Watch these Singapore brands grow

Singapore timepiece brands have gained a following here and overseas with their unusual designs, quality finish and competitive pricing

Dievas

With its foreign-sounding name and tagline, Uhren Technik ("watches technique" in German), many are surprised to learn that diving watch label Dievas is a Singapore brand.

In fact, Mr Anders Tan, who created it in 2006, says he faced some resistance from customers when he started marketing his watches.

Dievas means "superior" in Lithuanian and he chose the word because it sounds like "diver".

The 34-year-old says: "A lot of people were sceptical, but I think it is a very Singaporean mentality - if it is a Singaporean brand, then it means it's not good."

That is why he has long focused on how the brand's watches are made in Germany - and it has worked to his benefit.

Dievas watches, which range in price from $1,400 to $3,400, is the third most popular brand sold at retail shop Gnomon Watches, which is also owned by Mr Tan. The other two brands are German label Steinhart and Italian diving watch brand Squale.

Three hundred pieces of the first Dievas watch were produced when it launched, with production increasing by 5 per cent every year. In 2005, 1,500 Dievas watches were sold.

The brand has about 60 repeat customers, most of whom have been with it since the beginning.

"A lot of our regular customers own Rolexes and other high-end watches, but I don't think our customers are about showing off," says Mr Tan. The watches also sell well in Bangkok, Thailand.

Retail sales manager Chong Jun Hao, 34, who has five Dievas watches, says he discovered the label eight years ago at Gnomon Watches while buying a Steinhart watch.

"At the time, there weren't a lot of German-made watches that were priced at entry-level prices, below $1,500. So that brand caught my eye. The watches are reliable, tactical watches and you can tell that a lot of effort has gone into the build and design."

Mr Tan got into the watch business during his first year at the University of Birmingham, Britain, in 2001.

He used some of his tuition money to buy vintage watches from wholesalers in the United States and resell them to watch collectors all over the world online and in person at a profit.

"I bought 10 watches for $80 each and sold them at $110," recalls the Singapore permanent resident from Malaysia who has lived here since he was three. His father owns a business in Indonesia manufacturing construction materials and his mother is a housewife.

The computer engineering graduate says he went into the watch business because of his "love for watches".

"Being able to make some pocket money from your passion sounds pretty good, doesn't it?"

In his second year at university, he started Gnomon (meaning sundial in Greek) as an online e-tailer, selling brands such as Swiss military watch brand Traser and German automatic and manual- winding mechanical watch brand Nomos.

After graduating, he opened a shop in Shaw Tower in Beach Road in 2007. The multi-brand boutique moved to its current premises in Millenia Walk in October.

Prices range from $700 for a Steinhart watch from Switzerland to $15,000 for a timepiece from Italian diving watch brand Ennebi or Swiss luxury watch brand Hublot.

Mr Tan, a bachelor, decided to launch his own watch label because he wanted one to call his own.

Dievas watches are made in collaboration with a German watch manufacturer, in which Gnomon has a 30 per cent stake. Mr Tan, who bought the stake five to six years ago, declines to disclose the amount he paid or the name of the manufacturer, but says it is based in Pforzheim, Germany.

Working with a team of four based in Germany, the design process involves a lot of conference calls on Skype "until we agree on something".

Mr Tan aims to put out two to three watch models a year. Most of the watch components are made in Germany. The mechanical movements and design of the timepieces' hands are from Switzerland.

He says: "We try to put innovation into our diving watches. We have six steel watches that are full titanium and scratch-resistant."

It is these specifications that make Mr Tan liken Dievas to popular German watch brand Sinn.

He says: "In terms of specifications, it is very similar, although Sinn's watches are priced a lot higher. The reason Dievas can sell its watches at lower prices, but at the same quality, is because we work directly with our German factory." Sinn watches range from $3,000 to $12,000.

Although Mr Tan shares that Dievas enjoyed double-digit growth last year, he says success was not immediate.

"To be honest, I don't think we made money in the first few years. Everything went back to making better watches."

Even after a decade, he says he still faces prejudice from people when they are told Dievas is a Singapore brand.

"Though our watches are made in Germany, it's difficult for consumers to digest the fact that a local brand can be as good as a German brand."

But he adds: "I am convinced that the moment a customer buys and wears a Dievas watch, he will appreciate the quality - it speaks for itself."


