Microbrands: The Real Exclusivity

In March of this year, I was fortunate enough to be invited down to Palm Beach to enjoy a wonderful evening on a yacht for the Palm Beach Boat Show.  An event unlike any other boat shows I’ve attended, almost every kind of boat, yacht, or catamaran is there with a plethora of crew, sales associates, and caterers.  The docks are full as far as the eye can see and the only question most people ask is how much you’re willing to spend to be seen out and about on one of these testaments to success.

While everyone else was taking in the sights and sounds, one of the things I noticed was just how many Rolex watches I saw.  From walking through the entrance gate to boarding our yacht for the night a few minutes later, I was struck by the sea of Submariners and the like on every single wrist that passed me by.

It confirmed a truth which I already knew:  People come into Rolex mainly because they’ve heard is an expensive watch.  There are, of course, those of us who appreciate all that Rolex goes through to produce a wristwatch, from the foundry to the hand-finishing, but the sheer number on each and every wrist had me asking myself, “where’s the exclusivity?”  

A few of my companions and I chatted about this over a few drinks while the yacht party commenced.  The event itself was sponsored by a local watchmaking and authentication service, Bennisson Watch, so naturally most of us there were connected via the avocation.  Those who understood the point I was making were folks who enjoyed individualism in watches:  Ulysse Nardin chronometers, Vacheron Constantin Overseas, and the Girard-Perregeaux Laureato.  Clearly, the idea that luxury and exclusivity go hand-in-hand was not lost in translation.

Stern of yacht.
View from the yacht.

We talked more about what it could be that required one to fall in line with the others on the waitlist hoping one day “the call” would come.   Finally, after we’d exhausted our sharp quips and shade throwing, I decided to keep my eyes open for things that truly were special when it came to wristwatches.  

I wouldn’t have to wait long.  Over the next few weeks, some of my new favorite releases happened and none of them were from a big-name brand.  My new favorites that I can’t stop talking about with my inner watch circle are from, wait for it, microbrands.  Absolutely wild, I know, and for good reason.  Usually, whenever the topic of a microbrand comes around, you think of some would-be watchmaker sticking a Seiko or some other Asian movement inside a case sourced from China and strapped onto a cheap “genuine leather” band or knock-off oyster bracelet.  However, if you really take your time and look, you can find a few microbrands which take things a level you may not be ready for.  

Enter Berneron.  After years working in both freelance and full-time design for names such as BMW, the Richemont Group, and Breitling, Sylvain Berneron decided there’s no time like the present.  Crafting his own idea of what innovation in watchmaking could be, he created his namesake in 2022.  And what an incredible job he did with the Mirage.  

When you first see the distinct shapes, it might remind you of Dali.  If you’re anything like me, the watch sticks with you and finds a place in your mind where you’ll be thinking of the design elements and the details long after you’ve first seen it.  The more you see the watch, the more you’ll notice just how stunningly detailed Sylvain’s creation is.  It’s one of those things that continually gets better the longer you look.  

While you may be quite astonished to learn that Berneron is, indeed, a microbrand, you’ll see that Sylvian has created something special and keeps the formula simple:  You can have the Mirage in 18k yellow gold, dubbed “Sienna,” or 18k white gold, “Prussian Blue.” 

At 38mm, it’s sized for most anyone and offers up a truly unique experience in watches that often gets lost whenever someone decides to create their own timepiece endeavor.  You won’t find an homage to a world-famous diving watch here – just absolute top-tier watchmaking and craftsmanship you’d normally expect from other names you already know.  With an in-house hand-wound movement aiming to be as thin and unobtrusive as possible, you have here a piece of art in motion.  Something created from the mind of someone who clearly enjoys designing things and pairing form with function in unique and creative ways.

And, if you haven’t managed to pick your jaw up from the floor, that’s ok.  These pieces are already sold out through next year (and potentially longer, though we expect the waiting list to be somewhat long as each piece is hand crafted from scratch).  With that in mind, you can be certain won’t be running into someone else with one strapped on their wrist while you grace all of your social events on your calendar this summer, if you can get your hands on one.  What was that about exclusivity? 

There’s hardly another like this watch in both design and intent out there and, for my money, it’s one that would definitely take center stage in my collection.  Sylvain appears set on creating the best version of the Mirage or Prussian Blue he can and, while I’m sure updates will be around in the future, this piece is already and instant classic.  What’s more, every horology journalist who was caught drooling over it at Watches & Wonders this spring agreed that this is a masterclass in how to steal the show.  Whereas other brands were content with adding a white dial or a different color bezel to an already-existing line of watches, Berneron broke through the noise in Geneva and made sure everyone in attendance was listening.  

Still looking down your nose at what a microbrand could be?

-55,000 CHF.  18k Yellow Gold or 18k White Gold-

Berneron 1

But, let’s say gold isn’t your thing and you can’t imagine this kind of a design gracing your wrist.  Fine, we have another for those of you who like your designs a little more…integrated.  

