COVID-19 was a spanner in the works for nearly all of us. The three years and then some saw many, many plans put on hold and countless people separated by lockdowns and travel restrictions. For Atelier Wen, these conditions meant that our team faced a long, impatient wait before we could once again return to China. With Perception being developed entirely remotely, Robin and Wilfried we itching to return — to visit old friends and customers, and to reconnect with the manufacturing partners and artisans who were so instrumental to its success. The end of July and early August finally saw this happen, as our co-founders embarked on a fortnight in the far-East.
Always a banger in Hong Kong
Kicking off their trip with an enjoyable little meet-up, fans in Hong Kong were treated to the very first simultaneous appearance of our two founders at any one event since the advent of COVID. Playing host once more was the wonderful initiative that is Watch Ho and Co (@watchhoandco), this time teaming up with the folks at Dram Good Stuff (@dramgoodstuff) to put on an evening of booze, burgers and a little peek at what we have in store! Our heartfelt thanks goes out to them both, as well as all of you for showing up and partying with us! Here’s a little taste of the event in images:
A new, Randy-dandy addition to the community!
A 传承 (Chuán Chéng) coalition.
The ever-charming Mr. Hammerschmidt.
A fine spot of bother and a master-watchmaker
Of course, this trip was far from just a social visit and Hong Kong was but the beginning. After the event (and several more days of administrative duties), it was time to board a northward train across the Sham Chun/Shenzhen river, and into the eponymous city — though this initial journey proved a tad more troublesome than anticipated.
As they attempted to cross into China, our founders’ passage was momentarily halted during a routine bag check at customs. With gift-giving being a customary element of Chinese relationships as a demonstration of thoughtfulness and respect, Robin had filled his suitcase with items of Parisian luxury before making the trip. These were meant to be bestowed upon the various partners and collaborators who work with us in the realisation of our watches as a token to represent and communicate the appreciation that we have for them, and therefore establish our sincerity in our dealings and interactions. The immigration officers, of course, saw this quite differently, and it was only after a lengthy delay and the payment of a fine that our bottles of liquor and extravagant accessories were cleared to enter the country.
It was all worth it, of course, with the main item on the docket in Shenzhen being a visit with a very special watchmaker — the much-vaunted AHCI member Tan Zehua. It was a fascinating encounter spent marvelling at his various horological inventions, including the likes of a movement with a ten-day power reserve and his original bi-axial escapement. But even more so, it was nothing short of humbling to witness the sheer implausibility of a lone watchmaker turning the modest second floor of his own flat into a workshop. With CNC-machines decking out what remained of a bathroom and tool-benches lining the walls of what had previously been bedrooms, the fact that he honed his craft and took up his place amongst the ranks of the AHCI watchmakers from such humble environs was a wonder in itself.
The view of Shenzhen from Tan Zehua's workshop
Quite what this visit means for the future is anyone’s guess, but it was a real treat being able to witness the mechanical genius of his creations in-person. Hearsay Wilfried might be sitting on a panel discussion with Master Tan soon! 😉
On top of the visit with Tan Zehua, this phase of the trip also saw Robin and Wilfried pay a visit to the suppliers responsible for Perception's case and bracelet where we saw how our carefully designed cases were milled by CNC into its subtle geometries. Naturally, further improvements were a feature of the discussions, and while many of these points could have been resolved remotely, making the effort to go down and interact directly with each of our suppliers was ultimately the best, most appropriate way to exemplify how genuine we were about cultivating each individual relationship with them.
With three days allocated to the city, we also took the time to connect with various other suppliers in the hope of generating leads for new opportunities and possibilities for both our present and future projects. The sheer vastness of Shenzhen's territory meant that most of our time was expended sitting in a vehicle and navigating between the manufactures littered across China’s greater bay area. It was immensely tiring, with the days beginning extremely early in the morning, the drives often taking several hours between locations, and the nights stretching on due to the expected dinners with our counterparts and collaborators. What did come as an unexpected surprise, however, was the relative mildness of drinking in the Chinese south, with many dinners skipping out on liquor altogether in favour of tea. To our two founders, this was a more than welcome arrangement, though as you will soon see, definitely not one that lasted for long.
