Off topic: Why I started making watches, part I

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The MING family, as of March 2019

It’s a fair question, and one I’ve been asked frequently enough to properly explain myself somewhere, for the record. I suppose it isn’t just something you pick up on a whim one day, nor is it something that even if you had a burning desire to do – can easily begin by submitting a CV to a headhunter. Watchmaking, in its purest definition, is a vocation – not a profession. You physically have to make something, and in the process of doing so (from scratch, of course) understand everything from engineering to metallurgy to physics to aesthetics. It is the kind of masochistic intellectual pursuit undertaken successfully by only the most dedicated, the most skilled, or the most masochistically insane. I am not a watchmaker in the pure definition, nor am I dextrously skilled, but I am fairly dedicated and probably also insane. After all, eight years ago (has it been that long?) I did quit the top of the corporate game to start all over again as a photographer. And now, not having learned my lesson, history repeats.

Many of you will have noticed that I am slowly winding down my photographic activities; there are several reasons for this. Firstly, the market is changing yet again – both for purely commercial work, for education, and also for the hardware side. It seems that the camera makers are content to continue driving themselves into a repetitive (and unprofitable in an oversaturated market) cycle. There is only so much ‘more’ people can use – and more importantly, justify paying for – without other investments in both ability/skill and UI etc. The writing has been on the wall for some time, but there are limits to what one person can do without resorting to being sensationalist – which I refuse to do. Instead I choose to stick to my philosophy (it’s about the image, first and foremost, and everything else is merely a means to get there), shoot and write as I choose, and photograph for clients who appreciate this. I am fortunate to be able to do so. And I’m more fortunate to have a few things to keep me intellectually and creatively occupied.

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Ochs und Junior x MING Celestial

Horology is really a homecoming of sorts for me. In a nutshell, an interest in things mechanical and the desire to buy a ‘nice’ watch (how relative I would learn that term is!) lead to research and the quick realisation that the pieces I liked I would never have any hope of affording unless I got extremely lucky. But the accumulation of knowledge has always been much cheaper, if not downright free. I learned everything I could about anything horological; focusing on the movements, complications and mechanical side of things before giving a second thought to the aesthetics – at the time I thought many had done it better and more coherently already. And my preferences were strongly influenced by my favourite brands of the time, leading to rather derivative looking attempts at designing things. I’m sure those early movement attempts had more than their fair share of flaws and wouldn’t have any hope in running; often I’d realise this before completing the drawings (yes, pen and tracing paper back then).

In parallel, I met some very nice people on the internet that were as crazy about watches as I was; the movers and shakers of the watch world in 2019 all occupied one little corner of the internet in 2001, and I remember meeting them in person in various events around Europe in those years. Fortunately, I was living in London at the time which made access much easier. Whilst I still felt massively out of place financially at those gatherings – I remember making excuses for more than one dinner, being on a student or lowly audit junior budget – at least I could hold my own on the knowledge front. There was also the inspiration of several other fellow collectors who were photographing their own pieces for various reasons – and kind enough to lend them to me to photograph, too. In this way I was able to experience a watch and take away a small slice of my own impressions for posterity. Perhaps not the full experience of ownership, but at least something to visually remember the piece by. This would later turn into the foundations of my photography career and mark the first loop of the cycle – watches > photography > corporate > photography.

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Ochs und Junior x MING Simpleton

The keyword here is ‘visual’: I guess this is the way my brain works; everything translates or decomposes into patterns, shapes, colors, luminosity. I of course had to try to design my own and see if I could do better – at least according to my preferences – with the little knowledge I had. A movement may be mechanically superb, but if it’s visually boring, I’d rather have an interesting solid caseback. ‘Interesting’ also doesn’t necessarily mean complex: this took me some time to learn, too. One’s initial desires as a collector do not necessarily stay; we are swayed and drawn by the iconic pieces, then the ‘something different’, then the complex, and at that point you’re in to commissioning piece uniques. Not everybody makes it this far, of course – you need to have a certain level of income to climb the ladder.

