Want to buy a Rolex? Of course you do, it’s one of the great brand names in the world, a signifier of success.
But it’s not that simple. Rock up at a jeweller for well-heeled folk and ask for one of their shiniest Rolexes, boxed and bagged and you’ll be met with a facial expression of the gentlest mockery. Oh dear, if only it were that easy.
While sales of pricey wristwear from brands such as Rolex, TAG Heuer, Omega and Cartier have increased in recent years, that increase has brought with it rising prices and extended waiting times. It’s not that you can’t buy one of these watches, it’s just that you will probably have to wait for the specific one that you want. If it’s a very specific model – say, a Rolex Daytona Cosmograph in stainless steel – you have two choices; either wait for several years, at the end of which you will probably have to fork out a five-figure sum, or become a successful racing driver and win the annual 24 Hours of Daytona motor race, as the prize includes an eponymous Rolex for the winners.
This in part explains the recent rise of the watch microbrands. Often starting from little more than someone sitting on their sofa with a bright idea, these brands are now making watches that are stylistically smart enough, and of sufficiently high quality to compete with the big-name watches, but that can be bought for a fraction of the price.
In watch-making terms, there are arguably only two countries that people associate with horology – Switzerland for expensive chunks of mechanical steel and gold, and Japan for more accessible, reliable quartz models. The growth of microbrands has upended that tradition, with brands from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, the United States, France, and elsewhere getting in on the act. Some are revivals of classic names, while others – the likes of Christopher Ward, Omologato, Vincero – are brand new, yet have struck a chord with people.
Now, Ireland wants in on the game. We are not known as a nation of watch-makers, but in Belfast – the home of Irish heavy engineering – one man is making a success of a boutique watch brand that pays homage to the city’s seafaring past.
It’s appropriate that I meet Peter McAuley at the Titanic Hotel, next to the slipway where the doomed liner was built and opposite the museum that charts its fate. The hotel was once the headquarters of Harland & Wolff, the shipyard that built Titanic and her sister vessels and it was in the bright, airy bar that was once the main drawing offices that McAuley first sat down to sketch what would become the Nomadic watch.
“I used to come in and sit in the drawing office with my laptop and a pen and paper and sketch the first ideas for the watch,” McAuley tells The Irish Times. “I kind of soaked up some of the atmosphere and tried to build that into the watch.”
The Nomadic is essentially a timekeeping tribute to all that went on in Belfast when it came to engineering. The name itself is taken from the small steam tender ship, itself now a dry-docked museum, that was built alongside the Titanic and was designed by the same Thomas Andrews. The watch’s Swiss-made automatic movement is called the Maraí 401 – Maraí being the Irish for seafarer, while 401 was the design office number for the Titanic.
As a final tribute to the surroundings in which it was designed, the watch’s sweep second hand is the same bright yellow as Harland & Wolff’s iconic Samson and Goliath cranes, which still tower over the hotel, the museum and most of Belfast. It’s not some tacky tribute watch, with a picture of the Titanic itself printed on to the dial, though. It’s subtle, just 39mm across, with its references to local history artfully placed where the aficionado can find them, but where those with a passing fancy might miss them.
McAuley’s background, like that of the city itself, is in engineering. Having studied at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (colloquially known as Inst, the same school attended more than a century ago by Andrews himself), McAuley completed his third-level education in Durham, studying both engineering and business, along with a stint at the University of San Francisco School of Management.
His engineering career saw him running projects for the likes of Hitachi Rail and Caterpillar, before returning to Belfast three years ago. It was then that the idea of making his own watch design really began.
“My dad had a few nice watches when I was growing up, but I was never really super-bothered about them. Then when my uncle passed away, I inherited a couple of really high-end watches from him. Now, I like travelling, and I like diving and sea-swimming, and I was really nervous bringing those watches with me doing that, worrying that I’d damage them or lose them. So that’s where the idea began. Beyond that, I was just fascinated by the idea that these mechanical watches have such intricate insides, and that they don’t even need a battery – they’re powered by the movement of your body.”
The Nomadic’s Swiss-made Sellita SW200 automatic movement does indeed mean that there’s no battery – when you wear it, the movements of your wrist turn a small, carefully weighted rotor that keeps the movement ticking, and can keep doing so for up to 41 hours of off-wrist downtime. Just like the Swiss watches, which use similar movements, the Nomadic watch has a case and strap made from surgical-grade 316L steel, it has the same ceramic bezel, which clicks around the dial to give you an analogue countdown device, and the same sapphire crystal glass that is highly resistant to scratches or other damage.
What it doesn’t have is an eye-watering price tag. An equivalent Rolex would set you back, at minimum, €5,000. The Nomadic watch costs €822. Having worn one on my wrist while meeting McAuley, I can tell you that there’s no difference to the name-brand watches in how it feels or looks.
That’s the appeal of watch microbrands – you get a quality, stylish watch but without the hefty price tag, and without the waiting around. McAuley’s sales are so far in the hundreds, not thousands, so many of his customers are personally known to him.
“One of the watches we sold went to a guy in America,” McAuley says. “A few months later he got back in touch with me, and it was like, ‘I’m loving the watch, it’s the pride of my collection’, which is always amazing to hear. And then he said that the reason he’d bought it was because he had actually worked on the film Titanic, and was part of the orchestra that did all the music. He’d even won a Grammy for it. It was incredible that he’d bought on of our watches to reconnect with Belfast and the Titanic in that way.
“Another who bought one was a professional diver, and he was part of the team who actually worked on restoring the Nomadic, doing underwater repairs, and getting the ship back into the dry-dock. The idea of the watch is that it’s built to the same standards as the big brands, so you can strap it on and take it down 200m underwater, but it’s affordable so if something does happen and it gets lost or damaged, it’s not the disaster that it might be. That’s the ethos behind it.”
It’s an ethos that seems to be paying off. McAuley has moved from tinkering in watch-making as a hobby to taking it on as a full-time job. With the Nomadic Dive Watch selling well, he has plans for a stopwatch-equipped chronograph model, and a multi-timezone GMT version, too.
But he says he has no interest in producing a faddish smartwatch.
“I think we’re so constantly connected to our phones, to our digital devices, people are starting to look for something that’s a step away from all of that. I like the fact that I can glance down at my watch and not see that I have 500 unread emails, or 57 WhatsApps or whatever. It’s for people who want to connect with something that’s analogue, that’s not a screen.”