Four Fantastic Watch Brands That Aren’t Available in the U.S.
(Bloomberg) -- Originally published by Cole Pennington on Hodinkee.
Last year the U.S. was the second largest market for Swiss watch exports, at a figure of CHF 2.22 billion. That number measures sales from Swiss manufacturers to authorized dealers in the U.S., not necessarily their customers. And that's just Swiss exports! There are plenty of other nations with strong horological firepower sending watches over to America. In other words, the United States is a massive market for those making timepieces.
But that doesn't mean that every watch reaches our shores. To enter the American market is an enormous task for watchmakers no matter what size they are. Keep in mind it took Tudor 19 years to re-enter the U.S. market after pulling out in 1996. Some watch brands can't manage to find the right distribution partner; some U.S. submarkets just simply aren't large enough to justify creating a distribution model. It’s not just about physically getting the watches here – it also takes marketing materials and a larger communication strategy, and sometimes that means employees on the ground as well. That's only after the right partner agrees to actually distribute the watches, too.
Given the size of an operation like tackling U.S. distribution, it comes as no surprise that many of the brands that don't have a retail presence in the U.S. are small to medium-sized. Some are still building up the resources, and some make the business decision that it simply isn't worth it. Perhaps some brands just simply don't want to serve the U.S. market, and that's cool too.
Joe Thompson reminded me that during the early days of Baselworld, the focus of the show was very much on connecting manufacturers and brands with retailers so they could put in a large, singular order for the year. It's really where all the early transatlantic partnerships were forged, and later, partnerships between brands from Asia and American retailers. If that aspect of the show is still alive, there's a chance the watches below will end up in the U.S. at some point.
I will admit that a language barrier kept me from getting the full story behind this watch, but the enthusiasm and excitement of the brand's three-man Japanese team was telling enough. It was definitely worth checking out. The folks behind Mirco have a good relationship with Seiko and were able to source Seiko's NE86 chronograph movement for this watch. It's made in Japan, but the design is intentionally an amalgamation of global watch styles from the 1970s. It's not meant to be specific to Japan's watch trends, but rather it evokes a general era of watchmaking. The watch itself has some serious heft to it; the case is milled from a solid block of 316L and it wears as such.
All brands started somewhere, and Mirco seems to be getting off on the right foot. This is the perfect watch to get someone into watches who may never reach otaku-level obsession, but who can appreciate something with Japanese build quality and an eye-catching design. The first step is Japanese distribution, but the budding company is looking into a larger distribution model.
After NASA's Space Shuttle program closed down in 2011, the Russian-built Soyuz became the only way for crews to reach the International Space Station. Private firms like Boeing and SpaceX are close to eliminating American dependency on Russian spacecraft by developing their own solutions, but it's important to note that for almost a decade NASA astronauts have been utilizing a Soviet design from the 1960s for important crewed missions.
Circumstances have never forced American watch enthusiasts to consider Russian alternatives, but if those alternatives are good enough for NASA, it's worth paying attention to. And Raketa is right at the top of the horology offerings Russia's putting out. Currently there are three boutiques located between St. Petersburg, where the watches are made, and Moscow. There are none in the U.S.
The Russian Code watch is designed after the notion that in space, time passes differently than on earth. To most folks who have ever worn a watch, it looks backwards. And it is. The hands, including the second hand, actually turn backwards in normal motion. The Earth actually rotates counter clockwise as well, so this interpretation of time is supposed to mimic the "natural" directionality of time in space. I had a very hard time telling the time, but maybe I've just spent too many years being programmed to read watches a certain way on earth, as I assume we all have. It seems to be an indulgence for the watchmaker and a burden for the wearer. But there's a certain pragmatism present in most Russian engineering, a utilitarian approach to solving problems that makes its way into the design of timekeeping-adjacent products and tools. Soviet author Genrikh Altshuller developed teoriya resheniya izobretatelskikh zadatch, or TRIZ, in the '40s. It's a problem-solving philosophy popularized during the rise of the Soviet Union. One of the pillars of this theory is that a process or product’s operation must be absolutely consistent with the environment that it’s used in, and in this sense, counter-clockwise hands make sense in space.
The demise of Lip, once a massive French watchmaking operation in Besançon (and the makers of this interesting chronograph), started with a worker-led strike in 1973. The workforce grew angry at secret plans to restructure and downsize, putting the livelihoods of some 1,300 factory workers at stake. The workforce commandeered the factory and occupied the space, taking two administrators and a government labor inspector as hostages. The hostages were rescued in a tactical operation, but the conflict became a national matter of interest. The workers wanted full control; the company's stakeholders weren't willing to relinquish that control. An agreement was reached, but the company only survived until 1976, when liquidation began.
Lip intellectual property and rights have been traded throughout the decades following, and the company still exists today on a much smaller scale than the Lip that flourished in the 1960s. Lip recently developed a watch for the Groupe d'intervention de la Gendarmerie nationale (GIGN), a police unit specializing in hostage rescue, ironically.
The GIGN occupies a special place in the world of special operations. First and foremost, they're a tactical police unit, much like America's SWAT teams. The GIGN's primary mission is domestic law enforcement and counter-terrorism operations. But they're also a functioning unit of the French Armed Forces and that involves international counter-terrorism and site protection.
The unit also features an unusual rite of passage: new operators will fire a "trust shot" at a clay pigeon affixed to a fellow operator's bulletproof vest from a distance of 15m. The shot is a capstone exercise in the GIGN training. Operators must trust each other with their lives, and they must also possess an unwavering resistance to failure. This exercise is a testament to both. Operators are then issued a French-made Manurhin MR73 six-shot revolver as a sidearm. In short, the unit is badass. And the watch that Lip has made for them isn't too shabby, either.
The watch uses a supercompressor-style case; Lip was one of the early pioneers of this design. The Grande-Nautic comes on a tropic strap and the GIGN logo is present at nine o'clock. The watch is powered by Miyota’s 821A movement.
As of now, Lip has no plans to establish a retail presence in the U.S.
The Triton dive watch was originally designed for Spirotechnique, a SCUBA equipment supplier started by Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The company later went by the familiar Aqua Lung, and in America, U.S. Divers. An articulating lug design allows for a crown at 12 o'clock, an innovation that didn't catch on widely, but certainly pointed to thoughtful design process. When the Triton debuted, it was more expensive than a Rolex Submariner. All that R&D for crown relocation had to be recouped somehow, I guess.
The distinct design of the Triton inspired two collectors to re-launch the Triton label, and the product of their passion for the design is the Subphotique, a watch that incorporates the design elements of the Spirotechnique Triton. The current model range is more of a spiritual successor than a true re-edition. The watch has received a bevy of updates, like an increase in case size, a sapphire bezel instead of bakelite, and a helium escape valve. These updates put the water resistance at a respectable 500m, well below the ocean's "photic zone," hence the name.
But the young brand is working on a watch that's just about as true to the original as one can get. It's 39mm and replicates most lines of the case from the 1963 model. The prototype is pictured here on a band, though the watch is expected to come on a bracelet. It's slated to be released before Christmas.
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