Azimuth


Mr Christopher Long. PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Home-grown watch brand Azimuth has been around for 13 years, but it has been relatively quiet for the last three.

Director Christopher Long, 39, says that is because he and co- founder Alvin Lye, 48, have been preparing for the brand's"resurrection" this year, with the launch of three new models that are in keeping with the brand's aim of producing watches that are unconventional and "out of the box".

Crazy Rider, which is inspired by Harley-Davidson motorcycles and features a scaled bike chain in its display, was released in January.

Mr Roboto R2, which looks like a smiling robot face, and Twin Turbo, which resembles vintage car headlights, will be launched next month and in June respectively.

As playful as the watches are, all the design elements are functional.

Take Crazy Rider, for example, which is shaped like a motorcycle engine block and has a chain looped around the hour and minute hands. Mr Long says they measured the length of the chain so that it takes exactly 24 hours to complete one revolution.

Your watch must have soul. My watch has to speak to me when I put it on every day. If not, I won't feel right. No matter how much money you pump in, if your product does not have a soul, there is no point.

MR CHRISTOPHER LONG, on what it takes to be a quality watch brand. He is wearing one of Azimuth's new designs, Crazy Rider

He shares that it costs $300,000 to $500,000 to develop a watch from start to finish, a process that can take three years to complete.

Some of the brand's best-selling designs are The Bombardier 1, a vintage-inspired pilot watch, and Mr Roboto Mecha-1 BMF, an earlier version of Mr Roboto R2.

Azimuth watches average $7,000 to $8,000 a piece and are sold at watch retailers Red Army and World Of Watches.

Mr Long, who is married with two daughters aged five and eight, co-founded Azimuth in 2003 with Mr Lye, whom he met at Far East Plaza while shopping for vintage watches.

The duo had noticed that watch brands at the time were raising their prices without adding value to their products. They felt they could create watches that were unique and just as good.

They raised $80,000 to start the business, with Mr Long selling his entire watch collection that he started 23 years ago to fund his share.

Before Azimuth, he managed the distribution of brands such as A. Lange & Sohne, F.P. Journe and Dubey & Schaldenbrand for watch retailer Sincere Watches for three years. Mr Lye owns watch retailer Monster Time.

Mr Long looks after the technical aspects of production. With his degree in mechanical engineering, he taught himself the technical aspects of watchmaking by reading up on the topic. Mr Lye is in charge of sales and business expansion.

Unlike Swiss watch companies which design around the available mechanical components, Mr Lye and Mr Long adopt a "draw first, think later" approach, citing science fiction, machines, tin toys and cars as design inspiration.

After deciding on a concept and look, they then figure out how to fit the watch mechanisms into the design. Mr Long explains: "It becomes very technical in nature - you need to calculate things such as spring tension and gear ratio."

It is a challenge to adapt function to fit design, but it is not one that they shy away from.

He says: "We have remained relevant after all these years by being different in our designs. If you produce a 'me-too' product, you are finished."

A product design studio based in Switzerland renders a 3D drawing based on the initial concept, which is then passed to technical suppliers from various sources around the world.

Mr Long declines to share his sources, but says they are mainly micro-engineers who can create watch components from scratch.

All the watches are assembled at the company's eight-year-old atelier in Neuchatel, Switzerland. The Singapore office in Jalan Pemimpin handles the creation of the watches, after-sales service and worldwide distribution.

Azimuth is distributed in 13 territories such as Switzerland and Kuwait. There are plans to enter the China market.

The brand sells about 1,000 watches a year and names Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore as its top-performing markets. Mr Long declines to reveal sales figures.

On what it takes to be a quality watch brand, he says: "Your watch must have soul. My watch has to speak to me when I put it on every day. If not, I won't feel right.

"No matter how much money you pump in, if your product does not have a soul, there is no point."

Mr Brandon Ho, 39, says the brand makes good dive watches that can go to depths of more than 450m, which is more than the standard dive watch.

The financial planner, who has more than five watches from the label, also likes its quirky designs.

"Even though it is not always easy to tell the time because the designs are unlike those of standard watches and you have to analyse the face a bit more, I think this makes one appreciate the watch even more."


