Once only known to the most discerning collectors and enthusiasts, independent watchmakers are now at a vastly different position in the industry. Thanks to the increasing number of patrons and the consistent auction results, the watch crowd is now paying more attention to names beyond the usual Swiss maisons, where a selected few visionary, talented watchmakers focus on creations that stay true to their fundamentals. Their watches depict originality, genuine creativity and character that are less common among brands on a larger scale.
Though it is only recently that independent watchmaking has truly been brought to the fore, a small community was formed a while ago to preserve and celebrate the importance of this rare spirit, namely the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants. Founded by watchmakers Svend Andersen and Vincent Calabrese in 1985, it began in the home of watchmaking, Geneva, and has since grown into a community of 34 spirited watchmakers from around the world, including some of the greatest names such as François Paul Journe, Philippe Dufour, and the late George Daniels, and, perhaps lesser known, three Japanese watchmakers that we are going to discuss in this instalment.
As a product designer, Hajime Asaoka is fascinated by the craftsmanship in objects and all things mechanical. It’s a wristwatch design project in 1995, which he was partially involved in, that enlightened him to create a watch from scratch that would depict truly what he had in mind. This idea eventually blossomed in 2005, when Asaoka began to teach himself watchmaking, and in just six years, he debuted his first watch with a tourbillon escapement, embarking on his journey as an independent watchmaker. He continued to develop more watches of different complications, and there are now four watches in Asaoka’s portfolio (plus other one-off projects including the collaboration with Takashi Murakami in 2013), and despite an unexpected demand he insists on producing only five examples of each model every year, with the help of his local partners Yuki Semitsu and OSG corporation to manufacture certain components. In 2015, Asaoka became an official member of the AHCI, a recognition of his work and effort.
All of Asaoka’s watches depict a rather specific and uniform technical appeal from the combination of the dial and the movement, complemented with high-end classical finishing such as chamfering and black polishing. Other than the look that attracts the eyes of enthusiasts, there are also interesting concepts to be found in the movement, such as the Project T Tourbillon that uses minuscule ball bearings instead of the usual ruby on pivots. The watch features a total of 13 ball bearings including one for the carriage of the tourbillon, aiming to improve the precision of axis positioning hence the durability of the movement, as well as increasing impact resistance and maintainability.
On the chronograph reference, however, the dial is half-skeletonised to include both the time display and the chronograph works, differentiated by silver, polished hands (time), and blued steel hands (chronograph). This calibre is particularly interesting for how it is driven by an enlarged barrel and a 15mm balance wheel displayed through the case back. The aim is to improve the chronometric performance by utilising the naturally larger torque from a larger barrel, and compensating it with the inertia needed to oscillate the balance wheel in this size, then in turn scaling down the impact by the actuation of the chronograph.
In 2019, Asaoka reflected on his work and decided to devote more of his attention towards the design aspects rather than pursuing the essence of high horology, a genuine move from a heart of a product designer. He debuted a secondary line, named Kurono, with a more prominent focus on the overall aesthetic of the watch, its visual components and the combination of them. They include the display of complications, fonts, dial colours and materials and case contours, with special editions featuring traditional Japanese craft. In terms of movement, Asaoka decided to go with Miyota and Seiko calibres for proven accuracy and reliability, which would also allow him to produce in larger quantities and keep the cost down for his clientele. Still, it appears the popularity is outmatched by the demand as the watches are often sold out rather quickly.
Masahiro Kikuno is a watchmaker who focuses on bringing rare crafting techniques from the past to his creations. He became an official AHCI member in 2013, at the age of 30, one of its youngest members. Kikuno’s interest in watches was piqued when he enlisted in the Japanese Self-Defence Force; his superior showed him a high-end mechanical watch that got him fascinated by the intricacy. Upon being discharged from the military, he attended Hiko Mizuno Jewellery College to learn about watchmaking, though at the time he was overwhelmed by the complexity and had doubts in making it his career. However, coming across a Japanese clock made in the Edo period had a rather significant influence on Kikuno. He was awed by the level of quality achieved without the help of modern machinery; this encouraged and motivated him into making his clocks and watches, and the spirit of abiding by the utmost traditional way of producing components by hand, and only turning to manual machines when necessary, which has since rooted and become the core sentiment of his watches, one that is increasingly rare in the industry.
