have literally grown from crowdfunding into a loyal community,” he said by phone.
Plenty of micros are also swiftly moving upmarket. Mr. Weiss singled out Ming, the brainchild of Ming Thein, a Malaysian collector, designer and businessman who co-founded the brand in 2017. “I don’t know if they qualify as a microbrand anymore,” Mr. Weiss said. “They make a small amount of watches, but they’ve made tourbillons before.
“That’s very firmly into a classical luxury price point,” he added.
For his part, Dr. DeNicola said a good way to test out the category was by embracing “what microbrands do best: the $600 diver.”
“If you want a dive watch with an automatic movement,” he said, “maybe Swiss-made or Japanese-made, good quality and water-resistant for $600, it’s tough to beat the micros.”
Aside from that, the simplest and most common piece of advice for anyone looking to try a microbrand is to buy what you love. And to keep things in perspective.
“Most microbrands are in the $500 to $1,000 range,” Mr. Rohr said. “It’s not like they’re selling watches for $100,000. At the end of the day, I think it’s great. It’s a good entry point for somebody to get into watches — given the fact that you can’t buy Rolex.”