Anyone who says you need to spend thousands of dollars on a premium brand name wristwatch to get quality and style clearly hasn’t gotten his hands on a great microbrand timepiece. The world of excellent watches is deeper and wider than you’d expect, and microbrand watches are surging. What you get in a solid microbrand watch is unique styling, great materials and construction, and typically excellent customer service that overshadows that of the more prominent name brand watches.
What is a Microbrand Watch?
So, what is a microbrand? Well, they’re typically a smaller operation consisting of just one or two watch lovers who decided to start their own brand. Rather than making everything in-house, an expensive way of doing things, microbrands outsource everything from dials to bracelets to movements. Production also tends to be limited to between 200 and 1,000 units per model, and they often sell out quickly. Microbrands may take advantage of crowdsourcing to raise funds or do pre-orders and get the word out via the numerous wristwatch forums on the web. Microbrands also manage to avoid the high prices of the big name brands like Rolex, Omega, Panerai, and the like by selling direct-to-consumer over the internet versus selling watches at retail locations and running pricey marketing campaigns. Here are some of the best for under $500, which means you can get one for significantly less than that Rolex that’s been staring at you through the glass of your local jeweler.
Unimatic Modello Due UC2
One of Unimatic’s best watches is one of its most understated, and that’s why we love the UC2 so much. The Italian dive watch is minimalist with its dial design but dramatic in its unique case shape. The way it sits on the wrist gives a floating effect and great presence than its 38.5mm diameter case would typically provide. The hands and markers pop with Super LumiNova C3, and the super thick double-domed sapphire glass gives it a vintage feel with modern toughness. The 41-hour power reserve Seiko NH35 movement is reliable and also helps keep the cost down. The UC2 is, thankfully, part of the brand’s permanent collection so, theoretically, it should never sell out.
Vaer A5 USA Automatic
California-based Vaer has quickly become one of the best American microbrands. Classic styling, great materials, and affordable pricing strike the right chord with buyers, and the A5 USA Automatic is one of the brand’s finest. The classic 40mm case gets a matte finish dial with white numerals, white inner track, Super LumiNova C1 lume, and a popping red second hand. The watch has recently been updated with a non-truncated 3 o’clock numeral next to the date window, giving the face a more cohesive appearance. The thin Miyota 9015 movement keeps the watch’s thickness to a mere 11mm, so it can easily slide under a shirt cuff for office wear, but the 100-meter depth rating means it’s also swim-friendly.
Laco Augsburg Blaue Stunde
A watch this gorgeous shouldn’t be this affordable, frankly. But Laco doesn’t mind pushing the boundaries. This watch’s blue sunburst dial adds a stunning twist to the traditional pilot’s watch. Under the dial and behind the transparent sapphire caseback is a Miyota 821A automatic movement. The perfectly sized 39mm case is sandblasted for a matte finish, and it’s mated with a grey Nato strap. You’d have a hell of a time finding a German-made pilot’s watch this attractive at this price.
Magrette Leoncino 40mm Edition
Dion McAsey has been producing his microbrand out of New Zealand for years now, and he’s cemented himself in affordable horological circles with his original designs and stunning cushion case watches. The Leoncino 40mm takes the popular model and downsizes it, as well as adds a stunning H-link bracelet that looks custom made. The Leoncino 40 also gets a dark DLC coating, double-domed anti-reflective sapphire glass, and an actual Swiss Sellita SW200-1 automatic movement. The beautiful sandwich dial adds depth, which might just be our favorite aspect. Pre-orders are underway now, but hurry since only 100 will be made.
Lorier was started by a husband and wife team, and Lorenzo and Lauren Ortega have managed to build a truly successful watch brand with premium vintage style. Their Neptune is a classic dive watch that’s imbued with the same level of style as the iconic and much pricier Tudor Black Bay. The Neptune has a 39mm marine-grade stainless steel case, a Miyota 905S dateless automatic movement, Super LumiNova BGW9 lume on the hands and markers, and a classic domed Hesalite crystal. The tapered solid link bracelet matches the watch’s aesthetics, and you can dive to 200 meters. The classy timepiece that can be worn dressed up or dressed down delivers so much but asks for so little.
Maratac Titanium X1 SR 35 Automatic Diver
Maratac makes incredibly high-quality timepieces for state and local governments, and they always sell out. This time around, their popular SR 35 gets the titanium treatment, and premium touches like triple Super LumiNova, domed, AR sapphire glass, and a ceramic bezel. The orange trident logo and second hand contrast nicely against the matte black dial, and the screw-down crown at the 4 o’clock position means comfortable wear on either wrist. A mere 250 will be made.
Yema Rallygraf Reverse Panda
You don’t need to drop serious coin down to get a slick racing chronograph. The French Yema brand’s revival comes just in time to deliver a slim reverse panda (white subdials on black) meca-quartz chronograph that looks way more expensive than it is. The mechanical quartz uses a battery but sweeps smoothly like an automatic. The recessed subdials, tachymeter bezel, double domed mineral crystal, and the checkered flag logo all contribute to a look that will make you want to head to the track. We also love the Milanese mesh bracelet that’s as comfy as it is handsome.
UNDONE Urban Vintage Navi
UNDONE prides itself on custom options for its unique watches. The Urban Vintage Navi is their fancy dress watch whose appearance belies the price. The 40mm stainless steel case looks best optioned with gold on a black face and a croc print leather strap for optimal refinement. The Japanese meca-quartz chronograph movement keeps time, and the watch is topped with a hardened domed mineral crystal. The elegant leaf hands on the dial and subdials look sublime, as do the slim Arabic numerals. Everyone will wonder who handed this watch down to you, even though it’s brand new.
BOLDR Venture Automatic Carbon Black
If you want a classy beater watch, look no further than BOLDR. Not only does the 38mm Venture fit most wrists well, but it’s also a chameleon that can dress up with a leather strap or go on an expedition with the included black Nato strap. The case and strap hardware are crafted out of titanium for that barely there feel, and the flat AR coated sapphire glass provides impact and scratch resistance. An automatic movement, superb lume, and an easy-to-read field watch-style dial means this could be your go-to watch on most days.
Le Forban Malouine
If this handsome devil from Le Forban is on your wrist, then be prepared to have it mistaken for a pricey Jaeger-LeCoultre dive watch. Its modest 38.5mm case is juxtaposed against Arabic numerals and thick lumed hands. On top is a uni-directional aluminum bezel and domed sapphire glass. Underneath, movement duties are managed by a reliable Miyota 8215 mechanical automatic movement. The textured Tropic strap keeps the classic look consistent.