Two important things here: firstly, if you look hard enough, there are watches that fill all of those categories at every price point. A new, modern grand complication wristwatch will set you back six figures or more (the currency doesn’t even matter at this point) – but back then, a little hunting would yield the same things in a pocket watch, quite possibly better finished and certainly larger and easier to appreciate – in the low thousands. The options have only gotten even greater in recent years with the rise of the microbrand and internet retail. Secondly, assuming you make it through a few steps of the cycle – you find that increasingly bigger infusions of horology are required to keep the passion going. No longer are we content to be invited to a cocktail night at a boutique but we must go visit the independent watchmaker’s atelier, examine the screws under a microsurgical microscope and choose the cows used to make our straps.

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The debut: 17.01, August 2017

There is of course a certain fatigue that sets in after a while, not to mention either financial ruin or the frustration of watching but being unable to take part (for the same reasons of impending financial ruin). In the meantime, I’d stopped shooting watches professionally because I found it was starting to severely reduce my enjoyment of the hobby. Rare pieces that would appear once in a blue moon at collectors’ gatherings that would trigger drooling anticipation were now presented in every variant on a tray, to be ‘front side back 3/4 views, thank you’. I went to a watch show in Asia in 2014 as the guest of a friend (and serious collector) who was there to investigate a potential heavy purchase, along with a few other friends who accompanied him for moral support (and to eat the beef noodles). We left somewhat disillusioned by the (lack of) quality service, the pretentiousness and well, the feeling that even entry level watches were just starting to become silly money. Case in point – in 2002, a decent used Submariner or Speedmaster could be had for a little over a thousand dollars. A new entry level Patek or Lange, or a complicated JLC, was perhaps five thousand, and that already felt like silly money. Add twelve years – and multiply everything by five or more. Inflation exists, but not at 15% per annum.

I realise this turned into a very, very long read, so we shall split it into a second part. To be continued in the next post…

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Comments

  1. Keep up the great work.

  2. Robert Falconer says:

    You’re not joking about the prices over the past few years…it’s as if the industry has exploded; prices at the top end and the rise of micro-brands at the lower end (no doubt helped by increased access to CNC machines) all seemed to have hit some sort of confluence. The price of the Rolex GMT Master II 16710 on the used market has skyrocketed (all Rolexes for that matter), making the Tudor Black Bay GMT very popular (but very hard to get, too)…while pieces like the Patek World Time 5230 go deeper into five figures every couple of years it seems. So I admire you for treading into these waters and doing so with a very unique design. 🙂

    • The explosion is due to a few things:

      a) artificial supply constraint by manufacturers
      b) demand generated by huge advertising pushes
      c) the cost of said huge advertising pushes
      d) increase in underlying production costs for quality components as more of those suppliers move to smartwatch component manufacturing – margins are far lower on the latter, but volumes are 100x or 1000x – there is no way any of us can match that.

      The Patek 5230 is a good example. Our 19.02 does the same thing – world time automatic with microrotor, hand finishing and long power reserve – but we have a skeletonised movement and sapphire dial. At one fifth of the price…because we don’t have a retail network to support, nor advertising, nor a Michelin-star executive canteen. We put the value back into the watch. Yet paradoxically I feel sometimes customers believe we need those things to justify our value, which makes no sense to me…

      • Robert Falconer says:

        Well I think you’re on the right path. The traditional marketing engine used by Rolex et al has evolved—word of mouth, social media, online articles (you’ve caught the attention of Hodinkee, which is good). When one looks at the rise of Richard Mille…or the growth of some of the other micro-brands in the past several years (Steinhart, Dan Henry); or the online model used by a lot of German watchmakers to gain international attention and sales (Stowa, Nomos, etc.).

