If you had to list some watch brands off the top of your head, we’d bet the big names such as ‘Rolex’, ‘TAG Heuer’ and ‘Patek Philippe’ would roll off your tongue with no problem. But aside from these stalwarts, another group of watchmaking start-ups have been slowly, but very surely, making their mark on the local horological landscape.
Enter the microbrands.
Main image, from left: From left: Zelos Hammerhead 1000m, Gruppo Gamma Chrononaut, Vilhelm Talos
Microbrands are exactly that—micro. What this means is a small production team where the owner often doubles (or triples) up as the marketing department, the design studio and the customer service counter. Production is kept small, with the numbers ranging from around 200 to 3,000 pieces (for the slightly 'bigger' microbrands) made annually.
Speaking to the owners of some Singapore-based microbrands, we discover that many of them start off with nothing more than very limited funds, passion, and a prayer.
The numbers game
“The last I checked, there were about 60 registered microbrands in Singapore,” reveals Nop, the founder of Vilhelm, a microbrand that produces under 500 pieces annually.
Samuel Tay, owner of microbrand, Reverie, concurs, citing a surprisingly large number of microbrands in Singapore, despite the relatively small population. “Given the cross-border nature of commerce these days, local microbrands have to compete with foreign microbrands as well, not to mention the established brands,” he says.
But when did the concept of a watch microbrand start to take off here? Most collectors believe that the concept evolved in the noughties, gaining traction in recent years thanks to the proliferation of Kickstarter campaigns.
Watch collector and timepiece aficionado, James M. Lim, figures microbrands probably took off in popularity here around 2004. “With the introduction of the Kickstarter platform around 2009, people from different walks of life, who shared the same passion and had the means, would jump on the bandwagon to create timepieces for their peers,” he explains.
Nop tells us the first microbrand he heard of was Gruppo Gamma. “They were one of the first to really establish themselves internationally, which set a blueprint for others to follow.”
“Many people have a misguided notion that microbrand means cheap, and a microbrand watch should not be priced at much more than the sum of its parts,” says Naoki, the man behind Gruppo Gamma.
He goes on to explain that, while microbrand watches are typically good value for money due to the bypassing of traditional distribution channels, “low production volume means we don’t enjoy scale efficiencies of bigger, mainstream companies.”
And when it comes to the local market, it appears there may be some perception issues too. Alexander Ian Loh, of Arcturus, another proudly Singaporean microbrand, discloses that some customers view local brands through a different lens. “There are those with a misguided preconceived notion that local brands can’t hold a candle to international brands, which is highly untrue.”
Zelos founder, Elshan Tang agrees: “It is an uphill battle to educate the local market about the merits of our brands, as many consumers prefer the safer route of a larger brand name.”
But proponents of microbrands will tell you there is much to love about them. Wah Qi Le, founder of Wahsoshiok.com, a website that highlights local microbrands in the fields of watches and formalwear, is effusive about their virtues.
“Without red tape and heritage constraints, microbrands get to be much more inventive,” he says, citing brands like Arcturus, Vilhelm and Reverie that offer multi-layered, intricate dials at affordable prices.
For detractors who feel microbrands don’t have the heritage of Swiss brands, Lim counters: “The watches are (often) powered by renowned Swiss calibres that are rich in history and made by reputable manufactures.” In addition, he feels the intricacy and complex designs, including the finishing of the dials and hands, are quite exquisite.
While Loh concedes Singaporeans aren’t as exposed to microbrands as watch lovers from other countries, he believes the sentiment is changing. “It’s a little-known fact but Singapore is the mecca of microbrands. (You can see that through) the opening of Watch Wonderland in Suntec City where they carry—save for Seiko— microbrands exclusively. The Singapore Watch Appreciation Group (SWAG) on Facebook is also probably one of the most brand agnostic groups where members there have a truly diverse collection.”
As microbrands continue to permeate the horological landscape and grow in numbers and for some, stature, it is only natural some will exceed their current capacity and start expansion plans. Which begs the question: Can they then still be considered 'micro'?
Loh tells us there are two schools of thought. The first opinion is that as soon as a microbrand enters retail chain stores, it’s no longer a microbrand. The other is the opposite view - that even if a microbrand becomes mainstream, the brand will still retain its niche appeal and personal touch.
That personal experience is something Tang relates to as well. “I feel that numbers aren’t what defines a microbrand,” he says. “The buying experience of being able to communicate directly to the founders is a huge aspect of it.”
Regardless, there is a quiet confidence about the future. The increased prominence of the scene will inadvertently lead to more players, and consequently, more competition.
Naoki is cautiously optimistic, urging his peers to “keep their eyes on the ball". "There is still a niche to be filled by David where Goliath cannot or will not,” he says.
A version of this story first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of CROWN Singapore, and later on republished on crownwatchblog.com.