A Q&A with MING, contents:
About Ming Thein
Q: The first question, of course, is about the man behind the brand? Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
A: I view myself as a creative first and foremost: I like to make things. For the past six years I’ve been a photographer, writer and educator. Before that, I did the corporate thing in finance and consulting. I’m a theoretical physicist by training, have run billion dollar projects but none of it was quite as satisfying as the feeling of having something tangible you created in your hands, and being able to do that on a regular basis.
Q: You’ve had a successful career in photography, with a strong following for your work and blog (www.mingthein.com). But your involvement with watches, as a consumer and a supplier is not as well known. Can you elaborate on your career as a collector, watch photographer and any other hats you may have worn over the years?
A: Actually, my interest in watches predates photography. I was looking for a decent affordable piece back around 2000/2001, and did a lot of research to ensure I was getting the most bang for my buck. In hindsight, I’d have been better off buying the first thing that appealed rather than falling off the deep end. From there, I discovered and was very active in the online fora at the time up to about 2007, after which my day job simply didn’t leave me enough time. At that point I was also consulting and shooting for some of the major Swiss brands. These are relationships I fell back on when I decided to make the switch from corporate to photography, and it’s no surprise that in the early days of my professional photographic career, watches formed quite a large chunk of my work. I’ve since diversified, of course but I’ve never stopped buying, though – an average of 3-4 pieces a year, at various levels – some stayed, some didn’t. I’ve been fortunate to own some uncommon and special pieces, and some pretty regrettable ones, too. All of them have one or two things that eventually land up bugging you, like a stone in your shoe or a strap that has holes either too tight or too loose.
A couple of years ago, I discovered a brand called ochs und junior – who were willing to make anything you could imagine, within reason. I was also shooting at the time for an OEM manufacturer of parts and complete watches, and asked myself realistically: could I design and market my own watches, and given the investment constraints – still make something that I’d be happy wearing given the other pieces in my collection? What started as an intellectual exercise developed into an extended discussion with a group of close collector friends and subsequently snowballed into having a life of its own.
Why start a new brand?
Q: What are the main characteristics the MING brand will focus on and that you feel were missing in today’s market?
A: When we started collecting, there was a sort of excitement that accompanied each new acquisition – I feel like the market in general has lost that to spin, reissues and inaccessible prices. The motivation to start something new was really because we ourselves were starting to feel very uninspired by the majority of watches out there. It’s not just a question of price and value, but more importantly one of differentiation in a way that has longevity – not just different for the sake of being different. We want to bring back the joy of discovery in collecting, tempered with the maturity of knowing what still satisfies years later. A device to measure time cannot be rendered transient by it. We want it to excite seasoned collectors and be accessible to new ones. But above all, a watch must make its owner happy – and we believe this applies to the total ownership experience.
Q: You’ve talked a little about what motivated you to start MING i.e. to bring the excitement of collecting and the tremendous value in the watches themselves that first got you started on this path. But why wait till now?
A: The 17.01 isn’t the first watch I’ve designed, far from it. I’ve done 50+ of my own, most of which have complete movement designs too (and I’m sure not all of which work!) – and a lot for other brands, too. But several things changed recently: firstly, I realized that to make something interesting and you’d enjoy wearing every day, more complicated isn’t necessarily better (and simple is a lot less painful) and then came accessibility to the requisite industry suppliers in reasonable quantities. Lastly, the funding simply wasn’t there five years ago.
Q: Can you elaborate on the choice to use your own name for the brand?
A: Initially, this was my last choice. The team spent a lot of time brainstorming and none of the results felt right. Buying a name for heritage didn’t make sense, and making something up to fit the necessary parameters felt too contrived. The same thing is true of the watch: we initially tried to design for a wider audience, but the result only came together in a coherent way when it was the focused vision of one person – and I suppose that person has to take responsibility for their actions…
Design philosophy, choice of materials, production methods and partners
Q: Moving our focus to the watches themselves, your design philosophy is obviously a distillation of several years of designing your own custom pieces and consulting on other projects. You also described this philosophy as deliberate, can you expand on that a little?
