Off topic: Why I started making watches, part II

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The unexpected: 19.01, November 2017

Continued from part I.

Our group wondered if there were alternatives. We started looking into independents, and for me personally, those who would be willing to entertain serious customisation without breaking the bank; this meant compromising on the movement side, but as it turns out there were still interesting alternatives to be had. Ochs und Junior took the challenge and gave me very simple (read: reliable) annual calendar and high accuracy moon phase watches, but more than that, forced me to adapt the design to be coherent with the immutable parts (cases, complication locations and indications, production limitations). Until this point, I was still designing; evolving both my movement conceptualisation skills and aesthetics. By now, I’d developed a coherent design language and over 50 watches (including movements) on paper; these watches would represent the first baby steps towards seeing them come to life. But first, the ornamental complexity had to go; design would be reductive instead of additive. It was an interesting process that forced me to really identify and simplify critical elements required for time telling and identifiable stylistic cues down to their bare minimum. The Simpleton and Celestial were the product of those experiments, and it’s probably clear that design elements from both made it into our subsequent watches.

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Daily redux: 17.03, March 2018

During this process, the possibility of making our own watches entered discussion amongst that same group that went to the fair – myself, KM Chan, YF Chek, J Lim and two new additions – M Bosse and P Rajsingh, who would go on to become the core founding group of MING. But in the meantime: what level would the watches take? What price point? What style? How would we make it at least self-sustaining, if not commercially viable? We did agree that simpler – reductivism again – would be better; more expensive doesn’t necessarily increase the horological merit. If anything, it would be much more difficult to design something interesting with a very limited production budget; we were aiming for a sort of palate cleanser born of the experience of dining too richly. Several conclusions were reached, which form the underlying principles of the Horologer MING company to date:

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1. The watches have to be mechanical, else they lose most of the soul and all of the production budget (and market acceptance) required to make something interesting;
2. The watches have to represent value, regardless of price point – we need to deliver bang for the buck and something that can hold its own in any company;
3. The watches must have integrity and coherence from both a design and mechanical standpoint. They need to be honest – we use the right movement at the right price point and won’t glorify a basic ETA or Sellita; but if there’s something to show off we will
4. We give credit to our production partners if they contribute critical elements to the watch;
5. We preserve brand value for ourselves and our customers by holding pricing and committed production numbers – no reissuing of limited runs no matter what the demand (and our underestimation of it);
6. We aim to deliver an excellent and consistent level of customer service;
7. We need to charge enough to stay in business, support existing customers and reinvest in interesting products;
8. We prefer to spend money on making a more interesting product rather than promoting a less interesting one (and can’t afford to outspend other advertisers anyway);
9. Above all, we need to believe in our product: both the watches and the overall experience. Being collectors ourselves, we continually assess all customer-facing elements of the business to make sure we ourselves would be happy if on the other side of the table.

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A new bar: 19.02, January 2019

Some of these tenets have other cascading consequences, such as holding pricing and no discounts, or consistency of customer experience and delivery of value – for instance, it means that conventional retail is out because of the margins demanded, and because of the risk of discounting (which in turn further erodes margins). That puts limitations on our reach and physical ability to show pieces, and in turn impacts sales and economies of scale and sustainability of business. Of all the industries and businesses I’ve been involved in, this one is perhaps the most difficult as there are so many moving pieces. We do not and will likely never make our own anything; we might finish some elements (e.g. heat bluing cases) but the reality is the ecosystem and supplier network does not exist in Malaysia. The expertise is simply not here. We acknowledge this by working with the best partners we can find for a given project – whatever the positioning level of the piece may be. It means we have Schwarz-Etienne on the 19-series movements and assembly; Sellita and ETA on the 17-series; forthcoming pieces I can’t talk about, and yours truly doing most of the photography (history repeats, again – but this time, I can do all of the crazy stuff that more conventional marketing shied away from).

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It would probably be a much easier sell to purchase an old name and some claim to history rather than pick an Asian name and acknowledge we are 100% fresh off the boat new; but this would have been disingenuous. We have no heritage, but we are creating it as we go along; there are no expectations or rules we have to follow – or even a conventional business model, for that matter. There is nothing to prevent us launching the 19.01 immediately following 17.01 with an order of magnitude increase in price; this was partially because we wanted to avoid being pigeonholed in being a microbrand, and partially because we severely underpriced 17.01 (and consequently lost money on every single watch sold). Validation came in the form of a 2018 GPHG shortlisting for the 19.01, and the prices at which 17.01s trade on the secondary markets. The way we operate puts us into a strange space – agile and flexible enough to do a wide variety of projects with a wide variety of partners, but ‘serious’ enough to put out projects that punch far above what most new brands (that are not one-man independents) manage. In short: we found a way to make the watches we want to wear.

