HONG KONG — In early 2019, about six months after Quinn Lai opened his Eoniq watch store and watchmaking workshop, he started noticing some unusual customers: 50s-something men with barbershop haircuts who stood out among the fashionista crowds at the Mills, a 1950s Hong Kong textile factory that had been repurposed as a design-forward mall.
“Some chin bui — old Hong Kong guys who made watches before us, the last generation of Hong Kong’s watch industry — had come to check us out,” the 34-year-old Mr. Lai said, using the Cantonese words for “previous generation.” “And these uncles were, like, ‘Hey, when we first saw you, we didn’t think you’d last longer than three months.’”
He was intrigued by the six or so men who had been in the business in the ’80s and ’90s, when Hong Kong was a watch manufacturing powerhouse, before many factories moved to mainland China in search of cheaper operations.
“They told me that, in Hong Kong, we have enough watchmaking craft and skills to put up a reasonable competition with the Swiss industry.” But he was skeptical. “Part of me was thinking, ‘OK, this is an old uncle, bragging about his life achievements, right?’ But then I went and looked into it further.”
The result of Mr. Lai’s curiosity, persistent networking and determination to work through obstacles, including an unexpected international trade dispute, began shipping in December: the Eoniq Signature Braemar watch. The timepiece is powered by the Caliber 852, which Mr. Lai said was the first mechanical movement ever made in Hong Kong (852 is the city’s telephone dialing code).
The Braemar was named for the neighborhood on Hong Kong Island where Eoniq opened its first workshop in 2015 — and Eoniq itself is a play on the word “eon,” meant to emphasize the timelessness of the watches. (In addition to the Eoniq Signature line, Mr. Lai’s watch businesses include a Hong Kong workshop where customers use software and watchmaking tools to customize their own pieces, and an online shop that sells a similar D.I.Y. experience.)
Mr. Lai’s new skeletonized dress watch proudly displays its origin. The words “Hong Kong” are printed on the sapphire crystal beneath the Eoniq brand trademark, and the label “HK Made” is laser-etched into the back of the movement (visible in the open-back version) and engraved on the back of the case.
It comes in 38.5 millimeter and 32.5 millimeter versions; the open-back model, regardless of size, is $760 and the closed back, $620. It is sold on the Eoniq Signature website and now has a waiting list of more than 600 people.
Roy Chan, a local watch collector, was one of the first in line, so he got his in December. “When I saw a story on Instagram that there was going to be a watch with the first H.K.-made caliber, I was immediately interested in getting one,” he said. “I think it was an emotional thing, because I’m a local Hong Konger, I was born here, and as a watch geek and watch collector, I couldn’t be more proud that my fellow Hong Kongers have done something very special.”
Mr. Lai brought some specialized knowledge to his businesses. He graduated with engineering degrees from Georgia Institute of Technology and Stanford University’s School of Management Science and Engineering, then went on to work at some Silicon Valley tech start-ups before returning to Hong Kong in 2012 and doing a stint at McKinsey & Company.
As he was just beginning to work on what became the Braemar, he joined the board of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council’s Watches and Clocks Advisory Committee. “A lot of these guys, they didn’t have a second generation interested in picking up their business. So I become like the kid they wish they’d had.”
By mid-2020, he said, he and his factory in Hong Kong had collaborated on a design based on the ETA 2801 mechanical movement, now in the public domain. (He said the factory preferred not to be named because it supplied watchmakers in China and Switzerland, and was reluctant to risk any conflict of interests. “They won’t even let me in the factory,” Mr. Lai said. “They bring production samples and videos to me.”)
Mr. Lai had determined his watch would meet U.S. customs requirements for the “Made in Hong Kong” label. (Online watch forums and the influencers flooding Instagram, Facebook and Twitter make the United States a key marketing location for any hopeful microbrand, Mr. Lai said, adding, “It’s the holy grail.”)
Congress responded two weeks later by passing the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which revoked the city’s special trade status, and by September, U.S. customs rules said all imported products made in Hong Kong had to be labeled “Made in China.”
Mr. Lai knew he had to find a solution. “I definitely was not going to make a hand-finished, Hong Kong-made artisan watch and mechanical movement and then stamp ‘Made in China’ on top,” he said. “It’s not that I hate anything made in China. I use a bunch of ‘Made in China’ stuff.”
He dug into international trade laws and discovered the “de minimis rule,” which sets a minimum value on imported goods that are subject to duties and taxes. In the United States, the threshold is $800.
“It forced us to bring the watch in at a price point under 800 bucks, and we managed to do it” — by redesigning the watch, Mr. Lai said.
He said it was fortunate that Eoniq’s core product — the customizable D.I.Y. watch kits, sold online — took off in 2021. The income gave him the financial freedom to reconsider the new watch’s marketing plan.
Even so, the movement’s development costs continued to mount, reaching two to three million Hong Kong dollars ($254,890 to $382,340). By Christmas 2021, his small company’s budget and cash flow were stretched thin, and he made a plea to his 10 employees.
“At the staff party I handed out an anonymous survey with everyone in the team basically telling them that their annual bonus is going to be significantly affected if they keep working on this project with me. Everybody ticked the box ‘Yes’.”
Now that the project is complete, Mr. Lai said he believed “going into mechanical watchmaking made me a different person.”
In his Silicon Valley days, he said, he would have looked at the numbers and concluded that producing a Hong Kong movement didn’t make sense. “This is not money making. It doesn’t matter. It should be done. And I know in Hong Kong a lot of people will appreciate that.”