Watch enthusiasts launch own brand in Malaysia, and it’s an instant hit

Ming was started by a bunch of friends to make watches of the sort they would want to buy. Their first model sold out within hours; their second is in line for a prize at the Oscars of watchmaking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 11:07am

Ming Thein did his time in sovereign wealth, private equity and management consulting before co-founding Ming watches, a “Malaysian horological collective” – ironic in a country with a less than firm grasp of punctuality.

“This is nobody’s retirement plan,” he says, referring to himself and the five other enthusiasts from around the world who founded the collective.

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Thein, who studied theoretical physics at the University of Oxford, worked in the corporate world until 2012, when he switched professions to become a photographer, shooting for watchmakers such as Jaeger-LeCoultre, Speake-Marin, Maitres du Temps, Andreas Strehler and Romain Gauthier. He was then made chief of strategy at photography company Hasselblad, a position he held until September.

It was a bad experience at a luxury watch fair that was the catalyst for the formation of the Ming watch brand. Ming and his friends were “duly horrified by the tactics used by some of the brands on potential customers” at a Hong Kong watch fair. “It was more like a flea market with six-figure entry prices,” he says. As a result, they decided to make the watches they would want to buy, and offer them to fellow enthusiasts.

Their goal was to revive the unadulterated joys of discovery, without the shock of the prices the luxury watch industry charges. “Ten years ago, nobody would have thought about a US$200,000-US$300,000 watch as being normal. And [the price tags are] now into the millions,” says Ming Thein.

Buying watches as [speculative investments] is a very bad idea because you are not the one making the market
Ming Thein

Last year, the collective’s debut model, the 300-piece Ming 17.01, sold out within hours; the last two of its three batches sold in 90 seconds each. At 900 Swiss francs (US$906), the watch was a bargain. (Because Ming was discerning in its choice of components, it made no money on the model). Its second watch, the Ming 19.01 (7,900 Swiss francs), is a finalist in the Petite Aiguille category (for watches with a retail price between 4,000 and 10,000 Swiss francs) of the Grand Prix D'Horlogerie De Genève 2018 Edition, the Academy Awards of watchmaking.

This is “unprecedented for a brand that’s a year old and from the wrong side of the world”, says its designer.

The group’s third model, the Ming 17.03 (from 1,300 Swiss francs), is all about the detail, starting with its metal strap.

Ming Thein answered our questions about the collective’s endeavours.

Does Ming consider a “heritage” or “creation” myth important for brand recognition?

No, because it would simply be dishonest in our case. We are new [and] unburdened by convention or history, and therefore free to design a product as we see best. I especially don’t like the idea of “reissues”, because it says you either have run out of ideas or cannot make anything better than before despite all of the new technology and processes available.

Icons became icons because they were different – and you also can’t be doing the same thing as everybody else but expecting a difference in the outcome. It’s important we make watches that we like and feel proud to wear.

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What, or who, determines a watch’s value?

The media and popular culture [determine the value], as much as anything. Intrinsic value, independent of branding or marketing, is only realised by a very small portion of educated collectors; all of the hype makes it very difficult to find out the truth. Yet, perhaps, for most people, it’s much simpler: a piece has value if you like it – nothing more, nothing less. Buying watches as [speculative investments] is a very bad idea because you are not the one making the market.

Who comprises Ming collectors, currently?

[They are] all over the place. About 30 per cent come from the US; 30 per cent from Singapore and Hong Kong combined; 30 per cent from Europe; and the balance from the rest of the world, including Malaysia. There isn’t much domestic support because most of the local collectors prefer to buy brands for social recognition.

Would Ming consider making customisable watches?

Unique pieces and custom designs are something we’re looking into at the high end of the market – that’s personalisation and luxury of choice, rather than mix-and-match from a limited range of options. At that end of the market we have much more flexibility in production, materials and design choices; our suppliers [in Switzerland] are much more comfortable with very small runs. I would use the approach of [watch brand] Ochs und Junior as a better example of how to do something like that very well.

You’ve mentioned that once the work no longer brings meaning, Ming would probably be shut down. What does it take to keep Ming going as an enterprise? Is there an end game?

So long as we keep making watches that we and our customers find interesting, then we will continue. We need to offer something different, but not merely different for the sake of it; there has to be some intelligence and coherence to the design and something aesthetically compelling.

We don’t have a brand premium to trade on, so we need to offer value at whatever price point we play at. If the economics no longer work because there is no market to recognise our value, then we stop. If we cannot find suppliers that can deliver what we want at the price we need to sell it at to hold our philosophy, we stop. If I find watch design has turned into a chore and become uninteresting, we stop.

That sounds like a heavily stacked deck against us, but I’ll also say this – there are 20 to 25 new designs sitting on the board at any given time, one-third to one-half of which were not there a month ago. So we’re far, far from that point.