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To that end, there’s actually an element of predictability to our releases. Each one, so far, replaces something in my personal collection; those were watches I’d researched extensively and found to be (to me) the best of their kind when considered for an overall balance of aesthetics, mechanics and quality. I don’t pay too much attention to the brands as much as the ownership and wearing experience, and – visual again – how the physical elements changed under different light. Were they alive, or one dimensional? Did different situations reveal better, or worse facets? Conceptually, what elements could I take with me? Keen observers will notice that all of our watches have a) strong symmetry; b) those flared lugs; c) curved strap fittings; d) legibility and distinct minute and hour hands; e) elements that beget visual layering so the watches can look very different under different lighting conditions; f) a distinctive luminous signature; g) crowns that are easy to interact with; h) wearing balance and comfort. All elements are reduced to their essence and anything decorative must also not interfere with the reading of time; the hierarchy of attention must be preserved. We have design principles rather than a hard catalog, which makes the visual link between a 17.01 and a 19.01 and the Simpleton clear. It also means that rather than come up with a synthetic name, my investors insisted I use my own – a commitment to a design I believed in. (It also increases the pressure to perform.)

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World time microrotor alternatives: there are one or two, but they’re at least double the price (or more) – and none of them have skeletonized movements, either.

At present, there’s still a lot we want to do: watches in my collection that have not been replaced; ideas that have not been tried. At any given time there are over 40 works in progress on ‘the board’, which is a 15x8ft stretch of wall in the office where designs go to sit and mature. Things fall off, things get added, things get prototyped and evolved. Any given design has had at least six months to a year of gestation and sitting time before we go to prototype; both because of lead times and cost, and because often we are too close to something at the start to be objective about it. Even so, there have been watches that were prototyped and will never make the light of day for whatever reason; there are others that have been reshuffled in the schedule and others still that require quite a bit of R&D to bring to life. I have of course not given up on the dream of making our own movement – but these need to be saved for some special complications that have never been done; after all, why reinvent the wheel? At times, it feels like we have been in this game for an eternity. But the reality is 17.01 landed in August 2017, and we’ve not even been two years in the public sphere. The MING journey is just beginning; I look forward to seeing where it takes us. MT


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  1. Greetings Ming Thein,

    As a watch / photography / arts enthusiast and a fellow Malaysian, I came to know about your watch brand in 2019. I’m greatly intrigued by your radical designs and exclusivity of your brand. You and your partners have managed to carve out a niche for yourselves in the industry.

    I’m working in an MNC in the engineering field and human resources for the past 17 years now, and have been thinking seriously to start a watch brand that I would wear myself, that can inspire others and hopefully be able to make a living myself. As someone with only watch designs / ideas / philosophies, with no watch builder, supply chain and marketing networks, what would be your advice on the first steps? I really hope to learn as much as you would graciously share with me at your convenience. Wish you continual success in your watches!


  2. Ming > can you say anything about the Hasselblad V1D camera prototype? Did you have any input? Besides the screen on the back, is this an SLR or an high density EVF when looking down into the camera? My lust-factor skyrocketed when I saw pictures of it!
    Seems all us Hasselblad fans have been lusting for the good-old days of a square format and 75MP would be sweet.

    • That was one of my projects that got cancelled and then recently resurrected. I have no idea what they’ve done or not done vis a vis the original idea, but I can already see that the screen tilts instead of moving up and over the top of the camera in an arc to be like a proper waist level finder; my guess is the switch that turns the back on when the screen is opened out is also missing.

  3. Ming, while I’ve enjoyed your blog for years, these two watchmaking posts call me from lurker to commenter. At the end of World War II, my grandfather realized watchmaking could earn a respectable living for himself, his wife, and four sons. His location in a small West Virginia town — a railroad interchange for coal trains — meant a steady stream of customers who demanded accurate timekeeping. During elementary school years, I grew up visiting his store, learning why Bulova and Hamilton were “real” watches, and the difference between a mainspring and hairspring. While I carry a smartphone in my pocket, the 23 year-old Submariner gift from my wife at our wedding (“I knew you were looking for a watch and some of your friends suggested this one”) stays on my wrist. The world is far too digital. A ticking, analog device reminds us we still have a soul, a connection to past generations.

    My grandfather’s store closed decades ago. The small town, like many other locations in Appalachia, is ravaged by opioid addiction and little economic growth. Hamilton is owned by Swatch, Bulova by Citizen, and the American presence in watchmaking is vastly smaller than it once was. Inexpensive non-repairable watches are viewed as disposable.

    Bravo on your watchmaking journey. Moving from corporate to camera was ahead of the curve. If camera innovation is at the flat part of the curve, you’ve chosen wisely to zig again. Re-injecting analog timekeeping into daily life will be better for everyone. Do we really need a refrigerator connected to a “smart home” device, of which I have none, linked to a megacorporate vendor paid by cryptocurrency? Progress comes at a price.

    Here’s to you, your partners, and your investors. Your success may herald a return to analog, or perhaps merely reversing the trend of electrifying and digitizing everything for the sake of “progress.”

    • Thanks Bruce – what a story! I hope your grandfather saved some of the best for himself; there were some incredible pieces being made by Hamilton, Illinois et al back in the heydays of the railroad. At that time, the US was actually right at the top the heap when it came to movement refinements; the Swiss were contract manufacturers for the French (much like Hong Kong and Shenzhen is to Switzerland today) and the English were coming down off their high. The level of finishing on those American ‘Railroad Grade’ pocket watches is really spectacular.