Enter the Toledano & Chan B/1.  Phil Toledano, an artist and watch collector partnered with watch designer Alfred Chan to create this 70s-yet-industrial looking wonder you see here.  Taking some cues from what can easily be seen as a brutalist design language, they’ve managed to draw the eye to that gorgeous blue dial while not overlooking the details inherent in the case design and bracelet aesthetics.  That’s not an easy thing to do when you have so much going on visually here that it takes you a moment to make sure you saw all the gorgeous lines that you think you saw.  

Again, you’re not getting yourself an homage to what already exists and has been perfected by other brands here.  Strap a B/1 on your wrist and you’ll be sure that you aren’t going to run into someone else with one while you’re grabbing drinks on a Friday night out and about.  No, here is where you make sure that your individualism truly stands apart from the rest of the crowd.  Others will look on in envy and you can smile with all the enjoyment of someone watching folks take pictures of their vintage Countach.  The lines one this are just as boxy and gorgeous.

And yet, with all the design elements which lend to a unique timepiece that could easily be the center of anyone’s collection, you can’t help but feel as if you’ve seen this somewhere before.  It’s almost familiar in a certain kind of way.  Integrated bracelets are making a comeback and the idea that what’s old is new again seems as if it’s here to stay for at least a few more years.  The B/1 offers collectors something different in watches when so many others are unwilling to take a chance.  When so many other brands are sticking to the dive watch formula to try and make the next big thing, it seems to be the risk takers which are constantly coming out on top.  Toledano & Chan are proving this every day with how many of us watch nerds are dying to get some hands on time with one of these bad boys.  

Even the presentation box lends to the industrial and durable vibes.  Your B/1 comes to you in molded concrete which, as far as I know, is the only time a wristwatch has been offered in concrete.  Pop the top and you’ll see why everyone is ranting and raving about how absolutely stunning these pieces are in ways they likely never would have admitted previously.  And who can blame them?  The dial itself seems to demand attention and mesmerize with the blue background graced with white specks.  Almost as if twilight itself was captured in the making of this watch.  

While most industrial and concrete-based designs for buildings seem to make you either love them or hate them, this watch has captured everyone and won’t seem to let them go, no matter how much they may want to turn away.  I can’t say I blame them…I might have to get one and enjoy it all summer.  

-$4,000 in stainless steel w/ awesome concrete presentation box-

I know, I know…both of these designs are simply TOO wild to for you and when you think “microbrand,” you need something a little more traditional yet still upholding standards which warrant a spot in your discerning collection.  

Don’t worry, I have one last option in my quick picks of microbrand exclusivity:  Cornell Watch Co.  

Once in a while, someone comes upon an old American watchmaking brand that used to have some weight and then went poof.  This is one of those stories which, coupled with a robust partnership with RGM watchmaking, has risen from the ashes of the past to create a watch which is both elegant and sophisticated.  The 1870 CE is just the right watch for you if microbrands at the high end are piquing your interest.  

Clearly, you can see the design inspiration from classic pocket watches which ensured trains rain on time, every time in the 19th Century United States.  A clean, unobstructed dial is easy to read the first time and the small seconds is reminiscent of your great-grandfather’s old railroad standard pocket watch you once found hidden away in a chest in the attic.  Maybe it was even a Cornell pocket watch made in Chicago?

If you aren’t lucky enough to stumble upon a vintage piece from that era, Cornell has resurrected all that made American watchmaking of this time period world-class and created something much more in tune with today’s watch wearer.  All the history buffs like myself will be thinking, “yes, pocket watches were worn by men and wristwatches were worn by women until at least the end of the first World War!”  That’s precisely why Cornell has created something for everyone.  With women regularly wearing 40mm+ watches today, the 1870 CE is at home on practically every wrist out there.  It’s 39mm in stainless steel and looks exquisite no matter who takes it out to the ball game.

What’s the icing on cake for me?  Well, if you know me or you follow some of our social media posts or are in one of our many watch groups on Facebook, you know I am a BIG fan of micro-rotor movements.  Cornell captured that beautifully here with the Schwarz Etienne in a way that makes you want to toss this on for your white tie engagements you’ll have this summer.  There’s just something about a micro-rotor being able to offer all the convenience of an automatic movement whilst not obscuring the movement details.  I truly wish more brands would take this and run with it.  

-$10,750 in Stainless Steel w/ that lovely micro-rotor-

So there you have it:  a quick pick of three watches to give you the exclusivity you might find yourself longing for when you notice just how many people have the same watch as you.  Variety is the spice of life and if you’re anything like me, seeing the same watch over and over on every single person that walks by you at a yacht show or even out to dinner is a surefire way to make you begin to search out something far less common.  Maybe I’m just more individualist than most people, but any of these microbrands would be my pick for a night out where I knew the vast majority of the “watch guys” would have just another diver or chrono.  Nothing against those wonderful brands, but isn’t it time you bought something because you liked the way it looked rather than because it fits the mold?

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