Cover Story: Man of the Hour

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 12, 2018 - February 18, 2018.
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Buben & Zorweg managing director for Southeast Asia and Australia Jimmie Tay talks to Chua Sue-Ann about his long-standing love affair with the world of watches

Among luxury watch aficionados, Jimmie Tay is a personality who has both elusive and enduring qualities. He seems elusive because he travels the region extensively. Every week or so, he spends time in a different Southeast Asian city, be it Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hanoi or his home base of Singapore, and enduring because he has been connected to the luxury watch world since he was a child.

These days, a lot of his travel is for Buben & Zorweg as managing director for Southeast Asia and Australia. But even before his partnership with the German maker of ultra-luxury watch winders and  watch safes, he has had a long love affair with timepieces.

In many ways, it was inevitable. Tay is the nephew of the founders of leading Asian luxury watch retailer, The Hour Glass — Dr Henry Tay and his wife Datuk Dr Jannie Tay. The young Tay worked at The Hour Glass for 11 years — from 1994 to 2005. During that time, he helped oversee operations in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.

But his first encounter with the business of luxury timepieces began many, many decades before that. His grandfather was the man who planted the Tay family in the watch business, before the start of World War II.

Tay’s grandfather, as the story goes, sold watches from a small stand in Singapore in the early 1940s. The Japanese invasion and occupation,  however,  halted all business activity. But after WWII, Tay’s grandfather opened a shop in Singapore. That shop — Lee Chay Watch in North Bridge Street — would become the first Rolex distributor in Singapore. Tay’s father also worked in the family business.

“When I was six years old, I had to follow my father to the shop in the morning. At 1pm, I’d walk to school nearby. So, every day I would go to the shop and start winding Rolex watches,” Tay recalls with a laugh. “As we say in our family, watches are in our blood.”

So, you would think Tay’s first watch would be a Rolex, gifted to him by his parents or grandparents to mark a milestone. Not quite. Tay’s first watch was a Grand Seiko, the legendary Japanese watchmaker’s first foray into luxury timepieces, a world then dominated by the Swiss.

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