        Have you considered doing what Nikon did back in the 1960s—get some of your models into the hands of celebrities? Free watch in exchange for endorsement? Or doing an interview with Tim Mosso over at the Watchbox YouTube Channel (the guys in Philadelphia)—they seem to be looking to expand their content and audience, particularly after acquiring the Urban Gentry YouTube channel.

        Not presuming to give advice, just thinking out loud; I’m sure you’ve already thought of *all* of this already. 😉

        • Actually, for the most part we’re doing that apart from the celebrity stuff. You need to have the right brand fit there, and often they demand silly money which at this stage of the business could be better spent elsewhere.

  3. I’m an owner of the ordinary 1970 Omega Seamaster which now needs an oil & lube job. Estimated as a $500 job, but I hesitate. Last time its was serviced locally it was a disaster. They used a substitute parts and the mechanism rattled inside. I can’t find the Omega service. What are the options to get a solid and honest service? I think your designs stand out for their simplicity and elegance.

    • Either go back to the manufacturer or get a second option on good local watchmakers from other collectors; they do exist but generally are quite poor at advertising…the final option is learning oneself, but that may cost a lot more than $500 and result in some mistakes! 🙂

  4. I have to admit you got me somewhat interested in watches, and there are still decent deals in both new and used market, even for someone less informed (step 1: forget submariners). Actually I quite enjoy having a very casual interest that I can set aside any time, but it’s still there when I have a spare moment and a glass of nice whisky.

    For reference, can you (or your company, rather) supply watches in destro configuration? I’m left handed and it really bugs me that so few brands supply anything but ultra-expensive limited editions for right-handed use.

    • Theoretically, yes, but I need to check if the dial foot configuration is fixed or not – depends on the watch. I could do it quite easily for a 19-series because the required bits are symmetric. A 17-series too, but depends which dial specifically as the dial feet that fix to the movement are not symmetric. Anything else requires custom (read: expensive in single quantity) work.

      • Great! I’ll keep this in mind & follow your new releases with interest 😉

        • We don’t offer it officially though as most people wear their watches on the left hand, and the crown is more comfortable when right-facing. But shoot me an email if there’s something in particular you’d like and we’ll figure it out.

          • Right hand wearer here – prefer the crown as it is, maybe less practical, but I think more comfortable. Destro kinda looks odd to me as well – probably because I’ve been condition to seeing it that way for like forever…

            • Depends a lot on the watch. My only really “nice” watch is a 114270 and it’s all fine due to the elegant rounded case. However anything with a thick, flat-sided case (most chronos and divers today) doesn’t look very good on the right wrist. Just my subjective opinion, of course – in reality no-one is going to notice, but that’s not the point, right? 😉

              Another reason is principle. Everything in this world is designed and built for right-handed people, and I can live with that. However, watches – to me – are all about discovering your own preferences and finding the *perfect* one(s) for yourself. It’s part of the fun to investigate and find out which brands are willing and able to make the small changes needed.

            • Also probably your preference for operating the crown with your right hand?

              • Actually no, I do use my right hand, but definitely prefer left. My first ‘proper’ watch was a manual wind Panerai Luminor. Every day I’d open the crown guard, flip the watch over so the crown faces the left hand and then wind. I do the same with the 19.01. I’m not accustom to winding on the wrist, so the crown facing the ‘proper’ direction is not of importance. In some ways it’s far more interesting winding like that – watch the movement as you perform the ritual!

  5. A Rolex Submariner without date bubble is THE definitive men’s watch, bar none.

    Add a date bubble and you’re a fat banker. Remove the date bubble and you are 007… and I’m not talking about the loser who’s currently playing James Bond wearing an Omega.

    • Why?

      • “Why?” is so open ended. You are making me cover all the angles with that, haha.

        The reason why the Rolex Submariner is the definitive men’s watch is because it is a durable instrument of precision as much as it is a design classic that has withstood decades upon decades of watch trends essentially unchanged. To this day it is as equally suitable worn with a diving suit at 300m under the sea as it is worn by a man in a tuxedo at a social event.