      I’d say that corporate to photography was probably behind, but diversification in photography and going to camera company principal might have been a good way to stave off the inevitable for a bit. Ironically, more people are definitely rediscovering the joys of analogue again thanks to smartwatches, so perhaps we have a chance 🙂

  4. An inspiring article, Ming. Since I am of course very interested in watches and photography while struggling with the “corporate” world in real life ( 😉 ), too, I can relate to a lot of aspects you mention in your post. I am fairly impressed by the way you are focusing on your creative goals and that’s really one of the reasons I keep following this blog. Kind regards from Germany and good luck to you on your demanding journey!

  5. Zerberous says:

    The watch website loaded very slowly (Munich, Germany). Cool design btw. — though I am hoping for the more affordable ones 😉

    • Thanks for letting us know. We’re on Shopify’s servers, so likely to be a local problem – no way we can match the bandwidth they have without paying for a server farm…

      As for affordability – there are limits to what you can make on a budget in small quantities. We still represent value relative to other brands at all of our given price points (value is not the same as pricing, of course). That said, there will be a new entry level model later this year that’ll be about as cheap as we can make things and still stay in business. Sometimes, I think we are a bit too nice…

  6. Gee! Ming, Sony sounds pretty insecure > Won’t sell you sensors! Isn’t there some business law against that, especially when they sell to almost everyone else? Although that does seems like the ultimate compliment to you. We know you can do it better < Ha!
    Is some other sensor company available or are they all low volume, minor, inferior products! (And too high a price?) Doesn't Leica get their sensors from someone else, instead of Sony? By the way, I see Hasselblad has announced the 907 camera body. Are we expected to hold it at arms length and point it, since it has no viewfinder, only a back screen?! I wish someone would just incorporate a very large, high density eye peice screen, that would suffice for both the rear screen and the terribly small viewfinder screen. Make it fun to actually 'look at things again'! Cheers.

    • Your guess is as good as ours. We tried through several sources but in the end they insisted on end-customer disclosure, and then promptly ended discussions every time. My guess is either they didn’t trust we could pay (can’t think why given our funding sources) or they really did see us as competition. Complimentary perhaps, but not very useful 🙂

      Other sensor companies: we looked into the remaining ones, including Leica’s supplier CMOSIS – but they were either far too expensive (to the point of making the product not viable at all) or would require custom fabs and 36+ month lead times – again making the product unviable.

      The 907X is a sort of extension piece to the CFV back. Those were my projects while I was at Hasselblad. What is buried in the text is that it has a tilting back screen that acts as a waist level finder, much the same way as you’d shoot a V series. The one piece of the plan missing is that tilting screen was supposed to also slide up and over the top to be more compact, not just tilt up.

  7. Go where your heart is and you did. Good for you, Ming.
    Now if I could convince you to make that ideal camera we all hope & wish for but never get!
    Same principals: a joy to look at, look through and use…ah yes! Dreaming…

  8. Brian Nicol says:

    Hi Ming, these are absolutely amazing watch images! They are so creatively and uniquely showcased. All commercial watch pictures I have seen are so utilitarian and are the equivalent of prisoner mug shots in appeal. Each watch is an amazing work of art that has successfully been captured by your images which is no small feat! I really do not see these watch articles as off topic as the images are inspiring and the article provides fascinating background to the journey.

    I have found it extremely challenging to get somewhat clean shots of camera equipment that I sell. I clean and clean and clean, take photo, check image on monitor, clean and clean. Give up and then do some PS clean up to be adequate. Have you found way to minimize dust when taking your pristine images?

    Thanks for sharing this article.

    • Thanks. I don’t think the mug shots are down to photographers so much as client demands around either existing CI or lack of imagination. I’m designer, photographer and client, so I have a bit more flexibility than most companies in both presentation and understanding the product (and in turn, which elements to present and how to best present them). For design and everything else related, we don’t have a ‘hard’ set of rules so much as a soft set of principles – so you’ll see me use the ‘flying watch’ primary product image but with differentiate orientations, backgrounds, lighting etc. to best suit the individual watch. But all of the images are recognisably ‘us’ in style.

      As for cleaning – as you said, there’s just a hell of a lot of cleaning required. Microfibre cloths, then blowers, then something called Rodico putty (watchmakers use it to pick up small/fragile parts and spot clean) to remove any remaining debris from crevices etc. And then we still need to do some inevitable retouching in PS since 100% dust-free is simply physically impossible. At least cameras are larger, and you don’t need to supply media with 50MP images 🙂

  9. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    Your watches look amazing. Only the lack of inventory at the lower price points keeps me from buying one.

    • Thanks! Actually, we had 17.03s in stock until about a month ago; we’ll have a new 17-series in about Q3. 12 month+ lead times and we need to forecast demand (and pay for production) way in advance. We’re getting better, but until we have a few cycles’ worth of experience it’s very difficult to predict. 🙂

  10. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    In the finest traditions of watchmaking!

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