The intriguing world of Japanese watch collectors
From where we’re sitting in London, the world of Japanese watch collectors seems equal parts intriguing and shrouded in mystery. It’s almost akin to a myth. One of the earliest wristwatch collecting communities out there, alongside Italy's, the Japanese appear to have had a consistent eye for quality, refined aesthetics and engaging stories, for quite some time.
They essentially created the collectable Rolex Bubbleback market a few decades ago, one of the first trends in vintage wristwatches. Many historic Patek Philippe pieces were also sold locally and have remained in a condition and a state of completeness, you would struggle to find elsewhere. Beyond that, the work of noteworthy independents, such as Philippe Dufour and François-Paul Journe, developed an almost cult-like following in Japan, before others were even aware of their names. It’s no coincidence that more than half of the Simplicity watches were first sold there...
The Octa Finissimo designed by Tadao Ando for the Japanese market.
However, though the external fascination for the Japanese is clearly widespread, they seem ever so slightly out of reach. The island is not only geographically remote, at least from London, but also appears to be home to a fairly insular culture. There are seemingly two ways to approach the Japanese market as an outsider. You can either scratch at the surface, making sweeping and overly romanticised generalisations about love of craft, and detail-orientated collecting, or you can embed yourself in Japanese culture, living and breathing it for a few years, in order to get a deeper understanding of what makes the community tick. Whilst we would never want to do the first and the second seems slightly out of reach (especially in the age of travel restrictions), we did our best to seek-out a balanced perspective.
In doing so, we spoke to some of those who form the foundation of this community halfway around the world. We gathered insights from Masahiro Endo, the owner of Private Eyes, one of the go-to vintage watch dealerships in Tokyo, as well as Ken Hokugo, better known as KIH in the global watch community, is an established local collector who launched one of the first and largest Japanese watch blogs in the country. We also spoke to Saori Omura, one of the vintage watch experts at HODINKEE, as well as Yang Zepo, a young Chinese collector who has, time and time again, found himself chasing intriguing vintage pieces in Japan, frequently interacting with local collectors and dealers. Finally, we got the perspective of watchmakers themselves, speaking to Richard and Maria Habring, the Austrian couple behind Habring², who have amassed a dedicated following in Japan.
Hopefully, through these conversations and the information which has already been shared about the local community, we can shine a little light on the topic. Whilst it certainly won’t be a complete representation due to the complexity of the subject, the language barrier and pace at which things change in the 21st century, we would love to offer a small glimpse into this world.
Where the love of fine watches comes from
There is this compelling, almost gut instinct to want to link Japan’s love of fine watches with their traditional passion for finely made objects. So important is mastering a craft in Japan that they have a word, shokunin, for those who have dedicated their lives to learning one skill for the betterment of not only themselves, but their community as a whole. For anyone who has been lucky enough to visit the country and see one of the highly skilled sword-smiths forging a blade from raw metal, you can understand why these artisans are so revered in local culture.
However, it is important not to get too hung up on this point. No matter how romantic the connection might be, the reality is always more complicated and nuanced. It would be terribly simplistic to label all Japanese watch collectors as craft-appreciating traditionalists. No body of people is ever homogenous, especially when you consider the size of the collecting community in Japan. They have been one of the top five markets for Swiss watch exports for over two decades. To bracket a community of this size in one set of parentheses, would be lazy at best, offensive at worst.
To begin with, we wanted to take a closer look at the history of not just watch collecting, but also watchmaking, in Japan. The first mechanical timepieces were brought over in 1551 by Christian missionaries, most likely from Spain. At this point in history, Japan ran off a different system of time, where days were split up into six hours that counted backwards from noon to midnight, without the use of the number two or three for religious reasons. This meant that the Japanese had to quickly learn how to adapt these mechanisms for their style of time telling.
A Daytona advertisement for Japan in 1972, courtesy of John Goldberger.
This built a tradition of clock, and eventually watch making, in Japan, which was one of the first countries in Asia to truly industrialise. While much of this economic and industrial power was stripped away after the war, there was a resurgence in manufacturing with over 10,000 people employed in watchmaking Japan in the late 1940s. You also started to see quality testing beginning to emerge at this time, with the first competition taking place in 1948. There was then another surge for the industry, thanks to the demand fuelled by the Korean War. So much so, that in 1954, Japan produced 5.6 million timepieces.
