Austen Chu—better known as @Horoloupe on Instagram—is one of the most prominent watch collectors out there and is one of the founding members of the Shanghai Watch Gang.
Chances are you’ve already stumbled across his feed, and salivated over his artful wrist shots. Still in his twenties, Chu embodies a new generation of young, successful Chinese collectors who possess an extensive knowledge of watchmaking and are purchasing universally- coveted timepieces for themselves. What struck me the most about Chu, was not only his intelligence, but also his modesty, despite experiencing success early on in life and selling his first company while still in his teens.
On a recent visit to Hong Kong, I caught up with him to learn more about his watch collecting habits and how he believes social media has impacted the industry. He also brought with him three of his favourite watches to show our readers.
Thank you for joining us today, let’s start with how you got into watches.
Well, this is actually kind of funny. I got into watches when I was in kindergarten. Our teacher taught us how to tell time and out of our entire class I was the only one that actually got it instantly, it somehow just clicked. And for the rest of the week, I was the teacher’s little helper, teaching my fellow classmates how to tell time. My mother then went and bought me one of those toy watches, one of those Flik-Flak watches, and since then I’ve always had something on my wrist. But it really started when I was 15 after I started making money from my first company. Initially I was buying G-Shocks but then I found myself in this black hole of horology, reading all of the watch-related websites, forums and whatnot. Eventually you start buying bigger pieces. My first piece was 70 percent of all the money I had to my name. It was the dumbest financial decision that I’ve ever made in my life. I purchased a Hamilton Face 2 Face, and it was my first mechanical watch. I still have that watch today because it was the first watch that made me feel as if I had to buy it. Now I look at it like “meh,” but it was the watch that brought me into the world of horology.
What do watches mean to you personally?
Watches are for me, the perfect way to express oneself, just like your clothes or whatever you wear. It’s part of you and how you present yourself to other people. Building upon that point, if you’re talking about the actual craftsmanship of watches, I feel like horology itself—the industry, the origins of it, the reason why it stayed in Switzerland, the intricacy, all that—it captures the pinnacle of human intellect. These watches are all done by hand, and in this day and age of smartphones, social media and information overload in all aspects of everyone’s life, fine watchmaking is something that can essentially ground you to reality.
Everyone collects timepieces for different reasons, what is your collecting philosophy?
I buy what I like and it’s usually a watch to celebrate certain milestones in my life, be it personal milestones or professional. I feel like that’s the way it should be because everyone right now is getting caught up in the hype. I have also fallen victim to that as well. But I believe that if a watch can make you feel something, you know, make your heart skip a beat; if it makes you feel emotional, almost like a burning feeling in your chest, then it’s the watch for you. The watches that I got, especially the Audemars Piguet black ceramic, the Patek Philippe 5740, when I saw them I thought, “Wow, I need this in my life right now.”
I agree if you still enjoy a watch every time you pick it up then it is the one. And when you look back, how have your watch collecting habits changed over the years?
If you look at my Instagram, it is pretty clear that I like the sportier look more but that might be because of my age. With that said, your collecting habits definitely do change over time, whether that’s aesthetics or the brands that you’re attracted to. I went from Hamilton to TAG Heuer, Seiko, Grand Seiko, Panerai, AP, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Richard Mille, and now currently I’m back at AP. I feel like it changes also depending on your lifestyle. Two years ago, I was wearing suits every single day and it was important to me was that the watch was super thin. I wouldn’t mind wearing watches with a leather strap, because it simply just fit. In terms of sporty watches, back then it was [Patek Philippe] 5711 Nautiluses. But right now, I don’t wear suits that often anymore, and so my taste has definitely shifted over the years.
Do you have an endgame when it comes to collecting watches?
I don’t have one. I feel like everyone sets these milestones or endgames for themselves but once they achieve it they always set something else. When I first started collecting watches my endgame was to just buy an AP, you know? My first one was a blue-faced [Royal Oak] 15400. When I got it I said, “Okay, I’m not going to buy anymore watches ever again.” Then a few months later, I thought, “The Millenary is pretty nice, and the gold Royal Oak is also really nice.” Eventually it just spiralled out of control and every time you meet a certain milestone you always find something else you want. I think that’s human nature; you’re never fully satisfied with what you have, you can only be satisfied by non-material or non-tangible goods. With tangible goods there’s always something better.
You have a huge following on social media. How do you think Instagram has changed the collecting game?