        The reason why no date bubble is preferred is because the watch is more simple and elegant without it. As Rolex’s with date bubbles are recognizably “Rolex” they are preferred by those wishing to signal their financial status. But note that James Bond chose to wear the subdued, and rarer, Rolex Submariner without date bubble specifically because it identifies the watch as a stylish functional piece, not as an ostentatious wrist ornament.

        Now, the reason why Daniel Craig is not James Bond are almost too many to list. They start with the fact that he doesn’t look the part being short, light-haired, and average looking. Add to this that he has no sense of style, humor, or charm. He’s more like a dull British version of Jason Bourne than a true 007. Finally, look at how politically correct he plays the role by deferring to his women bosses, not tagging everything in a skirt, and dependent on women to rescue and protect him. Eon, the producers of James Bond, are sadly led by Barbara Broccoli who is advancing a feminist agenda by emasculating James Bond on screen.

        • That’s funny – I’d much rather identify with the latter version. Perhaps you meant to say that the sub is the definitive James Bond character watch? 🙂

          • Correct, the Rolex Submariner w/o date bubble is the original James Bond character watch as it appeared in Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Thunderball, etc. A watch ought to be a durable purchase for a man, to last long enough for his lifetime (with an occasional maintenance).

            As such when the Rolex Submariner was replaced with an Omega in latter Bonds it was seen as a sell-out of style for some paltry commercial royalties. Same applies to guns as well, no need for 007 to ever have anything other than a PPK. Those last a lifetime as well.

        • Actually, a dive watch with a tuxedo is a faux pas made acceptable by a movie…if for no other reason than a 14mm thick watch not really fitting under a dress shirt cuff!

          I suspect the real reason is it’s a) recognizable; b) affords social and status kudos; c) is not so easily obtainable thanks to restricted supply.

          I’m sure there are plenty of other interesting watches that one might prefer if more options were examined with an open mind and none of the social pressure 🙂

          • As a style maven myself I consider a bigger faux pas would be mixing gold tones with silver tones in formal wear, Ming.

            My own wedding ring is silver, my tuxedo cuffs and studs are silver with plain onyx stones, and my Rolex Submariner is silver. It’s harmonious and I look more like Bond than Daniel Craig in that tux, lol.

            Your point about more interesting watch choices existing for open minded people is well taken, just not for me. It’s analogous to the colorful cummerbunds we see some actors wearing with their tuxedos to the Oscars. Interesting and open minded they are indeed, stylish not.

            • Why jump to “colorful commerbunds”? Why not consider the in-between – something classic and understated. VC Patrimony, Patek Calatrava. Or to spice things up, perhaps a Lange 1? Better yet, revel in an ability to enjoy a formal event without feeling the need to LARP as a fictional spy.

              • VC Patrimony, Patek Calatrava, Lange 1… they are all too chichi in my book.

                What I revel in is putting on my somewhat ordinary Rolex Submariner every day. Despite the torture it takes getting knocked and banged around it doesn’t show a scratch… I still think to myself “That’s damn good looking watch” some twenty years after picking it up in Singapore.

                And there a lot worse things to do with my time than larping as James Bond a half dozen times a year! 😉

  6. Is it now time to start photographing cameras! 😀 … and maybe some day we will see a MPM (Ming Photography Machine) 🙂

    • Been there, done that – on both counts. I don’t think more gear porn/obsession is a good thing necessarily – cameras are tools for photography. Watches are not a tool for anything, so it’s a bit different. In another life, there nearly was a MING Camera Company, but Sony refused to sell us sensors – and the other options were either later eaten by Sony or had too much untested product.

  7. Tough gig you have taken on and ultimately rather brave – but I think you knew the difficulties you were getting into – mainly because you have come into it relatively ‘later’ from the enthusiastic stage. And as you say, that was probably necessary to enable you to hone in a style that is your own. I also think if you went at this truly alone without a team you would not have been able to get where you currently are.

