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FORMEX
Raphael Granito

It’s clear that innovative watchmaking lives at the intersection of breakthrough engineering and unique design, so what happens when a brand lives at this intersection? You get Formex. 

 

Established in 1999, this Swiss brand came back to life in 2016 when Raphael Granito (the new CEO) and his team launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Essence 43mm model. This particular campaign set the brand’s new direction within the watch community and almost instantly became known for offering the best value among Swiss-made watches on the market. 

 

I know. That’s a big statement to make, but it’s true.  

 

In this article, we will look at Raphael’s path into horology, his particular connection to a company called Dexel, and the strategies he designed to revive Formex. Creating a business of any sort is no cake walk, and successfully reviving a brand is like aiming for the stars and landing on the moon—when it’s well executed. Formex landed on the moon with forceful elegance (a pun that will make sense below), as it seems that nothing can stop Raphael and his team now.

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Raphael Granito, CEO of Formex

Formex Before Raphael 
 

Formex was created in 1999 when two Swiss brothers decided to meld together their passion for horology and motorsports by creating a brand whose name stands for “forme extrème” (“extreme shape” in French). These two brothers created what has now become a Formex staple: the case suspension system, which allows the central portion of the watch head to lift up when one bends the wrist. What’s more, this system offers additional protection against shocks. As we can imagine, there was a natural connection to be made between motorsports and superlative shock resistance, so the way that the suspension system came out makes sense.  

 

The case suspension therefore became synonymous with Formex. Over a period of 15 years, the brand developed nothing short of 40 collections, each new one being sportier and more advanced than the previous one. From racing chronographs and pilot watches to water-racing-specific watches. Formex has always been known for making rugged, technologically cutting-edge watches for athletes and amateurs of extreme sports. Formex’s designs, however, were not for everyone, and this trapped Formex inside a very small niche. 

 

Eventually, the brand slowed down to the point where it became stagnant. Leadership knew it was time to inject a new type of energy into the brand, and that’s when Raphael entered the scene.

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The Element 

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The Pilot 

Raphael Before Formex 

Raphael grew up in the world of horology like many watchmakers, brand owners, and astute collectors have, but his connection to the watch world is rather unique. Raphael’s father, who emigrated to Switzerland from Italy at age 14, inspired Raphael’s interest in watches. His father apprenticed with several renowned Swiss brands at a young age, Rado being one of them. He became an expert in designing and engineering new parts for watches such as dials and cases. The company he worked for eventually closed down, and Raphael’s father created his own company, Dexel.

 

Still in existence today, Dexel pioneered the engineering of new types of watch parts and watches that way back when were only used by a few brands. Imagine what Gay Frères allowed a brand like Rolex to do by inventing the Oyster bracelet, now seen as being a proprietary Rolex technology. Dexel specialized in developing dials, clasps, and cases, but nobody knew who was behind these intricate technological advances. Dexel was fabricating these innovative parts for other brands. This was bound to change when Raphael joined Dexel after studying international management in Switzerland and the United States.

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The Carbon Fiber Deployant Clasp with Fine Adjustments 

The New Formex 

The brand took a sharp turn when Raphael became its CEO in 2016. Raphael’s first step was to analyze where the brand was and where it could go. He hired one of his best friends from university, Markus Walchli, to become the brand’s marketing manager. Together, they studied the watch market and the brand's operational structures, particularly the retail networks that had become dry. That’s when the brand decided to make a move that had rarely been seen before: going 100 percent online and abandoning old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores. 

 

This move allowed the brand to save on expenses that they invested instead in designing and manufacturing better watches. Similarly, Raphael and Markus did not want to overspend on fancy marketing campaigns by enlisting the help of celebrities in order to spread the word about the brand. What they did instead was to relaunch Formex by way of a Kickstarter campaign in 2019 that revived the brand with the first Essence model, the 43mm version. This also allowed them to get closer to the watch community.

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The Essence 43mm

Launching a new collection on Kickstarter instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on marketing campaigns allowed Formex to fully invest in developing their collections and the highest levels of manufacturing for the lowest prices possible on the market. Speaking both personally and from the perspective of a watch journalist who has handled dozens of watches from numerous independent brands under the $2,000 price tag, I must say that Formex exists entirely within its own sandbox. 

 

As we will see below, the brand has developed a unique recipe that has made each one of their new releases a memorable hit. As soon as the first reviews of the Essence 43 surfaced on YouTube and online magazines, it was easy to see why people were talking about the brand: unmatchable specifications for the price, original designs, next-level finish on the case and bracelet, and (most importantly) never before seen innovations subtly built into the watch that the most dedicated watch enthusiasts couldn’t have dreamed of ever seeing for less than $2,000.

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The Essence 43mm

What Makes Formex Unique

Part of what makes Formex unique is the brand’s connection to Dexel, the company created by Raphael’s father. At a young age, Raphael did odd jobs at his dad’s company. As soon as he graduated from university, Raphael immediately started working with his father in the unofficial capacity as product developer, helping to introduce new technologies and materials to the watch market. These were innovations that only a few aficionados were into 10 years ago, but now, every watch collector swears by them. Some examples: quick-release straps and bracelets, carbon-fiber deployant clasps, and toolless micro-adjust clasps. 

 

What you probably don’t know about Raphael is that he actually has two jobs. First, he works for Dexel with a close-knit team of experienced engineers to develop new technologies and collections (their engineers are also watchmakers, which means that they know that whatever they design will work as a sellable product). Second, he incorporates all of these innovations into the new Formex collections. This is unique and explains why Formex is on fire and sits at the perfect intersection of breakthrough engineering and unique design. By taking over Formex, Raphael saw the opportunity to showcase what he and his dad have been able to do for other brands for several decades. 

