Norqain is a relatively new brand, having come into existence in 2018 as the brainchild of Ben Küffer, a young entrepreneur whose father, Marc Küffer, has been active in the Swiss watch industry for over 45 years and who was formerly CEO of Roventa Henex SA, a large manufacturing and design concern serving the Swiss watch industry, and which is located in Bienne, Switzerland. (He was also on the board of the Federation Of The Swiss Watch Industry for many years). The company also counts among its board members Ted Schneider, whose family owned Breitling for nearly 40 years prior to its sale. Today, they’ve announced their first watch made as a result of their eagerly-watched partnership with Kenissi, which makes movements used by Tudor as well as Chanel – the Independence 20 Limited Edition.
While the company is a very young one, the presence of industry leaders like Schneider and Küffer sets them apart from many other watch start-ups, which may have to take many years to accumulate the experience and the range of connections within the industry which Norqain’s management represents. More or less at the same time that the company debuted, it also announced the alliance with Kenissi, whose production of Tudor’s in-house calibers are now represented in the majority of Tudor’s catalogue (one notable exception being the chronograph caliber MT5813, which is a modified version of the Breitling B01 and which has a free-sprung, adjustable mass balance and silicon balance spring). The announcement that the company would be breaking ground on a new factory to produce movements ran in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps in November of 2018, although the company has been manufacturing movements for Tudor since the launch of the first in-house Tudor calibers in 2015, with the release of the caliber MT5621 in the Tudor North Flag. In January of 2019, Le Temps also reported that Chanel had taken a 20 percent stake in the company (Kenissi makes the Chanel caliber 12.1, which can be found in the J12, as Cara Barrett reported in 2019) and that the Geneva-based firm would be opening a new facility in Le Locle code-named, rather enticingly, Project Gemini.
As the FHH Journal reported in February of this year, Breitling’s Jean-Paul Girardin, who “oversaw the development of Breitling’s manufacturing capacities” moved to Kenissi in 2017 after the sale of Breitling.
I mention all this partly because it illustrates the importance of often, to the consumer at least, invisible developments which occur in the Swiss watch industry and which can make understanding it something of a mystery even to people in the business (Le Temps wrote that the name Kenissi, “even among insiders, hardly means anything to anyone”), but also because it shows just how serious an undertaking Norqain really is. When the brand launched in 2018, it already announced that it would collaborate with Kenissi on watches which would use unique movements; these would be the proprietary calibers NN20/1 and GMT NN20/2, both with a 70-hour power reserve. At launch, the company made use of Sellita and ETA movements, in very high-quality cases and at surprisingly low prices (the Freedom 60 automatic is $ 2,060), and the firm clearly intended to establish itself from the get-go as a maker of high-value, affordable, versatile watches. The new movements up the ante in a number of respects and, despite their greater exclusivity, Norqain is still able to offer them at very competitive prices. The Independence 20 is $ 2,990 on a steel bracelet and $ 2,840 on a strap.
The Independence 20 is a somewhat large but pretty classically styled watch, which gives an immediate impression in the hand and on the wrist of a level of quality in construction and finish which is quite unusual in a watch at this price point. The dial has an interesting texture to it – “Scratched Forest Green” is how Norqain describes it, and it gives an additional impression of depth and subtlety without calling so much attention to itself that it takes away from the harmony of the overall design. There are applied markers and faceted hands – both with enough Super-LumiNova to make nocturnal visibility easy – and the crown guards are balanced by a flange on the opposite side of the case that carries a steel plaque engraved with the brand’s name (and, I would imagine, you can always have it engraved with something more personal as well.)
The case is 42mm in diameter but not excessively thick, at 11.8mm, and Norqain has helpfully provided lug width (22mm) and lug-to-lug distance (48.75mm, this is a useful measurement to have, and kudos to Norqain for providing it – as many readers have pointed out, it’s a quite useful piece of information and almost never provided in press materials. I wish more brands would provide it up front!). As we’ve already mentioned, the construction of the watch is quite a bit more complex than you generally find in a sub-$ 3,000 watch, and the case sports details such as milled recesses in the lugs, and nicely beveled and polished edges to both the nameplate and the crown guards; the large, easily-grasped crown is very well machined as well. You get 100 meters’ water resistance, a screw-down crown, and a sapphire box-type crystal up front and sapphire in the back as well.
Which lets you take a gander at the movement.
The caliber NN20/1 will immediately look familiar to anyone who’s spent any time looking at Tudor’s Kenissi-made movements such as the caliber MT5621 in the North Flag. The most obvious similarity is the balance bridge, which provides a more rigid platform for the balance and which is used extensively by both Rolex and Tudor, for that reason. The resemblance to the MT5621 is no surprise – the general layout is a proven formula and provides excellent performance, with the NN20/1 earning a chronometer rating from the COSC. There are some technical differences – the NN20/1 runs in 27 jewels versus 28 for the MT5621, and the NN20/1 appears to have a standard Nivarox-type balance spring rather than the silicon spring found in the MT5621. I suspect the single-ruby reduction in jeweling might have to do with the absence of the power reserve found in the MT5621, in the caliber NN20/1. Both movements share a free-sprung, adjustable mass balance.
Oh, and ye who loathe in the depths of your soul the date window, hearken unto me and hear my words, and rejoice for lo, I say unto you, the Independence 20 ain’t got one.
Now, here’s the thing. The Norqain Independence 20 is almost a third less expensive than the North Flag, which is currently Tudor’s entry price point at $ 3,725 on a strap. At $ 2,840 for the Norqain, it is hard to avoid feeling, if your tastes align with the design and you find value in a more exclusive movement, that you are getting something of a bargain. Off the top of my head, I think you might find some roughly similar values in terms of offerings from Seiko in the Presage and Prospex lines, but the Independence 20 comes with not only a very well executed set of externals, but also a very interesting movement with a fascinating story behind it that illustrates both the ambitiousness of the brand and the seriousness of its founders. In these uncertain times, there is a lot of attraction to be found in a new brand that has steady hands at the helm and is very clearly planning on playing a long game.
Writing about watches for a couple of decades (or more) can incline one to be cynical, but I am kind of rooting for these guys. They don’t appear to especially need it – there are some big guns and some serious financial backing behind Norqain – but the Independence 20, in particular, seems to be a serious enthusiast play (c’mon, they left out the date window). For a wonder, the management powerhouses behind the company seem to have decided to put their clout to use to actually create value for the consumer, which certainly doesn’t happen every day and which also is getting harder and harder (and harder) to find at this price point. In other words, it gives every appearance of being, dare I say it, a passion project. It’s a cool watch with a performance-oriented movement and, if it’s a sign of the future direction of the company, they ought to find smoother sailing than most, especially nowadays when smooth sailing is in very short supply.
The Norqain Independence 20 Limited Edition With Scratched Forest Green Dial: case, 316L stainless steel, 100 meters water resistance with screw-down crown; box sapphire crystal and sapphire crystal caseback; stainless steel bezel; dimensions 42mm diameter / 11.8mm thickness / 22mm lug width / 48.75mm lug to lug. Dial, Scratched Forest Green, with hand-applied beveled and polished indexes; hands and markers treated with Super-LumiNova. Movement, Norqain caliber NN20/1, running at 28,800 vph in 27 jewels; 70-hour power reserve; flat balance spring with freesprung, adjustable mass balance. Price: on a black Barenia leather strap, $ 2,840; on a steel bracelet with folding clasp, $ 2,990. Currently available; for more info visit Norqain.com.