China’s sole guilloché master-craftsman (and his two drunk pals)
Following a long delay due to rough weather conditions, and with Shenzhen a short flight behind them, it was time for the highlight of their trip. From the very initiation of the Perception project, all of our communication with Master Cheng Yucai had come in the form of video calls and WeChat messages, and up until this point, Robin and Wilfried had never actually met him in-person. Despite this, the rapport that had been built up over the course of our project and the shared connection and passion for elevating Chinese craftsmanship meant that when the time came to finally cross paths, Cheng felt like an old friend.
Picking Robin and Wilfried up from the airport in Zhengzhou, Henan, he brought them back to his cave-workshop — though not before a short detour for lunch at a famous local restaurant and the first onslaught of Maotai at four in the afternoon.
As they pulled up to Cheng's compound, the atmosphere carried an almost mystical air to it — perhaps due to the lingering inclement weather, or perhaps as a result of the 50% ABV liquid coursing through their veins. Either way, it was a surreal feeling that overtook both of them as they finally got to experience firsthand the tranquility of the rural surroundings where our dials are created.
The three days spent with Master Cheng are ones that neither Robin nor Wilfried will ever forget. Far more than a mere supplier of guilloché dials for our Atelier, Cheng represents everything that we hope to celebrate as a brand — from his obsessive devotion to his craft, to the unflinching resilience he demonstrated throughout his years of failed attempts at rose engine construction. As our very first foray into any métier d’art, our partnership with him is also naturally the heartbeat of the Perception line.
Likewise, for Cheng, the growing volumes of each order that we place with him enable him to expand the vision of his workshop and cultivate the beginnings of a tradition in this craft that, until he abandoned his day job, could not be found in China. Already, he is looking to move his operation into a larger space to continue the training of a first generation of Chinese guillochéurs, and our synergistic relationship allows both our projects to flourish and establish the beginnings of what is hopefully a longstanding legacy.
Yet, beyond all this, the trip to his Xinmi home and workshop has made clear that there is a fondness that both founders share for his person that supersedes any part of the business dealings we have with him, and vice versa. It is a relationship that is treasured immensely and one which, sealed in Maotai and subsequent intoxication, will only grow from strength to strength in time to come.
How it started...
How it progressed...
How it went.
As an accompaniment to the rapid deterioration pictured above, Robin and Wilfried’s time in Xinmi also saw them try their hand at turning the dials that go into Perception, giving them a taste of just how difficult the art is, and instilling in them even greater respect for Cheng's already-revered talents.
The tip of the carving diamond, viewed under a microscope
Our founders trying their hand at engine-turning!
Spending time with Master Cheng’s family and expanding team of apprentices — now a team of ten strong, and of course, with the Master himself, we soon found out that beyond the craft we rely on him for, Cheng's ingenuity extends into countless fields, with a résumé that includes dozens of patents for various inventions, vast experience beyond his previous job of precision engineering, and a breathtaking ability to recite Song dynasty poetry whilst intoxicated.
In Robin's own words, Cheng Yucai left us "hammered but speechless", and his extreme yet endearing personality and sheer brilliance are things we are immensely proud to be able to count on. We have shot some wonderful footage of these interactions, and we look forward to sharing it with all of you soon!
Movements along the border
After sadly waving 再见 — that is to say “see you again” instead of goodbye, it was time to pay our movement-makers in Dandong a long-overdue visit. As the manufacture behind both the SL-3006 in the Porcelain Odyssey and the SL-1588 in Perception, the Dandong Peacock watch factory has been indispensable to our efforts thus far as one of our earliest backers in the Atelier Wen project.
It is important for us to acknowledge the magnitude of Dandong's contribution to the very foundations of Atelier Wen.
