A few weeks back on my morning commute, I noticed (not that it’s new) that most passengers around me were stooped over, passively – some furiously – scrolling through their endless IG feeds. After momentarily lamenting at the declining level of social interaction in public spaces, I realised that on the upside, at least Instagram is being used to connect people who would have otherwise never met. One such ‘connector’ is Atomos Watch Club (AWC), who, after a few direct messages were more than happy to set aside the afternoon for a chat at Hvala teahouse in Chijmes, Singapore.
AWC was founded last year by a group of young watch enthusiasts, with the “aim to promote love and appreciation of watches by fostering bonds among the next generation”. Despite some of their members being quite new to watches, they gave deeply insightful comments on something they’re all clearly passionate about. No one is making them do this; they just love the artistry of watchmaking and want to share it with others. See below for the full interview.
Why did you get into watches?
Yesung: So, at first, I thought of watches as luxury goods intended for just the rich. But, after a while, I had the chance to look at some of the really in-demand watches like the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Rolex Daytona from my friends. Up until then, I had no interest in watches, but after that, I began to see the artistic perfection in some of these watches. That sparked my interest, and as my curiosity grew, I began to search and look further into the watches that appealed to me. As time went on, I began to subscribe to online watch platforms, The Hour Glass, Hodinkee and various other forums etc. My interest in watches grew with my appreciation for the art of watchmaking in general.
Benjamin: For myself, I got into watches mainly because of my parents, I guess they poisoned me [laughs]. My Dad really likes watches, he’s collected a few pieces, but he never really gave them to me to have a closer look. I still found it very interesting and used to find myself wondering what sort of watch is in the box on the table. I think I always had this natural inclination towards watches and then when I was around 9 years old my Dad bought me my first chronograph. It was a quartz chronograph by Solvil et Titus. At that point in time it was already owned by a Hong Kong firm and wasn’t as prestigious as it once was, but it was still a good watch, and I wear it sometimes. That was how I got started. I think my parents didn’t want to feed the obsession and the materialism and I think they never really bought any other watches for me. It was only when I was around 16 or 17 when I went to buy my first Seiko. I couldn’t tell my Mum or Dad I bought it, so I went to buy it on eBay (that was a SARB033) and then I kept on buying second hand mainly because I saw more value for money in that and because there’s no receipt!
You hid it from them? I think we all know that feeling…
Benjamin: Yeah, I did [laughs], I sort of only wore them when they weren’t around. But then my parents realised they started this obsession, so my Dad gave me a few of his watches, and we talk about it sometimes. I’d say my Dad is still very focused on more mainstream brands, your Rolex and your Patek Philippe, but I think that at least for myself I don’t see myself going into that as much. Not because it’s not nice and so on, but I think that especially for the independents they really have the innovation. For me, I’m a very passionate person, so I like to talk to people with passion. It drives me, and I want to support them. When I wear one of their watches, I feel like “wow this is a watch I support” rather than a watch that when other people look at me, they say something like “oh this guy is rich, or this guy has status” and so on…So I think that’s slightly different from my Dad’s approach.
Dominic: For me, I guess my father wasn’t really into watches aside from this one TAG watch I’m wearing. He gifted it to me during my first internship before I metricated into SMU, and at that time, I was into classic menswear and classic tailoring. I like to see objects as an extension of oneself, how you express yourself. And you know of course we all love using and looking at beautiful objects, and a watch is one of them. So that TAG was really what started my interest, and I began to see watches not just as accessories but as an artform. And then I went down the rabbit hole…[laughs]
There’s no coming back! We always talk about the importance of offline interaction with other watch enthusiasts. Is that why the Atomos Watch Club was founded?
Benjamin: At SMU, what you find is that people are very open to sharing. I think that separates SMU from the other universities in Singapore; the class participation drives people to be very outspoken. It’s good because I believe that, especially in school you can go to another person from another faculty and say hi and they’ll say hi back, they won’t be shy. That’s why our club is really driven by community because everyone in general desires to share, desires to be part of something and I think you’re right in saying the importance of having a community. You know, compared to World of Warcraft where the characters are all online, but everyone is actually very close. When a gamer passes away, they actually visit the gamer even though it’s an online game.
