Hajime Asaoka is an independent watchmaker who recently released an entry-level watch under Kurono Tokyo, the Kurono Classic. While I admit I do not own a Kurono Tokyo watch, I do own something else from Asaoka – a Tsunami to be delivered in the first half of 2020 (knock on wood). In light of this, I’m often asked how I feel about a master watchmaker working on entry-level products and brands. These questions are usually framed semi-negatively; prodding at whether I believe the sibling brand is a risk to both my own watches’ value and the reputation of the beloved watchmaker. Though I encourage these entry-level products, it’s a complicated discussion and here’s why:
Collectors are not troubled by independent watchmakers moving from high to lower prices. Dufour, Journe, and Voutilainen all started extremely high in price, respectively with the Grand Sonnerie, Tourbillon Remontoire, and Decimal Repeater, before creating the Simplicity, Chronometre Souverain, and Observatoire at much greater quantities and lower prices. More recently, we’ve seen a very similar pattern with the Rexhepi and Grönefeld brothers, moving from tourbillon to time-only pieces.
What makes us uneasy about true, entry-level brands (US$1-5,000) is that they move away from the core substance and finishing these craftsmen perfected and applied elsewhere. Is a Kurono Tokyo watch really produced by Hajime Asoaka when it lacks the same philosophy, finish, and technical sophistication – isn’t that the watchmaker’s fingerprint? This is why the critical collector is probably very quick to dismiss many entry-level brands created by “haute” independent watchmakers.
Even so, I tend to be fairly nuanced in my stance because the collector critical of entry-level brands often occupies this position with two common misconceptions or biases:
More product ≠ less value
Associations between luxury and rarity play tricks on our mind, nudging us to believe that more of something is bad. Recent history informs us that some of the most iconic, high-value watches were and continue to be serially produced. The Rolex GMT and Patek Philippe Nautilus, both modern and vintage, are prime examples that more product in the market does not necessarily mean lower values.
Independent watch enthusiasts and collectors should not shy away from more affordable products from haute horology watchmakers. We want more people in love with their watches, more appreciation of this beautiful craft. Scarcity and waitlists aren’t just a personal inconvenience. They are detrimental to the long-term growth of independents and the watch collecting community as a whole, because it prohibits curious newcomers and even veteran collectors from participating.
Commercial success ≠ selling out
We need to address some of the romantic ideas surrounding independent watchmakers. These permeate the community, and lead us to look skeptically at entry-level brands. There is an almost subconscious understanding that the value of independent watchmaking, like the value of art, is detached from commercial success. It’s a means in itself; a noble pursuit. I tend to rebuff these ideals by focusing on how each watchmaker is simultaneously craftsman and entrepreneur – one does not negate the obligations of the other.
Unquestionably, there is a commercial timeliness to more entry-level independent watches now. Due to the general scarcity of entry-level products available by more mainstream brands, the average consumer is forced in other directions. It’s an opportunity for independent brands to fill a hole in the market, stuck between steep secondary market premiums and a tremendous amount of undifferentiated noise.
I’ve made the argument that the rise of smartwatches will have a positive effect on mechanical watches, revitalizing wrist wear amongst the next generation. As converts to analog trickle in, entry-level independent watches will become increasingly important, acting as a gateway for fresh enthusiasts to interact with the design DNA of revered independent watchmakers. I find it difficult to believe, as the alternative, that independent watchmaking will benefit by remaining exclusively at or well above the US$25,000 mark.
Now it is not in every “haute” independent watchmaker’s capacity or interest to create entry-level brands— that I completely understand. I’ve taken a critical stance here against the biases that question the value of affordable watches. My position encourages more entry-level brands from independent watchmakers, even if they transgress on finishing and technical sophistication. The long-term benefits of more accessible products is far greater for the watch community than any alternative. This position also encourages independent watchmakers to dismiss the same negative questions that bubble up regarding value, reputation, and watchmaker fingerprint.
Another day with the beast,