A Complete Guide to the Best Microbrand Watches in 2023
Ignatius Quiaoit7 October 2023 | 18 min read
I. What are microbrand watches?
The world of watches is not complete without its “juggernaut” brands. From the likes of Rolex and Omega to the more affordable Swatches and Seikos, these are the bigger brands that have stood the test of time and have produced some of the most well-known timepieces for both watch lovers and new watch buyers alike.
But, the problem with these brands is that they are already established. They are too well known.
For watch enthusiasts, we are sometimes drawn to the power of the unknown. New watch designs that break the norm are our bread and butter.
In a world full of optimised manufacturing processes, some harken back to the times of handmade small-batch watches.
In comes the microbrand. The microbrand, being smaller in size and manufacturing capacity compared to the established brands, has recently shaken up the watch world.
With their countless offerings and multitude of brands popping up, everyone now has the opportunity to get a high-quality watch from lesser-known independent brands, yet knowing that they are buying something of quality.
What separates the microbrand and smaller brands from the big brands is their freedom. Due to their small footprint, microbrands aren’t beholden to the bureaucracy inherent in a lot of the larger brands.
This lessens the time for new and unique designs and even manufacturing. Most of these microbrands are owned by families or partners, shying away from being slaves to shareholders.
This freedom gives them fresh ideas on how a watch should and could look like. Watch design is given free rein. For some, this could manifest in avant-garde designs that don’t even break the bank.
Others utilize new dial techniques that create textures never seen before. For others, it’s basically to fill in a niche need with watch collectors and other related hobbies.
In this guide, we will showcase the best microbrands and their respective watches for 2023.
II. The Brands
No microbrand list can exist without the mention of a hallmark in the world of small watch brands—Lorier Watches.
Founded in 2017 by a husband-and-wife duo, Lorier rose to prominence within the watch world by providing vintage-inspired wristwatches at an affordable price tag.
With their brand based in New York City, the team released the Neptune as their debut watch.
Measuring 39mm wide with a lug-to-lug of 46mm, the Neptune pays homage to the vintage watches of the early 50’s.
The watch takes notes from the Connery era of Rolex Bond watches. From the diminutive size to the gilt undertones present throughout the timepiece, the watch exudes vintage class.
The hour markers are applied generously with lume and the hour and minute hands are well-executed. Around the dive bezel, we have the minutes at ten-minute intervals. Nothing more, nothing less. This showcases the vintage inspiration that the watch harkens back to.
The watch is measured to withstand 200 meters of water resistance.
Powering the Neptune is the Miyota 90S5, a robust and ubiquitous movement present in a lot of watches within its price range. This gives future owners of the Neptune rather affordable servicing down the line.
Watches that take inspiration from the stars and the depths below are numerous. Most of these can be taken from the Seamaster line of watches within Omega.
And let’s not forget the existence of the Snoopy specials to commemorate the NASA moon mission’s collaboration with Omega.
Yet, this kind of design practice and inspiration is not only for Omega. For that, we have Zelos Watches.
Taking pride in their inspiration from both the depths below and the heavenly bodies above, Zelos has given us watches that mould both exquisite material and design.
Zelos was founded in 2014 by Elshan Tang. A watch collector from a young age, Elshan Tang dreamt of bringing his vision of special watches to life. He decided to start Zelos after graduating with his degree in mechanical engineering from the National University of Singapore.
The best example of the design nerd and material enthusiasts’ brains within Zelos is the Abyss 3 3000m Diver.
What strikes the watch collector with the Abyss 3 3000m is the fact that this watch comes in a bronze case. Not many watches are sold by watch brands with a bronze case below 1000 USD. Yet, Zelos does exactly that.
Not only does it come in a special metal, but the watch is rated to withstand 3000m. Giving the watch its outstanding pressure rating is a bronze manual helium escape valve at the 2oclock position. This beats the Omega Seamaster Professional by 2700m, and all of that for under 1000 USD.
Rolex is known for its lack of availability at authorized dealerships all over the globe. This has caused a skyrocket in the grey market values for just about every watch in their collection. Whether this is due to manufacturing within Rolex or the marketing that the brand does themselves, this article does not know.
But what is clear is that this phenomenon of supply and demand is present in the world of microbrands, too.
To showcase the immense support and demand for a limited supply of timepieces, we should look no further than Halios.
