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Hong Kong innovators

Five niche designer watch brands made in Hong Kong that appeal to millennials for whom fashion trumps function

As young consumers focus more on timepieces that fit their personal style, the market for designer watches is growing rapidly. We look at some of the Hong Kong brands leading the pack, including Anicorn, Squarestreet and Auteur

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 7:59pm

Last year, Hong Kong lost its spot as the number one market for luxury watches (the title went to the US instead). While this might not have boded well for Swiss watchmakers, it provided an opportunity for independent Hong Kong watch brands to flourish on home turf.

“Hong Kong was a big watch manufacturing hub during the 1960s and ’70s before the factories moved to China,” says Baptiste Guedez, co-founder of Auteur watches. “There are a still a few workshops that have survived, so when I launched our brand I wanted to tap into this local knowledge and savoir faire, while supporting an activity that has all but disappeared here. Hong Kong has the heritage, which is why we’ve seen so many local watch brands emerge.”

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Brands such as Auteur are filling a growing niche in the market for design-led watches, known as “designer watches”. These brands are following in the footsteps of international ones such as Daniel Wellington and Uniform Wares which, unable to compete with Swiss craftsmanship, appeal to a different audience altogether by focusing on design instead.

“A watch is no longer just a functional item as we now use our phones to tell time,” says Arnault Castel, founder of multi-brand boutique Kapok, which carries several Hong Kong-based watch brands. “This means that they have moved into the fashion-accessory category, encouraging brands to focus on aesthetics and design rather than function.

“The marketing of these brands is very different, as it’s not focused on VIPs and collectors, but a younger audience that is reached through social media.”

Looks are key to the way the watches appeal to millennials. Visual influences range from vintage styles, as seen at Void Watches, to more minimalist Scandinavian aesthetics used by brands such as Squarestreet and Cronometrics. With personal style becoming more important for younger consumers, these brands offer the opportunity to experiment with different looks.

A watch’s unique story or provenance is also a big draw for buyers, especially as the market becomes more crowded. “We are facing a lot of competitors with a similar Bauhaus/minimal design look,” says Joe Kwan from Anicorn watches. “As such, we spent a lot of time developing the concept – not just the watch design, but also the whole story behind the watch.”

That these brands are made in Hong Kong has so far proven beneficial in terms of pricing. Models generally range from an affordable HK$1,000 to HK$3,000 each – a sweet spot for millennials and other young people.

But while experts say that the market will continue to boom, there may be challenges lying ahead.

“{With] designer watches [we] have to be very careful where we tread,” says Alexis Holm, founder of Squarestreet. “There are too many brands out there thanks to platforms like Kickstarter, so I think we will see a weeding out of some brands. People need to dig a bit deeper to find which brands are worth going for and sticking with.”

Five Hong Kong brands to watch

Auteur

A collaboration between French designers Guedez and Thomas Letourneux, Auteur began as a small series of pocket watches before expanding into wristwatches this year. All models are designed to commemorate life’s special moments and can be engraved with a date of your choice. Other personalised details include customisable cards.

The bestselling Ephemeris series features a personalised dial that displays the alignment of the solar system’s eight planets on any day of your choice, past or future.

Anicorn

Anicorn was founded by graphic designer Kwan and entrepreneur Chris Chan. Its contemporary designs play with graphic details and elements such as typeface.

Highlights include the Trio of Time (TTT) model, which features a rotating, gradient-effect display that “hides” future hours and gradually fades out past ones, prompting the viewer to focus on the present.

Maven

Founder Nathan Lo learned the watch business from his father (who has been in the industry for 30 years) before launching Maven in 2016.

Inspired by Hong Kong’s urban landscape and nature, the watches are made by local craftsmen and feature Swiss movements, sapphire crystal and Italian leather bands. Two series are available: Enduring and Artisan.

Void Watches

Founded in 2008, Void was inspired by vintage Swiss watch styles that were common in the 1970s, so expect playful and experimental designs. Bestsellers include the brand’s original digital watch, which comes in an innovative, square stainless steel case.

The limited-edition V03D-STHLM is a homage to founder David Ericsson’s Swedish roots and features Stockholm-inspired details including an original font used on the city’s metro system.

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Squarestreet

Named after a popular boutique of the same name, Squarestreet is known for its elegant yet minimalist look. Its bestseller is the unisex Plano, which features a 38mm case and comes in 80 different colours.

The MinuteMan model, meanwhile, has only one hand, which completes a full rotation every 12 hours, with each hour of time on its statement dial squeezed into what would denote five minutes of time on a regular watch. The brand has plans to launch a new moon-phase watch with chronograph dials next year.