Why The Serious Watch Collectors Have Their Eyes On Independent Brands
For serious watch connoisseurs, the obligatory watch show-and-tell with like-minded fanboys is a must at any horological event. To realise that you are wearing the same piece as one other person in the room can be excused as a charming coincidence, but to find three or more people with matching wristwear usually results in a sleeve-tuggingly awkward evening all round.
The growing desire for exclusivity – as witnessed by the burgeoning trend for online customisers who allow certain components of a watch to be personalised – is just one reason for the growing interest in the so-called independent watch brand. Astronomical prices for vintage models by popular brands, and years-long waiting lists for their contemporary versions provide further nudges to investigate alternatives. Throw in the amount of information available online and collectors are well armed when considering the purchase of something that little bit rarer.
But what do we really mean by “independent” brands? It’s not just a case of corporate independence. Think of it more like “indie” music: a group of practitioners doing things their way, with an alternative mindset and a commitment to relatively low-volume production. These so-called independents are a diverse group, covering long-established and recently revived names, traditional watchmakers who have paid their dues at the workbench over decades, newly or recently qualified watchmakers who want to experiment or follow their own paths and people from external but complementary disciplines, such as industrial design. A few have external backing from individual investors or larger groups, but the key to their operations is that they are able to create without too much commercial pressure and, in so doing, they push the existing horological boundaries.
A watch enthusiast and collector, designer Mr Mo Coppoletta believes that, in recent years, independent watchmaking has become a counterweight to mainstream brands, whom “primarily base their strategies on exaggerated marketing at the expense of their product”. For him, independent watch brands have been a haven, “offering a more intimate relationship with the very source of creativity and bringing innovation and excitement, without which the industry would suffer”.
For Mr Alex Ghotbi, head of watches for Phillips auction house in Europe and the Middle East and a man with both a personal and professional passion for the independents, the watches are mirrors of their makers, “representing their DNA and soul”. Hand crafted to reflect the philosophy of the artisan, they are not designed by committees and marketing teams. “If they are rare,” he says, “it is simply because the watchmaker can only make so many watches.”
Of course, as the number of timepieces to come from these makers – especially the ones that produce the majority of components by hand – is finite, the value of them can only increase. For example, the man that many refer to as “the greatest watchmaker of the 20th century”, Mr George Daniels, made only 27 watches in his lifetime. His fabled Space Traveller sold for £3.6m at Sotheby's London in 2019, a price that today seems a relative bargain for such a treasure.
In many cases, the increased attention on these once-underground watchmakers has swung the balance so far that they themselves have waiting lists stretching well into the future. Maestros such as Messrs Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen and Roger W Smith limit the number of new clients that they take on, while names like Urwerk and FP Journe are consistently breaking records at auction (£2.9m for the former’s AMC Atomic Clock in 2019 and $5m for Dufour’s Grande et Petite Sonnerie watch earlier this year).
Ghotbi believes that the interest has been strong within the collector community for 20 years or so, demonstrated by a five-year waiting list for Dufour’s Simplicity back in the early 2000s. At the same time, the likes of Journe, Urwerk and MB&F were selling their entire production runs almost as soon as they were released.
“The difference is, that back then, to see these pieces you had to go to the AHCI booth at Baselworld,” Ghotbi says. “Today, there is an incredible amount of information available online and on social media that has enabled aficionados to learn about the incredible work of independent watchmakers.”
Mr Silas Walton, founder and CEO of online rare watch business A Collected Man, which was behind the recent sale of Dufour’s Grande et Petite Sonnerie, agrees: “Anyone who follows this market will know that its growth has been progressive – even if it has accelerated in the past 18 months – as people have become increasingly impatient with the limitations of major primary brands. While the most successful makers have certainly enjoyed the largest boom, it’s far more than just a handful of exceptional sales. We’re seeing a total shift both privately and at auction. The momentum in the independent space is bigger than any other movement I’ve seen in the market in seven years.”
The tide really began to turn a few years ago when mainstream media channels started to pay more attention to independents, encouraging the more adventurous buyers to take a punt. “I think people started to look through the stories of some mainstream manufacturers,” says Mr Benoît Mintiens, who founded the pioneering company Ressence in 2010. “Whereas we sell watches, they sell a brand – which is perfectly fine, but not everyone wants to wear a machine.
“There is a contradiction when brands say they make luxury products and then make millions of them. That is mass production. With a mono-product policy, once everyone has that specific model – and eventually, even if it takes years of waiting, they will – what else is there for people to impress their friends? The independent route is the solution.”
Mr Edouard Meylan, CEO of independent H. Moser & Cie., sees a combination of factors as the force behind his brand’s success. “I think people are tired of seeing the same products and having to wait years before getting them,” he says. “During lockdown, they had more time to surf the internet and they learnt a lot about independent brands. Plus, our limited production capacity makes the watches rare, which raises demand and prices on the secondary market. Furthermore, independent brands are often managed by their founder/owner, which means that they are very much involved and concerned by the future of their company.”
For Walton, this connection with watchmakers and the ability to have conversations around customisation is what really makes independents stand apart from their mainstream counterparts, because with most big brands that is contrary to the business model. Therefore, people are drawn towards independent watchmaking because of the originality on offer.
The desire to have something handmade and unique is the main catalyst for what Walton identifies as a rapidly evolving and maturing market with informed, active and engaged consumers. “A lot of younger people are finding themselves exploring the independent market, whereas before, it would be something individuals typically arrive at later in their collecting career,” he says. “And, inevitably, the more people do it, the more it becomes a sort of group mentality; people are more comfortable where they may previously have been risk averse, because the market is just more established and more liquid.”
Personalisation is an area that Mr Pascal Raffy, owner of Bovet 1822, sees as central to the company’s success. “We can adapt quicker and offer benefits like cutting-edge concepts, new complications and customisation that bigger companies cannot. Thirty per cent of our production is bespoke. We welcome these projects and love to make our collectors' dreams come true.”
Applauding online retailers that took the risk with the less established and often higher-priced independents early on, Raffy says, “Platforms such as MR PORTER are critical for spreading the word about independents like Bovet as an alternative to the household names in watchmaking. Without this kind of communication, it would be much harder to reach wider audiences and raise awareness.”
Mintiens, too, credits online outlets with enabling brands like his to come to the fore, but at the same time, he sees a finite buying pool for independent watchmaking. “We are the Teslas and Rimacs of our industry,” he says. “Most people don’t care enough about what’s inside their watch to pay the high premium that our watches often demand – and that is OK, because the industry is an ecosystem. We share one common goal and that is to make sure people wear a device that tells the time on their wrist. Whatever the technology, price or brand.”
Cautious optimism is also the philosophy for Meylan. “Nobody can predict the future,” he concludes. “At the moment, we are surfing a wave and things are going extremely well for independent brands. But no one can say how long this will last, [although] we all hope that the future will be as bright.”