Malaysian collector Ming Thein couldn’t find the watch he and his friends wanted… so they started making them!
How did you get started in watches?
My own collecting story started many years ago. The more research you do, the more you fall down the rabbit hole. Back when I started, there was the Purist, Timezone and Watchuseek, and I met a lot of collectors. They would let me see and play with their watches. This further cemented the disease in my own mind. The only way I could experience these was to take photographs and making friends with the brand principals at the same time. Then, photography took over to me, as the watches I wanted were still inaccessible. I started off with some ordinary pieces, a Seiko Kinetic and an Omega Dynamic Chronograph, my parents got me a Lange 1815 and that almost frustrated me even more, as I started to learn how much I still needed to know and own.
What about design?
I did some design for a couple of brands. That started me thinking about maybe there was a career here, even though in Malaysia I was in the completely wrong place. I was working in finance, but I wanted something more creative.
I decided that watch photography was starting to kill my love of watches. Suddenly, I had 10 watches that I’d always wanted on a tray in front of me. It was like a starving man at a buffet who couldn’t eat. I had acquired some key pieces on the secondary market, where they were more affordable. There were a couple of Sinn pilot chronographs, an IWC Ingenieur, a parade of Reversos, a couple of GP Ferrari pieces. I realized that there was a massive shift in market pricing, so I started looking at commissioning watches from some small makers, like Ochs and Junior. The last piece I made with them, many of my friends wanted to buy the same watch.
What got you thinking about making your own watch?
A lot of my collector friends in Malaysia were disappointed by the lack of ingenuity and originality by the big brands, and we were amazed by the prices at the higher end.
So, we started to think about doing our own watches, to make something that would last a little longer and be distinctive. It took more than two years to make the first piece, as there was a very steep learning curve. We now have 25 models in various stages of development, which all need sitting time. Not all of them will make it to production, but we have to see which ones work.
What did you pick up along the way?
One of the things we learned the hard way is that there is no such thing as a one size fits all watch. The first thing is that if it doesn’t work for you and you can’t defend the watch, it’s difficult to justify why we are making it. We have to believe in our products. We don’t make watches to sell, we make watches we like.
What sets the Ming watch apart?
Aside from the design, there are a few things that we like and think are distinctive. The flared lugs, the use of sapphire in the dials and cases. We want something alive, as metal is fairly inert. The 19 looks different depending on the kind of light, so it keeps you constantly interested. We tried to keep the designs minimalist and get rid of everything that you don’t need. We want to make it so that the watch is meant to tell time, so you need to keep it clear and easy to read. At the same time, life is already fast enough, so we don’t have a seconds hand. One of other design things are the use of 0 instead of 12. We have a lot of circular things, which makes it intuitive.
What about the packaging?
We like to give the customer something complete. We aren’t giving you a leather box that will disintegrate and stick to your shelf in the tropics. We provide you with a travel pouch and several straps/bracelets with quick release buttons. We put a buckle on every strap, so you don’t have to switch it out, which collectors appreciate.
Did you draw from other watches when working on your own design?
I realized that certain watches worked because of the way all their elements went together. If you pick and choose from other watches, it won’t be coherent. I never looked at a watch and said “I like that, I’ll use that.” I don’t think there are any elements that I consciously emulated from something that already existed. Because I’ve seen so much, I know conceptually what works and what doesn’t.
I think it’s a mix of the intricacy and the mechanicalness. I have a sense of wonder that we can create something like this. It’s a reminder that your time is finite and you have to make use of it in a valuable way. I don’t think a watch tells other people about you, I think it’s for personal enjoyment. It should give you joy when you look at it.
Your company is different from most, right?
I don’t have to answer to corporate shareholders. We all have personal collections and we still wear our own watches, as much as for R&D and reality checking, and they do something for us that Ming watches don’t yet. We won’t make a watch in the style of the Breguet Tradition, we won’t make a minute repeater, we won’t make a pocket watch. We can appreciate a lot, but we won’t make everything in Ming. We all still wear our own collections besides Ming.
If we make a watch which has a direct competitor and we’d prefer to wear another brand, that would be a problem. We don’t have any direct competition at the moment. If we had a diver or a classical chronograph, there are lots of direct competitors. We are creating something that we feel is missing.
What are you wearing right now?
I am wearing the Ming 19.01. I met a customer earlier who wanted to have a look at it. I have been switching between this and the 17.03. All the watches I have from Ming are not final production pieces, because they all go to customers, so I am wearing wonky prototypes. They all have significance for me. I switch watches two or three times a day.
How big is the Ming company now?
Right now, we have six people in the company. I’ve known them all for a long time. Everyone has input into the general design. I have to set the general direction, but when it comes down to the minor details, that’s a team discussion. Sometimes I am too close as a designer, and we have had some 11th hour changes that have changed the watch dramatically.
How do you sell?
At the moment, it doesn’t make sense to work with retailers, because we would have to have significantly higher margins. We put most of the cost into the engineering. I am not ruling it out for the long term, but I am concerned about the state of retail. I am concerned about brand value and discounting. Also, we can’t have control over the customer experience. I need to give our customers confidence in us, and I don’t know how we create that confidence. Without the direct contact, it’s hard to build a relationship and know what consumers value.
We have to do designs where people go “Wow.” In a way, the more derivative products that are out there, the better it is for us, because we are deliberately trying to be different.”
The New Ming 19.02 Worldtimer
An off-shoot of Ming’s GPHG-finalist 19.01, the 19.02 is the brand’s first world time complication, and its first micro rotor automatic. Created in partnership with Manufacture Schwarz Etienne, the 19.02 features Kuala Lumpur as one of the time zones on the dial, a nod to Ming’s home city.
The movement, based on Schwarz Etienne’s in-house micro rotor automatic, the ASE220.1, features skeletonized bridges, a matte-blasted 5N rose gold coating, hand-finished and polished anglage and has a power reserve of approximately 70 hours.
The 19.02 comes in a 39mm diameter, grade 5 titanium case with a double box sapphire crystal with double-sided antireflective coating.
Available to order immediately, Ming is offering special pricing for early orders of the 19.02 starting from CHF 9,900 until March 31, 2019. After this date, the 19.02 will be sold at the full retail price, starting from CHF 10,900. Ming expects deliveries to begin at the end of 2019.