The world of independent watchmakers is a far cry from mainstream manufacturers. Independent watchmakers create timepieces from scratch - hand-polishing them with simple tools, such as files and screwdrivers, with an annual output of as few as 30 pieces. With their groundbreaking innovations, handcrafted polish and utmost exclusivity, independent watch brands are becoming the favourites of serious collectors and are certainly here to stay.
"The only way I can continue to learn is through creativity. My watches represent my own ideas and these ideas are what set us apart. We are defined by authenticity," says Peter Speake-Marin, a former complications specialist from Renaud et Papi, who established his own firm in 2000. His timepieces can fetch up to HK$800,000 each.
Like Speake-Marin, independent watch brands are producing collectors' pieces which win prestigious awards and fetch impressive prices at auctions. This year's Only Watch charity auction, for example, saw boutique brand Laurent Ferrier joining the three most expensive pieces sold.
While different people might have different opinions on the definition of indie watchmakers, the term refers to a loosely-formed clan which are independent from industry conglomerates such as the Swatch Group, Richemont and LVMH which own prestigious Swiss watchmakers including Breguet, Vacheron Constantin and Hublot. Some major brands, although privately-owned, such as Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, are a different group of giants from boutique watchmakers such as Philippe Dufour, Peter Speake-Marin and François-Paul Journe.
The 1980s created a big crisis - quartz movement - for Swiss watchmakers, but the past decade has been the industry's golden age. Impressive sales in emerging markets, especially in Asia, led to a 70 per cent rise in watch exports from 2000 to 2012, according to a Credit Suisse Global Research report released last year.
The growing demand for high-end luxury watches brought a surge in sales and diversity as more indie brands began to emerge.
Talented watchmakers were encouraged by the booming market to break away from prestigious watch companies they were working for and start their own label, such as Patek Philippe alumnus Laurent Ferrier and Bart Grönefeld, who used to work for Renaud & Papi.
Others such as Lang & Heyne and Antoine Preziuso carried on their family legacy in watchmaking by producing ultra-exclusive timepieces featuring innovative movements and impeccable handiwork that would make their ancestors proud. Other indie watchmakers include MB&F's Maximilian Büsser - former Harry Winston rare timepieces director - and DeWitt's Jérôme de Witt, who exchanged their executive seat for a designer role.
From running the business first-hand, the executives saw a niche in the market that needed to be filled. Büsser was credited for launching a single watchmaker to the forefront of a marketing campaign when he introduced Harry Winston's sought-after Opus line created by consummate watchmaker François-Paul Journe. The move convinced many individual watchmakers that they could break out of the system to search for their very own creative freedom. In return, their effort is appreciated by watch collectors who look for individuality and exclusivity.
"[Collectors] pay for my mechanical arts that are the brainchild of my inspirations," Speake-Marin says.
While the Swiss watch industry's luxury empires are focusing on massive marketing budget, growing annual output and central-controlled business strategies, independent watchmakers are establishing a path of their own.
"The bigger the group is, the harder it is to take risks," says Edouard Meylan, CEO of H.Moser & Cie. "But for boutique labels like us, the only way you can go is up. You need to think differently and take risks."
DeWitt's Jérôme agrees. "Large groups are not competing only with products and creativity but also with marketing budget and price points. They can lower the prices, but if we do, we [destroy] the company."
The people behind are what shine through at indie watchmakers, says London-based Danish watchmaker Jom Werdelin of boutique brand Linde Werdelin. "The big corporations are big machines," he says. "But we do things entirely different. All the watches we do are the watches that we'd wear ourselves."
Producing limited quantities - as few as 30 to 40 pieces a year - adds to indie brands' appeal.
"Our strategy is not to make too many pieces ... our customers appreciate exclusivity. They don't want to buy watches that they can see everywhere," says Sylvère Demonsais, CEO of Laurent Ferrier, whose annual output is fewer than 200 pieces.
Ressence's award-winning founder Benoît Mintiens adds that luxury is not to be rushed.
"I'm not compromising [quality for quantity]," he says. "You need to respect the philosophy of the brand."
Indie watchmakers owe this creative freedom to successful business models and trusty financiers. There are also indie watchmakers who work behind the scene for bigger watchmakers to fund their own operations.
Due to the lack of budget, indie brands are turning to alternative marketing channels such as blogs and social media.
"Social media has been [a strong platform for us]," says Linde Werdelin's Jom, whose company Facebook page has more than 90,000 fans.
Piano Chow, owner of The Lavish Attic in Central, focuses on boutique watch brands such as Linde Werdelin, Ressence and Lang & Heyne. She says Facebook and Instagram are important channels for communicating with potential clients.
"We actually reach out to potential buyers from those platforms."
Like Chow's clientele, the majority of buyers who appreciate independent watchmakers are seasoned watch collectors.
"People who buy from independent watchmakers are not buying their first watch," Chow says. "They have already built their collection and are knowledgeable about what they want."
Despite the growing popularity of independent watch brands, critics question their aftercare services. Brands such as Villemont Geneve went bankrupt in 2009, leaving fans without replacement parts or service centres.
Brands such as DeWitt are archiving blueprints of their watch models for future repairs. DeWitt adopts a conservative approach when it comes to experimenting with modern materials such as alloys.
"Unless I'm sure of a new material's quality in a long time to come, I'm not going to use it because I don't want to sacrifice the quality of any watch bearing my brand name," says DeWitt owner Jérôme.
His vision is shared by those such as Laurent Ferrier who shuns innovative fibres and other materials. "It's a decision by choice because we respect tradition and we want to make classic watches. So even in 10 years' time, we won't run out of materials [if a client needs their watch repaired]," Demonsais says.
Aftercare aside, the investment values of timepieces from independent watchmakers compared to those from major institutional labels such as Patek Philippe and Rolex, are not clear.
Indie makers see it in a different way. "Watches are meant to be worn and enjoyed. If you'd rather make an investment, why not buy a house or stocks?" Werdelin says.
Maximilian Büsser & Friends
The Geneva-based MB&F, founded by the former Harry Winston executive in 2005, has garnered impressive feedback from critics and clients. www.mbandf.com
The former Patek Philippe creative director launched his groundbreaking model in 2010. www.laurentferrier.ch
Lang & Heyne
Fifth-generation watchmaker Marco Lang is behind the family-owned business. www.lang-und-heyne.de
Producing about 10 pieces of his Simplicity series a year, the Swiss watchmaker's timepieces fetch record prices at auctions. www.philippedufour.com
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