Many already know what then happened in 1969, with the introduction of quartz coming from this island nation. It proved that, whilst the history of innovation in horology might not be as long as it is in Europe, the Japanese have done more than their fair share to advance the science of telling time. With such strong domestic production, the love of watches in Japan starts to become a little easier to understand.
A display case of vintage Rolex in Private Eyes, Tokyo, courtesy of Hodinkee.
Following the rise of quartz, there was a desire for precision timepieces according to Masahiro, a vintage watch dealer based in Tokyo. This is partly why we see some of the most accurate mechanical watches coming out of Grand Seiko. However, this fascination started to wane, as Japanese collectors in the vintage arena “got more interested in mechanical systems that were based on the original engineering of watches”, he tells us. This is one of the clear shifts in taste and collecting that we can point to in Japan.
Whilst the fantastic work of Japanese watchmakers, from Grand Seiko, to Masahiro Kikuno or Naoya Hida, is certainly worthy of its own spotlight, for the purposes of this piece, we decided to focus on watchmakers from Europe and the place they occupy in Japanese culture. This is not because we don’t consider the former interesting or relevant. On the contrary, it is precisely because we eventually want to dedicate an article specifically to Japanese watchmakers, that we shy away from the topic here.
Japan as a trend setter
The Italian market gets a lot of attention, and rightly so, for its ability to spot and start trends in the vintage watch world. After all, it’s unlikely that the obsession with steel chronographs would exist without them. However, the Japanese market has played a similar role for quite some time. From the very beginning in fact.
Daryn Schnipper, the Chairman of the International Watch Division at Sotheby’s, remembers well when wristwatches had just started to be seen as collectable in the late ‘80s. As she put it to us, “a lot of people started collecting pocket watches, and since they were young, they tended to go over and check out the wristwatches, because at the end of the day that was probably far more exciting, since you could wear them.” Speaking about some of the early trend setters, she said, “the Italians were certainly at the head of the line when it came to taste makers, for sure. The Japanese kind of caught on from there, and then the Americans followed.”
A Sotheby's catalogue from the early years of wristwatch collecting with a Cartier Monopusher on the cover, courtesy of Sotheby's.
The precociousness of Japanese collectors is confirmed by Saori Omura, one of the vintage watch experts at HODINKEE, who says that “the vintage collecting culture has been there for a longer period compared to other parts of Asia in general, so I'm sure they had access to many unbelievable pieces before they became popular.” As ever with Japanese collectors, this only builds on the romantic perception which has built around them. As Saori puts it, “there has always been a myth that there are some true hidden gems which have been kept very quietly in some collections which no one has really been able to publicly confirm of their existence.”
One thing that Masahiro has noticed, over his many years dealing in vintage watches in Japan, is that there was a real market for Rolex Bubblebacks in the country before anyone else had cottoned on to their collectability. It was thanks to their small cases, which certainly appealed to the more modestly sized wrists of the Japanese, as well as the interesting and varied dial configurations which existed.
According to Yang, who still collects Bubblebacks himself, “sometimes Rolex’s 1930s sector dials are nicknamed by the Japanese – the “Tokyo-To” Bubbleback, for example, meaning Tokyo city.”
A Rolex ref. 3065 Bubbleback made in 1943.
The fact that some of these nicknames spread outside of the country, gives a small sense of the influence of the Japanese on this market. After all, for those who weren’t around back then, the Bubbleback was essentially the Daytona of its day, considered to be one of the most collectable Rolex models in the world. Looking at auction catalogues from the end of the last decade you can see estimates for Bubblebacks being several multiples higher than for a Daytona or a Submariner, which had not yet developed the following that they enjoy today. To a very large extent, that market was created by the Japanese, establishing themselves as early trend setters in a nascent community. However, when the rest of the world started collecting Bubblebacks and the prices began to climb, it would seem the Japanese vintage collecting community moved on.
According to Masahiro, “now there’s a popularity for oversized chronograph models”, something which we were certainly able to witness when we had the opportunity to visit the Private Eyes store in Tokyo earlier this year. From unnamed chronographs with Valijoux movements to unusual Ulysse Nardin and Cyma steel chronographs, it was a treasure trove of unusual, characterful and wonderfully preserved pieces. As with the Bubblebacks, Japanese vintage aficionados have gotten obsessive about mid-century steel chronographs, having contributed to their growing collectability globally, among a range of other factors.
