Ming a case study to create a watch brand

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on February 19, 2019.

When disparate elements integrate so well, it is easy to forget just how difficult it is to get this right until you look back at Ming’s other efforts. Photos by Bloomberg

The original Ming 17.01 watches, with anthracite and blue sapphire dials.

The movement is calibre MSE1001.1, with 100-hour power reserve.

Under low light conditions, the Ming signature city-of-the-future Tron-esque glow is seen.

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A new movement with rose gold plating and a new world time complication hit all the right notes on the idiosyncratic Ming 19.02

It is difficult to talk about Ming Watches — at least for me — without thinking about Ming Thein, whom I first got to know in the early 2000s when he and I were relative newcomers to horology, and were hip-deep in the many very passionate and sometimes quite heated exchanges going on, on what was the ThePuristS.com, and what is now PuristsPro. Most of what we talked about is now ancient history, more or less, but I still remember, vividly, the speculative plans for wildly imaginative watches that he sometimes shared with us, and I felt convinced that sooner or later he would produce a watch, or watches, of his own.

In subsequent years, he became not only a very successful fine arts and commercial photographer, but also one of the most highly respected and widely read online photography gurus in the world. I always felt a sneaking suspicion, though, that he was far from done with watches, therefore with little surprise, but much pleasure, I followed and covered the launch of his first collection — the Ming 17.01, debuted in August 2017.

The 17.01 immediately drew much attention and created much buzz — here were watches obviously the result of considerable care, thought and with attention to detail. Moreover, they were instantly recognisable, and just as significantly, absolutely different from anything that others were doing. Unlike so many start-ups, small-batch watch companies, there was no obvious reaching into the grab bag of well-worn vintage design cues that characterises so many such companies; also absent was another obvious ploy — to do something aspirationally minimalist and Bauhaus-influenced. Instead, there was a whole new design vocabulary — cool, deceptively spare, with a few highly idiosyncratic details executed meticulously and with tremendous focus.

Since then, the collection continued to expand, and while the 17.03 GMT brought the first complication to the 17.xx series — and at a slightly higher price point — perhaps Ming’s most unexpected move, at least initially, was using a much higher grade 100-hour movement from Schwartz-Etienne, in the Ming 19.01 which, in addition to offering its own timepieces with in-house calibres, also occasionally supplies them to other manufacturers.

With a movement that was a quantum leap above those used in the 17.xx series in exclusivity and the degree of finish, also came a corresponding jump in price — 6,900 Swiss francs (RM27,804), a surprise to many who had been won over by the slightly incredible value proposition of the 17.01, but well in line with the complexity of the case, dial and hands, as well as the sophisticated movement.

The parallel creation of two families, the 19.xx and the 17.xx, represents two different price points and obviously, very different value propositions, but behind both is a common basic design vocabulary. Central to both as well are the ideas of over-delivering on design intelligence, as well as on more concrete details in the quality and execution of components, including the movements.

The next evolution of the 19.xx series, announced recently, is the Ming 19.02 World Timer. This is not a dual-time zone or GMT watch, but rather a true world timer — the city names, presented as three-letter International Air Transport Association airport codes, including Kuala Lumpur in homage to Ming’s location in Malaysia, are actually printed on the underside of the dial, with a rotating 24-hour disk.

Though this is a new complication for Ming, there is with the 19.02 the same combination of many carefully thought-out details adding up to a deceptively simple look, characteristic of other Ming watches in the 17.xx and 19.xx families. The case has a double-box sapphire crystal design — with box sapphire crystals in the front and back — with a grade-five titanium case middle and lugs; at 39mm x 10.9mm, it is very much in the Goldilocks zone in size. As with previous models, there is a generous and very striking deployment of Super-LumiNova, applied not only to the hands but also the rehaut, which under low light conditions gives the watch the Ming signature city-of-the-future Tron-esque glow.

The front crystal, in addition to carrying the city names, is also treated with a colour gradient — an opaque deep blue, transitioning to transparency at the edge of the dial. Here, the laser-etched chapter ring gives a sense of depth against the rose-gold finish of the movement plate visible beneath it. The whole thing is beautifully orchestrated — the open-working of the hands and the use of colours, as well as the control of visual depth, all somehow able to work together harmoniously.

When you see these disparate elements integrated so well, moreover in a genuinely original design vocabulary, it is easy to forget just how difficult it is to get this right until you look back at other efforts and see how easy it is to get things wrong. The design works not just in two dimensions, but rather across the entire watch case’s physical structure as well, with the signature lugs on the same visual continuum as other aspects of the design.

The same sensibilities inform the execution of the movement. (Note: the 19.02 shown here is a prototype; the case’s back is engraved 19.01 but of course, the full production models will have the correct engraving; also, the lower level of the bridge for the automatic winding system will be hand-bevelled in the production calibre.) The contrast between warm and cool, one of the overarching themes topside, is carried through the calibre ASE220.1, thanks to the anthracite-coloured, partly open-worked mainspring barrel cover, and the sintered tungsten micro-rotor.

I reckon using rose gold for plating the movement — hand-finished, with hand-drawn bevels and flanks — is essential to the design’s success as a whole. The open-working of the movement plates, while not an example of full skeletonisation, actually offers a much better integrated visual impression than the traditional open-working, giving the movement the same multi-tiered three-dimensionality as the dial side. There is also a 70-hour power reserve, and a stop-seconds (there is no seconds hand, but if you are fussy about setting the time as accurately as possible, it is a feature that certainly does not hurt to have).

The first Ming watch, the 17.01, was such a hit in price-to-value ratio that it instantly created expectations for many of us, about the company’s future direction. Doing a luxury-level watch line parallel with a more accessibly priced product is certainly not impossible, but there are more examples of failure in pursuing such a strategy than there are successes. Whether Ming is succeeding is of course highly dependent on who you are asking; for me, what makes the whole thing work is the continuity of design sensibility across all the product lines combined with clear, and very importantly, defensible, differentiating traits between the 17.xx and the 19.xx.

Ming still offers its watches exclusively online. The 19.02 World Timer, at 9,900 Swiss francs until March 31, 2019, will jump to 11,900 Swiss francs on April 1. Deliveries for 2019 are fully booked, so expect early 2020 delivery if your order is not already in. For more information, visit ming.watch.com. — Bloomberg

This article was originally published on Hodinkee.