Touted as the “Rolex of microbrands,” Halios was founded in 2009 by Jason Lim. Born out of a passion for watchmaking and collecting, Halios came out of the door swinging with three watch designs in their lineup.
To buy a watch, one has to sign up for the lottery system. Once they receive your lottery ticket, the watch is then handcrafted in Asia with final quality checks in Canada.
Following their successful launch, the current lineup is usually sold out, with the current supply of watches going above their retail price in the grey market. They are the Rolex of microbrands.
Featured here is the divers watch of the brand: the Halios Seaforth.
Now in its fourth iteration, the watch comes in a 41 mm case diameter with stainless steel construction. With a lug-to-lug of 46.5mm, the watch has enough presence in the wrist for a dive watch while sitting pretty slender on just about the most slender of wrists.
The Seaforth comes in different colours according to every available batch. The current lineup features either a pastel blue or Bahama yellow. These colours are perfect for summer wear.
The watch comes with a 120-unidirectional click dive bezel, making this watch a true diver’s watch. The bezel is protected by a sapphire insert, something interesting given this price range.
Other manufacturers provide their watches with aluminium inserts that scratch easily. The dial is then protected by a double-domed sapphire crystal treated with an anti-reflective coating.
Inspired by his father’s diary and collection of watches, Etienne Malec founded Baltic in 2016. From the start, Malec created the brand to pay homage to his father and his horological roots.
Baltic is named after the sea above the north of Poland, the ancestral homeland of Etienne’s father.
With a focus on bringing classic designs with modern watchmaking, the brand has become one of the pillars of the microbrand world. They made their mark with their first dive watch, the Aquascaphe Classic.
The watch comes with a sandwich dial that blends the lume and dial textures together. This gives the dial that ever-so-trademarked glow from a sandwiched lume. Another watch with the same design and sandwiched dial is the Omega Seamaster 300, a watch costing fourteen times as much as the Aquascaphe.
Featured here is the Aquascaphe GMT. Following the success of the Aquascaphe Classic, Baltic Watches decided to use the already tried-and-true case design of their dive watches and introduce a GMT movement within.
With the watch coming under 1000 USD, the Aquascaphe GMT is one of only a handful of GMT watches under the thousand mark.
Bearing the same case as the Aquascaphe Classic, the GMT comes in a 39mm case diameter with a 47mm lug-to-lug.
The vintage dimensions harken back to a time of easy wearing. Moving to the face, we have a dial with applied hour lume plots. The hour and minute hands grace the face of the dial, with the GMT hand slowly moving and indicating the second timezone. Not breaking the monotony and symmetry of the dial is the date window located at 6 o’clock.
Powering the Aquascaphe GMT is the SOPROD C125, a Swiss-made “caller” style GMT movement. It features a 42-hour power reserve with hacking seconds.
Although microbrands are thought to have started in the early 2010s, the trend of small brands started earlier. However, people forget that Fomex started developing watches in 1999. The brand is an independent family-owned watch manufacturer based in Biel, Switzerland.
Started by two brothers in 1999, the brand rose to prominence in the watch community for its daring designs and engineering.
Featured here is the Formex Essence ThirtyNine. Taking from their successful Essence design and scaling back the sizing, the Essence ThirtyNine is everything Formex stands for with a smaller footprint.
The brand prides itself in producing watches with its patented Case Suspension System. This system houses the movement and dials in a case that can move in and out according to the contours of the wearer’s wrist.
The watch comes in a 39mm case diameter with machine brushing on the sides of the case. The watch catches the light at certain angles with the polished bevels that adorn the corners of the case. On the dial we have the straight deck design, almost looking like an Omega Aqua Terra but for less.
The watch is powered by a chronometer-certified top-grade Sellita SW200-1 with a special Formex skeletonized rotor. Each movement within Formex is COSC certified, meaning you are getting the highest rating of accuracy from every watch within the brand.
British watchmaking has always been a staple within the watch world. Although things took a turn during the Quartz crisis, with a lot of brands falling off due to the presence of cheaper technology, the space for new watch brands is growing.
One of these new brands is Farer. Farer was founded in 2015 and rose to prominence within the watch enthusiast world with its focus on being an independent British watch company driven by a horological passion for detail, design, and difference.
Farer set out to be different from the rest of the microbrands and established brand space. With an industry known for its austere dials and designs, Farer ran out of the gate with colourful dials that showcased what an independent brand is capable of.