The entrance to Private Eyes, in an unassuming residential part of Tokyo, courtesy of Hodinkee.
One such example within this category is vintage chronographs by Movado. Long ignored by collectors, this relatively unknown brand has started amassing a following in recent years, driven by the quality of the ébauches they used, the compelling aesthetics and the use of the same suppliers as some of the most respected names in horology. For example, some of their cases are made by Taubert & Fils – the same casemaker used by Patek Philippe for many of their iconic, water-resistant references, including the storied reference 1463 chronograph, and the reference 565. Some Movado chronographs also share visual cues found on Patek Philippe chronographs from this period -applied Breguet numerals as well as round, “Tasti Tondi” pump pushers. The Japanese collectors, alongside the Italians, were some of the first to notice these similarities. The rest of the market followed. Sometimes the cliché around attention to detail does indeed hold water...
Two mid-century Movado chronographs.
Masahiro and his team at Private Eyes have even gone so far as to create a range of finely made reproductions of Gay Frères bracelets from the 1940s – the classic beads of rice belt design – to match some of the chronographs from the same period. Their meticulousness is such that the clasps even feature the same signatures as the bracelets from the period, though slightly altered as a subtle wink to those who look close enough – “FAB. SUISSE” on the original becoming “FAB.P-EYES”. This speaks to the meticulous approach and depth of knowledge often concentrated among Japanese collectors of vintage pieces.
Another area for which Japan has developed quite a reputation, is collecting examples of independent watchmaking. The passion for the work of watchmakers such as François-Paul Journe, Kari Voutilainen or Philippe Dufour is undeniable and certainly recognised by the watchmakers themselves. Journe established his first ever boutique in Tokyo, and as we discussed in our short series on Dufour, roughly 120 of his Simplicities were originally sold to Japanese collectors. But why are so many of these hand-made, small-batch, high-quality timepieces sold there?
As with many other areas of the world, it was first considered a status symbol to own a watch from one of the larger, established Swiss brands. They had more of luxurious association than Japanese-made pieces. The salary man, the term used to refer to a Japanese white-collar worker who shows overriding loyalty to one company, has been an important figure in Japanese culture since the Second World War. For them, having a precious metal Rolex or Patek Philippe on the wrist was an important status symbol during the 1980s, when Japan was experiencing an economic boom, with its own version of yuppie culture arising.
The members of the AHCI at the Basel Fair in 1986 including François-Paul Journe, George Daniels, Sven Andersen and Franck Muller.
However, in 1991, Japan suffered an economic crash, leading to not only financial shortages, but changes in social attitudes. It was now considered bad taste to flaunt your wealth with a bright, precious metal timepiece from an easily recognisable brand. Those that were lucky enough to still afford watches couldn’t be seen with something that was so obviously expensive. This is where a general pivot towards vintage and independents came in. As with all things, though there was clearly a wider cultural context and tendency for these pieces to speak to the Japanese, the evolving economic and social context also played an important role. Even though outsiders might like to think of Japan as a country which stands still in tradition, and in some ways it does, it is also ever evolving and adapting.
According to The Open Caseback, who published a detailed article on the rise in popularity of independents in Japan, two other factors contributed to this expanding awareness. One of those was the invitation extended by the retailer Shellman of Tokyo to Svend Andersen and Daniel Roth, two prime independents of their day. Shellman had mainly dealt in traditional vintage watches since its founding in 1971. However, along with many other retailers and dealers in Japan at the time, they were watching all of the major brands begin to form into groups, which could potentially spell the end of the distribution through networks that they had long relied on.
So, they invited two of the more prominent members of the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, a group comprised of independent watchmakers, to give a talk and interact with their clients for a few days. This was in 1993, just after the formation of the AHCI, when they were still small and needed to group together to get a stall at Baselworld. To have these two prominent watchmakers come down to Shellman in Tokyo and spend time speaking to clients who might otherwise never have had the chance to interact with them, would have opened up a whole new world for these independents.
A panel from the manga "Tokie No Himitsu" or " The Secret of Watches" starring Philippe Dufour, courtesy of Gakken, Series 61: Tokie No Himitsu.