I think Instagram and social media in general have played a paramount role in watch collecting. It changed the entire collecting game both for good and bad. But what’s good is that it also shrunk the world. Watch collecting is such a niche that I would say most of the people that I meet in watch collecting are generally good people and I’ve developed very meaningful friendships with people that I’ve met through Instagram that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. But obviously social media is a double-edged sword because certain pieces get hyped up a lot. I remember when I first started out my Instagram account and had no followers, all these accounts that I would follow would really influence what I thought was cool or what I thought was what I should be collecting and it kind of creates an echo chamber in terms of what you see out there. In the past two years certain pieces have been hyped up immensely, selling for double retail or triple retail, which, in my opinion, is mostly due to social media. I don’t think it would have happened otherwise.
And how do you think this trend is going to evolve in the future?
The younger generation are sharper than previous generations. They know what kind of media is paid for, they know what is non- biased. In my opinion it’s just because of the nature of how we grew up. We started interacting with computers and phones at a much younger age than the previous generation did, and we’re much more astute in filtering information. In the future, I think actual collectors will be the driving force for a lot of pieces and a lot of brands. Collectors are the ones that are paying for these watches that they own; they’re not getting sponsored by a brand or paid to say, “Oh this watch is good.” Whereas previously, there were a lot of big accounts but it was very obvious that brands were paying them. Back then people didn’t really care as much but right now people want non-biased, non-partisan information so I think that’s going to be the future. It’s going to be a shift where brands are going to care less about the accounts that are surviving or living from paid content, and I feel like they would be shifting more towards caring about the opinions of actual collectors. That’s better for the entire industry as a whole and it’s also better for the collectors. It’s a win- win in my opinion.
Austen’s Big Three
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Tourbillon Chronograph Openworked Selfwinding
Arguably the watch most people know Horoloupe for. Nicknamed the “Baby Blue Concept” (it also comes in white or red), it is the first self-winding Royal Oak Concept made by AP. The platinum oscillating weight takes centre stage on the dial of this fully skeletonised timepiece and the watch also features a tourbillon and a chronograph function. What’s special here is that the watch was premiered by Chu himself on Instagram, bypassing traditional media.
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WORLD PREMIERE (Don’t worry, François gave me permission) 😏😏😏💥💥💥 The Baby Blue Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Selfwinding Tourbillon Openworked Chronograph ✨✨✨ I successfully wet my pants 💦💦💦 SO. MUCH. WANT. I haven’t wanted a watch this badly in so long 😫😫😫 #horoloupe #SHwatchgang #audemarsnation #royalokconcept #tourbillon #chronograph #openworked
“After visiting their manufacture in Le Brassus, I had lunch with François-Henry Bennahmias [CEO of Audemars Piguet] in his office,” he remembers. “He suddenly asked me ‘What colour? Baby blue, red, or white?’ I instantly responded with baby blue.” Mere minutes after, Chu was told to close his eyes while Bennahmias strapped the latest Concept model on his wrist for him to discover. “I immediately fell in love with the watch, and then and there I was like, ‘Okay, I want this.’ François let me premiere the watch, which I believe is the first time Audemars Piguet let a customer premiere a watch online,” says Chu. “Funny part is, I told François at the end ‘Thank you for everything, but also fuck you because that was the most expensive lunch I’ve ever had in my life!’” [laughs]
Patek Philippe Nautilus Perpetual Calendar Ref. 5740G
This was the hottest Patek Philippe, released at Baselworld 2018. Reference 5740G is the first ever Nautilus perpetual calendar to come out of the manufacture.
Measuring 40mm in diameter, the watch houses the famed Calibre 240 Q making the timepiece thin while giving it the recognizable QP layout of showing the month, day, date, leap year, moonphase, and 24-hour cycle, just like the ref. 3940 and 5327. Chu did not hesitate to purchase this one. Not only because it is a great watch to own but also because this was his prize for being so good at the guessing game. “I was messaging the country manager of China [for Patek Philippe] saying that it would be really cool if Patek made a perpetual calendar, blue-dialed, Nautilus in a precious metal using the 240 movement. I literally got all the points correct. It was meant to be,” Chu recalls.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Black Ceramic
“I don’t think I need to explain myself. Just look at it. This is ceramic! It looks like precious metal, it shines, it’s light, it’s very scratch- resistant and it’s pretty low profile for what it is,” Chu explains. The AP Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in black ceramic was released to great acclaim by collectors and is still a watch that is very hard to get even two years after its initial release—they even appear in auction catalogues now. The Royal Oak QP with the 5134 calibre is already considered one of the finest in watchmaking, and adding a fully brushed black ceramic case and bracelet puts this watch on a whole other level. Chu found the best way to summarise this watch, “AP’s motto is ‘To break the rules, you must first master them’ and this is literally the epitome of that.”