Microbrands, manufacturing, and money

The watch industry is small.

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Which means many things, especially when it comes to going places for manufacturing your watch components. The majority of watches have their hairsprings fabricated by a single company, Nivarox, that if disaster struck, the mechanical watch industry (save a few companies) would be devastated. In fact, many brands share manufacturers in some capacity, you may be surprised that Swiss Made does not incur the same 100% made like the branding Made in the USA, allowing them to have international manufacturers and still brand their product as such, though that's a discussion for another time.


The watch industry is small and the manufacturing equipment and skills are specialized and rare, not mention expensive. In recent history, there's been the advent of Microbrands. Generally, microbrands, as they've become to be called, market and sell watches under $1,000. The most successful of these brands ranging from $250-$750. Why is that? What are the confines of a microbrand that prevents them from moving beyond that?


MANUFACTURING

Many micros use Asian manufacturers for large portions or all of their fabrication. Many brand owners may lament the challenges of finding a trustworthy and quality manufacturer, some may go so far to dissect their supply chain. The thing with manufacturers and watch factories is that many of them will state that they have the capabilities to make all the components, while true, they may only specialize in a couple components. A factory that can produce excellent cases may produce very low quality hands, now you could compromise, or you could find the company that specializes in hands and have them made there. Searching for the best of each part can be time consuming and you very quickly find yourself dealing with lots of logistics, but if your goal is quality then this is important. Which is where the vendor steps in, there are folks whose jobs are to coordinate between factories to find the best of all worlds for you and your product. As you can imagine, they'll form relations with factories and they'll default to them, which can again leave you searching for a new factory capable of what you desire.

The people who've been in the micro world for a while have most likely been through a few different factories and vendors. Though the relationships one cultivates with their production chain can often be...interesting, at least until trust is developed. At any rate, many successful brands find themselves going through different factories or vendors until they find something good enough, and in a small industry it's not just chance that many of them stumble upon the same or overlapping supply chains. What does this mean for the consumer? Many microbrands will have a product that feels similar in finish and perceived value. Manufacturers know what they're capable of and they stick to it. Maybe you've owned watches from different brands but the texture of the steel felt similar, the brushing depth and grain appear to match, maybe even parts look similar. It may not be coincidence, they may be from the same factory, additionally, they could be catalog parts (parts which exist in a manufacturers catalog, the dies are already cut). Folks may choose catalog parts to circumvent mold costs and tooling fees, which can add up. The issue with catalog parts is that they don't inject new creative design into the industry and have the potential to leave designs feeling stale or derivative. 


Which gets to my next point. Sharing a manufacturer or vendor, with people in the same or proximate market as me, seems very risky. I've witnessed in other industries, larger companies bullying other smaller ones once they've learned of shared production sources. Imagine you're a small company but an industry giant shares a factory with you, they could very easily leverage the factory to make your product lower priority or otherwise delayed in favor of their own (since they're big time customers), as well as many other things to stifle business. With international design and manufacture, design theft becomes a different story, which also plays into the trust you have with your vendor/manufacturer and folks you may be sharing the house with. For Orion, it was very important for me to not share with folks that I know or brands that are in the same space as me, even though I'm on good terms with a good number of them. Avoiding sharing is largely a safety precaution, but it also gives my product a different feel from other brands that share manufacturers, especially case and hands manufacturers. The Orion: 1 case is often lauded for having exceptional finishing, seeing as it's not a catalog case (Orion does original design, no catalog parts here) and I don't use the same factory as many other brands plays into it as well.

You may see where this is going. As more and more microbrands crop up, talk and talk, do their research on where to go to have their watches made they'll find the same places and their product will inherently have a similar feel, whether it's from a catalog or just the quality that the factory is comfortable with producing. Which gets to the next point.


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PRICING

As I mentioned earlier, micros have a pretty good hold on the sub $1000 pricing bracket, and for the quality that most of them put out, that's find. And the consumer knows that too! They also know that quality doesn't really match up with the watches over $1000, so there's an inherent skepticism when they see one. This is because lots of micros are totally happy with defining a price range for their watch and holding that ground. Which is fine, but I'm not, I need to improve, I don't want to be limited by certain aesthetics, techniques, or movements. Though, with the small pool of factories microbrands have inadvertently placed walls around what they're capable of and have cultivated a consumer base that adheres to those confines with expectations that aren't consistently broken; until now.

Microbrands dominate the sub $1000 price range. Consumers expect this. Micros stagnate and don't push forward, unable to contend with larger brands with higher quality. Microbrands are scared and reluctant to depart from catalog parts. Reluctant to push their factories to develop new manufacturing techniques, because it's expensive and they are unsure of the results. In my mind, I see a bit of a feedback loop here. It's not the Orion way to stay in one place and stagnate, I'm aiming for US manufacturing, I'm aiming to innovate, to innovate.

The future of a good chunk of the industry depends on the two aforementioned behaviors, micros willing to take more time investing in innovation and new design and consumers being more receptive of what that looks like. Years ago I balked at watches over $1,000 and rolled my eyes at brands like Rolex or even more expensive haute horology. Having immersed myself in watchmaking school and horology based communities I've learned so much. I've learned about the challenges brands face, the challenges of certain techniques, and in turn, I've grown to respect them. I also respect the pricing of more and more brands as I grow to understand what they're doing and the work involved. Educating myself has also honed my BS detector, and looking back at myself when I knew less, I regret some of the views I had as they weren't based in complete understanding of what drove the forces at work. I want to invite people to be curious and not accusatory. I want to invite designers to strive to inject new design forged by the fires of their passion and not just grab at someone else's work for an easy sell. I want to team up with everyone to make an awesome future, beyond just watches.