Design Takes the Lead in Japanese Watchmaker’s Work

TOKYO — It’s been a big year for Hajime Asaoka.

Not only does he plan to open his first brick-and-mortar boutique later this month in Tokyo, but early last month he became Japan’s first independent watchmaker to be awarded the prestigious title of Contemporary Master Craftsman, a recognition issued by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare that honors skilled artisans considered leaders in their fields.

But Mr. Asaoka comes from a different background than most of his peers, who went to watchmaking schools. “I’m a designer,” he said.

After graduating from the Tokyo University of the Arts in 1990, he founded his own business two years later. “As a product designer, part of my job was to design watches,” he said. “But I was never satisfied with the quality of the watches. Details are so important, and I wanted to make a watch by myself” — not just design it.

(“I initially got interested in watches when I was in junior high school,” he said, and in 1978 his father gave him a mechanical watch, a chronograph by the Japanese brand Citizen. “Usually mechanical watches are so expensive, but the price was reasonable because quartz was so popular at that time.”)

So in the early 2000s, Mr. Asaoka taught himself to make watches, buying models to take apart and reading “Watchmaking,” by the celebrated British maker George Daniels. “Since I was a child, I was very good at engineering,” he said.

He even learned to create his own parts: “At that time, a few Japanese craftsmen could make watch parts, so I just tried to learn from them, and I repeated the process by trial and error.”

In 2009, he introduced Tourbillon #1, a prototype that included the first tourbillon made in Japan. (Coincidentally, Mr. Asaoka, 57, was born on June 26, the same day that, in 1801, Abraham-Louis Breguet patented his invention of the tourbillon, a mechanism that counters the effects of gravity on time keeping.)

As a result, Mr. Asaoka was named to the Académie horlogère des créateurs indépendants (in English, the Academy of Independent Creators in Watchmaking, or A.H.C.I.), a Swiss organization whose membership includes two other Japanese independent makers, Masahiro Kikuno and Daizoh Makihara.

In 2011, he began selling his own watches, under the name Hajime Asaoka Tokyo Japan. He has developed four models — Tsunami, Project T Tourbillon, Tourbillon Pura and Chronograph — each priced at around eight million yen ($57,200).

But he works alone and can make only about five watches in a year —. a pace, he estimated, that would take him about eight years to fill current orders. So he recently started to decline new requests.

The production limitations and the prices he must charge are among the reasons he created a more mass-market brand, Kurono Tokyo, in 2019. He now designs both brands, with the watches produced by his company, Precision Watch Tokyo.

Mr. Asaoka’s handmade watches are in such high demand that he doesn’t wear one himself and none were available to photograph when I visited his workshop in November. He works in Edogawabashi, in the Bunkyo ward of Tokyo, a very residential area with the Kanda River flowing just a few steps away.

Mr. Asaoka’s basement workshop is a bit of a watchmaker’s lair, outfitted with a black leather sofa and chairs, a movie screen and a bookshelf filled with watchmaking books and magazines. Behind the seating area is his equipment. It was very different from the artisanal-looking ateliers of other independent watchmakers I have visited. Mr. Asaoka’s has a very futuristic feel, with lots of laptops and monitors and large machinery, such as a micro fabrication machine used to make parts and a neon-green laser engraving device.

Mr. Asaoka does everything here, from designing the programs for parts to the watch assembly. And while some things can be done with machinery, “some things can only be done by hand,” he said, such as creating dials, hands or balance wheels: “When creating a balance wheel, which is the heart of the mechanical movement, a difference of only one micron is very big. It’s difficult to adjust the weight with a machine, so it’s impossible to create that part with a machine.”

(He tried machine polishing a watch once, but decided it wasn’t precise enough.)

For a dial, he uses German silver or brass, then lacquers the piece and prints his name using a machine that he created himself. (Mr. Asaoka posted a how-to video about the process on YouTube that has gotten more than 145,000 views and created quite a buzz.)

His favorite part of watchmaking? “The design,” he said, unsurprisingly. And it is his designer’s point of view that informs how he approaches watchmaking. For example, he made a comparison between watches and cars. “When thinking about the mechanism, engineers try to solve problems by logic, but designers solve it with design,” he said. “Beautiful designs solve problems and it’s also very practical.”

And which one of his watch models does he considers to be emblematic of his work? “The Tsunami,” he said, referring to a three-hand watch with a full plate movement, a kind of design that primarily has been used for pocket watches.

He gave the watch its name because its balance wheel is so large in diameter. “Usually, they’re between 7 millimeters and 8 millimeters, but this one is 15 millimeters. A big balance wheel means stable pressure,” and accurate time keeping, he said — an example of how design solves problems.

And does he have any hobbies? “Fishing,” he said, “but I don’t have time to go.” It also has been hard for him to focus on creating new models, given the orders he has to fill, but he said that he plans to introduce one at the A.H.C.I. Masters of Horology event in Geneva in the spring.

Mr. Asaoka named his secondary line Kurono — the pronunciation of the word “chrono” in katakana, one of Japan’s three sets of alphabetical characters.

He outsources the production of the mechanical watches, which have movements from Seiko and Miyota and sell for about $2,000 each. “I wanted to work as a designer again,” he said, emphasizing the word “again.” “Since I’m originally a designer, I wanted to design, so I learned how to outsource.”

The Kurono watches are offered in limited editions of a few hundred pieces, however, because Mr. Asaoka has collaborated with several artisans around Japan to ensure each of the 13 models introduced so far has had a special flair. Some of the dials are embellished with urushi, or lacquerware, by the Kyoto-based artisan Megumi Shimamoto. She has used maki-e, a decorative technique that employs powders and inlays to create motifs on the lacquer, such as kiku (chrysanthemum), sakura (cherry blossom) and kumo (a cloud pattern).

When a new Kurono is ready, an announcement of an online sale date and time is made a week in advance. Often they sell out in about 90 seconds, but to ensure fairness, some anniversary models are sold for about 10 minutes, and all orders placed within that time frame are accepted.

“Once a model sells out, we don’t repeat it,” Mr. Asaoka said. And all the models have sold out.

Roy Chan, a watch collector in Hong Kong, owns a Kurono, the Chronograph II Shiro model that was introduced earlier this year. “I have been following Kurono Tokyo since its establishment, and I always wanted a timepiece from the brand for myself,” he wrote in an email. “Among all their wonderful creations, it was the chronographs which made my heart flutter every time it popped up on my phone.”

Once he had the watch, he wrote, “I admired the dial design by Hajime Asaoka — balanced layout, great choice of colorways, well-applied lacquer and proportionate sunken sub-dials with concentric guilloché patterns.”

And on one Instagram post, he mentioned what he called the “Japaneseness” of his experience with Kurono: “You could always sit back and relax and be assured that things are well taken care of in your best interest.”

Kurono watches are sold online, but this month Mr. Asaoka plans to open his first store, a combination of boutique and gallery called the Kurono Aoyama Salon, in the upscale Aoyama district of Tokyo.

In addition to the boutique and watch introductions he has planned for next year, he said his business would keep expanding.

“Mechanical watches are not very practical in daily life,” he said. “But they’re very important for our hearts and emotions. It means that watches are crucial for our lives, so I want to meet people’s expectations.”

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