Do you want to buy a Rolex watch? Of course you do, it’s one of the greatest brand names in the world, and it’s a sign of success.
But it’s not that simple. Put on a jeweler for high heels and order one of the finest Rolex watches, packed and bagged, and you will be met with a facial expression of the thinnest of sarcasm. Oh dear, if it were that easy.
While sales of expensive wrist wear from brands such as Rolex, TAG Heuer, Omega and Cartier have increased in recent years, this increase has led to higher prices and extended waiting times. It’s not that you can’t buy one of these watches, but rather that you will likely have to wait for the exact hour you want. If it’s a very specific model—say, a Rolex Daytona Cosmograph stainless steel watch—you have two options; Either you wait several years, at the end of which you will probably have to pay a five-figure sum, or you become a successful racing driver and win the annual 24 Hours of the Daytona Auto Race, where the prize includes a Rolex watch named for the winners.
This partly explains the recent rise in smaller watch brands. Often starting with more than just someone sitting on the couch with a great idea, these brands now make watches that are smart enough in style, and of high quality enough to compete with big name watches, but can be bought for a fraction of the price .
In terms of watchmaking, there are arguably only two countries that people associate with horology – Switzerland for the expensive pieces of mechanical steel and gold, and Japan for the more accessible and dependable quartz models. The growth of smaller brands has upended this tradition, with brands from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, the United States, France and elsewhere entering the business. Some are a revival of classic names, while others – the likes of Christopher Ward, Omogato, Vencero – are completely new, yet have struck a chord in people.
Now, Ireland wants to get in on the game. We’re not well-known as a nation of watchmakers, but in Belfast – the home of Irish heavy engineering – one man has achieved success for a small watch brand that pays homage to the city’s past of sailing.
It is fitting that I meet Peter McCauley at the Titanic, next to the boardwalk where the doomed ship was built and opposite the museum that charts her fate. The hotel was once the headquarters of Harland & Wolff, the shipyard that built the Titanic and its sister ships, and in the bright and airy bar that were once the main drawing offices where McAuley first sat to sketch what would become the Nomadic Clock.
“I used to come and sit at the drawing desk with my laptop, pen and paper, and sketch out the first ideas for the clock,” McCauley told The Irish Times. “I kind of absorbed some of the vibe and tried to incorporate that into the watch.”
The Nomadic is basically a timekeeping homage to all that happened in Belfast when it comes to engineering. The name itself is taken from the small tender steamer ship, now a dry mooring museum, built alongside the Titanic and designed by Thomas Andrews himself. The Swiss automatic movement is called the Maraí 401 – Maraí is Irish for sailors, while 401 was the Design Bureau number for the Titanic.
As a final tribute to the surroundings in which it is designed, the sweeping clock hands are the same bright yellow as Harland & Wolff’s famous Samson and Goliath cranes, which still fly over the hotel, museum, and most of Belfast. It’s not a tacky tribute watch, with the Titanic itself printed on the dial. It’s subtle, measuring just 39mm in diameter, with its references to local history artfully placed where aficionados can find it, but where those on a passing whim might miss it.
McCauley’s background, like that of the city itself, is engineering. Having studied at the Royal Academic Institution in Belfast (colloquially known as Inst, attended the same school more than a century ago by Andrews himself), McCauley completed his third-level education in Durham, where he studied engineering and business, along with a stint at College Management at the University of San Francisco.
His engineering career saw him take on projects for the likes of the Hitachi Railroad and Caterpillar, before returning to Belfast three years earlier. That’s when the idea of designing his own watch really began.
“My dad had some nice hours when I was growing up, but I’ve never been too upset with them. Then when my uncle passed away, I inherited a really fine watch from him. Now, I love to travel, I love to dive and swim in the sea, and I was really nervous while bringing those watches with me. While doing so, for fear of damaging or losing them. This is where the idea started. Moreover, I was intrigued 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.”
Nomadic’s Swiss-made Sellita SW200 automatic movement really means no battery—when you wear it, your wrist motions around a small, carefully weighted rotor that maintains the movement, and can continue to do so for up to 41 hours of off-wrist time off. Just like Swiss watches that use similar movements, the Nomadic watch has a 316L stainless steel case and strap, has the same ceramic bezel, which flicks around the dial to give you an analog countdown timer, and the same sapphire crystal glass that is highly resistant to scratches or other damage.
What it does not contain is a hefty price tag. An equivalent Rolex watch would cost you at least 5,000 euros. The cost of the Nomadic watch is 822 euros. Having worn one on my wrist while interviewing McAuley, I can tell you that there is no difference between brand watches in their look or feel.
That’s the appeal of smaller watch brands – you get a high-quality, stylish watch but without the hefty price tag and without the wait. McAuley’s sales so far are in the hundreds rather than in the thousands, so many of his customers know him personally.
“One of the watches we sold went to a guy in America,” McCauley says. “A few months later, he called me back, and it was like, ‘I love the watch, it’s a pride for my group,’ which is always amazing to hear. Then he said the reason I bought him was because he had already worked on the movie Titanic, and he was part of the orchestra that made it. All the music. He even won a Grammy for it. It was so unbelievable that he bought one of our watches to reconnect Belfast and the Titanic that way.
“Another who bought one was a professional diver, and he was part of the team that actually worked on restoring the Nomadic, doing the underwater repairs, and getting the ship back to the dry dock. The idea of the watch is that it’s built to the standards of the major brands, so you can strap it on and lower it at 200” meters underwater, but it’s affordable, so if something happens and is lost or damaged, it’s not the disaster that it might be. That’s the spirit behind it.”
It’s a spirit that seems to be paying off. McAuley went from doodling watchmaking as a hobby to taking on a full-time job. With the Nomadic Dive Watch selling well, he has plans for a chronograph model with a stopwatch, and a multi-time GMT version as well.
But he says he is not interested in producing a modern smartwatch.
“I think we’re constantly connected to our phones, to our digital devices, people are starting to search for something that’s a step away from it all. I like the fact that I can look at my watch and not see that I have 500 unread emails, 57 WhatsApp or anything. For people who want to connect to something analog, this is not a screen.”