Other than the purist spirit from the watchmaking aspect, Kikuno is also an enthusiast of age-old crafting and decorating techniques. He sees the beauty in them despite the difficult and laborious process, and would often fuse them into his designs. One example is a metalworking technique originating from the 17th century in Japan that was used to create a wood-grain-like pattern on the surface of a sword. Kikuno believed that by revamping ancient crafts in his watches, it could bring awareness of the importance of such culture while bringing a rather unique aesthetic to his watches.
In 2011, Kikuno also recreated the traditional Japanese complication, the temporal hour. It’s a Japanese timekeeping system from the past, which divides the twelve hours in a day into six unequal daytime hours and six unequal night-time hours. And across the well-marked seasons in Japan, the time of sunrise and sunset changes, the length of every hour also changes to accommodate the longer (or shorter) daylight hours, meaning that an hour at noon will be longer during the summer than winter, and will be reflected on the spacing of hour markers. On top of the temporal hour hand, a set of regular hour and minute hands is also incorporated for finding the normal time. Developed based on the ETA 6498-1 calibre, it is mechanically similar to how a GMT works, with the addition of the temporal hour module, translated and miniaturised from what could be found on a scale of a clock. The movement is beautifully decorated, with the bridges and temporal hours mechanism all handmade, and the hour marker hand-painted.
For the amount of work and time needed in just one watch, Kikuno opts for a strictly made-to-order business model, and the delivery time depends largely on the complexity of design and complication, for which Kikuno would discuss his clients in detail, proposing designs and ideas before the production process. But perhaps most interesting of all, he would also document the entire “making of” process and put together a photo book that is delivered with the watch. Kikuno believes that appreciation goes a long way in improving the understanding of the craft and that allows him to share his passion, joy, and excitement as a watchmaker.
Daizo Makihara was once a cook before enrolling in the Hiko Mizuno College of Jewelry in 2006 to learn about watchmaking, and it was only recently, in 2022, that he became an official member of the AHCI. While he was studying, he was able to meet Philippe Dufour through a feature on a local TV program, in which participants get to meet a famous person they admire. Makihara also got to visit Dufour’s atelier in Le Solliat, and learned about polishing for two days. According to Makihara, the work of Dufour and other independents show a great level of uniqueness and character that is not commonly found in major maisons in the industry; this has inspired him to take on the path of independent watchmaking hoping one day he could also make a debut with a watch under his name.
In 2019, he introduced his first watch, the Kikutsunagimon Sakura, followed by his second in 2021, the Kachou Fugetsu, which translates to Beauty of Nature. Both watches prominently featured a dial made of Edo-Kiriko, a traditional Japanese decorating technique dating back to the 18th century, where craftsmen would make cuts on the glass with various tools to construct a pattern or a motif. As the scale of the dial is so much smaller and thinner than the glassware of daily lives, it requires a great deal of attention and dexterity for craftsmen to cut the glass freehanded, one cut at a time, through extremely delicate control on pressuring the dial, a thin piece of glass against the cutter. It took Makihara quite some time to eventually find the company, Mitsuwa Glass Crafts, which has the capacity to make the dial for him.
As for Makihara’s second creation, the Kachou Fugetsu, its name is essentially a term used to describe the beauty of nature in Japanese aesthetic, with each of the word representing an element, ka (flowers), chou (birds), fu (wind), and getsu (moon), and just as the name suggests, the watch is designed to depict a a poetic scenery with these four elements. Makihara opted for a semi-skeletonised design, with a small dial at 12 o’clock for time and parts of the clockwork exposed. The dial also utilises the Edo-Kiriko technique for the flower and bird motifs, in conjunction with a moonphase, and two flower automata located at 10 and 2 o’clock, with each flower consisting of five brass paddles which open and close at noon and midnight.
Perhaps what makes Makihara’s watches special is the exceptional level of finishing. The chamfering is certainly outstanding for its relatively wide width and consistency throughout both inward and outward angles, and the countersinks of the pivots and screws. Moreover, plates, bridges, and dials are all hand decorated by Makihara himself, with a mix of different techniques to create patterns and texture for the parts. The movement plates of the Kikutsunagimon Sakura watch, are engraved with the sakura motif, then polished on a hammered surface. Makihara now shares his time between carrying out watchmaking works in his atelier in Saitama and teaching at the Hiko Mizuno College of Jewelry.