One of these timepieces is the Farer Lander. The Lander comes in a rather demure size of 39.5mm with a compact lug-to-lug of 45mm. Even with the small case diameter, the presence of the colourful all-dial expands the visual footprint of the watch. The watch wears bigger due to the design.
On the face of the watch, we are presented with what separates Farer apart from the rest. We are given this beautiful sea-green dial adorned with applied Arabic hour markers.
Although our eyes are caught up in the deep sea green dial, the hour and minute hands grace the dial beautifully while the red GMT hand slowly moves across the surface, indicating the second timezone.
The watch is powered by a top-grade Sellita SW330-2 GMT movement. Farer has chosen to go with the affordable GMT movement with this collection, but that does not stop them from choosing the highest-grade movement.
Moving north from the design studios of London, we reach the lowlands and rolling hills of Glasgow, Scotland. Reaching this place, we are treated to another newcomer to the microbrand world that is also shaking up the industry with its elusive dial colours and designs.
This is AnOrdain. Founded in Glasgow, Scotland, AnOrdain has changed the way the watch world thinks of enamel dials.
Owing to their complicated process and colour design, enamel dials provide a different type of lustre that you can only get with this specific type of material. Watch buyers are used to seeing watches with enamel dials go for exorbitant prices. This is not the case with AnOrdain.
The watch that exemplifies the design language of AnOrdain is the Model 1 in a Plum Fumé dial. What strikes the wearer of the Model 1 is the textured vitreous enamel dial. Owing to a process that AnOrdain takes pride in, the Plum Fumé variant is a touch above the rest of the competition.
With a case diameter of 38mm and a lug-to-lug of 46mm, the Model 1 is compact enough to work on any wrist, while proudly showcasing the handcrafted enamel dial.
Buyers of the Model 1 are treated to a shell cordovan leather strap along with the choice of a Sellita SW210 hand-wound movement or a La Joux Perret G100 automatic movement.
Astor & Banks
Inspiration can come from the simplest of places. For Astor & Banks, a microbrand based in Chicago, USA, this inspiration came from a simple Timex Indiglo. Andrew Perez sought to design and construct his watches after being inspired by his father’s Timex Indiglo.
Astor & Banks is a proudly American company with all their watches being assembled in Chicago, USA.
Taking pride in their employees and designers being watch nerds themselves, the brand set out to create pieces that appeal to the wants of watch enthusiasts everywhere.
Featured here is the Fortitude Lite in Mint Green. Astor & Banks stretched their capabilities in watchmaking by giving consumers an anti-magnetic watch that could withstand about 4,800 A/m for under 1,000 USD.
The watch comes with a 38.5mm case diameter and a 45.5mm lug-to-lug. The case features drilled lug holes for easy strap changing. Powering the watch is the Miyota 9039 movement that is adjusted in-house to +/- 10 seconds a day. The movement has hand-winding and a power reserve of 42 hours.
The hobby of watch collecting has a scale. At the very beginning of the scale, we have the watch collector who just got his first watch. This could be a watch that was given as a gift, or maybe a hand-me-down, or he went out of his way to just pick a watch at the local department store.
Moving from this start, we then had the more advanced watch collector. They’re usually subscribed to watch publications and are up-to-date with the latest trends and designs from the major brands.
Then you have the very end of the spectrum. These are the “god” watch collectors. The people with numerous collections that centre around just one theme. Whether these are only chronographs or watches from a specific year. One of these higher-tier watch collectors is Dan Henry.
The namesake of his watch brand, Dan Henry is a symbolic pillar in the watch collecting world. Wanting to increase the general knowledge of watches and watch brands, he created an Instagram and website dedicated to the more than 1,500 watches in his collection.
Dan Henry then released his collection of watches made under his name. Each collection takes inspiration from a specific era in watch design.
Featured here is the watch that takes inspiration from the racing chronographs of the era, the 1962 Racing Chronograph.
Coming in a 39mm case diameter with a 45.9mm lug-to-lug, the 1962 Racing Chronograph exemplifies the chronograph design that was inherent in the 60s. Dan Henry went a step further and supplied the 1962 with various colour combinations. For one, we have the gilt colour combination that just adds a touch of dressiness to this otherwise sporty look.
Powering the 1962 Racing Chronograph is the Seiko VK63 meca-quartz movement. By combining the advantages of battery power but including the smooth movement of a traditional mechanical movement, wearers of the 1962 Racing Chronograph get the feel of a mechanical movement at a smaller expense.
