January 2023 13 Min Read

A Closer Look at Collecting in Singapore with Tom Chng

By Randy Lai

It is hard to think of Tom Chng as anything other than the foremost authority of Singapore’s watch culture. Despite his repeated and polite insistences to the contrary. Previously a forensic litigation specialist at Deloitte, Chng hung up his proverbial coat and tie in 2017, choosing instead to reassert himself within Singapore’s world-class horological community. Now something of a multihyphenate who spends his days juggling the management of Pygmalion Gallery and freelance work with photographer (and life partner) Hosanna Swee, Chng remains closely associated with Singapore Watch Club, the association he co-founded alongside a number of other local collectors in 2015.

It’s practically impossible to deny the broader impact SWC has had on global watch culture this last half-decade. Today, the club commands a social media following tens of thousands strong, while in the physical realm its members have worked on a range of critically lauded limited editions in tandem with brands such as Hublot and Ulysse Nardin. At the centre of all this activity is Chng, involving himself – at a granular level – in the images, videography, writing and monthly soirees that are the lifeblood of the organisation.

A box that Chng would describe as being ‘beyond the Royal Oak’.

Individually, Chng remains passionate about classically styled complications at Audemars Piguet, a defined substrata of collecting he conceives as being “beyond the Royal Oak”. “I enjoy rare and notable timepieces,” Chng says, “especially those with interesting background stories.” With this observation firmly in mind, we took a stroll around two of SWC’s go-to stomping grounds in Singapore: Parkview Square and the iconic Fullerton Hotel. All the while, Chng recounts his salad days as a value-driven collector of 1980s Audemars Piguet, tells us where to find the brand’s most significant private museum in Asia, and pulls back the curtain on how SWC’s latest collaboration with Cartier came to fruition.

ACM: As a vocal and impassioned advocate for vintage Audemars Piguet, tell us a little about how you came to specialise in this niche of collecting.

TC: It was a bit of a chance encounter, really. My first experiences with vintage Audemars Piguet happened to involve the brand’s perpetual calendars – round in shape, dating to the 1990s. I quickly learned just how significant these were, because they had their genesis amid the tumult of the Quartz Crisis [in 1978] and helped to save the company. With this subset of vintage watchmaking, I was deeply struck by how different it was in comparison to Audemars Piguet today. In the roughly two decades that it was produced, this perpetual calendar always took the guise of a small, super-thin watch inside a round case. Admittedly, I was able to recognise the conventional layout of the registers, but apart from that, everything else just felt so completely fresh, down to the brand’s signature. Conversely, modern Audemars perpetuals strike me as being that much bolder. They eschew the restraint of their vintage counterparts.

“There are things in watch collecting that are a given: if, for example, everybody is looking into a single reference or model, that widespread interest is going to be reflected in the watch’s price.”

It’s also important to acknowledge that, even just a few years prior, few if any collectors were looking at vintage Audemars Piguet, therefore the prices represented relatively good value for money. In fact, it felt like collectors were consciously avoiding the genre. “Why aren’t these octagonal?”; “Will they even retain any value?”; “Where are the blue dials?”. The aura of understatement that permeated these watches really drew me in, and that in turn led me to all sorts of interested in-period discoveries: star wheels, shape cases, unconventional time displays…

Did the fact that other people were so dismissive of this style encourage your interest at all?

In a way, yes, but not so much out of the desire to appear controversial or different. It was because during the nascent years of my collecting, resources were most definitely not unlimited [laughs]. There are things in watch collecting that are a given: if, for example, everybody is looking into a single reference or model, that widespread interest is going to be reflected in the watch’s price.

So, if anything, it was the pursuit for value that originally drew me to vintage Audemars Piguet. I never had any grand designs about making it my ‘niche’. I simply thought: “Wow, a perpetual calendar from one of the most prestigious brands, with the same movement that is still in use today. And they didn’t even make that many of them!”

It’s not just the perpetual calendars that catch Chng’s eye now.

If we’re narrowing our discussion to the interval between 1978 and the late 1990s, that’s still quite a bit of ground to cover. Within that time frame, is there a particular era that, as a vintage Audemars Piguet collector, you remain completely enthused by?