At least for watches it’s hard to do everything online – you need to see the watch for yourself, you need to see the scratches and the character of the watch. And why is it that this watch is part of this person’s collection, what does that watch mean? That requires conversations like the one we’re having now.
Keane: Another goal of ours is to create a platform to allow students – especially the younger ones – to immerse themselves. I recently just joined Atomos Watch Club, so what we want to do is to create not only a platform to share information online easily but to also immerse one another in watches by attending events. Through these two platforms of immersion, we hope to build more of an understanding of the world we’re in and to show how the worlds of horology and art combine.
Speaking of community, why is the watch culture so strong in Singapore?
Keane: I think in Singapore because the nature of our country is multi-racial and multi-cultural we get a good mix of almost everything. We have people like yourself from Australia who in a way, bring part of your culture to Singapore. So, we are very fortunate to be able to experience a lot of cultures, a lot of races and a lot of traditions. And I think that inspires our creativity in a way and our habits are shaped by that. Living in an environment that’s characterised as inclusive and has an understanding of other cultures, we’re able to integrate that and share common passions and experiences easily with one another.
Yesung: In Singapore cars and houses are vastly more expensive than in other countries and to add to that, because of Singapore’s weather, buying expensive branded clothes is extremely limited. For example, you can’t buy expensive hoodies; there are limits to what menswear you can buy. So, therefore if one wants to express himself or show his appreciation for art then the only choice he has left are watches. I think that definitely affects why Singaporeans, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, have an interest in watches.
And what’s your take on the relationship between the more well-known brands and the more obscure independents?
Yesung: I think the interest in more well-known brands like Rolex and Patek Philippe and various other brands definitely has a positive effect on the independent brands. I’m from South Korea, people in South Korea love watches, but they don’t really value independent brands as much. For them, for most of them, watches are just another sign of wealth like supercars. But in general, if there’s an increase in the interest in watches of course the interest in the independents and the artisanal watch makers will increase. Overall it’s a positive thing.
Is there a growing appreciation for the independents?
Yesung: Definitely, yes. I mean if more people are interested in watches, more people will become interested in the independents as well. And I think year on year the appreciation for watches in Singapore continues to grow.
Benjamin: In Singapore, at least on a social level, we are a very risk-averse society. So that drives consumer habits in some ways. And that drives why Rolex and Patek Philippe are so prized as established brands. Because of the grey-market and the resale value, people see them as investments as well. In some parts, this causes the independents not to be as popular, but in general, if I were to look at the entire market, I see the market as growing. However, the serious watch collectors in Singapore (the ones who really know and understand the independents), these people keep growing. In part because of the watch clubs like Atomos Watch Club, the Singapore Watch Club, Singapore Watch Appreciation Group and Watch Club Asia.
I would say, at least for the independents it has sort of become a status symbol amongst some of our friends who come from second-generation wealth. I must say I’m not part of that; I would be glad if I were part of that [laughs]. But I have certain friends who do and they like De Bethune, they like Urwerk and F.P. Journe; and to them, it has become sort of a social class of its own. But then in that sense, it’s possible to differentiate popular independent and less popular independent. Like what The Hour Glass has done, when it carries a brand, it’s like a stamp of approval on the independent brand. Verses say ArtyA or even like Konstantin Chaykin, people outside (or even inside) Singapore might not know about the Joker, and that is perhaps because The Hour Glass doesn’t carry it. That sort of drives the independents.
Keane: For me, when I first joined and I started talking to people I realised that there are three main categories that people are drawn to when making a purchasing decision, especially at our age and in our school. One of them relates to design preferences, depending on whether they like more tankish looking watches or more slim round watches. The second is the price, because people who come to join our club are mostly university students, so they are not that immersed yet [editor’s note: and don’t necessarily understand how a $10,000 watch is oftentimes vastly different to a $500 watch], but they are curious, so they want to know more and we give them the opportunity to immerse themselves. The last factor relates to trends and how herd mentality influences collecting preferences.
On your point on whether they come to us from the perspective of more mainstream brands, I would say they come in with sort of a desire for more well-known brands, and it’s our job to give them the key to unlock and to show them that there’s another world out there and that there’s a lot of artistic value when it comes to watches. One thing horologists in Singapore are doing really well is that they’re opening the door to not just emerging brands but spreading the awareness of the artistic aspect of horology in general.
