“Independent watchmaking” can be confusing to people not well versed in the ways of modern watch collecting. Independent watch brands aren’t merely those without corporate parents like luxury conglomerates Richemont or Swatch Group. They are also usually smaller, boutique brands at the forefront of creativity and craftsmanship in the high-end watch space.
Watches from independent brands may lack name awareness or the streamlined, mainstream appeal of products from bigger companies, but they are usually where many of the most esteemed and seasoned collectors end up putting most of their money and interest.
One of the unspoken reasons why independent watch brands are often more appealing to watch collectors is the fact that the brands themselves are typically founded and run by passionate watch lovers. This translates into a reality where watch lovers are building products for other watch lovers.
At best the people behind the brand are skilled in traditional techniques and equipped with good sense of taste. The best experience a customer of an independent watch brand can hope for is to acquire an instant treasure made by a creator for the delight of similar minds.
The timepieces produced by independent watch brands are as varied as the men and women behind them. Having said that, most watches fall into the category of being either classically inspired or alternatively modern. This distinction is often more about design philosophy than the underlying mechanics or quality.
Proponents of classic watches celebrate the strong heritage of design excellence from over 100 years of wristwatch design history. Classically styled independent watches draw from the best of traditional watch design, but also add their own twist. Some of the best ones are Laurent Ferrier, F.P. Journe, and Kari Voutilainen. Each name is attached to a single personality who is both the lead watchmaker as well as designer. Producing their own in-house movements, such brands pride themselves not on mass production, but on rarity and fine detailing for a smaller number of products.
F.P. Journe Octa Automatique Lune Havana
One of the most important things to look for in a classic timepiece made by an independent watchmaker is the movement decoration. Such brands will never be able to match the bigger names in competitive pricing, but instead can devote more time and attention to each watch. Thus, if you are spending more money on product with more individual attention by skilled watchmakers, then you should also want it to appear that way. Decoration is the process of polishing or otherwise finishing surfaces of the movement parts, with aesthetic beauty intended as the end result. Seeking out the most beautiful movements is often a good method to discover the best classically inspired independent watches.
The same holds true for the front of the watch – attention to even the smallest details and textures should be immediate. The watch should appear to be something that someone in Switzerland (or a place like it) utterly obsessed over prior to releasing it from the manufacture.
In addition to attractive, highly decorated dials and movements, classic watches should be visually pleasing and legible. A mere glance at the face should allow you to know the time immediately.
Independent watch brands whose specialty is making modern watches often approach the design process in a similar yet radically different manner when compared to those who make classic watches. Though some brands such as MB&F have successfully been able to straddle both markets producing both classic and modern watches.
The key to a good modern watch is to properly balance novelty and timeless charm. This means the design must offer something new, but something new that also follows traditional rules of aesthetic value and practicality. In other words, the challenge behind producing a modern watch is making something that is simultaneously new as well as familiar and approachable.
Geneva-based MB&F and Urwerk, as well as other Swiss brands like Richard Mille, Christophe Claret and De Bethune have been pioneers in this space. Inspired by traditional Swiss watchmaking philosophy, these brands integrate contemporary notions of industrial design, high-performance vehicles, and new materials into the worlds of mechanical watches. These brands attempt to eschew the visual form of classic watches while offering the same type of appeal in terms of mechanical ingenuity, attention to detail and craftsmanship.
Richard Mille RM 67-01
The hallmark of a genuinely innovative modern watch design is one that is novel in both the case and face, as well as the manner in which information is displayed. A common trend among modern watch designs is to indicate the hours and minutes without two hands moving around circular dial. Other innovations might include novel complications, materials, or performance milestones like extremely long power reserves.
Falling in love with an independent watch brand is about falling in love with the people who make the product before appreciating any of their specific products. These are brands with a face to the name. Like all faces, we are attracted to the ones we find attractive, and repelled by those we don’t. No one face will be universally loved, and in watches, as in people, the beauty is in the variety. So find a personality in an independent watch brand you can relate to.
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Ariel Adams – United States
Ariel Adams started writing about watches in 2007, almost immediately after finishing law school. Since then he’s never looked back – combining his business skills with an enduring passion for timepieces and all things “well-made”. In addition to running the world’s highest-traffic online watch magazine, Adams also wrote a book, The World’s Most Expensive Watches, and also lends his voice to leading watch and thought publications around the world.