I think it helps to split the history of Audemars Piguet – and by extension, much of Swiss watchmaking – into a few distinct chapters. That way, you get a more rounded understanding of the big picture.

In my view, the Quartz Crisis was a very significant point of demarcation: so much about the way in which the watch industry operates changed irrevocably in its aftermath. You have to remember that this was as much of an ideological struggle as it was an economic one. The battle was being fought over whether watches should be produced in a ‘sensible’ way versus the ‘right’ way.

History certainly tells us which road Audemars Piguet took [laughs].

Yes indeed, which brings us to the work of the brand in the 1980s and 1990s. In those decades, you see a palpable move towards the production and marketing of watches as luxury collectibles, and away from their earlier status as a practical tool for consumers.

Looking back, it seems obvious that the only way to ensure that the mechanical watch survived was by elevating it to the realm of pure luxury. That’s why back then there was an explosion of interest in making complications not just from Audemars, but numerous other high-end brands. We saw perpetual calendars, chronographs, repeating mechanisms, and this emphasis on high watchmaking continued well into the New Millennium, with the proliferation of the multi-axis tourbillon.

“Even just a few years prior, few if any collectors were looking at vintage Audemars Piguet, therefore the prices represented relatively good value for money. In fact, it felt like collectors were consciously avoiding the genre.”

Are there any complications and/or form languages that you consider to be emblematic for the brand during the 1980s and 1990s, then?

The technical progress Audemars Piguet made following the end of the Quartz Crisis actually allowed it to revisit a number of traditional concepts with fresh eyes. In 1986, the brand returned to the manufacture of chronographs – prior to that, only 307 wristwatch versions had been made, and these were sold gradually, with the last pieces being delivered during the 1960s.

As we discussed earlier, the 1980s was a renaissance for complicated watchmaking at Audemars Piguet, but going beyond the perpetual calendar, this is the era when Philippe Dufour was in-house there. Between 1982 and 1988, Dufour created a series of five pocket watches for the brand – all of which are, of course, spiritual antecedents to the Grande et Petite Sonnerie wristwatch he unveiled, under his own name, in 1992.

It’s probably fair to say that, for many collectors, the late 1980s is one of the most interesting eras at Audemars Piguet by dint of the impact it continues to have on the brand today. We haven’t even got around to discussing world-first innovations such as the self-winding tourbillon wristwatch…

Even that design tells you something about how committed the brand was to the relationship between balance and good design. Something as unassuming as the amount of spacing between individual sub-registers – I think [the brand] had already nailed those details in the 1990s. Then, in matters of proportion, most of the complicated Audemars watches back then – certainly the perpetual calendars – were made in a diameter between 36mm and 38mm. [This is] yet another reason for their popularity with Asian collectors today.

Among the original founders of Singapore Watch Club, has your area of expertise always lain in Audemars Piguet? What distinguishes your collecting ‘personality’ – for want of a better phrase – from that of your fellow members?

My fellow members probably like to think of me as the ‘neo-vintage guy’. That’s because parallel to my obsession with 1990s and millennial Audemars Piguet, I’m also a big fan of the work Vacheron Constantin was doing around the same time. As many collectors know, both brands have a shared history working with many of the same suppliers.

When it comes avant-garde independents, it doesn’t get more so than the Opus 3 from Harry Winston and Vianney Halter.

Increasingly, the other aspect of my ‘persona’ that has been steadily broadening is my interest in the avant-garde independents – I’d say that’s the complete flipside to my appreciation for neo-vintage.

I would imagine it’s a markedly different experience – collecting cutting-edge independents versus the comparatively more commercial ‘Holy Trinity’ brands. In your view, what distinguishes these genres of watchmaking from one another?

I’d say the biggest point of difference is that in neo-vintage watchmaking, particularly from the ‘Trinity’, you don’t get the brashness of ergonomics – if that makes sense? – that is so synonymous with many of the contemporary indie brands. Sure, 1980s-era Audemars Piguet is very light and very compact, but that’s because so many of the models were innately designed to be small, ultra-thin dress watches.

By contrast, many avant-garde independents reinterpret that concept of ‘lightness’ using materials and production processes that weren’t previously available, so you can have an objectively big, yet lightweight, design that articulates a very personal vision.

