Switzerland is as synonymous with watches as France is with haute couture. But is a watch any less of a wrist-taker if it doesn’t come with the “Swiss Made” label? Not if these home-bred watch brands have anything to say about it. Offering standout watches that drip with attitude and aesthetical distinction at accessible price points, it’s no wonder these fiercely independent Singapore brands are carving out a share of the market valued at over $33 billion (according to a 2019 report on Swiss watch exports alone by the Federation of Swiss Watch Industry FH).
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Take Zelos, for instance, which specialises in mechanical bronze diving watches. Launched by Elshan Tang in 2014, the brand found its start on Kickstarter with immense support, tripling its initial goal of US$30,000 by the end of its run. Today, it produces about 5,000 timepieces annually, with prices starting around $360 for a diving watch to $13,500 for a Swiss Tourbillon (named The Mirage, the collection sold out within 20 minutes of its launch). The brand also offers its fans Valjoux movements, carbon fibre cases and meteorite dials—elements that luxury brands are known to employ. “I used to trade luxury watches through my university days, and enjoyed being exposed to the multitude of brands that I would otherwise have been unable to afford. However, I realised that watch designs are rarely interesting or unique at the entry or mid-price ranges,” says Tang. “I was a fan of bronze watches back then and there weren’t many options, so that was my first design to be made and launched.”
A year later, Tang moved on to yet another watch venture and teamed up with Nop Srinara for Vilhelm. Using Swiss movements (from ETA and Sellita) within the custom-moulded watch cases that the brand designs from scratch, Vilhelm offers its clients details that you’d expect from high-end watches—from forged carbon mid-cases and ceramic bezels with different polishing finishes to the incorporation of bronze and other materials in the cases—but at affordable prices that start at around the $900 mark. A quick visit to the website proves that it’s a formula that works, with timepieces from its 300 to 500 annual production run all sold out. “We aren’t for everybody,” Srinara says. “Vilhelm is for people who have formed a certain idea of who they are and what their horological preferences are, and invariably want something that looks out of the ordinary, masculine, sporty and built to last.”
The same can also be said about Neminus Lab, launched in 2017 by Perry Khor. Equipped with Swiss and Japanese movements, the brand’s collection of dive watches is targeted at watch aficionados who are looking to expand their collection beyond Swiss borders, and with a timepiece of distinct difference. “The dials we design are unique and different from those found in the mass market,” Khor explains. “It’s the key attraction for our clientele, who want a cool-looking watch that attracts attention. Plus, we only produce limited editions with a maximum of 300 pieces per collection.” Extreme looks are not the only reason why people knock on this brand’s doors. The Neminus Spaceman collection enthusiastically backed on Kickstarter in 2018, for example, features a DLC case, a sapphire crystal with four layers of anti-reflective coating and the highest grade of Super-LumiNova for a 60 percent improved luminescence over the standard grade. No expense has been spared on a watch that will set you back around $1,000.
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Also paying particular focus to its dials is Reverie, albeit through a more elegant route. “My vision for Reverie is simple: To produce beautiful watches I want to wear daily,” says founder Samuel Tay, who launched the brand in 2014. “Elegant designs and guilloché dials are prevalent parts of our design ethos as these are features that are attractive to me.” With timepieces quickly selling out upon their unveil, it’s evident that fans are just as sold on the watches as Tay is. And why not? Reverie offers the revered decorating technique of guilloché for around $500, using Japanese movements from Seiko or MIYOTA. “Watches are often seen as status symbols. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can lead to an excessive focus on brand prestige at the expense of design. Reverie is perfect for someone who prefers an elegant, visually interesting mechanical watch that’s modestly sized and thus perfect for smaller wrists.”
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Then, there’s the forefather of the local watch brand scene, Azimuth, founded by Christopher Long and Alvin Lye in 2003 to produce unabashedly avant-garde timepieces that look right at home on the film set of Blade Runner—both the original and the remake. Equipped with Swiss movements and assembled in the brand’s workshop in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Azimuth watches (which cost around $7,000 for the more statement-making designs) have secured themselves a global audience who turn to the brand for its daring aesthetics and obvious disdain for conventional time-telling methods. “Azimuth was created out of the desire to be different. We offer our collectors alternative ways of telling time and by wearing an Azimuth, you’re telling people that you’re a unique character. We also like the idea that not everyone would wear an Azimuth watch,” says Long. “Our design ethos has always been to create a watch that is free-spirited in design, not constrained by industrial or consumer opinions. Our passion is to juxtapose traditional Swiss watchmaking techniques with unconventional designs, resulting in a collection of watches that is truly unique and distinctly bold in design.”
Known to the world as the tiny country that’s as small as the dot that marks it on global maps, it may seem surprising that this nation has birthed a plethora of watch brands with designs that range from sparse minimalism to outré maximalism. Less surprising when viewed in context of the same 2019 Federation of Swiss Watch Industry FH report: Singapore ranked sixth on the world distribution of Swiss watch exports, with close to $2 billion to its name. The enthusiasm for timepieces on these shores is conspicuous—all the better for watch enthusiasts looking for a wrist-taker with a difference. So go ahead and #supportlocal. There’s arguably no better way to show yourself as a true aficionado who’s in the know.