    The inflation over the years has been outrageous and no doubt that has impacted what you can realistically achieve at the pricing level you try and keep to. Micro brand have come a long way, but you see the crudeness they must resort to to meet say a $500 price point.

    Anyway keep it up – the 19.01 is still worn and continues to be a favourite 🙂

    • Actually, we thought we knew, but there’s a whole other bunch of stuff that surprises you every time. Even after you’ve been in this for a few years now. No arguments about the team – between core people at suppliers that basically work on our stuff full time, our actual operations team/investors/advisors…we must be at nearly 20 now.

      I hate the inflation, but there are economic limits. That said, we’ve got another three or four releases this year (depending on timing of completion) – and one of those is going to be very affordable indeed and without compromises…

      • It’s always amazing what can surprise you even after you think plans and contingencies have been made!

        With how well the 19.01 was executed (Magnus’ articles were excellent in showing some of the challenges), I have no doubt in the high standards you set yourself for final execution 😉

        • It’s worse at the lower end of the market – expectations are higher, education is lower, and your production budget is much, much thinner…plus you get a lot more customer abuse subsequently expecting warranty service.

  8. jim mills says:

    Bit like guitar building, like your watches. [image: DSC_2397.jpg]

    On Thu, Jun 13, 2019 at 2:02 PM Ming Thein | Photographer wrote:

    > Ming Thein posted: ” The MING family, as of March 2019 It’s a fair > question, and one I’ve been asked frequently enough to properly explain > myself somewhere, for the record. I suppose it isn’t just something you > pick up on a whim one day, nor is it something that even if ” >

    • I suspect you have a lot more solo craftsmanship in guitars, and more control over the process – we have a surprisingly long and complex supply chain…

  9. rené francois désamoré says:

    It seems it takes now a lot of money to know what time it is. Great that you enjoy the creative process because at the end any watch should give the same time. I understand that my wife enjoys special watches as she is fashion conscious. Now with a smartphone, I rarely use a watch.

    • One could argue it takes a lot of money to take a mediocre cat photo, too – but everybody has things they enjoy doing 🙂

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        QUITE. I have “cameras” (plural) and no interest whatsoever in cellphones for photography – merely for telephony, SMS messages, etc.
        But on the other hand – and each of us was equipped with two of them – I abandoned wearing a watch when I retired, because I no longer need instant access to the time and found it irritating to wear something on my wrist.
        Countless other people are the exact opposite of that!
        And if we were all the same, life would be terminally boring!

    • No-one buys a mechanical watch to tell the time, they buy one because………whizzy cogs.

    • Jacques says:

      I feel naked without a watch. I still need one to check the time. Even if I carry 2 smartphones, one personal and one for work. I despise them. Their best features are voice mail and silent mode. They are in my bag most of the time and I may check them once a day. Often I forget to recharge them, yes my phone etiquette is questionable.

      For work and casual activities, I will alternate 3 Seiko Prospect Divers, this is about 98% of the time. For the few social fonctions, I will wear a white dial slim watch.

      By the way, the blue dial on this post is very nice, the Ming 19.01 is superb.

      • Phones have gone from being emergency contact devices to substitute computers and virtual handcuffs; more so when you run your own business and your clients are international and there are seemingly no boundaries of geography or time. I try hard not to spend too much time attached to mine, but the discipline is of course lacking…at least it’s lighter than carrying around a full computer for most tasks.

        The 19.01 uses a new process unique to us where the sapphire dial gradually transitions from opaque to transparent… 🙂

        • The 19.01 looks simple and original at the same time. I can feel the effort to achieve it.

          As for the smartphone, the magic word is disci[pline, you said it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The existence of these blog posts reduced the need for asking particular questions. Enjoy here: Off topic: Why I started making watches, part I, Off topic: Why I started making watches, part II. You will find there answer to many possible […]

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