We’ll come back to independent watchmakers in due course, but first I wanted to get a sense of how watch culture in Singapore has influenced you. Does having regular access to museum-grade private collections, like the one maintained at Pygmalion Gallery, shape the sort of watches you’re interested in collecting?

Funnily enough, when I transitioned out of working in corporate…

Leaving the corporate sphere behind, Chng is now deeply embedded in the watch world.

Yes, my understanding was that you were part of the forensic litigation team at Deloitte for several years?

…my first full-time job in watches was with Pygmalion Gallery. In fact, I’d still consider Singapore Watch Club to be a passion project, whereas management of Pygmalion Gallery is very much what I do for work.

That’s quite the change of scenery. What convinced you to swap life at a Big Four firm for such a vastly different profession? How did you make that transition?

It wasn’t easy at first. I lacked a lot of the technical skill sets required to make watch-related content into a full-time job, but that’s something you just have to learn along the way. I’m fortunate to have a good mentor in Hosanna, so that makes content production a lot easier. Then when it comes to writing about watches, I find that that whole exercise is just about formalising the existing discussions you’ve had with friends and fellow collectors in a way that engages your audience. Of course, it helps to have a workplace like Pygmalion Gallery: not only are we a repository for a lot of literature that chronicles Audemars Piguet’s history, but we also have a number of important watches we can refer back to.

Since we’ve covered the vocational side of things, this is a good time to pivot our discussion to all things Singapore Watch Club. In the seven years you’ve been operating, are there any overarching lessons you’ve gleaned about the process of making limited editions?

What I’ve learned is that sometimes less really is more. So, when we approach the task of designing any limited edition, we really endeavour to suppress those elements that scream ‘Singapore Watch Club’. Rather than us, the focus is always on the brand.

Chng and his fellow Singapore Watch Club members have been lucky enough to work with some amazing brands over the years to produce limited editions for themselves.

A good illustration would be the first collaboration we ever did, with Ulysse Nardin. We met Patrick Hoffmann [the then-CEO] because one of our members – in fact, the only member – owned a Freak. Through Patrick, we learned a great deal about the brand and realised, among other things, that Ulysse Nardin operated one of Switzerland’s most prolific makers of enamel dials. That’s why over the years they’ve been able to produce work that few in the market can compete with at a price point that’s virtually unheard of. We also learned about the brand’s history in the production of marine chronometers, and so naturally, the conversation shifted away from making some version of the Freak to a watch that celebrated those specialties.

We didn’t want a watch that focused arbitrarily on the club. In fact, the most significant change we insisted on was to swap the white dial traditionally found in [the Classico range] to a black version. The remaining 90 percent of the design was kept very pure, minus the discrete double signature we asked for.

With each subsequent release, it’s been very interesting to observe the confluence of elements that has influenced the club’s ethos. If we’re talking about celebrating culture or representation, I think a lot of enthusiasts will remember the SWC-ified version of the Classic Fusion you released with Hublot…

The name is a bit of a giveaway, but as you know, a core watchmaking tenet at Hublot is the ‘art of fusion’. At the outset, we were told by the brand the collaboration had to showcase different materials. So our thought was to contrast a very traditional ‘noble metal’ [such as] gold with a material that is definitively new-age: ceramic.

Then, we expanded the conversation around the word ‘fusion’ to marry the two culturally unique artforms of Swiss watchmaking and Chinese calligraphy. We found a local calligrapher [Clarence Wee] who took that basic conceit and really ran with it. As it so happens, the guy was an avid yogi, and so his idea was to use full-body motion in order to convey the organic spirit of traditional Chinese writing. There were certain technical roadblocks to that idea – we thought, “How do you faithfully translate the size and motion of the original characters when they’ve been shrunk down to the size of a watch?” – but that in turn provoked the idea to use a linen dial and ‘float’ the calligraphic numerals. Even today, that’s something that I think our members are still really happy with.

Collecting is far more than just buying and selling watches for Chng.

All this talk of collaborations inevitably leads us to the Cartier ‘SWC 6th Anniversary’ special editions. I wonder if you could speak to the history of that project as, by any measure, going from one annual release to a set of 18 is pretty ambitious.