It’s a difficult question but what are your grails? It doesn’t even have to be a particular model; it could just be what sort of brands you aspire towards?
Yesung: In the case of independent watchmaking, it would be Philippe DuFour’s Simplicity. I know it’s basically impossible to get one, it has been on my bucket list for quite a while now. I love it now because many brands have lost their interest in manual wound watches. And I think the only brand that continues to develop such movements is A. Lange & Söhne. But even Lange takes inspiration from Philippe Dufour, so yes that’s my ultimate grail watch. On more commercial and popular brands, it would be more or less Rolex, because of the impact it has had on the watch industry. Some people don’t fully appreciate Rolex – even in the case of people who really like watches, because it can be correlated with a sign of wealth. But I don’t believe that captures the full picture, because when you look at their technical superiority and how Rolex has shaped the watch industry, it cannot be ignored!
Benjamin: I’d say my grail watch would be an F.P. Journe; I really like all of his designs. It follows the golden ratio in a lot of ways, and that’s pretty beautiful. And for me, in a very philosophical sense and even in a very spiritual way, I like independent watchmaking because it represents part of who I am. I’m always the underdog, the one who is trying to break out and do great things, maybe even up against establishments and so on. To me, it also captures the essence of horology, because it started out when the French Huguenots were fleeing from Catholicism and then transplanted themselves in Geneva.
You know that’s where you had John Calvin during the reformation and fighting against the church and state, establishing an independent free-city within Geneva. Sort of like standing up to quote-unquote higher establishments. That to me says a lot and gives me a real passion for horology, which is in a way trying to break free from the past, trying to break free from tradition and trying to make something new which people will appreciate and say wow this is something that is not just a machine-made thing, it takes skill, it takes hands that have been shaped over time to create an artwork like this. That’s what I see in F.P. Journe.
Reformation day is on Thursday actually (October 31), it’s just so coincidental. It’s very interesting because the Huguenots that came down, they were persecuted to the point that were willing to cross the mountains, climb over the Alps and yet they brought and gifted Switzerland with the secret of watchmaking, passing it on until now. The idea of standing up and potentially being burned at the stake, fighting for these ideals – that’s the history of horology. And that’s what I feel like the independents are doing. At JeweLuxe [Recently held Jewellery and timepiece Exhibition in Singapore], we learnt about the ArtyA Son of a Gun watch and why there’s a Russian roulette behind it. People were asking why are you making such a watch? People may dismiss you and say you’re not doing something according to the industry, and yet [for them] they found backers and eventually they are who they are today. Just by looking at a watch, I feel so inspired to do other things. I’m like “ok you can conquer today”.
Dominic: So, I guess for me when I consider a grail watch; it shouldn’t be based on luxury. It shouldn’t be based on price or exclusivity per se, but how it makes you feel. Even if a watch is expensive or very exclusive, different people would feel and perceive that emotional bond with it differently. That for me is crucial when considering a grail watch. For me though, my grail would be a De Bethune, because I mean, their watches look so beautiful. But also, I’m really into the IWC Mark XVIII; again it’s not about the price but the story behind it. The connection between the watch and the pilot, that’s very charming to me. And by buying that, which I will when I graduate, it’s like I’ll be wearing a piece of history. That’s very important for me, the meaning and the art behind the watch.
Keane: Similar to Benjamin, in that, I really appreciate the art and work going into independent watchmaking. Recently I got exposed to many more independents at the JeweLuxe Exhibition 2019, and that’s where we met Masahiro Kikuno. So, how I feel is that mainly we get watches mainly because of the story behind the watch and the aesthetics behind the watch. What independents do so well is that I feel they customise it in a way, they work with their clients and collectors to make sure it is a piece they would want, and they would enjoy every day. My ultimate grail watch would, therefore, be a collaboration with Kikuno. When you look at a watch you can visualise the journey. It’s more than just an inanimate object, it has a life story, a backstory that most of us can relate to – the struggle, the suffering, and overcoming these challenges. I think that’s what makes it so awesome!
For more on AWC click here