A: Every design element is a choice – whether an angle is 20deg or 21deg has to be decided by somebody. Those decisions have consequences for the rest of the product. A good design is where the elemental choices are harmonious and both functionally robust and aesthetically pleasing at the same time. Though it takes the same amount of effort to create the CAD instructions for an ugly case as a beautiful one, the real value is in the aesthetic sense of the person making those choices. Has the decision been assessed with regard to impact on the product as a whole? We applied this philosophy to every aspect of the watch, company and production process.
For instance: we chose a sensible, reliable and easily serviceable movement over an elaborate one; this helped with price point but made the watch thicker. So the bezels have a transition in finishing to the caseband to reduce the visual thickness of the watch, and some of the thickness of the movement is further hidden in a counterbored domed caseback – which allows us to have the necessary maximum clearances, but will hide in your wrist and not be immediately visible from the sides. We further reduced physical thickness by mounting the hour hand at the same height as the sapphire disc that carries the hour numerals, but this also has a bonus visual effect of adding layering to the dial and reducing the apparent gap between hands and crystal for a more refined look.
Q: How do you meet the challenge of designing something unique and with your personal signature, but make it universally appealing to an increasingly informed and selective audience?
A: Counterintuitively, by not trying to make it appeal to everybody. Doing so would be designing for a series of conflicting objectives - e.g. some people like divers, some people like pilots, some people like dress watches – and you obviously can’t have all three. One of the key decisions we made early on was that the watch has to be something I as designer had to be 100% happy with and wanted to wear. As for personal design signature – in a way, all design is derivative because the design process is a response to environment or need. There are elements that I’ve come to either use in my own earlier designs or admired in other pieces – putting those together in a coherent and complete way leads to something unique, and this is something you’ll see on future models, too – the 0 instead of 12; ring-forms; flared lugs with smooth case integration; concave profiles over flat ones; contrasting adjacent textures and colors, a minimum of overlapping elements – etc. There are some I consciously design in, and some that I gravitate towards subconsciously.
Q: The visual highlight of the 17.01 is the dial and its unique construction. Can you explain how the dial is put together and what the resulting effect is?
A: The dial is made of three parts: a lower central ring with a sunburst brush that has a transparent lacquer printed over the top – we think of this as ‘digital guilloche’; an outer ring with a concentric brush; and a sapphire donut that goes over the top of that, with markings printed on the upper surface that appear to float over the dial. What you see on the dial as you rotate the watch under light is a result of the different reflectivity of the various surfaces. Given the complexity of the interaction of light here (e.g. reflects off brushed surface but then interacts with the underside and inside surface of the sapphire) there’s simply no way to model it; I knew the effect would be layered and varied, but didn’t know it would be quite so strong until seeing the physical dials. We subsequently tweaked the various finishes to tune the effect.
Q: As a photographer, you developed a reputation for attention to detail and thoroughness, this seems to have translated itself into a watch that is designed from the ground up. What are some of the production challenges that you had to consider while designing the watch?
A: There were so many you might fall asleep before I finish! One of the most challenging things was actually the packaging: we went through more iterations because of supplier limitations etc. than any other part of the watch. Other than that, the straps proved challenging to get the right hue and putting the stitching close to the edge resulted in quite a lot of rejects. We wanted to have a harmonious and close fit of strap to case – but finding a supplier for curved quick release bars proved very difficult indeed, and greatly complicated strap production as the ends of the straps are both lined with nylon for the bars to pivot smoothly and the strap to maintain shape, but the release tabs on the bars themselves require precise cutouts in both leather and liner. We decided to go the whole hog and include a buckle with every strap for making changes quick and easy.
In the end, the straps cost nearly three times as much as if we’d gone with conventional straight. We rejected a batch of crowns because the brushing was in the wrong direction. Our desire for a solid, rigid case without spacer rings means the watch is actually assembled from the front as the dial is larger in diameter than the movement, and we have developed special tooling to fix and seal the bezel. The sapphire donut on the dial had to appear to float – meaning no visible fixing or location pins – so we have a much larger diameter disc than necessary, with cutouts in the rim and corresponding posts in the upper case for alignment. And so on…
Q: Speaking of production, how challenging was it to find the right production partner and what were you looking for in one?
