Hajime Asaoka: Japanese watchmaker takes on resellers
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Little more than a decade ago, the name of Hajime Asaoka was unknown in the watch world. But, now, the 57-year-old’s timepieces are in such demand that he has had to impose special measures to deter speculators from buying them simply to resell.
It started back in 2009 when Tokyo-based Asaoka was passing his days working as a designer of prototype telephones and steam irons while spending his evenings labouring over his first, home-made watch.
Sitting late into the night at a cramped workbench, he used makeshift tools bought from eBay and took guidance from YouTube tutorials and second-hand reference books, such as Watchmaking by the late English horologist George Daniels.
Despite being a beginner, Asaoka went in at the deep end and chose to build a tourbillon regulator, known for being one of the most complex of all mechanisms to perfect.
Against all odds, Asaoka succeeded, and news of his remarkable achievement spread like wildfire, after a short film he had posted online showing the uncased movement in action was spotted by French watch journalist Gregory Pons.
“He wrote an article about it but, unfortunately, didn’t include any contact information,” says Asaoka. “Somehow, a retailer in Ginza got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to make a watch to sell.”
Having left his day job, Asaoka took up the offer and built another tourbillon — which quickly sold for ¥6mn (£37,100).
Five further watches followed during the next five years, and he has since made around 30 different pieces under the Hajime Asaoka dial name — including tourbillons, chronographs, and three-hand models all to his own, distinctive design and priced between £15,000 and £80,000.
Most of the watches have been bought by the world’s leading collectors, and such is the quality of Asaoka’s work that two pieces were nominated for the 2020 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève — the Oscars of the watch world — with another being shortlisted in this year’s Challenge category.
This time, however, the name on the dial is not Hajime Asaoka but Kurono Tokyo, the sub-brand founded by the maker in 2018, initially to sell more affordable watches to his Japanese fans who admired his work but could not afford, or find, one of his rare haute-horlogerie pieces.
Although they are entirely designed by Asaoka and assembled by him and his team of four, who occupy two tiny studio workshops in the Bunkyo area, Kurono Tokyo watches use ubiquitous Miyota movements and other bought-in parts. But such is Asaoka’s cult following that thousands have been sold since he began shipping the watches worldwide in 2019.
In fact, the demand for new Kurono Tokyo models is so great that Asaoka now announces them for sale on the company’s website with a 10-minute buying window — and no indication of how many of each will actually be produced.
“Many people who succeed in buying one of our watches immediately offer them at far higher prices to others who haven’t managed to order before the allocation sells out,” he explains. “We have tried to control that by making them available only for a limited time and by not revealing the number of each edition — although we really have no choice but to make small numbers, simply because we have such limited production capacity.”
In May of this year, a Kurono Tokyo Reiwa watch — a model that sold out within six minutes of its 2019 launch — appeared at a Phillips auction in Geneva where it exceeded its SFr4,000 (£3,630) presale estimate by more than six times, fetching SFr25,200.
For those who are quick off the mark, though, a new Kurono Tokyo remains good value. One of the latest models, a calendar watch called the Calendrier Type 1 that could have been bought for around £1,500, went on sale on August 11 and sold out within 24 hours.
Sam Kessler, editor of watch lifestyle magazine Oracle Time, has followed the progress of Kurono Tokyo since the watches became widely available in 2019. “Like other micro brands, they operate on the basis of providing phenomenal design and attention to detail at incredibly affordable prices,” he says. “They don’t spend money on marketing, they are completely transparent about the components that go into their watches and, due to the small size of the company, production is necessarily limited. The result is a well-deserved streetwear level of hype and instant collectability.”
Asaoka, meanwhile, continues painstakingly to produce his high-end, own name watches in minuscule numbers using components that he makes entirely himself — and, in true Asaoka style, they are never simple. “Before I made my first watch, I had designed inexpensive watches for sale in department stores but never tried to make any part of one,” he says. “Because of that, people often ask me why I chose to make a tourbillon as my first watch — and there are two reasons. The first is that my motivation to do something goes down very quickly if it is too easy; the second is that tourbillon watches are generally very expensive, and there was no way I could have afforded to buy one.”
But, now that Asaoka probably can afford to buy one, he does not actually need it — because he wisely held on to that first, ambitious project that set him on the road to unexpected horological fame.