ONE HONG KONG watchmaker is quietly making his way into the history books in his tiny workshop tucked away in a corner of Worldwide House in Central. Kiu Tai-yu is not only the first Asian watchmaker inducted into the cliquey Swiss haute horlogerie independent watchmakers' league, the Horology Academy of Independent Watchmakers (AHCI, the acronym for its Swiss name Academie Horlogere Des Createurs Independants), but is also the only Asian watchmaker to hold a watch patent in three places - Switzerland, the United States and China. His most significant creation is a 'mystery tourbillon', with no bridge and no carriage, which took the Swiss watchmaking community by surprise when he created it in 1991. But you won't see his creations lined up in the showcases of luxury watch shops or being advertised far and wide like most Swiss-made haute horlogerie. Why? Because Mr Kiu has the pride and temperament of a talented artist waiting to be discovered. He believes that the gods who endowed him with the ability to understand complicated watchmaking from an early age must have bigger things in store for him and, as he builds a reputation in making history, commercial success will eventually follow. For now, he is dedicating as much energy into collecting timepieces as he is into creating them. Collecting for him is part of the creative process, as he learns to 'innovate and create through collecting'. He is rated by certain sectors in China as the most significant collector in this part of the world. 'How do you rate who is most significant? It's not by the number of pieces or the total value of the collection, but by how effectively I can use my collection to help me innovate and create. In this regard, I'm unique,' he said. He can rightfully claim to be the most important and knowledgeable collector in pocket watches created for the Chinese market during the Qing dynasty. In a book that is being published on his collection of several hundred such pocket watches, Mr Kiu explains that these mechanically intriguing pocket watches were made in Britain and Switzerland between 1780 and 1911 with oriental characteristics, and were originally used as offerings to the Manchurian imperial court. 'Vintage watch collecting is different from modern watch collecting. It requires understanding of history, professional knowledge of watchmaking and good fortune to come across the right pieces,' he said. One item in his collection, an unmarked pocket watch made in June 1900, came first among 5,000 submissions in an Omega-organised competition in 1995 to identify the oldest Omega timepiece in Asia as part of the company's 100th anniversary in China. 'There was no marking anywhere on the dial, the case or the mechanism to identify it as an Omega, but it was confirmed by Omega's factory in Switzerland that it is bona fide. This is the kind of knowledge required for a vintage watch collector,' he said. What makes him most proud is not the accolades but earning the right to reiterate that time devices were invented in China - the most significant of the five ancient inventions by China. 'This is a historical fact that no one else has dared mention in the past 1,000 years, since [eminent scientist, astronomer, inventor and lieutenant to the emperor] Su Song set watchmaking history [with his invention of a water-driven clock] in 1088,' Mr Kiu said. Born 60 years ago in Suzhou to artist parents famous for their superb traditional skills in seal carving, Mr Kiu learned the art of watchmaking from the age of 12 by taking mechanical clocks apart and putting them back together. Starting out in the business by doing repairs, he made his first mechanical watch from scratch at the age of 26. He moved to Hong Kong in 1980 and set up his antique watch dealership and repair workshop, Kew & Cie. Under his influence, his daughter began collecting watches and is now a director of the auction house Antiquorum Auctioneers. Though he is not fluent in Cantonese or English, he has no trouble communicating his passion for watch collecting and watchmaking with the Swiss or international watchmaking and collecting communities. 'Watchmaking is a language of its own. I know the crucial words to communicate with people who know about watches. 'If words fail, drawing [a watch mechanism] can do the rest of the talking,' he said. It was with such tenacity and audacity that he managed to navigate the complicated process of applying for patents for his mystery tourbillon in Geneva. Apart from his series of 15 mystery tourbillons made since their invention in 1991, Mr Kiu also unveiled at 2002 BaselWorld a limited-edition wristwatch with distinctive dials featuring his signature red lacquered dial and various four-word proverbs that are hallmarks of his personal philosophy. Mr Kiu is vague about the marketing of his watches. Like most artists, commercial success does not appear to be very important to him. 'I have my place in history, and that's the most important achievement. The mystery tourbillons are made for history,' he said. Suffice to say, his watches, genuinely limited in quantity, could be tomorrow's collectors' items. Already, one of his tourbillon watches fetched 100,000 Swiss francs (HK$620,600) at an auction two years ago, he said. Though his position in Chinese watchmaking history and his reputation in the Swiss watchmaking world are ensured, he laments that he is not getting the same level of respect from the Hong Kong government, which has neglected to appoint him as a key adviser in its effort to steer the local watchmaking industry towards higher-technology manufacturing. 'There are the individual watchmaking companies who came to pick my brains, but I was never officially invited to help,' he said. To him, it's their loss.