Over the past year and a half, I’ve interviewed close to twenty independent brand owners. They each walked me through the stages of creating a watch which I wanted to share with you today. Although each brand owner does something a little different, the steps are often similar. How much they dig into one step over another depends on their respective professional backgrounds. Some had worked in horology before and therefore had a head start over those who did not. We’ll briefly go over each step and at the end of the article I’ll tell you how long it takes on average to go from an idea to a sellable product.
Step 1: From Idea to Paper
It always starts with an idea, a general concept for the watch. More often than not, the brand owners have been brewing over an idea for months or years. Rarely the idea appeared out of nowhere although it does happen. They generally start by thinking what kind of watch they want to create—diver, dressy, pilot—and draw up a list of specifications the watch should come with. Things like water resistance, type of crystal, dimensions. It’s like creating a wish list of what would make the watch perfect.
Designing a watch is a selfish process. Brands owners design a watch for themselves as in what kind of watch they cannot find on the market that they believe they would enjoy. They want, for example, to emulate certain character traits or feel inspired to become a better version of themselves. (All of them want to express who they are or who they want to be through creating a watch.) What will go in the watch, therefore, is very personal. The dimensions, choice of hands, the dial colors, all of these elements are highly personal and they rarely think about what would sell.
Once they’ve created their wishlist, they sketch the overall layout of the watch. For those who are good with design software, they will create a digital mock-up. Those who don’t have that experience find ways to create a mock-up by using a good old pencil and piece of paper which they will eventually have to digitalize to send to the industrial designer (if that’s not them.) They go through different versions to swap one set of hands for another, make the lugs narrower or the dial opening bigger. This phase is a very personal one and the brand owners work alone.
Step 2: Technical Drawing
One they have finalized the sketch, they need to translate it into a technical drawing (CAD or Computer-Assisted Design.) This step is crucial because they will send these drawings to the factories that will produce the watches. That’s when a watch actually becomes real—or not. In order to get this process right they have to pair up with industrial designers (if they are not themselves) to ensure proportions are right, that the movement will fit within the case, and that case will match the bracelet and vice versa. This is a tedious phase that requires a lot of expertise and juggling between what the brand owner wants and what can be done.
This phase involves doing a lot of back-and-forth and generally implies making drastic changes to a design. They may realize the hands are too big or too thick to clear the applied markers, or that the crystal is too thick and will make the watch uncomfortable to wear. This is when brands sometimes change movement or decide to go for a different type of crystal or to swap applied markers for painted ones. These technical drawings are important because that’s what various factories will make the watches from. This phase also sometimes includes running the technical drawings by the factories to mark sure they are compatible.
Step 3: Prototypes
Once the technical drawings are completed, brand owners get prototypes done. Either they make 3D printed or wax prototypes in-house to check the dimensions and how the case looks and feels like. They all eventually get real prototypes (as in CNC machined case, hands, dials, and bracelets) done at the factory which involves a cost. Brands typically only get a few prototypes done to see if the proportions are right, what kind of finish they will be able to expect, how the bracelet or strap works with the head, and so on and so forth.
When brands get special textures done for their watches, making prototypes is what makes it possible for them to fine-tune it. Sometimes the idea is great on paper but doesn’t work in real life. That’s also when communication between the brand and factories have to be precise. Brand owners find it difficult sometimes to communicate exactly what they are expecting, and often have to refer the factories to samples from other brands or send them materials like fabric or swatches to properly communicate their needs.
This phase is always the longest one as the brand and factories have to send prototypes back and forth to make changes and check that they were made properly. (More often than not, the brands and factories are in different countries.) Getting a prototype can take up to three months in most cases and is a stressful period for the brand owners. They paid for the prototypes a handsome sum of money and often the results are not what they expected.
Brands often get several prototypes done and the final one (the one closer to production quality) is oftentimes the one sent to reviewers and the one used by the brand to promote the model on their social media and website. Between the moment they send the prototypes to the press and the moment they start production, brands almost always make additional changes. There’s a lot to check and figure out and it’s difficult to figure it all out with the first prototypes.
Step 4: Final Touches
Once the final prototype is done, the brand places the order for the production to start. Most brands work with large factories that make watches for multiple brands in many countries, and they are required to order several hundred units at once. This is what independent brands often sell 100 of each color way. Giant Swiss and Japanese brands can afford to make small quantities since they control the entire production lifecycle. Getting watches made is like manufacturing clothes: the more you make, the cheaper they become.
Once production is completed, the brand receives the watches either assembled or in parts which they will assemble in house. I wrote an article to talk about the differences between micro and independent brands in which I describe a microbrand as one getting the assembled watches delivered while an independent brand assembles and regulates the watches themselves. Once they have been assembled, brands run quality controls. Almost always they have to return some of the watches to the factories because they didn’t pass the QC test. Of course then there are press releases, marketing, store allocations or website revamping.
On top of all this, the watch box must be designed, produced, and manufactured to fit the watch perfectly and create a blissful feeling when opening the box. Of course there's so much more involved in a watch business, but we are focusing on only how to make a watch. Lastly, the watches are shipped to the customer.
At the end of the day, it roughly takes one to one and a half-years to go from an idea to a product being sold. Some brands take longer at first (up to five years in certain cases) because they are working on their first model whilst working a full-time job and managing a family. Even when they become full-time brand owners, it takes at least one year to develop a new model which means that brands are working on multiple models at a time since they generally release more than one a year.
Even those who have a background in industrial design or supply chain management need one year or more to create a new model. And not all models, by the way, become sellable products. Sometimes brand owners have a nice concept but can’t find the right factory to make it; or the movement they planned on using is no longer available. Because of that, some models' early iterations will never become known to the public, and what seems to be the first of a new collection could actually be version number five.
Creating watches is a process that requires patience, dedication, skill, and connections. I feel we are all lucky to have so many entrepreneurs willing to go through these hardships to create the watches we love wearing.