In recent years, microbrands have risen to prominence in the watch world. Indeed, with the advent of crowdfunding, creators and innovators of all stripes have been empowered to set out on their own to create brands reflective of their individual stories and personalities. And it is in this way that two French watch aficionados living in Beijing came to start Atelier Wen – a microbrand aiming to celebrate Chinese horology through fine watchmaking and a modern take on Chinese design.
How It All Began
The adventure started on a seemingly ordinary rainy afternoon on a Saturday in April 2017. Two close friends from France, Wilfried and Robin, both ambitious 22-year olds with a penchant for starting novel projects, joined forces. As they wrapped up their degrees at Warwick University in the UK, they started planning out the first steps of what would become a new watch microbrand - Atelier Wen.
In this first article about the story behind Atelier Wen, we take a quick look at the backgrounds of the founders and why they set their sights on starting one of the best Chinese watch brands.
The Founding Duo
Starting at the age of 14, Robin was already an avid watch collector and enthusiast. He has always been fascinated by the beauty and intricacy of watches and especially those of Chinese watch brands. While at university, he went on to work for the French Chamber of Watchmaking in Shanghai and Christie’s in London and those two experiences proved pivotal for him to turn watchmaking from passion to profession.
Following those enriching experiences, he became more involved in the Chinese watch industry when he was appointed as an advisor and “Execution Expert” to the China Horologe Association (CHA) during a year abroad at Peking University in 2016. The CHA is the Chinese national-level government organization that oversees and regulates the watch industry in China.
This exceptional opportunity allowed him to get up close and personal with some of the best Chinese watch brands and companies like Seagull, Beijing Watch, Shanghai Watch, and Peacock Watch. It opened doors for him and further expanded his knowledge of the workings and beauty of the Chinese watch industry and its greatest brands.
It was there that Robin first noticed that most of the top-quality watches from niche microbrands to globally-renowned legacy watchmakers were actually made in China. There was truly a chasm between the quality of watchmaking that he observed on the ground and the ongoing perceptions of watch buyers who solely relied on misleading labels of provenance such as “Swiss Made” or “Made in Germany” as a measure of quality.
For Robin, it seemed unfair that China did not get the international recognition it deserved for its talent, skills, and savoir-faire.
Very few people are aware of the real artisans who lie behind some of the great watches of this world. And this observation is what gave Robin the initial impetus to correct this bias and create a proudly Chinese-made and inspired microbrand offering affordable and high-quality mechanical watches built around a truly novel concept. Along with his business partner, he aspires to establish Atelier Wen as one of the top Chinese watch brands and one of the very best watch microbrands.
Moreover, Robin also thought that there was an overall fatigue in the microbrand sphere. “New” watches under $1000 tended to overuse similar styles such as the ubiquitous minimalist dress, pilot, and diver designs. What’s more, these watch often had uninteresting movements to boot… Robin saw that there was room and a need for a new entrant with a distinctive concept and that cemented his conviction to pursue this bold project.
Though a French national, Wilfried grew up in and was influenced by very different cultures. Indeed, Wilfried was born Hong Kong and speaks fluent French, English, Spanish and Mandarin. He has lived half his life in Asia and spent two years in Beijing where he graduated from both of China’s top two universities – Peking University and Tsinghua University.
Since his earliest days in Hong Kong, Wilfried came to love Chinese culture and has a deep attachment and fondness for its traditional crafts. His fascination for the country and its beauty made him passionate about wanting to share it with others.
Further, Wilfried developed an entrepreneurial bent early in his university days. Indeed, he worked in numerous startups, tried his hand at different projects and had prior experience of launching a brand through crowdfunding and that brought the missing piece of the puzzle into place.
Indeed, Wilfried’s entrepreneurial vigour, his desire to share his passion and his great complementarity with Robin are what enabled the creation of Atelier Wen and its first series of porcelain dial watches paying homage to Chinese design and traditional crafts. And as far as crafts go, enamel dials are a personal favourite of Wilfried’s and he very much hopes Atelier Wen will get around to making some in the near future!
With this initial spark of creativity in April 2017, Atelier Wen took its very first steps towards becoming the microbrand it is today. But at that moment when Wilfried and Robin graduated from business school, everything yet remained to build!
It all started with an earnest, enthusiastic dream. It was one that was established from humble beginnings but, fuelled with personal passion and motivation, the two aficionados set their sights on building one of the best Chinese watch brands.