Since 2018, NORQAIN has been shaking up the watch industry.
A name like NORQAIN might seem as if beyond someone’s ken in the early 2010s. But this indie watch brand has been influencing the horological industry ever since it first announced its existence in 2018. Its distinctive brand name is rather a quirky one – an acronym formulated by its founders (duh, there’s no such word in any dictionary) reflecting idiosyncratic attributes very well imbued in its personality.
Among those emerging watch brands, whether big or small, that surface from our social media and physical stores almost every other day, NORQAIN has caught our attention. That’s because it is anything but your next-door-watchmaker. Yes, it is an independent, family-owned company with a highly distinct way of offering superlative timepieces, which is fascinating these days. Perhaps even more so because of the solid foundation which NORQAIN has built upon – consisting of know-how, experience, and passion. It has established itself from those available to browse nowadays, especially in the microbrand hype. Well… In fact, it’s far from being one of those.
Norqain has been adventurous in establishing itself in the Swiss watch industry, pursuing long-term independence and quality execution that exceeds today’s industry standards. Starting from its manufacturing know-how to premium suppliers to the strong partnership with eccentric individuals. These phenomenal doings by NORQAIN have decisively steered the watch community into a unique perspective that avoids the classification of being yet another upcoming newbie. Suppose you happened to stumble upon what it has to offer. In that case, you’d quickly realize a particular design style that does not accustom to the norms usually seen these days. If you’re in the know, the news that attracted one’s attention would be its adoption of Kenessi manufacture movements in 2020, which moves NORQAIN out of the sea of watch brands. By that, I’m talking about the ones found in the Rolex-owned Tudor watches.
So what exactly does NORQAIN have to offer, and are they primarily sports watches? Yes, you bet. Are they Swiss-made? For sure, as they take this area of contention seriously. And what makes them stand out from the rest? Do they carry price tags of a thousand bucks onwards? Well, in this article, I’m obliged to elaborate more on this single question, whether it is worth it for our pocket to acquire a NORQAIN. For sure, I won’t be waxing poetic without handling the brand’s offerings before. Hopefully, my extensive photos along this journey will do much justice for the brand. The point here is that NORQAIN has cast itself as the new era in the watch world, meanwhile holding up to real scrutiny. It nails those intricate details and flourishing finishes found within its watch stable. Of course, one thing to note before we start is that its timepieces simply potter the sportiness and independence route.
NORQAIN’s unprecedented lineups exude virile presence, only to be accentuated by their refined constructions – from the outer case all the way to the choice of Swiss calibers. All of which could easily tower above most microbrands. Although the brand might be less than a decade old – seemingly a fetus-like state in the art of horology – the watches churned out by it are deeply rooted in the heritage and traditional essence of fine watchmaking. The indie watchmaker bestows the fundamentals of Swiss craftsmanship, mastered in the most modern way possible that only speaks quality with a lot of attention to detail. It encapsulates premium quality in the watches with flair and finesse, which I will share throughout this article.
Therefore, this will be an extensive review of the trendsetting NORQAIN with its incredible lineup that caters to most who seek a robustly built, sporty, mechanical watch that wears differently than any other while packing a true Swiss pedigree. Now, I wouldn’t dare to make this statement if I’m not confident about what I’m saying. And to prove my point and make this going-to-be-exhaustive article more interesting, I will involve my personal Tudor Black Bay Heritage with the same base caliber for a bumper-to-bumper comparison to the NORQAIN Neverest sports model. We might just begin to appreciate how these brands were born from a different epoch but come close in terms of execution and quality. Based on what I already can conclude, the results are definitely spectacular.
Now I hope I have got your attention, as this article will further highlight several more intriguing factors like NORQAIN’s long-term partnerships with equally authentic ambassadors and, arguably, retailers like Gnomon Watches. At the end of this review, we conclude that the brand seems to be only getting started despite already imparting much effort and thought into the current models. It indeed undertakes a long-term vision for its unapologetic approach to independent watchmaking. It is a hell of a lot more than meets the eye, and it’s serious watchmaking finesse. Regardless of what you think, this might jolly well be what horology enthusiasts need in this niche hobby, for both newcomers and dyed-in-the-wool collectors, who enjoy qualitatively exquisite Swiss timepieces.
An All-Star Team
Before I touch on whose behind the company, the NORQAIN name is formed through seven acronyms, and each refers to:
N = Always open for the NEW
O = Going through life OPEN-MINDED
R = A healthy dose of REBELLIOUS
Q = life is about enjoying QUALITY TIME
A = Seeking ADVENTURE
I = Always feeling INDEPENDENT
N = Proud to be part of a NICHE
Starting and ending with the same letter “N,” both symbolize the peaks of Swiss mountains that form the brand’s inspiration, influencing its vision through nature’s perfect imperfection. It is what ties tradition with each NORQAIN watch.
