Design takes the lead in the work of the Japanese watchmaker

TOKYO — It’s been a big year for Hajime Asaoka.

Not only does he plan to open his first physical store later this month in Tokyo, but early last month he became Japan’s first independent watchmaker to receive the prestigious title of Contemporary Master Craftsman, a recognition issued by the Ministry of Health. , Work and Well-Being that pays tribute to skilled craftsmen considered leaders in their field.

But Mr. Asaoka comes from a different background than most of his peers, who attended watchmaking schools. “I’m a designer,” he said.

Graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts in 1990, he founded his own company two years later. “As a product designer, part of my job was to design watches,” he said. “But I have never been satisfied with the quality of the watches. The details are so important, and I wanted to make a watch myself” — not just design it.

(“I first became interested in watches when I was in college,” he says, and in 1978 his father gave him a mechanical watch, a chronograph from the Japanese brand Citizen. “Usually, mechanical watches are so expensive, but the price was reasonable because quartz was so popular at that time.”)

Thus, in the early 2000s, Mr. Asaoka taught himself how to make watches, bought models to disassemble and read “Watchmaking”, by the famous British manufacturer George Daniels. “Since I was a kid, I was very good at engineering,” he said.

He even learned to create his own parts: “At that time, a few Japanese craftsmen could make watch parts, so I just tried to learn from them, and repeated the process by trial and error. “

In 2009, he presented the Tourbillon #1, a prototype comprising the first tourbillon made in Japan. (Coincidentally, Mr. Asaoka, 57, was born on June 26, the same day in 1801 that Abraham-Louis Breguet patented his invention of the tourbillon, a mechanism that counteracts the effects of gravity on timekeeping.)

As a result, Mr. Asaoka was appointed to the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (in English, the Académie des Créateurs Indépendants en Horlogerie, or AHCI), a Swiss organization which counts among its members two other Japanese independent manufacturers, Masahiro Kikuno and Daizoh Makihara.

In 2011, he started selling his own watches, under the name Hajime Asaoka Tokyo Japan. He developed four models – Tsunami, Project T Tourbillon, Tourbillon Pura and Chronograph – each priced at around eight million yen ($57,200).

But he works alone and can only make about five watches a year —. a pace, he estimated, that would take him about eight years to fill the current orders. So he recently started refusing new requests.

Production limitations and the prices he has to charge are among the reasons he created a more mainstream brand, Kurono Tokyo, in 2019. He now designs both brands, with watches produced by his company, Precision Watch Tokyo.

Mr. Asaoka’s handmade watches are in such high demand that he doesn’t wear any himself and none were available to be photographed when I visited his studio in November. He works in Edogawabashi, in the Bunkyo district of Tokyo, a very residential area with the Kanda River flowing just steps away.

Mr. Asaoka’s basement workshop is a bit of a watchmaker’s lair, outfitted with a black leather sofa and chairs, a movie screen, and a bookcase full of books and magazines on watchmaking. Behind the seating area is its equipment. It was very different from the artisanal looking workshops of other independent watchmakers I have visited. Mr. Asaoka’s has a very futuristic feel to it, with lots of laptops and monitors and big machinery, like a micro manufacturing machine used to make parts and a neon green laser engraving device.

Mr. Asaoka does everything here, from designing the programs for the parts to assembling the watch. And while some things can be done with machines, “some things can only be done by hand”, he said, such as creating dials, hands or pendulums: “When creation of a balance wheel, which is the heart of the mechanical movement, a difference of a single micron is very large. It is difficult to adjust the weight with a machine, so it is impossible to create this part with a machine.

(He once tried to machine polish a watch, but decided it wasn’t precise enough.)

For a dial, he uses German silver or brass, then lacquers the piece and prints his name using a machine he created himself. (Mr. Asaoka posted an explainer video about the process on YouTube that has been viewed more than 145,000 times and created quite a buzz.)

Her favorite part of watchmaking? “The design,” he said, unsurprisingly. And it is his point of view as a designer that guides his approach to watchmaking. For example, he made a comparison between watches and cars. “When thinking about mechanism, engineers try to solve problems with logic, but designers solve it with design,” he said. “Beautiful designs solve problems and it’s also very practical.”

And which of his watch models does he consider emblematic of his work? “The Tsunami,” he said, referring to a three-hand watch with a full-plate movement, a type of design that was primarily used for pocket watches.

He gave his name to the watch because its balance wheel is so large in diameter. “Usually they are between 7 millimeters and 8 millimeters, but this one is 15 millimeters. A large pendulum means stable pressure,” and precise timing, he said — an example of how the design solves problems.

And does he have any hobbies? ‘Fishing,’ he said, ‘but I don’t have time to go. It has also been difficult for him to focus on creating new models, given the commissions he has to fill, but he said he plans to present one at the AHCI Masters of Horology event in Geneva. in spring.

Mr. Asaoka named his secondary line Kurono – the pronunciation of the word “chrono” in katakana, one of Japan’s three sets of alphabetic characters.

It outsources production of the mechanical watches, which have Seiko and Miyota movements and sell for around $2,000 each. “I wanted to work as a designer again,” he said, emphasizing the word “again.” “Since I was originally a designer, I wanted to design, so I learned to outsource.”

Kurono watches are, however, offered in limited editions of a few hundred pieces, as Mr. Asaoka has collaborated with several artisans in Japan to ensure that each of the 13 models introduced so far has a particular style. Some of the dials are adorned with urushi, or lacquer, by Kyoto craftsman Megumi Shimamoto. She used maki-e, a decorative technique that uses powders and inlays to create patterns on the lacquer, such as kiku (chrysanthemum), sakura (cherry blossom), and kumo (a cloud pattern).

When a new Kurono is ready, an online sale date and time is announced a week in advance. Often they sell out in around 90 seconds, but to ensure fairness, some anniversary models are sold out for around 10 minutes and all orders placed within that timeframe are accepted.

“Once a pattern is sold out, we don’t repeat it,” Asaoka said. And all models are sold out.

Roy Chan, a watch collector in Hong Kong, owns a Kurono, the Chronograph II Shiro model which was introduced earlier this year. “I have followed Kurono Tokyo since its inception, and have always wanted a timepiece from the brand for myself,” he wrote in an email. “Of all their wonderful creations, it was the chronographs that made my heart flutter every time they appeared on my phone.”

Once he got the watch, he wrote: “I admired the design of the dial by Hajime Asaoka – balanced layout, great choice of colorways, well-applied lacquer and proportionate sunken sub-dials with concentric guilloché patterns. “

And on an Instagram post, he mentioned what he called the “Japaneseness” of his experience with Kurono: “You can always sit back and relax and rest assured that things are well taken care of in your best interest. “

Kurono watches are sold online, but this month Mr. Asaoka plans to open his first store, a combination boutique and gallery called Kurono Aoyama Salon, in Tokyo’s upscale Aoyama district.

Along with the boutique and watch introductions he has planned for next year, he said his business will continue to grow.

“Mechanical watches aren’t very practical in everyday life,” he said. “But they are very important to our hearts and our emotions. That means watches are crucial to our lives, so I want to meet people’s expectations.

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