Everyone loves an instantly recognisable label; there’s a thrill to seeing that flash of recognition in someone’s face as they take a second glance to check that they’ve read it right.
However, sometimes you want the polar opposite – a moment of confusion followed by the words “I’ve never heard of them”; the thrill of realising you’ve discovered a brand no one knows about except you.
So, while we all still want a Rolex, here are five independent watch brands whose names are well worth dropping, if only for the puzzled expressions.
Founded in 2002 by David Zanetta, a specialist on antique clocks and watches, and Denis Flageollet, a watchmaker who had spent time restoring clocks at the Musée International d’Horlogerie in Le Locle. The brand is named after a French nobleman – Chevalier de Bethune – who was credited with inventing an escapement for pocket watches and clocks back in 1727.
Ambitiously, they started with the intention of making every watch in house – something many brands have taken years to achieve.
Despite the 18th century namesake, its aesthetic is more space age than classic, with such innovations as a dynamo-driven lighting system that illuminates the movement and the indications from inside and a crazy balance wheel construction that features a disc of blued titanium weighted with an outer edge of platinum.
Nine patent registrations and 15 in-house calibres later, they have proved that you can start a brand from the ébauche up.
It’s quintessentially De Bethune and you can even customise the constellation on the dial because each one is made from miniscule hand-fitted white-gold pins.
Its signature tapered and curved rectangles are instantly recognisable to those in the know; you might even have noticed one on the wrist of tennis legend Rafa Nadal. However, Richard Mille is not what you’d call mainstream. Probably because of the rather steep price tags most of his timepieces command.
From the start Mille wanted to eschew tradition and make watches using techniques and materials borrowed from F1 and aviation.
His watches are super-light and extremely durable – rumour has it Mille used to throw them at walls in meetings to demonstrate those qualities. They’ve featured half-time, extra-time and stoppage time trackers, especially for football managers, regatta timers for sailors and, on the more feminine side, a flower automaton that opens to reveal a tourbillon whirling inside.
They may look out of this world, but every watch is also powered by incredible mechanics as well, in keeping with Mille’s founding philosophy of making timepieces that tread a fine line between gimmickry and amazement.
A total departure from the usual moody aesthetic, but still using insane techniques such as ‘puffing’ enamel to make it look like the eponymous confection. Wear it and smile.
Female, Scottish, only just over 30 and, a woman who, until 2011 didn’t know the difference between a quartz and mechanical movement, Fiona Kruger is not your typical watchmaker. Her watches certainly aren’t typical either. Her inaugural collection was based on the Mexican calacas; the elaborate skeletons with distinctive wide cheekbones, large round eyes, and floral or religious adornments associated with the Dia de Muertos festival. The cases were skull shaped, the movements made to fit by Technotime and they were unlike anything on the scene both then and since. In recent years, Kruger has branched out from skulls into quantum physics with her Entropy collection – a brave design that has no dial, just explosion-shaped openings cut into the movement to reveal specific components. The name of the collection is used in quantum fields to explain the passing of time through the shift from a state of order towards a state of disorder or chaos. Which, in essence, describes perfectly how Kruger is shaking up the watch industry.
The original might be too large for some tastes, but this miniaturised version is perfect. And you get a dial guillochéd by none other than industry legend Kari Voutilainen’s dial factory Comblémine into the bargain.
Maximilian Büsser may have some of the industry’s finest names on his CV, such as Jaeger-LeCoultre and Harry Winston, but he is most definitely one of its most indefatigable iconoclasts. Since setting up his eponymous brand in 2007 (the F is for “friends” to acknowledge the collaborative nature of the enterprise), his creations have made many an eyebrow raise with their brilliance and general WTF-ery.
His first “watch”, or Horological Machine as Büsser preferred to term it resembled owls’ eyes rendered in mechanics and housed a host of inventions. Since then he has collaborated with other watchmakers with a similarly “out of the box” view of what constitutes a timepiece creating such eye-openers as a watch that looks like a frog, a robot table clock and music box shaped like the USS Enterprise that plays such classics as the Star Wars theme and Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven. In 2019, Büsser designed his first-ever women’s watch - the LM Flying T. Inspired by his wife and daughters, it initially appears a restrained affair, with its oil-sick dark pool of a dial and delicate diamond-set bezel, until you realise that at the centre is a vertically constructed flying tourbillon. But then you wouldn’t expect Max Büsser to make a run of the mill women’s watch, now would you?
Obviously. It is an astonishing feat of engineering wrapped in the horological equivalent of an exquisitely designed couture gown.
Given Moser’s tagline is “Very Rare” there’s a very good chance you won’t have heard of it, despite its over 170-year watchmaking history, albeit with a few hiatuses in production.
The most recent incarnation was relaunched in 2012 by the family-owned MELB Holding Group – with the youthful (at 43 we’re talking relatively for this industry) Edouard Meylan as CEO. It has made a name for itself by making headline-grabbing timepieces such as the Nature watch – a working timepiece with a case adorned tiny growing plants native to Switzerland and a strap made of grass. Or the Swiss Mad watch – a protest at the way brands sourced parts globally but still used the term “Swiss made, it was 100% Helvetian and featured a bezel made from Swiss cheese.
However, its core collection is where the real beauty lies. Everything is made in-house, including regulating organs and balance springs and its signature fumé dials are unlike anything around and so distinctive that connoisseurs can spot them at 10 paces even though many of them don't have the Moser name on the dial.
Which is more of a calling card than a bezel made of cheese.
It ticks all the Moser boxes: gorgeous fume dial, only three hands and no name because if you know, you know.
Header image | richard mille