Body Buzz: Heitis Watches, A Buffalo Microbrand
Last week we looked at the rise of wrist watch micro-brands in the USA, and now we dig into Buffalo’s only micro-brand, Heitis Watches. Established in late 2016 via Kickstarter, Heitis is an earnest one-man operation run by D. J. Heider, a Hamburg resident who grew up in South Buffalo and West Seneca. D. J. took his own watch-geekery to the next level when he started building watches from parts he got online, which led to building one-offs for customers, which, in turn, led him to start Heitis Watches. Talking to D. J. is like talking to Buffalo itself: neighborly, optimistic, humble, and suffering no illusions.
Characteristically, D. J. openly claims on the Heitis website that the watches are, “Assembled in Buffalo NY from Global Components.” The straight-shooting here is important, as too many small (and large) American businesses try to attract customers with blurrier statements about manufacturing—some even get busted by the FTC for it. Engraved on the watches themselves, we find “Buffalo New York,” a regional touch you’ll only get on a Heitis watch.
To date, Heitis offers three quartz watches: The Classic, The Aviator, and The Chronograph. The inner workings of a watch are called the movement; quartz movements are battery-powered and highly accurate, but do stand in contrast to the less accurate but more highly coveted wound mechanical movements. D. J. is currently prototyping a mechanical watch, but for now Heitis offers only quartz. The Classic and The Aviator use highly regarded Swiss Rhonda movements, and The Chronograph smartly sports a crisp Japanese Miyota movement. The watch cases come from China, and are precision cut from solid 316L surgical stainless steel (you’ll find this metal on watches costing over ten times what Heitis asks), and the scratch-proof sapphire crystals and thick leather straps come from Italy. D. J. has done his homework—and some hustling—to get excellent parts for his watches.
All these components fit together with precision. Down in his basement, D. J. assembles the various parts, a process involving specialized tools and know-how. Then he tests the watches, packages them up in lovely Heitis-branded boxes, and ships them out to his customers with free 2-day shipping (take that Amazon Prime). One man, one basement, one vision—this is what micro-brands are all about.
The Heitis Classic is a mid-century-inspired watch that resonates with minimalist designs like the now re-issued Max Bill models from Junghans of Germany, the very popular Swiss railroad watches from Mondane, and high-end timepieces from Nomos of Glaschutte. The Heitis Classic is 44mm across, putting it on the larger side, but it’s also quite thin and feels elegant and light. Smartly, D. J. skipped the date window on this model, giving the Classic uninterrupted symmetry and ultra-clean lines (many watch-heads despise date windows). A tiny bright red seconds hand spins in a discrete sub-dial above 6-o’clock. The suede strap that came on the demo model is soft and richly black. I’ve handled some seriously crappy straps, and this is not one of those; it’s supple, thick, and handsome—and Italian, FWIW. I’d avoid this strap in the warm months, as suede can be a bit of a sponge for sweat, but the straps are readily swapped out, which is part of the fun of watch ownership. The Heitis Classic could easily sit alongside mid-century marvels at the MoMA store, but you can get one of the four Heitis Classic variations for only $159.
Pilot’s watches are a fundamental watch type. Rugged and hyper-legible, these “tool watches” came into fashion along with, it seems, the rest of WWI and WWII pilot’s garb over the years (bomber jackets and aviators anyone?). The Heitis Aviator (granted, not the most original name), leans in the direction of Breitling’s pilots watches, their faces dense with numbers, multiple time scales, and winged logos. The Aviator’s minute- and hour-scales are a little confusing at first, but it’s actually a smart layout: if you need to know military time, just look at the inner track; otherwise just read the hands like you would any other watch. As with many pilot’s watches, the emphasis is on minutes and seconds, which are boldly spelled out from 00-55 along the outer scale. This layout gives the watch a strong tool-like quality. The date window is in the spirit of an altimeter, meaning that you see the numerals before and after the current date in a larger “altimeter style” window—some folks approve; other’s balk; it really works on this already-busy dial. At 44mm, this is a typical size for a pilot’s watch, and it doesn’t wear too big because the lugs (that hold the strap) are short and tucked in.
The Aviator’s bead-blasted 316L stainless case appears matte and muted like titanium, giving the watch a appealingly quiet appearance that’s great for casual wear—think Saturday in jeans, for example. My preference, though, is the all black version on black leather, a stealthy look with a modern edge reminiscent of the IWC Top Gun Miramar (a $5,400 carbon watch). I’m not a fan of fighter jets, really, but—personal opinions aside—the Heitis Aviator certainly fits the bill for aviation fans, or anyone looking for a casual and masculine watch. The Aviator sells for $189.
Lastly, there is the Heitis Chronograph. Chronographs are wrist-worn stop-watches. They’ve got sub-dials that count elapsed seconds, minutes, and hours, pushers to start, stop, and reset the mechanism, all packed into a tiny space. Chronos are elaborate and often expensive watches, and Heitis does a really good job at just $199. I’ve checked out enough big-box retail chronographs in this price range to assure you that nearly nothing from that realm comes close to the quality and feel from Heitis.
Using the snappy Japanese Miyota quartz movement was a good idea, because when chronographs don’t operate crisply or return to zero accurately they’re downright depressing. Only a chronograph can so blatantly display its inadequacies. Aesthetically, the Heitis Chronograph is modern, clean, and quietly masculine. The vibe is refreshing, as so many large chronographs are obnoxiously showy—like jacked up pickups with vertical exhaust pipes and spotlights across the roof. Thankfully, the Heitis Chronograph is more about looking good than looking tough. Kudos to D. J. for putting the date-window down at 4:30 and for not having any of the watch-face elements overlap each other—a personal pet-peeve, but a standard design choice on even the most expensive chronographs. The Heitis Chronograph is just $199.
I love how a micro-brand can crush a big-box retailer. For less than $200 shipped to your door as fast as Amazon Prime, Heitis is offering wonderful watches with a bit of Buffalo charm. Got a problem with your Heitis? Email D. J. directly and he’ll get your taken care of personally. Try that with a big-brand from Amazon or Target. Got a loved one with a connection to Buffalo? Hard to imagine a better gift. Want to sport some hometown pride on your wrist and support a local micro-business? Go for it.
D. J. is just getting started with Heitis. His current prototype of a 200m mechanical dive watch is exciting, and will put Heitis into a bigger league of micro-brands offering even higher performance at what will likely also be higher prices. D. J. hopes to be offering that watch within the year, and he shows no sign of slowing down. Welcome to the new American watch industry.
From watches to whisky, Allen Farmelo’ s writing celebrates luxury as a pathway to health, sustainability, and joy. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in the Hudson Valley with two big orange cats. Learn more at allenfarmelo.com and body-buzz.com.