A: Both easier and harder than I’d expected. Harder, because approaching them independently lead to a lot of frustration and misunderstandings. Easier, because biting the bullet to use existing industry connections – initially, I’d wanted to keep the project as below the radar as possible – turned out to be a blessing because we got access to suppliers we wouldn’t have had any chance with otherwise. In the end, we have partners who supply and subcontract for many of the major Swiss groups; their experience shows in ability to handle production coordination and deliver to expectations. Communication is paramount, as is transparency. But beyond that, they also have to ‘get it’: understand what we’re trying to do, appreciate the design, and in turn be able to make sensible choice about things we may not necessarily have experience in ourselves (e.g. specific parts of the production process or case engineering). Anybody who works with me has to tread that thin line between masochism and not taking no for an answer – I will often ask why something can’t be done…
Q: While MING may be your brainchild, it’s not a one-man show. Can you talk about the team, their personal experience with watches and what brought all of you together to start MING?
A: Going into an undertaking of this size as a one-man show is both a recipe for disaster through overconfidence and doing your customers a disservice. At very least, a second opinion is needed on anything subjective (read: everything) since it’s very easy to be too close to something to be objective. In fact, I’d argue that if you’re not emotionally committed to a design, it probably isn’t strong enough. The team at present is made up of myself as design and strategic lead; a production and engineering lead with 25 years of experience in the industry; two investors who handle financial and legal matters; a chief of marketing with a lot of experience and visibility in the collectors’ community, and another enthusiast assisting with general operations. We are united by our obsessive interest in all things horological, longstanding friendships and a love of cigars.
The project actually started over one of those very sessions: we talked about the trends we saw in the industry and what we’d learned over decades of collecting; though all of us have ‘halo pieces’ – in some cases, dozens – there was a strong feeling that something was missing of late: too much ‘because we can’ and not enough of what mattered. We thought we might be able to make a piece that ticked the boxes for ourselves, but soon decided if we could do that – wouldn’t other people like us want to buy it, too? There was only one way to find out.
Q: It sounds like MING is here for the long run, so what does the future hold for the brand and when can people expect to see your next offering?
A: Our intention is to build a brand, not a single project. The brand has to be underpinned by a coherent design language and the principle of making the best choices from an end-result point of view: e.g. we could spend millions developing our own movement, but the watch would be so expensive (and probably so unreliable) that we’d never sell any, which would defeat the point. Instead, we design sensibly and pick the best partners to execute our ideas – be it a complete subcontract or for individual components. We believe in being transparent: to offer the best product, it is necessary to tap the experience of others. We currently have a further nine products in various stages of development, with the next release scheduled for the end of 2017. Our intention is not to tick every box, but make each watch something that can stand on its own merit and that (hopefully) you’ll have trouble choosing between the other pieces in your watch box. The collection will extend further upmarket but always remain accessible and great bang for the buck.
Interacting with the customers
Q: One last word on the interaction with the customers. MING is not represented at watch retailers and also does not operate boutiques. Is the Internet the only way interested collectors can purchase a MING watch?
A: Yes. This was a deliberate choice, as collectors tend to get most of their information online these days; whether it’s news about releases or opinions and validation. Traditional retail is limited in that not every location can stock every variant anyway. This is one of the reasons we have comprehensive information about each model, our company and philosophy, and a large selection of high-resolution images to get a thorough impression prior to purchase. We are also aware that the character of a watch only reveals itself ‘in the metal’, which is why we offer a two week no-questions-asked return policy. We are collectors ourselves, and will also endeavor to be present at shows and gatherings, too.
Q: If a collector or enthusiast wanted to get in touch, what’s the best way to contact you?
A: We welcome practical feedback from collectors, because this is after all who we are designing for, and it’s impossible for us to test every scenario. However, please note that there are some things we can’t do (“you know you guys would sell a lot of minute repeaters if you could make them at $2000”) and some things that might not necessarily fit our future roadmap. However – you are always welcome to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!