When you pair this with what happened two years later, you understand how precocious the interest in independents was. A Japanese national television network, NHK, released a two-hour long documentary on the craft of watchmaking. Ken Hokugo points to this as being part of the reason so many Simplicities sold in Japan. This documentary dedicated forty-five minutes to Philippe Dufour, forty-five minutes to Antoine Preziuso and the rest to Patek Philippe, Rolex and Swatch. According to The Open Caseback, this documentary was aired nine times across Japan and was originally planned to demonstrate the network’s new camera technologies. Of course, the first thing that came to mind to demonstrate the quality of the image they could capture, was a film on Swiss watchmaking. It’s amusing looking back and thinking that such a small decision, among a range of other important factors, may have had such an impact on where we are now.
When we spoke to Dufour, he told us that he was actually informed early on about a small group of Japanese collectors, who loved his work and wanted him to make a new watch. As such, he decided to aim his Simplicity at the Japanese market in its design, at only 34mm in diameter, and concept. As Hokugo points out, “Simplicity is a keyword to understand the culture of Japanese beauty.” So, it would seem that the documentary might not be the only reason Dufour is so adored in in the country. The key characteristics which the outside world might associate with Japanese collectors certainly come to the fore when analysing their affinity for Dufour’s watch. After all, it is meticulous craft and paired back elegance, above everything else.
A unique Simplicity that Dufour made for the 100th anniversary of Kamine and the reinstallation of the rotating Rolex clock outside the Kobe store after the hanshin awaji earthquake 25 years ago, courtesy of Toru Kamine.
Dufour’s following in Japan is so deep and long-standing that he has travelled there multiple times over the years. He has created bonds with a number of his collectors, who have in turn introduced him to their families. Dufour told us that every time he goes back, he sees that their children have grown more and more. To mark the 100th Anniversary of Kamine, one of the Japanese retailers who helped cement the watchmaker’s reputation in the country, Dufour made a Simplicity with the words “Kamine 100th” and “Unique piece” on the dial.
It is a powerful statement to the relationship between the watchmaker and the retailer that Dufour would not only create this unique piece, but also omit his own name from the dial. It is believed that the piece sits within the personal collection of Toru Kamine, the CEO of the Kobe based retailer. This also speaks to the strength that retailers – from Kamine to Shellman – play in the local market, since external players have always struggled to build their presence locally.
The full-set of Tokyo limited editions from F.P. Journe.
This respect for local collectors is also matched by another independent, François-Paul Journe. He opened his very first boutique in Tokyo in 2003, only four years after establishing his eponymous brand, showing how quickly Japanese collectors developed an affinity for the brand. Speaking to the Financial Times in 2010, Journe said that the impetus behind opening the boutique was that no retailer was sufficiently focused or well informed, to sell his watches.
Journe himself has always demonstrated a long-standing affection for his Tokyo boutique, releasing a range of limited editions to mark its anniversaries. With very few having left the private collections they first entered, these have become akin to gold dust in the collector community.
Two prominent examples of limited editions made for the Japanese market.
This is a pattern found across many of the watches created specifically for the Japanese market, from the Aquanaut 5066 with a blue dial, to the salmon dial Calatrava 3796, both from Patek Philippe. Due to how insular the collecting community is, very few of these have emerged publicly, and even fewer have left Japan. They also seem to reflect the refinement of the local taste, with typically smaller diameters and balanced, elegant aesthetic choices.
The combination of these factors means that there is an almost feverish excitement among some, whenever a piece is revealed to have been made exclusively for the Japanese market. Of course, this speaks more to the romantic perception surrounding Japanese collectors which has been generated from outside the country. However, one cannot understand the collecting community in Japan, without understanding the almost mythical status that has built up around it, even if it is almost certainly exaggerated at times. There is always potentially a risk of over-emphasising its exoticism.
What the Japanese community looks for today
Taking the temperature of the Japanese market can be a tough for a few reasons. One, according to Hokugo, is that many of the individual collectors are fairly self-isolating. They prefer to remain private, rather than expose their collection and buying habits to public scrutiny, as many others might be more comfortable with doing over social media and in forums. However, if you ask Masahiro, this insularity also means that many Japanese collectors are well-read. As he puts it, “a lot of Japanese collectors have a strong spirit of research.” While they might not be going to as many in person meet ups – when these were still a thing – they are remarkably well informed on the details of the things that interest them.
Some of the books used as reference in Private Eyes, courtesy of Hodinkee.