 

This unique relationship explains some of the most recent unique innovations the brand has come up with. Besides the case suspension system that was created before Raphael’s time, Formex was a pioneer in adding toolless micro-adjust clasps to their bracelets, quick-release bracelets and straps, carbon-fiber deployant clasps that come with toolless micro adjustments, interchangeable bezels, and some of the thinnest cases on any sports watch that boasts more than 50 meters of water resistance. Although Formex does not produce every single cog and wheel of their watches in-house, they control the entire development process.

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Quick-release Strap System on the Reef

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COSC Movement in the Essence

The Formex Philosophy

While Formex debuted by making timepieces for athletes and those into extreme motorsports, it now makes some of the most comfortable, technologically advanced watches on the market. Raphael’s dad had worked on making comfortable and versatile watches by innovating in the domains of case designs and easy-to-change bracelets and straps. It is not surprising, then, to see Raphael imbue Formex creations with a similar spirit. 

 

As we know, Raphael and Markus didn’t want to dedicate significant company capital into expensive marketing campaigns. Instead, they invested most of what they had in developing new products. That is what Raphael spends most of his time doing. For each new release, he works with two to three designers who are also trained as engineers to develop the new models. By experience, they know that whatever they design is feasible from both engineering and mechanical standpoints.

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The Field

From a design perspective, the Essence launched in 2019 cemented the brand’s design philosophy. They worked from the case suspension system and designed a watch that could be both elegant and look and feel sporty. Some examples of effective elements include multifaceted hands and markers, good lume, minimal polished surfaces, and more surfaces showing a satin finish, thin cases, comfortable bracelets, and high-grade movements within. Are you ready for another hot take? If Formex had been around in the 1970s, it would have created the Royal Oak and Nautilus. 

 

Just saying. 

 

Clearly, Formex is a brand that innovates in both the way watches look and the way they perform. Typically, brands either stand out from the vast market of independent brands by making pretty watches or ones that are technically advanced. If a brand cannot be creative—in other words, design a unique dial or bracelet—then they stand out by offering great specs for the money, or on the other side of the spectrum, they shine by creating a unique design that often lacks in manufacturing quality. Finding a brand that does both well, then, is rare, and this fact deserves to be celebrated.

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The Field

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The Essence 43

Collection Highlights 

It feels that a brand profile would not be complete without providing an overview of the brand’s current collections. Would you be satisfied, after all, reading only part of a trilogy and leaving out essential details about the characters and the plot? Let’s take a look, then, at the brand’s catalog. Here we will only be talking about the collections that have been developed since Raphael took over as CEO. After creating the breakthrough Essence in both 43mm and 39mm, Formex created various iterations of this line, including the Leggera, which comes with a carbon case.

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The Leggera

Formex next created the Reef, a dive watch boasting 300 meters of water resistance and a unique case design that shows perfect symmetry on either side of the watch head, something rarely seen in watch design where typically the right side of the case looks different than the left side. In good Formex fashion, the Reef has a unique design and outstanding specifications: stubby hands and applied markers, impeccable fit and finish, quick-release bracelet and straps, on-the-fly micro-adjustment clasp, and interchangeable bezel inserts. In addition, there is, of course, a COSC movement. 

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The Reef

The brand was still not ready to rest on its laurels, even after these successes. Their next creation, the Field, marked a slight departure from the design language seen in both the Essence and Reef. With both watches coming with multifaceted applied markers and refined dial texture, the Field displays a full sandwich construction and a unique typeface for the Arabic numerals. With a case fully made of titanium and fabric straps that come with velcro (what Tudor describes as “self-gripping fastening system”), the Field is indeed a true field watch in both look and performance. To keep the price tag below the $1,000 mark, Formex opted for a non-COSC movement.

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The Field

The majestic look and feel of the Essence and Reef made a comeback in 2022 when the brand announced the release of the Reef GMT onto the market. Based on the design of the diver, Formex added a COSC GMT movement and a unique dial layout. The Reef GMT makes it possible to track two additional time zones, and this collection also comes with clever interchangeable bezels that can be purchased separately. Of course, Formex couldn’t release a new collection without a new trick, in this case, an adjustable and quick-release mesh bracelet. 

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The Mesh Bracelet with Quick-Release System

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The Reef GMT

Final Thoughts 

Ever since I got into horology, I dreamed of owning a Rolex Explorer 1. It is the type of watch that evokes adventure, exploration, and under-the-radar exquisite watchmaking. The Explorer 1 was and still is out of my reach, as if it's on the moon and I’m slowly walking around Earth, dreaming of the Explorer 1. Two years ago, though, I kicked a rock, and underneath it, I saw the Essence 43. I thought it was too big, but Raphael made my dream come true by pulling off another coup: a 39mm version of it. A month ago I finally got to experience the watch, and as is rarely the case, it exceeded my expectations. 

 

I wanted to write this article—and I’m grateful to Raphael for taking the time to speak with me—because I find Formex to be exceptional at offering luxury-level timepieces for non-luxury prices. The brand is more innovative than Swiss and Japanese luxury watches in the areas that amateurs care about the most—good finish, solid movement, unique designs—and not in the areas they don’t really care for—melting their own metal and putting precious metals where it looks ugly. 

 

Formex is the type of brand that has a lot going for itself and that never disappoints. You may not like their designs, but you certainly must agree that the brand offers unparalleled specifications for the money. Having now experienced a Formex watch for myself, I don’t see the point of dreaming of an Explorer 1. 

 

Thanks for reading.