10 Under The Radar Watch Brands You Should Know
The hottest names in horology. These cool new watch brands are producing high-quality, stylish timepieces unlike anyone else. Get one before they go mainstream.
Unless you work in the industry or spend an unhealthy amount of time on watch forums, you’d be forgiven for thinking horology has been consistently dominated by the same names. The marques who for decades, or even over a century in some cases, have been churning out marginally altered versions of the same watch.
In reality, the watch world has a vibrant thriving community of independents who may not make the headlines, but offer wonderful alternatives to the usual fare. These brands might not be entirely new – Circula and Squale have been going since the 1950s and DOXA hails from the late 1800s – but we think they are names with which you won’t be so familiar.
Now this is a new brand. In 2018, a few watch enthusiasts from different areas of the industry got together to set up their own company. And there’s real pedigree here: two of the group, Jas and Olof, had met at Ikepod, when Mark Newson was designer (his influence can be seen in the smooth pebble-like cases).
The idea was to create exceptionally-made watches that came in at the $1,000/£1,000-$1,200/£1,200 bracket, which the group thought many manufacturers had deserted in favour of higher price points. And they have done just that.
Aera only has two watches at the moment – a diver and a pilot’s watch, both Sellita powered – but they are beautifully designed with lovely touches, such as the single-piece concave dial and hand-filled lume on the pilot, which aren’t common with watches in this price range.
Narrative matters in watches. The right origin story is more valuable than anything a marketing budget can dream up, and William Wood has a great one.
The brand, founded in 2016 by Johnny Garrett, is named after Garrett’s late grandfather who was served in the fire service for over 25 years. Garrett wanted to find a way to keep his grandfather’s memory alive and to honour the work done by the men and women of the fire service – and so William Wood was formed.
This brand doesn’t just bear his grandfather’s name – every watch has a bit of fire service history in it, whether that’s a crown made from a melted 1920s brass fire helmet or straps made from upcycled firehoses from regions around the UK and the Fire Department of New York.
Movements come from Ronda for the quartz, and Seiko or Sellita for the automatics, which for most collections you can choose between depending on your budget.
The devil’s in the dial not the detail at anOrdain, a Scottish-based company that has gained fans thanks to its way with enamel. It’s rare to find proper enamelling outside of the brands who specialise in maintaining traditional crafts – it’s too expensive, time consuming and you really need to know what you are doing.
Case in point, it took anOrdain 4,000 hours over three years, trialling 168 different types of enamel, before finally getting it right. And it has managed to do it at a very reasonable price. For just under $2,400/£2,000, you have a mechanical watch, powered by Sellita, with a beautiful enamel dial (there’s even a fume option).
Named after a nearby loch and with a typeface inspired by Ordnance Survey maps of the area, anOrdain is a truly unique brand in a sea of imitators.
Around since the 50s, and named after the French word for ‘shark’, Squale is a dive brand that has swum under the radar since its launch. It was set up by Charles Von Buren, himself a keen diver, at a time when there was a diving watch explosion as brands catered to a burgeoning interest in it as a recreational pursuit.
As well as making its own designs, Squale has also produced cases for the likes of Blancpain, Heuer (before TAG) and DOXA until well into the 80s. In the 70s Squale was famous for its 101 ATM, the first watch to go to 1,000m, while its crown at four o’clock became its signature.
It was only recently that the brand has been revived – no longer under Von Buren but owned now by the Maggi family, who were Squale’s Italian distributors. This might be the reason why the brand has renewed its partnership with the Italian Navy after 40 years, to launch its Master Marina Militare, with an incredible 1,200m water resistance.
Despite appearances DOXA isn’t one of the diving watch brands born in the 50s diving boom. It was actually founded in 1889 by Georges Ducommun, and originally made extremely well-regarded pocket watches and then later nautical and aviation instruments.
It was in the 60s, under the leadership of his son-in-law Jacques Nardin (grandson of Ulysse), that it entered the diving-watch arena. With the assistance of the legend that is Jacques Cousteau and the US Divers group, which he chaired, DOXA launched the Sub 300T – the perfect dive watch.
The Sub 300T had an orange dial, because that is the most legible colour underwater, with black hands for the best contrast. The rotating bezel allowed divers to calculate decompression times and it had a saw-tooth edge for easy manipulation while wearing gloves. In 1969, it added a helium escape valve.
Unfortunately, the rise of the quartz watch put an end to DOXA. However, it was rebooted in 1997 as an ‘adventure watch’ brand, making rugged designs designed to weather anything life could throw at it. With a superb orange dial diver still in its collection.