When Robin and Wilfried first knocked on their doors after an overnight train ride, as a pair of fresh-faced students without a clear plan, they could easily have been turned down flatly, being one of the largest state-of-the-art manufactures in China. That the people behind Dandong chose to throw their support behind our founders despite this truly beggars belief. And despite the initial order of 500 or so movements for the Porcelain Odyssey constituting a relatively negligible volume in their overall production output, they were as earnest as they could have been in trying to help us succeed.
With the initiation of the Perception project, they were even willing to assist us in making several significant changes to their base ébauches, such as removing the date complication, increasing the power reserve and thinning out Perception’s movement. As our brand grows, we are confident that so-too will this relationship with their manufacture, and we continue to be in awe of their immense and unwavering belief in our project!
No Peacocks in the garden, but plenty within the walls!
Parallel to this support of our efforts to raise up the standards and perceptions around Chinese watchmaking, it is perhaps also worthwhile to note the ambition that Dandong has as a movement manufacturer and beyond. When Robin and Wilfried visited, the timing was fortuitous enough that they arrived in the days following the entire factory's move into a brand new and far-larger complex, kitted out with the very best in tooling and machinery.
With an upgraded capacity of two million movements a year, a clinical and well-suited environment, and an extremely capable workforce, the manufacture also revealed upcoming plans for a watchmaking institution with a mind-boggling projected candidature of more than a thousand students per annum (for comparison most watchmaking schools produce far less than a hundred).
The sheer intended scale is tremendous to think about, and if our experiences with Dandong are anything to go by, there could soon be a new generation of stellar Chinese watchmakers out in the market — and it stands to reason that at least a handful should go on to become truly exceptional independent watchmakers down the road!
We arrived at Dandong with several clear objectives set out before us. The first was, of course, to accept their invitation to view the new factory and spend time with the people who had so willingly given us that initial break. Much like it had been with our case and bracelet suppliers in Shenzhen, there was also plenty to be discussed around the topics of improvement and development in the movements we were utilising, and as before, these were best-addressed in-person, where our familiarity with them and our working relationship could be better-strengthened.
There was, of course, content to be filmed, as well as talk of new and exciting projects to come, and while there is little for us to unveil at present, suffice to say that we will continue to work closely with them in the projects to come!
Robin playing peek-a-boo
A monolith of Chinese watchmaking
A productive two days of discussion, planning and content filming in Dandong was followed swiftly by a quick overnight transit to Tianjin for a single day stopover at the largest watchmaking operation in China (and the largest in the world by production volume). With their recent acquisition under the umbrella of the Fosun-owned Hanchen Watch Group. the future only bodes well for Seagull to continue this trajectory both in terms of their tremendous output, as well as in making strides towards an increased capacity for higher-end, complex watchmaking.
While Robin's relationship with Seagull extended back to the days when he first took on an advisory role in the 中国钟表协会 (China Horologe Association), he had only recently connected with the new management in-person at Watches and Wonders 2023, over lunch in Geneva. They had, there and then, invited us to visit them in Tianjin, and the door had thus been opened for us to work with them at some point.
While our first watches have not seen any collaboration with Seagull at this point, their history and capacity as a manufacture cannot be ignored, and while they are mostly known for relatively affordable calibres, Robin and Wilfried were treated to some of their lesser seen and far more impressive creations during this visit — including a grand complication and some other movements that we cannot yet mention!
And of course, as with every stop along the way, this trip to Tianjin was not one made for the fun of it. What we have in store, we will keep you guessing at for the time being, but we would very much like to think of it as an equally substantial step forward as the one that came between our first two lines!
Our time in Tianjin was wrapped up with an enjoyable dinner with Seagull's management, and several rounds of drinks to mark the beginnings of an extremely special undertaking.
As the beginning, so the end.
The final leg of the trip saw Robin and Wilfried spend several days in Beijing where they finally got to catch up over dinner with Robin's old mentor in the Horologe Association, Li Wei.