Fundamentally, we approached it much the same way as our first collaboration with Ulysse Nardin – by asking what the strength of the brand was. The conversation our members had boiled down to shapes. In Cartier’s case it’s difficult to decide on one, so we thought, “Why don’t we just make multiple? We’ve never done that before.”

In light of 2022 being the club’s sixth anniversary, it felt only natural to limit the collaboration to six shapes. After that, we began thinking about materials. The idea we decided on was to reflect the three core values of the Singapore Watch Club – passion, sincerity, humility – in each material. To us, the connections all sort of made sense [laughs].

For ‘passion’ – a strong word with fiery emotional connotations – we chose pink gold. We linked ‘sincerity’ to the idea of having a heart of gold [so we chose yellow gold]. And then for humility, we made the somewhat ironic association with platinum – it’s clean, minimal, and easily mistaken for steel by those who aren’t interested in watches. So, three core values; three materials.

Another area in which we had lots of back and forth with Cartier was the treatment used for all the dials. Looking through the brand’s historical literature, we found a small batch of reversible Tanks made during the 1970s that featured brushed dials. In silver, we thought this would be an interesting choice, since you don’t really see that kind of finishing at Cartier nowadays. We spent a substantial amount of time fine-tuning the exact shade of silver: we wanted the unfettered aesthetic of a mid-century dress watch, so getting the depth of brushing exactly right was crucial.

“When we approach the task of designing any limited edition, we really endeavour to suppress those elements that scream ‘Singapore Watch Club’. Rather than us, the focus is always on the brand.”

Of the six styles in three metals, were there any that proved particularly difficult to work on?

For this project, the case shapes we were iterating upon were literally 100 years old. That’s the difficulty with Cartier: the designs are so considered that there’s virtually nothing which can be done to improve them. And even if you think you can make improvements, how dare you! [Laughs] You know what I mean?

What I will say is that it was challenging to reconcile the different ‘eras’ of each shape, because the way they looked in previous decades isn’t quite the same as how they look today. In the case of the Santos-Dumont, we took inspiration from the design language in use just before the arrival of the Collection Privée – but we had to convince Cartier to tweak it so that the overall proportions would be in line with the rest of the collaboration.

I can imagine it’d be quite the headache to make such distinctive, individual silhouettes congruent with one another. From start to finish, how long did the entire process take?

About two years. But even before that, I think we spent a year and a half trying to convince Cartier to do it. These collaborations are always a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario: you can’t really inform members you’re working with the brand unless the brand has genuine interest. And by the same token, you can’t tell the brand you’re interested in working with them unless the members support you.

Bringing the conversation somewhat full circle, my observation over the years has been that there’s a very outsized support base for independent brands in Singapore. Without wishing to reduce an entire community, do you think Singaporean watch collectors have a certain ‘national character’ that distinguishes them from other groups in the region? Do the indies play a big role?

There are a lot of different elements at play that have encouraged the rise of independent watch brands in Singapore. At the outset, they are very staunchly promoted by our retailers, and so, because of that presence in the local market, the support on the brands’ side is equally strong. We’ve seen that first hand in the way that The Hour Glass has helped build a critical following for MB&F. Consequently, Max [Büsser] is always on hand to add momentum: he flies over to see the collectors; they get excited; word spreads; their friends want to know about independent watchmaking; and, before you know it, what was once a niche part of watch culture suddenly isn’t that intimidating anymore.

So, I think the idealised character of the Singaporean collector is somebody who’s open to the prospect of embracing brands they’ve never heard of. That requires you to trust in your own experience over what others value. We have a lot of collectors who possess confidence in their own discernment, which makes it easier to see past the anxieties of other consumers. “I’ve never heard of this brand”; “Is my watch going to hold its value?”; “Will this brand be around in three to five years?” Once you’re free of those concerns, you can actually get on with the adventure of collecting. Worst case scenario? The indie you’ve supported closes its doors – but then again, you’ve still got a really cool piece of history.

“What I’ve learned is that sometimes less really is more.'

We’d like to extend our thanks to Tom for taking the time to share his personal journey and the workings of the broader Singapore Watch Club community.

Photography by Hosanna Swee.