Watches inspired by motor racing are nothing new; the automotive/watchmaking connection has provided the blueprint for some of the industry’s most storied collections. Reservoir can at least be credited with doing things a little differently.
It was founded in 2015, by François Moreau, a successful banker who decided to turn his back on money making to start an accessibly-priced watch brand. Rather than being inspired by the exciting world of motor racing, Reservoir (the French word for ‘fuel tank’) takes its design cues from more gritty corners of the automotive world, which is evident in its use of a WWII jerry can for the logo.
The watch design is a little more flash. The most distinctive feature is the use of jumping hours and retrograde minutes – something you only usually find on timepieces with substantial price tags, and which makes the watches actually look like dashboard instruments.
Powered by a modified ETA 2824, these timepieces, which have since branched out to take inspiration from aeronautics and maritime worlds, are ones that really standout in a landscape so often full of copycats.
You have to doff a cap to a brand who launches a yellow-strapped model with a cartoon sponge on its dial, but that’s exactly what Unimatic did in 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Spongebob Squarepants. Given that the brand was only launched in 2015, it was a bold move, but one that paid off. All 50 of the limited editions sold out.
Cartoons aren’t really Unimatic’s stock in trade, however. Set up by two friends – Milan-born Gionvanni Moro and Simone Nunziato, who met while studying industrial design at Politecnico di Milano – its original design cues were Bauhaus and the 50s divers made by the likes of Blancpain and Omega: industrial, no-frills, solid and monochrome.
Since then, its collection has expanded to include chronographs, as well as limited editions with the likes of British outerwear and vintage-inspired clothing designer Nigel Cabourn. There’s even a ‘Made to Measure’ option, which allows customers to commission customisable watches, all of which are engraved by famed Italian gun engraver Stefano Muffolini.
The prices are kept very democratic – think around €525 for its classic Modello Uno – thanks to the use of Japanese watchmaker Seiko’s ultra-reliable Calibre NH35A.
Fancy playing watch designer? Then Hegid is the brand for you. Created around the concept of dressing the watch, this Paris-based company – set up by brothers Henrick and Gregory Gauché and Emeric Delalandre – allows you to alter how your timepiece looks by changing its case carrures (the French word for ‘middles’).
You choose your capsule – the timekeeping piece or the head – and then you can swap out what goes around it without the need for tools. You can decide between the vintage-looking Inaurgurale Retro; the sleek, dressier Mirage; the modernist Laboratorie; or the futuristic Celeste; and then the real fun begins.
There’s retro bezels. mad Dune-esque ones or just simple polished steel. Of course, straps can be changed too, with a quick-release function, while powering it all is a top-of-the-range Sellita movement.
You can configure before you purchase or buy off the peg and get creative after. It’s a clever idea that allows you to effectively have a watch wardrobe without having to spend the next decade investing.
Kickstarter has given a fair few watch brands their start-up capital. And one such name is Undone, the business set up by Hong-Kong-based Michael Young who became frustrated at what he saw were the limitations of the luxury watch world.
Young didn’t understand why you would spend a substantial sum on a timepiece and not even be able to decide your strap colour (this was 2016, things were different then). So, he took to Kickstarter with his idea for a fully customisable watch at a reasonable price.
What started as a small concern has blossomed. You can still customise a watch in three easy steps but now the choices are almost overwhelming. There really is something for everyone, whether you’re fan of classic design, tempted by tachymeter scales or in the mood for mid-century minimalism.
The movements are from Seiko, with the option of meca-quartz or automatic, and there’s even a upcoming collaboration with Swiss brand Nivada Grenchen that pays homage to the iconic 80s arcade game Pacman.
Every part of watchmaking history and aesthetic direction is available to you at Undone. The challenge is choosing the right one for you.
Another Kickstarter company, except rather than using funds to start a new brand, Cornelius Huber was actually intent on resurrecting his family’s marque. Originally founded in 1955 by Cornelius’s grandfather Heinz, the Pforzheim-based brand designed and manufactured its own watches. As with many names, the Quartz Crisis ended Circula, until Cornelius decided, in 2017, that now was the time for resurrection.
The designs reference models from its previous incarnation, which give a very on-trend retro flavour. The Pro Trail, its version of a field watch, is a fabulously Bauhaus take on this classic design, while the AquaSport II is a solid diver given some flair thanks to the option of two excellent dials in meteorite or aventurine.
It started out with a quartz, supplied by Swiss brand Ronda, but automatics have now been added, courtesy of Miyota and Sellita. While third parties supply parts, everything is assembled in Pforzheim. Just as it would have been in 1955.