Eight years on from the first time they crossed paths, it was a reunion greatly treasured, and marked by several gifts; Robin receiving a vintage Seagull and mechanical pedometer that he had long searched for, and Li Wei being handed Robin's prototype Piao by Wilfried. Of course, we all know the drill by now, and the evening was crowned with alcohol aplenty and a night of karaoke!
Beijing was also the setting for some newfound inspiration, as Robin and Wilfried paid a visit to the National Arts and Crafts Museum where they witnessed, among other things, some truly marvellous installations in traditional lacquering.
There was also time to visit several craftsmen that we may well consider working with as we continue to strive towards bring attention to the rich heritage that China possesses in tradition craft — though we will keep mum on this for the time being!
The iconic shape of the CCTV's headquarters
A stroll along the Liangma river
The remaining day or so saw the duo take some well-deserved time off after a long and tiring trip, and they took some time to soak up the sights of China's capital.
And with our trip kicking off with a get-together with our community in Hong Kong, it was only right to end it on a similar note as Robin and Wilfried sat down with a group of local collectors for a last dinner in China.
Your wonderful company bookended both ends of a productive two weeks, and with each successive gathering, we are more and more reminded of the immense joy that our community brings us.
Hmmmm... What's on that screen? 🤔
Another city, the same Atelier Wen family
Speaking of gatherings, our team was also represented in Ho Chi Minh, where we were invited to the annual Southeast Asian gathering of Watch Enthusiasts India (WEI). While Robin and Wilfried were unable to attend, our content manager, Iggy, hopped over in their stead to showcase Perception to India’s largest collector group. While a handful of Perception owners do already hail from the country, the keen enthusiasm and overwhelming interest in our watches was nonetheless immensely heartening to see, and it is definitely a region that we will look to nurture our presence in going forward, and we are looking forward immensely to joining WEI at their annual gala in Delhi this coming November!
Live-streaming Perception to WEI's 6000+ members!
Between the trip to China and the events that unfolded around it, our team would like to say a heartfelt thank you to our collaborators, acquaintances and general community. It was nothing short of delightful seeing so many faces — both new and old, and your ever-growing interest in our project never fails to astound us. It is precisely this that keeps us going in our efforts to bring you the very best of Chinese craftsmanship and watchmaking.
We would also like to take this opportunity to announce our next event, happening a week from now, and for the very first time in Bangkok, Thailand! Our friends at West Eden gallery are hosting us for the evening, and we cannot wait to see you all there! For any of you interested, please do sign up at the following link!
And finally, our team grows to four!
Before we sign off, it gives us tremendous pleasure to announce the addition of another member to our growing team!
Our new supply chain manager, Ricky Su, boasts over thirty years of prior involvement in the watch and clock industry, with previous stints in several large Swiss watch groups. Specialising in R&D, quality control and supply chain, he brings with him invaluable experience and know-how to our project with his rich theoretical knowledge of watchmaking and practical understanding of the ins-and-outs of the industry.
We wish him the warmest of welcomes, and we can wholeheartedly say that we are already experiencing the definite benefits of his presence in our day-to-day operations!
From touring the factories where our watches get made and inspecting their facilities, to spending some long-overdue time with Master Cheng, China 2023 was filled with promise and promises; of old relationships being renewed, new ones being forged, and of course, the continued prospect of new watches for all of you being furthered as our ongoing projects were pushed forward!
Alongside these, the events we host and attend provide us with constant motivation as the friendships that are founded and ever-increasing interest in our timepieces spur us on to bigger and better things, and while this is all we can say at present, do look out over the course of the unfolding months as there are some projects on the imminent horizon that we cannot yet reveal!
We will also be present at several fairs in the near future, including We Love Watches in Paris, as well as both Spring, Sprang, Sprung and Singapore Watch Fair in Singapore, and we would love to see you there!
The Atelier Wen Team