Don’t get me wrong, it is easy to assume that the less-than-a-decade old Swiss brand was started by debutantes, stepping their infant toes into the industry like those startup microbrands. But NORQAIN’s age is diametrically opposed to its founders. Instead, the brand was founded by several heavyweight elites, comprising indefatigable ones that have been in the industry for quite some time.
Starting off with the Küffer family. Ben Küffer serves as the CEO of NORQAIN and has a significant accumulation of experience in the industry. Seen as the main protagonist, or should I say, the front face of the brand, he had a total of thirteen years experience in the watch industry prior. He untiringly served in Breitling as Brand Manager in Switzerland and then was promoted to director for the Asian Markets. That’s not all. Monsieur Marc, the chairman of the board and father of Ben, has more than 45 years of experience manufacturing Swiss luxury watches. More than half were well spent as the Board of Directors of the Swiss Watch Industry Association. Remarkably, his axiomatic experience includes managing Roventa Henex SA in 1988 – a sizeable private manufacturer cooperating with several pre-eminent Swiss brands.
Wait. There’s more than the Küffer father and son proving a skookum duo to run the young brand. They are accompanied by Ted Schneider, who stewards the brand with them. If his surname is familiar to you, then you’ve guessed right. Ted was born into the watch industry and the Schneider family that owned Breitling for the last 30 years. And yes, as you might guess, he’s the son of Breitling legend Mr. Théodore Schneider – his family remained the guardians of the Breitling legacy until 2017. Unsurprisingly, both the Küffer and Schneider families have taken charge of the new watch brand from Bienne, bringing along their expertise from watch manufacturing to managing the stellar Breitling.
Apart from these three horological heavyweights, things get interesting as NORQAIN consists of one more fellow. Considered once the “the best Swiss hockey player of all time,” he is a Swiss ice hockey player and Stanley Cup winner in 2017 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He also achieved legendary status but not from the watchmaking field – and that’s Mark Streit.
Mark wasn’t a random pick by the families. He is simply already an astounding ambassador beyond Switzerland. Through his close relationship with Ben, together they decided to kick NORQAIN off since day one. And with that, the brand consequently bridged a solid connection to ice hockey, imbuing a copious sports spirit that reflects deeply in all of their timepieces and partnerships.
So now we have those from the horological side, combining and another who brings the adventurous, vibrant mantra. There are currently two additional BOD for the strategic and financial side of NORQAIN. And they are Vice-chairman Patrick Lafranchi, an attorney of law and founding partner at Lafanchi Meyer Rechtsanwälte. He provides advisory and procedural services primarily in the legal fields. And board member Peter Boss has been a general manager of the investing firm V. Fischer Investas Ltd. for 15 years. Peter is a reputed expert in the finance field and sits on several boards of small and middle-sized companies in Switzerland. Now, he serves as the chairman of NORQAIN.
Together, all six of them form the NORQAIN we see today, deeply rooted in Swiss values from different fields of the profession. Now, this is what we definitely want to see and go gaga about from a young brand. Packing legitimacy and volume in watchmaking while balancing them off with strong dynamics from the non-watch-conformists who infuse incompatible perspectives with alacrity. This synergy would only make NORQAIN an ambidextrous brand with acuity, compared to most traditional Swiss watch companies that we are boringly accustomed to. It’s the type of watch that makes you feel adventurous already.
Also, a strong independent team like NORQAIN allows them to continuously invest the best quality and innovation into their timepieces. They hold a crucial advantage of an independent company with no profit pressure from the stock market and shareholders.
Uniquely NORQAIN – Watch Lineup
Since its all-star team’s inception, NORQAIN has carried three main collections that revolve around sport-chic design, unlike any others. The collections include the stark Adventure Sport, its vintage-infused Freedom 60, and the avant-garde Independence collection. The brand has rigorously executed each timepiece but thoroughly emphasized a modernistic theme.
Let’s start with the Adventure Sport collection. The lineup bestows sporty and strong character for consumers who seek the reliability of a good tool watch. The same personas could also be seen in the other two collections, taking center stage. Each Adventure Sports model is straightforward in its roots – a design that may seem enduring and familiar. The DNA belies certain evergreen sports divers’ silhouettes of the late fifties – especially those found in Switzerland. However, those familiar cues stop right there when the Adventure Sports models set out to be different, representing NORQAIN’s interpretation of another era.
Here, each individual sports model, both for women and men, features the brand’s unique flair in watchmaking. Elements like the “NORQAIN” dial patterns and the customizable plate at the side. Despite specific special editions and the women’s Mother-Of-Pearl dial variants, these two traits can be clearly seen throughout the collection.