France has a rich history of watchmaking. From the likes of Cartier to Breguet, the French have laid the foundations for an exquisite background in creating beautiful timepieces. You can read more about this in our previous article titled: Top French watch brands you should know.
Coming from a rich history, it is no wonder that France is home to several microbrands. For this guide, we are showcasing Serica.
Serica, started by Jérôme Burgert and Gabriel Vachette, is based in Paris, France. What they have brought to the market are some of the most minimal chronometer-certified watches with exquisite finishing.
Featured here is the 5303 Diving Chronometer. Coming in a 39mm stainless steel case, the 5303 Diving Chronometer boasts a M100 chronometer-certified movement. The movement is housed in an anti-magnetic casing that protects it from magnetic interference up to 50,000 A/m.
What separates the 5303 apart from the competition is the design of its diving bezel. While others stick to the normal 60-minute count-up diving bezel, the 5303 moves away from this and introduces a 60-minute counter with a 12-hour count-up bezel insert. This is useful for scuba divers who dive for longer than the average 40-60 minutes at a time.
Mingling British design with Swiss watchmaking, Christopher Ward is a success story in the world of microbrands. After debuting with its namesake owner, Christopher Ward has become one of the only microbrands with a collection of over 10 serial watches.
The brand is often dubbed as the best entry-level brand for British watchmaking.
For a small brand, they have received numerous accolades and advancements. For one, they were able to produce the Bel Canto, a relatively affordable sonnerie au passage.
The Bel Canto produces a chime at the top of every hour. For a watch of this calibre to house this kind of movement, it is beating the several thousand-dollar watches that produce the same effect. For a small brand like Christopher Ward to produce such a watch is a feat of its own.
Buyers of the Bel Canto watch, currently on a pre-order basis, get treated to an avant-garde dial that showcases the FS01 movement in all its glory. The FS01 movement features the sonnerie au passage complication modified onto a Sellita SW200-1 base movement.
The watch comes in a titanium case, making sure that this beast of watchmaking stays light on the wrist.
Time and the recording of it have a lot of friends. From racing to baking, the passage and usage of time are inherent in almost every act and hobby. One of the more recent hobbies to take the importance of time is coffee.
With the minute differences in coffee brewing, timing has become inherently important in making the perfect cup. Time is used in perfecting the espresso shot that can showcase both the sweetness and acidity in a pulled shot.
With all this, it was inevitable that the two hobbies would intersect. That was what Brew set out to do.
Founder Jonathan Ferrer founded Brew to marry the two hobbies together—the release of their first watch, the Brew Metric.
Featuring an integrated bracelet case design at 36mm, the Brew Metric mingles the timing of espresso shots right on the dial. With a teal colour choice adorning the rounded case, this is broken by a bright yellow marker located between the 25-minute and 35-minute mark.
In espresso brewing, the section between 25 and 35 seconds denotes the perfect time for a shot of espresso. This is neither too long nor too short, meaning you were able to grind the coffee beans fine enough to lengthen the shot properly.
What Brew has done here is combine this thought with the design of their Brew Metric chronograph.
Coming from California, Weiss is a microbrand dedicated to producing watches that give out the vintage field watch aesthetic. This all started with the brand’s founder, Cameron Weiss, and his fixation with watches from an early age.
For his high school graduation, Weiss asked his parents for watch-making tools. A rather unusual graduation gift for a high schooler but a gift that is on-brand for a budding watch enthusiast.
Weiss then went on to study business and expanded his knowledge in watchmaking by taking several certificate courses from Swiss brands like Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin.
In 2013, Cameron started Weiss Watch Company with his wife. The first ten timepieces were all hand-assembled in their dining room.
Now, the Weiss catalogue is vast and spans several collections. The brand is still proudly family-owned with the husband and wife team, while all watches are still being hand-assembled in the USA.
For feature here is the 38mm Standard Issue Field Watch. Already in the name, the watch is housed in a 38mm 316L stainless steel case and is powered by a Weiss Watch Company Caliber 1005 mechanical movement.
With the Latte dial colour, you receive Black oxide skeletonised hands. These special hands showcase the entirety of the amazing, almost salmon-coloured dial.
With brand giants such as Seiko and Casio, it was inevitable that the watchmaking expertise of the Japanese would spill into smaller microbrands. Yet, only a handful of microbrands have come out of the Japanese market. One of these is Kurono Tokyo.
