Not all independents are created equal

Why do some independent brands fly journalists on private jets while others don’t? Why do some independents produce one-off watches for exhibition only while others don’t? It might seem like a ridiculous question, easily answered with the notion of subjective management style and approach. Yet, I believe there’s a deeper answer. It’s one that helps us understand some of the business phenomena in independent watchmaking today.

Currently, “independent” exists as a kind of undifferentiated mass in the watch industry – a loosely defined term that equates to watch brands outside of the historic, family-owned maisons (Patek, AP) and large, publicly-traded groups (LVMH, Richemont). Take these five indie brands as an example: H. Moser & Cie, De Bethune, Sarpaneva Watches, HYT, and Grönefeld Watches – all established businesses with defining products from recent years.

However amongst these five companies, there are two different business structures. H. Moser & Cie, De Bethune, HYT are all private equity or “family office” run brands, whereas Sarpaneva Watches and Grönefeld Watches are both owned and operated by founders. It is hardly a coincidence that the latter category rarely creates major marketing campaigns.

In most other industries, there is a cultural divide between owner-operator and private-equity-backed businesses. The former tends to be mostly heads-down, fixated on steady, manageable growth that doesn’t demand reinvestment of ownership’s earnings too quickly. The latter tends to fall on the opposite side of the spectrum. Armed with outside capital, private equity backed businesses tend to aggressively invest on all fronts: R&D, product, marketing, and sales. Generally, the more money that goes in, the larger the growth expectations – no one wants to invest $1 and get $0.50 back. The watch industry is by no means immune to these cultural forces in business structure.

It might seem like a mundane distinction, but I’ve found it quite useful to help guide myself and other independent watch collectors with purchasing decisions. Often, collectors of independent watches gravitate to brands with watchmakers that share their own values and personality traits.

From private equity backed indies, you will generally see a bit more playfulness – a luxury afforded by the extra capital. For example, H. Moser’s Swiss Icons, the satirical commentary on the zeitgeist of modern watchmaking, is a representation of something you will not likely see from an owner operator brand. Though many criticized the brand’s move as gimmicky (a common critique of private equity backed brands generally), I tend to appreciate these brands because they consistently push the limits of the watch industry. They encourage introspection and debate; something we could all use more of in this space.

In terms of collecting, I personally tend to favor independent brands with founders who act as owner operators. I gravitate to individuals who truly put their own skin in the game, kickstarting and developing slowly but steadily, sometimes, over decades. I want to be connected to the guy who sold his motorcycle to start his business.

Appreciation of indies goes further than just the commodity or asset itself, as it often can be when purchasing from the historic maisons and large groups. It’s a friendship, a patronage, a return to human relationships through production – not only with fellow collectors around production.

Everyone has their own style and preferences, just make sure you know yours before picking who you’ll support.

Another day with the beast,

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  • Fully agree with you on this .
    Collecting indies isnt just about the watches themselves but also a personal relationship with the owners/ watchmakers and the community around it .
    That’s where my passion for indies comes from . Great post my friend 👍🏻🤗

    • Really appreciate the feedback – glad you enjoyed this article! The friendship side of the indies is so unique, most non-horology folks cannot believe it exists. For most, the very idea of having some connection to the creator of a given thing is mind-boggling.

  • The true independent is the way to go, amazing to work with the creator. Makes for a different kind of relationship and the watch just seems so much more special.

    • I definitely agree! When you get to be a part of the process from the ground up, it establishes a real friendship and appreciation.

  • I wonder which category Urwerk and MB&F belong to. Are they owner operators or private equity backed?

    • I’m not sure about Urwerk, but I have read interviews where Max from MB&F says he has no outside investors pushing for growth!

  • I just purchased a piece from H. Moser & Cie. It is nice to send an email with questions and get prompt and relevant replies! I have also communicated with Kari Voutilainen. I doubt I will ever have such a conversation with watchmakers from the Coronet or other large ateliers.

    • The customer service side of these indie brands is definitely much smoother than dealing with any AD of the mainstream brands. I had a similar experience about 2 years ago when I came across an unusual Sarpaneva prototype at a random dealer in Hong Kong. I DM’d Sarpaneva to ask what he thought and if he could service it, and he replied to me with an hour and I bought it on the spot. It was spectacular.

  • You’re not wrong but it’s also a category error; Moser makes hundreds of times as many watches in a year as Sarpaneva or Gronefeld. The difference between them is more pronounced than the difference between, say, Tudor and Moser. Of course they have bigger budgets, and very different marketing requirements.