It’s not often that we get to welcome a new company to the watchmaking fold, let alone one which has gained so much critical acclaim so quickly. Ming has done a wonderful job of proving not only that something truly different can be done in the sometimes staid world of horology, but also that a fresh perspective can be lent to the design of the watch, and to the way that the business is managed and how the customer is treated, all concepts that many consider to be set in stone for luxury products.
Ming Thein, the namesake founder of the brand, will be known to many who have done a deep dive into the forums of yore for his excellent photography, which was a regular fixture on WatchProSite (née The Purists) back in the day. His CV now shows a variety of experience since, from time as a management consultant, to running his own successful photography business, as well as senior positions at DJI and Hasselblad, all of which may not have obvious connections to watchmaking but certainly have helped along the way to creating the company.
Whether it is looking at things from a different angle to get a photograph that is visually appealing, or running a P&L to ensure the business is viable, this balance of the commercial and the artistic is perhaps the best contributor to the early successes of the company. In addition to Ming, the team at the young company are made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, but they all have an underlying fascination with well-made objects, watches being a large component of that.
What Ming presents could be considered one of few, truly enthusiast driven brands, rather than a manufacturer established by a watchmaker with a point to prove, or a dead name that has been bought back from the grave by a conglomerate looking to add a new line on their annual report, to prove they are diversified. This structure of “for us, by us” has introduced some unusual challenges, as well as some unique opportunities, but by having a management team in place who have experienced everything from retail interactions, packaging, the logistics of getting a watch to be serviced, and of course the sensation of a lump of metal sitting against your wrist for extended periods of time, they have been able to create an extremely compelling product.
While they did not have years of WOSTEP training and indentured servitude at a bench of a major maison, perhaps this has been of greater assistance than a hindrance. More often than not, a new brand is established to further the ideals of one watchmaker, who is generally more of an engineer than an artisan, and can lose sight of the fact that you still have to be able to tell the time easily and feel comfortable wearing the watch.
Out of this melting pot of concepts, we have had a number of extremely well regarded watches, including the original 17.01 and the models that we have photographed here, but this structure has made Ming somewhat difficult to classify for many enthusiasts. With radical transparency around their suppliers, listing the names of Schwarz-Etienne as their movement partner, Jean Rousseau as their strap maker of choice, and an artisan in Kuala Lumpur who produces the leather rolls the watches arrive in, it all feels very different from the usual brand experience. Clearly not part of a major group, or a tiny Kickstarter brand, nor a lone individual slaving away at a workbench, Ming manages to take the best elements of each of these formats and create something new of their own.
With only a small number of stakeholders to satisfy (who are primarily focused on building a sustainable business, not getting rich quick), innovative design work for the visual pieces executed by Ming Thein in Malaysia, and working with the best suppliers for the Swiss made parts (who are valued partners of some much bigger brands), something impressive has been achieved: a truly international company at a highly concentrated scale. Which neatly brings us on to the watches shown here: the 19.01 & 19.02 World Timer.
Since the founding of the firm in 2017, the strong aesthetics of the brand have played out well across a variety of different formats, including the original Sellita-powered 17.01, the 18.01 Abyss Concept dive watch, and now the 19 series as we see it here. Quite a bit of the ground work was done by Ming Thein over many years prior to launch, including a run of Ochs und Junior pieces (some of which can be seen here), but the fundamentals are extreme legibility through minimal dial elements, distinctive typography, and a particularly concentric nature to the design.
The overriding theme with all of the Ming watches is deep consideration to every component, from the form of the hands, to the shape of the crown, the quick-release curved spring bars affixing the straps, and the harmonious curving of the lugs that is distinctive without feeling contrived. By putting in the legwork with suppliers, meeting them at their manufacture, spending time on the ground to make sure their output meets the exacting standard of the founders, a clear distillation of the visions has been achieved.
So with all of this being said, what are the watches actually like to spend time with? I was fortunate to have a week or so with the 19.01 and 19.02 and can summarise the experience as rather good, as one might expect. All of this thought from the team at Ming has created a series of models which are well proportioned at 39 mm in diameter by 10.9 mm and 11.3 mm thick (for the 19.01 and 19.02 respectively), with the short lugs and curved spring bars making them comfortable on a wide range of wrist size. The use of titanium for the case material also lends a lightness to the watch, further improving the ergonomics and comfort.
A rather clever point about the dial design is that, due to its spareness combined with the thin bezel, the watch appears to be larger than it is, creating a sense of presence without it being of dinner plate proportions on the wrist. This sense of minimalism also makes time-telling extremely easy, a point raised in this journal in the past, but something which is regularly overlooked by some other brands. The dégradé effect created by the opaque centre lends enough visual interest without being distracting and allows a good portion of the movement to be visible, providing a nice balance between the complexity of a fully transparent dial, but without the total distraction it can cause.
A bit of a party trick on both the 19.01 and the 19.02 is the Super-Luminova ring that surrounds the dial, that when combined with the application to the hands, makes reading the time a breeze even in particularly low light conditions. The world time complication of the 19.02 is an interesting application of the concept, as it is reductive in its execution, but still very useful. At first, it might prove a challenge due to its smallish typography and the use of the IATA code for the city designations, but with a bit of practice, and reading it when you are not in motion, it is as usable as other world time watches.
The two watches on loan were both manufacturing samples, so the movements were not in their best finished or cleanest forms, yet the Schwarz-Etienne calibres made especially for Ming prove the team’s dedication to their aesthetic language. Rather than using an off-the-shelf movement and sticking a bespoke a rotor it, Ming revised the finishing of the calibre, gave direction of the skeletonising and the final tone of the plating. It even extended to the cutouts for the barrels, and all together results in a movement that fits well with the overall design of the watch, a point which other smaller brands have struggled with when using an ébauche. The relationship of Ming with Schwarz-Etienne is clearly tightly intertwined through projects like this, and it’s exciting to see what the two companies have been, and no doubt will be able to, achieve together.
A final note on the packaging and straps: the team should be commended for their relatively small boxes and the useful leather roll that accompanies each watch. Not only is the external wooden box attractive and ecologically sound, as well as easy to ship and store due to its compact dimensions, the roll inside proves useful for transporting a watch and a few straps when traveling. Certainly not unique to Ming, but a model which should be followed by some large brands, whose box designs have become increasingly elaborate and vast, while adding little to the ownership experience.
Having worn the watches in a wide variety of circumstances, it was interesting how much attention they attract for something which feels so under-the-radar. Be it a significant other or a highly knowledgeable collector, all were curious as to what the watches are and peppered me with questions about them. These interactions did leave me wondering, who are these watches for? Perhaps it is someone with a sensitivity for design, and especially erring towards minimalism, who went from a Junghans Max Bill, to a Nomos and is now looking for a next step, before they fall down a far more expensive rabbit hole populated by the lines of F.P. Journe and A. Lange & Söhne. Alternatively, it could just be for an individual who has a deep passion for time-only watches, both vintage and modern, and is interested to see what a smaller brand run by extremely capable enthusiasts, with no limitations dictated by a group mentality, can achieve when they put their heads together.
The more time I have spent around their products and the team behind Ming, the more I have realised that these watches should really just be appreciated for what they are: beautifully made objects that have been born out of a love for well made time-telling devices. That is something that is deserving of support from the wider collector’s community, and it is a pleasure to see more of their watches out in the wild, finding homes in important collections, and disrupting the Instagram feed from more derivative horological novelties out there.