I could further classify the Adventure Sport collection into two groups: the Adventure Sports and the Adventure Neverest models. Both sub-collections are capable divers or daily-beaters with sizes starting from 37mm (for the ladies) to 44mm for the Sport Chronographs. All of these are built with a minimum of 100m water resistance and unidirectional, with a counter-clockwise rotating bezel that allows the wearer to rotate effortlessly underwater – like any recreational dive watch. Furthermore, a double anti-reflective, scratch-proof sapphire glass can be found on all, with, of course, a screw-down crown to reassure the wearer of the water-proofing.
The unique feature that runs through the Adventure Sport collection as a whole is the “NORQAIN” pattern, a herringbone weave-like texture found on each dial. Although one might argue that it’s merely another dial decor, the pronounced patterns strongly project a sense of persona of what NORQAIN stands for while adding real visual depth that anyone can indulge in when viewing through the sapphire glass.
But let’s pay some attention here. Among both, the distinguishing factor would be the Neverest line packs the higher-spec movements produced by Kenessi. In contrast, the rest of Sports and Sports Chrono rely on proven workhorse calibers like the three-handers Sellita SW200 (NN08), ETA 2824 (NN09), and the Valjoux 7753 chronograph (NN18). Zoning into applying the “Tudor” automatic movement by Kenessi, we will explore more later when comparing one with an actual Tudor timepiece.
While the Adventure Sports models are your typical flamboyant, sporty tool-watchmaking standards, the Freedom 60 collection instills a more conservative palette. Arguably the “vintage” side of NORQAIN, each Freedom 60 leans into the past for inspiration. Every model has the clean, minimalistic looks in the field watch realm of the sixties (duh). I would compare their design to Seiko’s Cocktail and the Alpinist models, as each of them is almost an all-dial watch, topping off with a period-correct boxed sapphire crystal with double AR treatment (see what I am saying).
The heritage collection includes case sizes from 34mm (for the ladies) with MOP dials and applied diamond markers to the sporty chronographs at 43mm; all clad a 100m water-resistance. Ladies variants apart, the rest are synonymous as they are still tool watches, to begin with. The hour markers and syringe-style hands are similar in design and filled with lime. The watch comes fitted with the “NORQAIN” customizable plate on each case side on which buyers can personalize their engravings. This accentuates that each watch the brand sells, making them uniquely attached to its individual owner, respectively. Despite the primary purpose, I’d find the plate slab on the case side makes the watch more interesting than just another run-of-the-mill case design.
Construction-wise, the Freedom 60 is tough enough to handle rigorous activities, fitting into both formal events and light-duty sports – an element that solely fits with the brand’s philosophy. It has a guaranteed 100m water-resistant case, hooding both manufacture calibers and the industry’s workhorses in tandem to the Adventure Sports collection.
What I love about this collection, in particular, has got to be the ritzy touches on the 34mm ladies’ variants. These petite models not only boast fine mother of pearl dials with diamond indices, two-two-tone casing, and one even has unique ridged patterns. Best of all, they are entirely mechanical running on the NN09, essentially an ETA 2824 base – a brilliant implementation as the size of movement would take up almost the whole space nicely within the svelte case.
The final collection is where NORQAIN showcases its apogee in watchmaking. Each piece is only made in limited quantities and once a year. What we have gotten with this collection is sports an avant-garde design that is reliable and, of course, versatile to boot. If you want to fully immerse yourself in the NORQAIN’s world, acquiring an Independence LE would give you the experience.
Fine attention is given to details like the multi-finished steel bracelet, beguiling textured dials which beget modern watchmaking with virtuoso, and having only manufacture caliber. For instance, the Independence 21 42mm Blue Ref. NN3000S03A/A301 features a fixed bezel with refined satin finishing. Within lies an entrancing midnight blue dial with an ornate scratched decoration unique to each of the 200 models. Or how about a complete blackout Independence 21 42mm DLC Skeleton Ref. NB3000B03A/302? Albeit with the equally well-finished casework as the steel blue model, the whole piece coddles a DLC treatment resulting in a fantastic blackout makeover. What is more intriguing is its skeletonized dial, which allows the wearer, for the first time, to have the opportunity to admire the unimpeded Kenessi manufacture caliber.
This seasonal collection radiates the brand’s prowess and a blip towards traditional Swiss watchmaking, establishing original novelty for the young Swiss brand. It represents the right approach for the brand’s legacy – embracing and thinking outside the box – executing each limited edition to superb finishing levels, incredible dial works that rivals watch that are more costly, and with an empowering movement to boot. I genuinely hope to see which other NORQAI outside-the-box products come out of this collection.
