To be a well-priced independent watch brand in an industry defined by luxury holding companies requires vision, passion and patience. José Miranda, founder of Isotope Watches, possesses all three. His portfolio of innovative designs—which began with the visceral Rider Jumping Hour, continued with the sporty but refined Goutte d’Eau Compressor Diver and now advances with the GMT 0º—doesn’t look like that of others. There are elements, of course, drawn from the language we all use to tell time, but Miranda defies the industry’s design inclinations.
It’s because he’s a watch lover first. Miranda’s parents gave him a Timex in 1976 or ’77. “That was my first watch. I became fascinated. It was a mechanical, hand-wound watch. I had no idea how it worked,” he says. It launched a passion that would lead to Miranda spending his first paycheck from his first advertising job on a Breitling Jupiter. Over time, he started collecting: Bell & Ross, TAG Heuer, a classic Eberhard.
When he moved to the UK from Portugal roughly a decade ago, Miranda began to acquire watches by one of the industry’s most celebrated designers, Gérald Genta. “I had a few jumping hours from Genta,” Miranda says, referencing a specific type of watch that does not have an hour hand, but displays the hour as a numeral, which jumps with the passing of every 60 minutes, in a tiny window (pictured above). “But, I wanted to find a very specific jumping hour so my wife told me why don’t you make your own? That’s how everything began in 2013.”
“I looked into the industry, into who could be able to design watches, who could manufacture watches, I looked into all the problems that we as a consumer do not understand. I took lessons on assembling and disassembling, on movements [the component that powers an automatic or manual watch]. I didn’t do this to become a watchmaker but to understand how everything works,” he says. Then, in 2014 he found a designer to partner with.
“I found one in St Petersburg, called Vikenty Gryaznov. He co-designed one of my favorite watches, the Lunokhod by Konstantin Chaykin,” Miranda says. As they began to work on a jumping hour together, Miranda decided that it would be 100% Swiss-made. “It was very difficult,” he says. “The guys manufacturing the case are on the French side. The guys manufacturing the models are on the German side. They didn’t talk to one another.” In 2016, they had a product and he officially registered the brand.
“I like fluid lines,” Miranda says of his aesthetic—one that links his brand’s pieces together. “I do not like watches that are over complicated. I like them practical but different from what everyone else is doing. When we did the Rider Jumping Hour, we were one of the first to place the hour window at six o’clock instead of 12; it doesn’t make sense at 12. The center of the Goutte d’Eau is a continued expression of our ‘lacrima’—that central droplet in all of our dials. That’s part of our DNA, inspired by the kitchen clock by Max Bill. I grew up looking at one of those.”
Miranda refers to their design sensibilities as similar to those of the Streamline moderne movement. “You feel empathy with the designs because you’ve seen some of these elements before,” he says. To achieve that, “we start with complex designs and try to clean them up but keep them unique.” On average, his watches take one and a half to two years to develop.
For his design process, Miranda works from the movement out. “I create what I call the concept, and a mood board,” he says. “I try to understand what I can do and what I shouldn’t do. I give designers a briefing, and it can take up to five weeks to build sketches. Sometimes we are on the same wavelength, most times we are not.” He adds that he likes to work on the same project with one experienced watch designer and someone who has never designed a watch before. “I match their output together and filter out what we need. I know from the beginning what I want to achieve. It’s a very interactive process that takes months,” he says.
The GMT follows the same principles, but nods to the work of his uncle (who was an industrial designer) and his appreciation for German watch brand Defakto’s Vektor Orbit. “If we are going to have a round watch,” Miranda says, “why not add a disc for the GMT hour instead of another hand? These complications were never used before together.” Through modifications to an existing movement—changes to the rotor, the hour disc and finishing—they were able to realize something so simple.
Miranda’s attention to detail does not end with a purchase. “If you keep talking directly to your clients, you make a connection,” he says. “When I receive an email from a client, I answer them personally. It’s me that contacts requests back. It’s me that gets on a car or train to show the watches and explain what they do.” If there are problems with a movement (which is sometimes the case with any brand), they replace it. “We do not create barriers,” he says. “We create trust.” This has paid off: the first 20 pre-orders Isotope had for the GMT were from clients that had bought one or more watches from them in the past.
“When I accept orders and people are paying to receive a watch, it’s to try to complement the lack of external investors I have,” Miranda says about slim budgets. “I have people interested in investing but I think it’s too soon. So we are trying to do everything on our own. That limits us. It makes it difficult to compete with major brands or even smaller brands with bigger budgets. It’s difficult to keep up in terms of sales. But at the same time, I can control everything from the idea to the delivery.”
An undeniable passion drives this dedication. “It’s day and night,” he says. “It started as a hobby. When I started to understand that the industry was not giving me what I wanted, I started to invest more time in the watch company—and I realized that this is madness. You really need to love what you are doing, in terms of design, creation and perfection, in order to do this.” But, he says, “When you see people using your watch, wearing it, it’s so satisfying. I am proud of the work we do.”
Isotope is part of an expanding British watch scene. “There are plenty of brands that are doing superb work,” Miranda says. “And most of them are micro-brands managed by only one person. For the last century and a half, England has been on the verge of innovation in terms of clock design and watchmaking. There is a new association called the British Watchmakers Alliance that I am a part of,” he adds. Their mission is to work together to draw attention to the level of quality they’re putting out. It’s so good, that Miranda is considering shifting his assembly from Switzerland to the UK. Though the prestige (and value) isn’t quite the same, the quality of work can be.
Miranda plans to release another diver in the near future, and then a new military/field watch. After that, he intends to tackle chronographs. “We are already designing the chronograph now,” he says, though he isn’t sure when any of these will reach the market. He also has several partnerships that will broaden his already collaborative nature.
Images courtesy of Isotope Watches