Independent Streak

What if you could start again?

What if you could, in a single moment, sweep away your entire past—your history, your foibles, your failures, and your successes? What would you gain, and what would you lose? You’d presumably lose some hard-earned lessons and prestige, with the tradeoff of acquiring a certain blissful ignorance, a happy naivete in terms of How Things Are. You might go about rebuilding something steeped in tradition, aware of what came before, and yet different. Better even.

That, anyway, is the proposition put forth by horologer Ming, a relatively new player on the scene that approaches luxury watchmaking from the perspective of a startup. This means watches crafted with an Old World mindset—using the best parts to make the best whole, with designs that nod to time-honored notions of elegance—but made and sold using 21st-century methods, bypassing retail entirely to sell the watches online, directly to consumers. Oh, and they’re based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The Ming 19:01, a concept for the ultimate daily wear watch, currently available for pre-order at Photo courtesy of Ming Watches.

“The reality is, we’re in the wrong part of the world,” says Ming Thein, the brand’s co-founder and lead designer. “There is no watchmaking ecosystem in Malaysia. There never will be. There’s no demand for it. Basically [that means] we don’t have baggage. We can look at things from a modern business standpoint. We [the founders] have run our own businesses. I look at what works in today’s economy and look at what the best way to apply that to the watch business is. It’s not a passion project—we have to operate as a modern business does.”

For a brand so young, success has come with astonishing speed. Ming took home the Horological Revelation prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève last year, awarded for the brand’s 17.06 Copper, one of three iterations of the brand’s refined yet modern entry-level watch. (All three have already sold out.) “For me personally, the names you read about when you start collecting and gathering knowledge, it’s gone from what you read about those people and you see those watches and you see what the fuss is about, and you meet them as a collector or through friends, and then you’re on stage with them,” Thein says of taking home the award. “It’s so surreal. I had pinch-me moments, imposter syndrome, all as I was standing there giving a speech. It was a huge moment for us.”

The gradient sapphire dial of the Ming 19:02 Worldtimer, a design signature, masks the titanium 24-hour disk under the dial that displays the time across multiple time zones. Photo courtesy of Ming Watches.

In addition, the brand’s watches often sell out quickly, and the few on the resale market often go for no less than what they went for originally, and typically much more than that, a fact Thien justifiably points out with pride. “We don’t discount. You’re paying more now. But in the long run, you’re losing less if you choose to sell it,” he says. He notes that, at its peak, Ming’s debut timepiece, the 17.01, was trading at $3,000 to $5,000. (It retailed for $900.) “Honestly I look at that and think no way is that offering intrinsic value,” Thein says. “But I’m flattered.”

But though this has led some to label Ming an overnight success, the reality is that these accomplishments were the result of years of hard work and development. Indeed, you could trace the brand’s development to when Thien was in his teens and got into Seikos and Swatches before graduating to an Omega Dynamic chronograph. He also fell in love with photography, a passion he later pursued full-time after a corporate career. (He eventually spent time as a brand strategist at Hasselblad.) “The world tends to pigeonhole you,” Thein says. “For me, both are creative openings. The gear is an enabler. Photography’s an enabler to translate an idea into an image. Watchmaking is an enabler to translate an idea into an object. It’s similar, but not. A watch is not something you can produce on your own.” (He still accepts the occasional commissioned work.)

The ASE220.01 micro-rotor automatic movement by Manufacture Schwartz-Etienne, a unique configuration exclusive to Ming. Photo courtesy of Ming Watches.

By the time he co-founded Ming in 2017, he (and the five other members of the collective) had refined his design tastes through years of collecting and impassioned conversations online. This included a design language that Thein aptly describes as art deco meets Tron. “We take the classical bits and make them modern again, but not in a retro revival way,” Thein says. “I won’t do ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake. There are a few things we do on every piece—a ‘0’ instead of a ‘12.’ Flared lugs. Radial symmetry. Curved straps that harmonize with the case. We won’t do anything that isn’t round. We don’t do subdials or anything that’s asymmetric.”

All of which brings us to 2020, which may prove to be the most pivotal year yet for the young brand. Ming will be introducing not one but three new watches, all featuring what Thein calls the brand’s second-generation design language. (A third iteration is already in development.) The triad includes a diver, an ultra-thin watch, and the flagship, a chronograph, which will retail for under $30,000. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time,” Thein says. 

Beyond that, Thein is already thinking at least five years ahead—both a habit and a necessity, given the timeframe of designing, developing and then testing a new design. (The brand’s timepieces are designed in Malaysia, made in Switzerland using Swiss movements, then packaged in leather pouches made by hand in Kuala Lumpur—a handsome and charming finishing touch.) “We are still very new,” Thein says. “We’re finding our way in terms of operations, design, identity, and everything else. I think that we have a lot more runway in front of us. There’s a lot we can’t predict. It’s an unconventional operation. But for people to give us that level of trust and share the dream with us, it’s very special.”

The “horological revelation.” The Ming 17:06, the long-sold out slate version of their Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève winner timepiece. Photo courtesy of Ming Watches.