Your Life, Your Way – The Norqainers And Partnerships
Ever since NORQAIN started as an adventurous brand that carries equally spirited timepieces, they have forged quite a bond with a decent number of luminaries and entities that bring the same attitude. Yes, this might sound cliche and trite at this point, as every other brand would collaborate with famous people to boost their image and marketing – to gain a better target audience and sales. But not NORQAIN, not quite. They are not content to just collect any sports personalities involved in the world of sports. Instead, they take their time building and learning from particular people and companies that fit the brand philosophy.
NORQAIN managed to build genuine friendships through personal interactions with its brand ambassadors over the past few years. The partnerships have elevated what NORQAIN is about through each individual lifestyle. And not just on particular sports or that itself (it’s not only hikers and mountain climbers). These Norqainers consist of all walks in life – from someone like Tadahiro Konoe, who recites traditional poetry to Dean Schneider, who left his finance career in Switzerland and moved to South Africa, where he established a wildlife sanctuary and animal rehabilitation center called Hakuna Mipaka. Oh, and Dean Schneider is indeed the “lion guy” who your family stumbles upon on television or Youtube.
Just as with a wide selection of timepieces for both genders, the brand includes several equally inspirational women to be part of the journey. We have fine choices from German professional Ski racer Viktoria Rebensburg and World Cup alpine ski racer Christina “Tina” Weirather from Liechtenstein, Austria. Both are strong individuals who display adventurous spirit through their sports achievements, harmonizing with NORQAIN’s mission. Unsurprisingly, Christina selected her NORQAIN that perfectly fits her persona – an Adventure Sports Lady cladding a full paved diamond bezel and MOP dial with matching diamond markers – reflecting her icy sports environment. Do you remember the NORQAIN customized plate that I mentioned earlier? Yes, she had the brand to sentimentally engrave “ST. MORITZ” to remind her of the silver medal she won (with a broken hand) at the world championship, as well as two World Cup victories in St. Moritz.
Something is fascinating about each of these individuals (28 of them as of now) that I find awe-inspiring. They truly embody what NORQAIN stood for and in a very personal way. There’s more to that representation’s intent as NORQAIN themselves would work together with each of them. And that’s what sets NORQAIN apart from the rest – solidifying a two-way relationship with who they partner with.
Among several partnerships, a few stood out to the audience. First was with the lion man himself, Dean Schneider, where NORQAIN shows off their wild side by taking wildlife preservation to greater heights. “Meeting with Ben, the company’s CEO, he immediately decided to stop producing future watches that consist of any type of animal product,” says Dean excitedly while he combs the fur of lions with his hand. Yes, the brand decided to display its own effort by sharing the same values of his Hakuna Mipaka oasis, and that’s a commitment to being cruelty-free. In fact, the company has already been committing to using alternatives to conventional leather made from animal skins. Therefore, through this partnership, both sides can emphasize how each could continue to protect our world’s wild creatures by committing that all future products will feature only 100% animal cruelty-free straps and bracelets.
A more recent one was when NORQAIN partnered with the Butterfly Help Project, an organization created by Norbu Sherpa and Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann of Wild Yak Expeditions. It is an extension based on these two’s experiences as the uber guides in the Himalayas (if you’re not sure, you can watch 14 Peak on Netflix) with their outfit. This project benefits a worthy cause as it helps families of Sherpas who have lost their lives in the mountains. Many lives have been lost throughout the years. It happened to those who have to endure it every day to bring money back for their families. Therefore, choosing the foundation is much more than some marketing gimmick. A portion of the funds generated from their befitting Adventure Neverest collection sales will fund the project, supporting those families and ensuring their children have access to education. An adventurous brand with reputable alpine watches assisting a relevant project. Now that’s what I call a true partnership.
In-between those, we have gotten other incredible partnerships like the National Hockey League Players Association. This is where 44 all-stars players will exclusively be participating in NORQAIN initiatives, thanks to the connection of their founder Mark Streit. Also, they teamed up with another exciting group known as the Swiss sky running competition Matterhorn Ultraks, being the official timekeeper. Apart from all the pertinent outdoor entities, the brand couldn’t just skip the horology segment. In February 2020, they announced their long-term partnership with movement manufacturer Kenissi, producing the three-hand NN20/1 and its GMT brethren NN20/2 calibers. This strategic and authentic relationship is what sets NORQAIN apart from those teeming indie or microbrands. I’ll discuss more on this grand alliance later in this article.
There are plenty of facets seen from both the brand and the partners. Their bonds and authentic partnerships have led to plenty of exciting developments. Like those I have highlighted above, they chart the strength of independence that is NORQAIN which lets the watch brand stands out from the others in many remarkable ways.
In the second part I’ll go further hands-on with NORQAIN’s uber GMT sports watch, alongside my personal Tudor Black Bay Heritage, for a clearer perspective on how well-made the new Indie brand is.