Hajime Asaoka started Kurono Tokyo because he wanted a good, reliable, and reasonably priced watch for the everyday. However, he thought that the only way to get these watches was in the range of 200,000 Japanese Yen. What he wanted was high-quality watchmaking with in-house dials for reasonable prices.
That’s when he started Kurono Tokyo.
The Bunkyo Tokyo is a watch that exemplifies all that Hajime Asaoka wanted with his watchmaking. Being released as a special limited edition to mark the start of Kurono Tokyo, the Bunkyo Tokyo comes in three colours: Midnight Blue, Mystic Gray, and Eggshell White.
Each timepiece is housed in a 37mm stainless steel high-polished case with a sapphire dial topping. All are powered by an automatic movement that is hand-assembled in Japan.
Designing watches is an art in itself. Introducing new techniques and presenting designs that fit small enough on a wrist is painstaking work. That’s why it’s no wonder that a lot of watch brands start with designers wanting to design new things for the watch world.
One of these designers is Richard Benc. Richard Benc is a designer based in London. He studied product design at the University of Nottingham and was then hired by other watch brands to develop minimalist and rather branded designs of watches.
Thinking of when to finally start his brand, he was hit with an opportunity: lockdown.
The year was 2020 and the Covid 19 pandemic just started. Waves of lockdowns started happening all over the world. This was a dreadful time for many. But not for Richard Benc.
He decided that now was the perfect time to launch his style of watches under the brand name Studio Underd0g.
Being the watches that would launch the brand, the Watermel0n, now in its second generation, is the perfect example of the new design principle that Studio Underd0g is pushing,
A mix of green and red adorns the dial of this amazing watch. What Studio Underd0g has done here is mingle the use of ostentatious colours with amazing textural finishing, giving the watch a certain feel that is not present with other watches available right now.
Not to mention the positioning of the text on the dial. Other brands place all their text in the middle, and this breaks up the symmetry present when the chronograph seconds hand is reset to the middle.
Studio Underd0g does away with this by positioning its logo text and collection text to the left and right of the chronograph seconds hand. This gives the dial the much-needed symmetry it so needs.
The breakup of the dial between red and green highlights the name of the dial design: watermelon.
The watch is powered by the Seagull ST-1901, a Chinese movement that was chosen by Studio Underd0g to help keep these watches at an affordable price.
Horologer MING was founded by six enthusiasts who shared a love for watchmaking. The head of this small team was Ming Thein, a photographer, designer, and lover of watches.
The mix of the brand includes several pieces that draw from vintage inspirations to avant-garde designs. The brand also dabbles with occasional commissioned pieces.
Southeast Asia is not known for their watchmaking, but Ming is deciding to change that. All watches from the brand are assembled, regulated, and tested in Switzerland, with final quality control done in Malaysia.
The brand has now reached several other eyes within the watch industry. This is exemplified by the multiple nominations and finalists they’ve sent to the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, with their 17.06 Copper winning the 2019 Horological Revelation prize.
All watches done by Ming are limited editions. Once a watch has been produced and is delivered to the buyer, it is never made again. This creates a certain lust for the pieces that Ming produces.
One of these is the MING 17.09 Burgundy. With a polished case housing a beautifully textured burgundy dial, we can understand why these watches are sold out fast.
Ivan Chua started Vario in 2016 in the Lion City of Singapore. Previously a graphic designer, he started by designing watch brands for his family and friends. This then evolved into the brand that it is now, a watch manufacturer out of a city-state.
Vario’s designs are inspired by military watches of old.
Most of these vintage watches are pocket watches that were converted into wristwatches for ease of use on the battlefield.
Most of these watches share the same designs, like the large onion-sized crown taken from the previously large pocket watch movements. Add to that the use of cathedral-style hands for easy legibility.
These watches are bringing in the old aesthetic at an attainable price point.
Boasting their watchmaking and design prowess is the Vario VERSA.
We all know of Jaeger-LeCoultre and their iconic Reverso line of watches. What if there was a watch that sported the same design but from a respectable microbrand? That is the Vario VERSA.
Coming out with five colours, of which three of these are a choice of popping blue, red, or green, the Vario VERSA brings a new type of reversible design to the everyday man.
With a length of 39mm and a thickness of 12mm, the VERSA is the perfect do-it-all dress watch. The watch comes with a Singapore Airlines fabric watch pouch that is sustainably made with the help of the visually impaired in Singapore.
Powering the VERSA are two Swiss quartz movements.