The deeply researched nature of Japanese collectors can be traced back to what some refer to as the “Holy Grail” of watch writing: magazines and books that were produced in Japan over the last couple of decades. While some that don’t even speak Japanese buy them for the high quality pictures found within, the review and depth of knowledge is almost second to none according to many collectors. These were also around from the ‘90s onwards, where the thought of a magazine on watches – in any language – seemed unlikely.
In fact, back then, some European and American collectors would seek out these publications, as they were quite literally one of the only resources available to them. This continues to this very day, as Yang attributes much of his knowledge in vintage watches to one magazine in particular. As he puts it, “a great deal of my knowledge came from reading Lowbeat.”
A look inside an issue of Lowbeat.
The well-researched nature of Japanese collectors is echoed by Saori Omura of HODINKEE, who agrees that the watch collecting scene in Japan has always been about deep diving into the most minute details of any watch. In her eyes, “with more scholarship readily accessible these days, there is certainly a greater emphasis on originality of a piece, even with minor imperfections, because it is at its purest form.” However, the frequently held conception of Japanese collectors as particularly concerned with condition certainly also seems to be true. As Saori puts it, “condition still remains paramount for most Japanese collectors and how complete the watch remains (including the original wrapping papers and shopping bags!)"
One way in which we attempted to gauge what the Japanese market is currently interested in, was to ask Richard and Maria Habring about the Japanese special editions they’ve made. The watchmaking duo have created a range of pieces for the local market, imbuing some of their models with vintage charm. According to them, the key to tapping into such a market is to have a gatekeeper. For them this is Shellman, the retailer who was at the very inception of independents in Japan. They offered both direction on actual design and on how to market them to their notoriously picky clientele.
A rare Rolex 6062 stelline dial in great condition from Private Eyes, courtesy of Hodinkee.
The reason that Shellman proved so vital to Habring’s success speaks to something that Hokugo also mentioned to us. “Japanese collectors value human relationships, placing who they buy from, above when they buy something or the price they pay.” What this means is that some Japanese collectors will often take a longer waiting time just so they can stay loyal to their authorised dealer or salesperson, instead of attempting to source a watch from elsewhere in less time. This speaks to something deeper about Japanese culture and as Hokugo emphasises, “they do not negotiate price.”
This importance in relationships extends to the vintage scene according to Saori. Though there are definitely some prominent vintage dealers, she insists that “many of the most sought-after pieces are traded through long-term relationships behind the scenes, even in the current active online and social media era. Perhaps this is very much a reflection of the deeply rooted traditional Japanese business culture.”
Another aspect that became apparent in the design of the limited editions for the Japanese market, is that they ended-up being “far more classic in nature than anything else we’ve done before.” This suggests that the strong vintage community in Japan clearly affects the modern market as well, with classically designed, understated pieces in high demand.
A vintage Longines chronograph from Private Eyes, courtesy of Hodinkee.
In the vintage market, Masahiro has seen nearly every trend and fashion pass through, proving that the Japanese aren’t a monolith or impervious to changes in taste. Now, more than ever, he is seeing a large amount of appreciation for “oversized” chronographs from those that come into Private Eyes, a trend which has also been taking over the rest of the collecting community outside of the country as well. These “oversized” chronographs whilst still small in diameter, by modern standards, fit nicely on the average Japanese wrist.
The world of Japanese watch collectors is interesting both for its reality and for the story which has been built around it. It is a delicate theme to navigate and explore, as falling into over romanticisation and clichés is not only inaccurate, but also potentially offensive. We’ve hoped to err on the side of caution, leaning on the knowledge of collectors, dealers and watchmakers who have a deeper understanding of the local market.
Bearing this in mind, the evolution of Japanese collectors is a fascinating one. From their role in shaping the early days of collectable wristwatches to their early support of independent watchmakers, they have long shown a deep appreciation for horology. Whilst the community is diverse and tastes evolve over time, there does seem to be a coherence to the Japanese approach to collecting which is rather unique. Their focus on quality, meticulous research and the importance of individual relationships seem to be rather strong and these are themes which come up time and time again, for those familiar with the local market.
Whilst we’ll never be able to reflect that market in all its subtleties and nuances, or predict what will capture its attention next, what is certain is that Japanese collectors will always fascinate outsiders such as ourselves.
We would like to thank Masahiro Endo, Ken Hokugo, Yang Zepo, Saori Omura and Richard and Maria Habring for taking the time to help us understand this wonderful and mysterious market.