As you might have gathered by now, I have a thing or two for independent and niche brands. Especially brands that have a history, that are not well-known, and that have been taken over by someone from the family or an avid collector who has improved things greatly. A few weeks ago I wrote about the acquisition of Ollech & Wajs by a fan of the brand who has since released interesting new models that pay true homage to the brand’s heritage. Today, I’m going to be introducing Circula, a German and family-owned brand founded in 1955.
Circula heralds from a long-standing tradition of German watchmaking in Pforzheim, the horological heart of the Black Forest. While nowadays we hear of Glashütte as being the cradle of German horology, Pforzheim has been playing an equally important role. And Circula has never moved out of the Black Forest, despite the multiple transitions the brand went through. In this article, then, we will talk about the brand, the current owner, and its most recent collections.
Cornelius Huber and His Dad
History of Circula
What's most interesting looking at the history of Circula is that, yes, the brand was passed down through the generations. The current owner, Cornelius Huber, is the grandson of Heinz Huber, the founder of Circula. The latter inherited a watch and jewelry wholesale business that was created in 1926. Imagine a giant store selling all sorts of jewelry including pendants, bracelets, rings, as well as watches from multiple brands and accessories such as straps and bracelets. Maybe because I’m barely working my way to my 40’s that I’m having trouble picturing that kind of store. Nowadays we are used to multi-brand luxury stores or single-brand boutiques. I would have loved to see Cornelius’ family store in the 1950s bustling with numerous creations.
For almost 30 years, the family business thrived. Selling watches from multiple brands meant getting hands-on experiences with various qualities of watchmaking and also seeing what the customer is looking for and what he or she likes and dislikes. It is in this context that Cornelius’ grandfather decided to take a leap of faith and created Circula, his own watch brand. The brand thrived until 1985 when his dad took over the family business. But the latter focused more on the wholesale side of things instead of growing Circula. But as luck would have it, Cornelius decided at a young age that Circula could be something different and better. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here.
The New Owner & His Philosophy
As we can imagine, being born into a family of watch-enthusiasts and retailers, Cornelius was brought up to get into the business himself. Even though it was perhaps not entirely deliberate from the part of his parents. Cornelius told me that most of the family conversations over dinner revolved around watches and that as a young man he would work in his parents’ business as a way to earn pocket money. His story is similar to that of famous businessmen in the likes of Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan who worked small and odd jobs in their early years.
These jobs taught them a few important business and life lessons, and especially how to deal with people. I bet it was the same for Cornelius.
When he was about 13 years old, Cornelius heard of this brand new line of watches that looked like nothing else he had seen before. The Casio G-Shock. The enormous, odd-shaped ultra resistant and affordable watches that made waves decades ago and still do to this day had grabbed Cornelius’ attention. So much so in fact that he started reselling G-Shocks during recess as a teenager. If that doesn’t indicate in which direction his life was headed, I don’t know what could. A few years later, Cornelius opened an online store to sell G-Shocks. The year was 1998 and unfortunately, the world was not ready for it.
When I was in college and living in Washington, D.C., I volunteered at the National Museum of Natural History. I remember that there was a part of the exhibitions that had to do with paleontology. Behind a glass wall was a scientist sitting at a desk in a lab (it looked too perfect to be an actual lab, at least according to my teenage self,) demonstrating how dinosaur bones had to be cleaned and studied. This scientist had my dream job—at least at that time—and I was marveled by the fact that I could see him work. This left a long-lasting impression on me, and even though I did not become a paleontologist, I became fascinated by the scientific aspect of the profession, the tools used, and what came out of it.
I think this is why I love writing about how brands are created and models designed and manufactured.
In a similar fashion, Cornelius retold the story of when he was in his early teens and used to attend watch-related events with his parents. Events hosted by brands such as Casio and Junghans. One day he visited a Junghans factory in an old building where he wandered off on his own and saw watchmakers at work behind glass walls. During his explorations, he made his way to the building’s attic where he came across a poster of a Junghans pilot’s watch. He readily told his parents about it out of sheer excitement. But as luck would have it for Cornelius, his dad gifted him the poster and the watch pictured on it for his birthday. This was, most certainly, a significant milestone in Cornelius’ relationship with watchmaking.
Taking Things Apart
Talking to brand owners often brings up an interesting story or two, something unique about the person’s experience that I find to be particularly fascinating. Growing up with parents who sold watches and made jewelry—Cornelius’s mother made the latter while his father sold watches—he spent a lot of time bathing in the behind-the-scenes of running the business. His parents did not only sell already-assembled watches, but they also worked with watchmakers that would assemble movements and put watches together. So, Cornelius shared something that truly caught my attention: the fact that movements would arrive in their shop un-assembled, the different parts wrapped in silk paper and stacked in repurposed banana boxes!
Cornelius partook in the delicate and tedious tasks of un-wrapping the parts to sort them to make the watchmakers’ job a bit easier. Just like a young Einstein spent years working in a Swiss patent office looking over patents for all sorts of inventions—which got him accustomed to how things are put together—Cornelius’ intimate connection with the hundreds of parts that make up a movement fascinated him. He was hooked and became interested in how movements work, how the parts interact with one another and the fact that some of them can only be fully appreciated under a microscope. Now as an adult who runs a watch company, Cornelius remains intrigued and fascinated knowing all of what it takes to make the watches he proudly wears everyday. Especially watches from his own brand.
