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Boutique watch companies are like the scrappy independent music labels of the watch world. These small independent brands are able to produce short runs using stock movements for much cheaper than some of the larger brands. Typically, these brands are operated by single individuals or small teams and utilize outsourced and modular components.
Using e-stores and online watch communities to drive customers, these companies also have a much lower customer acquisition cost, which helps keep retail prices low. While you’re not going to get the history or staying power of Omega or Rolex, some of these boutique brands are able to offer up some truly innovative and high-quality watch designs that shouldn’t be overlooked.
In this article we will explore five of our favorite boutique watch brands and discuss what makes them truly stand out from the pack.
At the top of our list is MKII (mark-two), a small one-man shop run by the legendary Bill Yao. Why would I put an homage brand at the top of my list for most ‘innovative’ boutiques? Simple, even though Bill is known for recreating classic military tool and dive watches, his attention to detail and passion for horological history are absolutely unmatched.
Bill really digs into watch history to bring back obscure and hard to find pieces, like the MKII Kingston (based on the rare big-crown gilt Rolex 6538) or the new Project 300 (modeled after the legendary Omega Seamaster 300). He has really captured the vintage military aesthetic and infused it through his line of diverse and high-quality tool watches, drawing on the unique history and inspiration of each piece to make them more original than derivative.
In addition to making these classic pieces attainable again, Bill updates them with high-quality modern components, sometimes completely altering the design to make them more reliable than the original. Customers often comment on Bill’s attention to detail and finishing, which rivals some of the larger more established brands. Bill also offers watch customization unlike any other independent I’ve seen. In addition to to his ready-made configurations, buyers can often request unique combinations of bezel, chapter rings, hand-sets and dials, allowing them to create a truly one-of-a-kind piece.
While Bill Yao has certainly attracted a sizable cult of dedicated followers to his brand, be warned: acquiring a MKII piece can be an exercise in patience. Some early project backers have been known to wait for YEARS to get their final piece, and customer service doesn’t seem to be high on his priority list.
Just recently, Bill has expanded into a “ready-made” line of Japanese-made watches that can be purchased immediately, but may lack the attention to detail in Bill’s personal QC process. Although potentially frustrating, the mere fact that people are willing to wait such a long time for a MKII piece is a testament to the quality that Bill stands for.
If you’re in the market for a MKII piece, my recommendation would be to go straight to the forums and buy one second hand. Although Bill only produces about 1000 watches per year, a variety of past and present models can be readily had on community forums like Watchuseek or Ebay.
Our Favorite MKII Models:
A dive-watch focused brand established in 2009 and run by Canadian Jason Lim, Halios is a relative newcomer to the watch world. Halios is not a homage brand per-se, they have a small line of unique modern sport divers with a range of unique case and color combinations. Halios designs are fresh, original and modern, a welcome reprieve from a market oversaturated with Submariner clones.
Although these watches are assembled in Hong Kong, they use high-quality components like 316L stainless steel and Japanese Miyota movements. I’ve owned two Halios models in the past, the Tropik and the Laguna, and both were exceedingly well made for the price-point.
Halios’ most recent designs, the Delfin and the Tropik (offered in bronze and stainless steel), have been huge commercial successes and past production runs have all sold out. Some of the earlier Halios models, like the Puck and the Laguna have been sold out for years but still remain fan favorites.
Our Favorite Halios Models:
Squale is an Italian (now Swiss-owned) dive watch company founded by Charles Van Buren that has been reviewed on this site before (check out our review of the Squale 1521 here). Although still small and family owned, Squale has been producing watches for over 60 years.
Known for it’s retro-inspired styling, Squale still produces it’s classic line of dive watches in the Squale 50 and 101 Atmos. Squale is also well-known for outsourcing it’s innovative case design to much larger brands, like Doxa and Blancpain, although that is no longer the case (pardon the pun).
In addition to those popular models, Squale now offers the 20 Atmos, which is an homage to the venerable modern Rolex Submariner (and a great alternative to the junk put out by companies like Invicta). Unlike some of the other groups on this list, Squale uses genuine Swiss movements for all of it’s watches, which are getting harder and harder to find at the sub-$1000 price point. As far as heritage divers go, Squale has got the goods and the actual history to back it up.
Our Favorite Squale Models:
UTS is a German watch brand specializing in ridiculously overbuilt tool divers, handmade by Nicolaus Spinner. Popular amongst actual divers, UTS is known for building tank-like watches that can survive bone crushing depths (the UTS4000 would survive at 4000 meters below sea level, deeper and darker than any human would be capable of traveling).
Although a bit on the large side for my tastes, the fit and finish of these watches is absolutely superb. Unlike some other brands that outsource case manufacturing, UTS produce all of it’s own cases on in-house CNC machines, finished by hand in the workshop by Nicolaus himself.
These watches aren’t cheap; with prices easily exceeding the $2k mark, but these aren’t fashion accessories either. With a limited production rate of only about 200 per year, it’s not likely you’ll ever run into somebody that has one. If you like the German tool watch aesthetic with an absolutely unmatched dive capability, UTS might be for you.
Our Favorite UTS Models:
Another German company making the list, Steinhart is a value-oriented brand that produces extremely high-quality homage and originally designed pieces. Steinhart’s diverse line of watches includes chronographs, divers, racing, and pilot watches as well. Just recently, Steinhart has even begun manufacturing it’s own movements, a feat that not many watch companies can claim to have accomplished.
The build quality and attention to detail is typically German, and most of their watches can be had for less than 1000 Euros. Steinhart sells direct through their website, as well as a couple of select U.S. Distributors.
Our Favorite Steinhart Pieces:
This list is far from exhaustive. New brands come online everyday, with a lot of them being launched through crowd-funding campaigns at Kickstarter or Indiegogo. We feel the watches above represent the best quality and value for watches you can purchase outside of the established mega-brands. Boutique brands are also a great way to get your feet wet with mechanical watch collecting, allowing you to acquire a high-quality piece for a relatively low cost.
Some other boutique brands worth mentioning: