The scrutiny on prestigious brands like Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet is massive whenever they release a new watch. Rolex, although the largest Swiss watchmaker, is also chastised and criticized every year for lackluster releases. Omega, Seiko, Tudor, Longines – they all have loyal fans, yet still get bashed when the market feels they’ve made a misstep.
It’s tough being one of those big brands, but the sub $2000 range is by far the most competitive and unforgiving segment of the watch market. If you want to play below $2000 or even below $1000, you have to be really, really good – especially as a startup or independent brand. Let’s explore why it’s so brutal for affordable watches competing under $2000.
The sheer number of competitors
Think of as many high-end brands selling watches above $20,000 as you can. There are many, from Rolex to Audemars Piguet, F.P. Journe, Chopard, Richard Mille, MB&F – the list goes on. As an enthusiast, you likely know a high percentage of prestige brands in the luxury space.
Now try naming affordable brands selling watches under $2000. I say under $2000 because many brands have sub-$1000 models but creep into the $2000 range for higher-end offerings. The number of brands in this affordable bracket is staggering – Tissot, Frederique Constant, Seiko, Casio, Baltic, Sinn, Invicta, Nomos, Junghans. The list keeps expanding.
The sheer quantity of competitors in the affordable sector is overwhelming. Of course, a lower price point has a lower barrier to entry for new brands compared to a luxury Richard Mille, which requires huge upfront capital. But with massive competition comes ample consumer choice – and a brutal fight for brand attention if you’re a new entrant trying to stand out from the crowd.
Battling the big boys
It’s not just cutthroat competition amongst affordable brands – they also have to contend with the big conglomerates. Take a small brand like Baltic that wants to sell vintage-inspired watches. They have to compete for attention against titans like Casio – the legendary value watchmaker.
You may say Baltic and Casio have totally different target customers. That’s true to an extent. But there are two aspects to a watch purchase – style and the decision to spend money. Why buy a Baltic you’ve never heard of when you could buy a known brand like Tissot or Hamilton? As enthusiasts we have niche tastes, but the average consumer is disproportionately swayed by big names like Casio or Tissot.
Big established brands mostly boast decades or centuries of history. Their heritage contributes to powerful storytelling and brand image. It’s why consumers may default to Tissot over Baltic or Farer. But it’s not just about being old – heritage signals better quality to many buyers.
Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin – their incredible longevity suggests superior watchmaking. Some microbrands like Doxa and Zodiac also tap into heritage with stories of tool watches built for the military or worn by characters like Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now. Farer and Baltic can’t compete on history compared to Tissot or Vacheron. For the average consumer, unknown equals untrustworthy.
The inevitability of compromise
No sub-$2000 watch is flawless. Watchmaking requires compromise – except at the highest luxury levels. When you can sell watches for $400,000+ like Richard Mille, compromises disappear. You can buy the best machines, materials, hire skilled artisans and not cut any corners.
Below $2000 sacrifices are inevitable. A laser engraved rotor may mean skipping applied markers. An easy adjust bracelet may mean losing hacking seconds. Baltic and Farer cut costs on movements – Hangzhou and Sellita aren’t cutting edge.
Big groups like Swatch (which owns Tissot) can produce movements tailored for affordable lines, driving down costs. Not so for microbrands. Compromises lose customers but hopefully gain more on the other side. The choices require extreme care and understanding your target buyer.
Standing out from the junk
There are a lot of junk brands under $2000. I won’t name and shame, but the world seems to have moved on from fashion brands like Daniel Wellington. However, small watchmakers often get unfairly lumped in with such companies due to pricing.
For years, I ignored REC Watches as seeming gimmicky with its quartz movements and stamped cases. But they’ve upped their game, while I was guilty of dismissing them as another Daniel Wellington. This affects many microbrands – a few hundred loyal customers won’t sustain you. You must expand your customer base, which is hard when nobody cares about you.
Gaining awareness as a microbrand
To grow, microbrands have to get press from sites like Hodinkee and worn&wound or YouTube channels. But talking about an unknown brand usually won’t drive views orclicks – MKBHD focuses on Apple and Samsung, not obscure tech.
Some YouTubers have inherent advantage when launching watches – their reviews reach hundreds of thousands. Hodinkee gains attention for its collabs. Microbrands lack their own platform or incentive for others to cover them.
$1000 is still real money
Even for enthusiasts who enjoy watches, $1000 is not an impulse purchase. I’d love to buy watches on a whim like John Mayer, but it’s not happening. And while a $1000 watch may be an aspirational purchase for some, it’s hardly anyone’s ultimate grail.
Considering value perception, microbrands must provide extreme convincing value to get my $1000 that could go towards other things. They aren’t just competing with other watches at this price, but everything else I could buy.
Avoiding being a one-hit wonder
When a microbrand succeeds, it’s often tied to a specific design – their signature look. But when you’re small, the market is quick to judge if you move beyond that original design language. We give big brands room to experiment – not so much microbrands.
Studio Underdog made its name on funky playful dials. Is that a lasting identity or a moment in the hype cycle? Brands gain favor through a signature look but can’t be defined forever by it. Capitalizing on initial success without being constrained is hugely difficult.
Microbrands have to be really, really good in order to stand out in the sub-$2000 range. You need skill and a bit of luck to break through. When brands like Baltic, Farer or Formex gain traction, it’s an impressive feat given the intense competition. The affordable watch segment under $2000 is unrelentingly brutal, but success creates something special.