Taking Over Circula & His Debuts
Knowing that he grew up talking watches, attending watch-related events, and even helping his parents run the business, one can easily imagine that Cornelius would take over the business. So he did. He first started doing Kickstarter campaigns and slowly releasing quartz-powered models to test the waters without taking a significant financial risk. Quartz movements are after-all cheap to purchase, reliable, and easy to service—or, even better, replace. He started the slow and careful process of relaunching the brand whilst working full time as a management consultant.
One day, however, he was approached by a movement manufacturer based in his native town of Pforzheim who offered him to buy a lot of new old stock (NOS) mechanical movements. This was a pivotal movement in the new history of Circula as it gave Cornelius a good reason to further delve into the rebirth of the family brand. After making the quartz model that was heavily inspired by 1950s designs, Cornelius released the AquaSport, a diver inspired by 1970s watches his dad owned, and probably the one collection that brought the brand to the international scene and in front of collectors’ eyes.
The AquaSport line of watches has a unique visual DNA and are solid watches, now coming in limited editions and as a GMT (more on that later.) And what is more interesting to know of Cornelius’ debut is that he has enrolled the help of his father to run the brand. The latter closed down the wholesale business in 2017 but kept making watches that he would sell directly to loyal clients of the family. His dad now runs the operational side of things and is in charge of quality control for all aspects of the production. He also handles after-sale service.
A Circula Strategy: Crowd-sourcing the Designs
Although it is not unique, Circula is one of the very few brands I know of that crowd-source the design process for their models. Designing a watch is typically more of a personal and intimate process—at least, that’s what I’ve gathered after interviewing numerous brand owners—so it was interesting to me that Cornelius submits himself to this exercise on a regular basis. He told me that Circula is, for the most part, an enterprise that is mostly run and managed by him and his dad. And they don’t trust themselves to know exactly what 21st century watch enthusiasts are looking for in watches, or at least they don’t pretend to.
So, Cornelius reaches out to his 25,000-strong list of watch collectors and fans of the brand to ask them what they need from a diver, a field watch, or the perfect GMT. The email list did not have 25,000 names when he first started going through this process, but it grew rapidly over the past two years. This community-based process is smart and guarantees that Circula does not manufacture watches that most enthusiasts would glance over. I recently talked to a friend of mine who was of the opinion that Cartier releases a new model every couple of years that flops and that the brand silently abandons.
Well, Circula wants to avoid doing just that.
Current Collections Highlights
Although the first model that Cornelius released was a vintage-inspired dress watch with a quartz movement, looking at the current catalog of the brand it is clear that Circula is a tool watch company. As we already know, the first and most significant collection Cornelius released is the AquaSport. It currently consists of 10 models that can be subdivided into three: the classic diver that bears the name of the collection, the SuperSport which is a true super-compressor diver, and the GMT model. The latter was announced just a few days ago in February of 2023.
The AquaSport comes in different dial colors and strap options. They come with a case diameter of 40mm, a lug-to-lug distance of 46mm, a thickness of 13.4mm (including the crystal) and a lug width of 20mm. These standard dimensions for a diver guarantees an easy fit for most wrist sizes. The AquaSports is powered by a Sellita SW200-1 caliber, now standard on many Circula models. The AquaSport leans heavily on the utilitarian type of watches having a clean dial layout, a large crown, and massive hour markers.
The SuperSport retains the same dimensions as the AquaSport but differs in the construction of the case. Indeed, the SuperSport is a true super-compressor diver in that it comes equipped with a 2-piece spring-loaded case-back. This means that the deeper one goes under water, the more pressure is applied on the case-back and gaskets, therefore increasing its water-resistance. The SuperSport is also equipped with a Sellita SW200-1 movement and, in true super-compressor fashion, has an inner-rotating dive-time bezel instead of the standard top-mounted bezel. A unique feature of this bezel is that it has 120 clicks.
The last model I am going to highlight is the AquaSport GMT. It uses the same design language as the AquaSport but comes with a GMT complication, as you might have guessed. The GMT AquaSport to me illustrates the best of two worlds—diving and traveling—brought together in a reasonably-sized case whilst maintaining the unique visual identity of the brand. Powered by a Top Grade Sellita SW330-2 movement, the AquaSport GMT maintains the 40mm case diameter, 46mm lug-to-lug distance, 13.4mm thickness, and the 20mm lug width. Circula puts a bidirectional 48-clicks bezel and offers the wearer the opportunity to track two additional time-zones by integrating a second GMT scale on the center of the dial.
Conclusion: A Brand with a Beautiful History and Promising Future
The more I write about brands and watches the more I realize how little I know about horology. Not only that but my tastes also change a lot over time, both in terms of what kind of watches I like to wear and what type of brands I’m the most interested in. Well, since mid-2022 I am very much interested in independent brands that make solid watches and that have an interesting history. Circula, therefore, fits within my horological interests just perfectly.
Cornelius’ upbringing, being surrounded by watches and growing up with a dad who lives and breathes watches, surely lead him to taking over the family brand. Or, to be more specific, to revive the brand and transport it safely into the zeitgeist of the years 2018-2022 marked by the revival, and promotion, of historical niche brands. What is the most surprising and interesting about Cornelius’ story is that he works with his dad, therefore perpetuating the family tradition.
If you would like to know more about Circula and its collections, I suggest you check out their website here.
Thanks for reading.