Zelos, Ventus and Vilhelm

Mr Elshan Tang (top) has launched six designs under his Zelos brand, including Eagle (above). Together with friends, he has designed watches for Ventus, including the Black Kite (below), and Vilhelm, which has one model, The Elemental (below).
Mr Elshan Tang (above) has launched six designs under his Zelos brand, including Eagle. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

Two years ago, Mr Elshan Tang started his first watch brand. Now, he has three under his belt. The 27-year-old bachelor launched Zelos in April 2014.

Under that brand, he launched four watch models through crowdfunding website Kickstarter, raising a total of $424,556.

Using the profits of those models, he developed and launched another two models, Eagle and Chroma II, in January this year.

He has sold about 1,000 Zelos watches to date.

Inspired by his success, two friends approached him separately to start watch labels together: the more traditional, pilot watchinspired Ventus and the higher-end contemporary watch brand Vilhelm.

Ventus was launched in April last year and Vilhelm was launched last month, both through Kickstarter.

Mr Nop Srinara, 33, a Singaporean who holds a day job as a regional sales director for a software company, approached Mr Tang to start Vilhelm. He says: "Starting a watch brand has always been a dream of mine and I wanted to work with Elshan because he has a lot of experience in starting up and running watch brands. "

Mr Tang co-owns Ventus with Mr Shane Sim, 27, who works full time on Ventus.

The youngest of three children of a pastor father and housewife mother, Mr Tang says his love of watches started when he was 15, when he received his "first proper watch", a Seiko, from his father.

His watch collection numbers 20, including one of each model from his own brands.

He decided to launch his watch label because he "did not want to buy watches from mass-produced brands as the watches tend to look alike".

The National University of Singapore mechanical engineering graduate says: "I gave myself a year to see if I could get a decent income, if not I would have started looking for a job."

Zelos watches feature sporty and bold faces and use materials such as bronze and carbon fibre.

Although carbon fibre is known to be an expensive material, Mr Tang is able to sell his watches at a lower price - from US$250 to US$820 (S$335 to S$1,100) - as he works directly with a factory in Shenzhen, China.

Zelos is sold at Krasnaya The Watch Art Gallery in Ion Orchard and at seven watch retailers in Hong Kong.

Mr Lucas Huang, 34, an investment manager at OCBC who has three watches from the label, says he appreciates that Zelos has fashionable, detailed and well- made mechanical watches.

He says: "Zelos brings unique concepts for watches into the market at affordable prices. I like that it combines fine engineering skills with detailed design elements and aesthetics."

Mr Tang plans to expand his brand internationally because "the market for new brands is much larger overseas than in Singapore".

He declines to reveal his earnings, but says that he is "making enough to be comfortable".

He runs Zelos by himself - he does the watch designs, marketing, customer service and shipping of packages from his family home, a five-room HDB flat in Pasir Ris.

He ships about 20 packages a week, a number which goes up to 200 packages when there are Kickstarter orders to fulfil. Shipping destinations include the United States and Europe.

The workload for Ventus and Vilhelm is shared among his partners. Mr Tang does the design, production and marketing for Ventus and handles the manufacturing and daily operations for Vilhelm.

The prices of Ventus watches, which are sold online at www. ventuswatches.com, range from US$299 to US$399, while Vilhelm's only watch model, The Elemental, costs US$599 on Kickstarter. It will retail for US$1,300 at www. vilhelmwatches.com when the Kickstarter campaign ends at the end of this month.

There have been many international watch brands launched on Kickstarter.

At press time, there were about 122 watch projects on the crowdfunding site, including those that were unsuccessful, ongoing or already funded.

Mr Tang says: "Internationally, the watch market is very big. Zelos, Ventus and Vilhelm are nothing compared with the giants such as Swatch and Seiko, so there is still a lot of space to grow."

Much of what he has learnt about running a watch business has been through trial and error. For example, production for his first Kickstarter campaign was delayed by "two to three months" due to technical issues at the factory.

He has since learnt to plan more efficiently and now designs a few watches at a time instead of spending a year on just one watch project.

He aims to put out four to six watches a year across the three brands.

He says: "Starting a watch business is harder than it looks as there are many factors to consider. A strong aesthetic sense is also crucial to bring something new and interesting to the market."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2016, with the headline 'Right on time'. Print Edition | Subscribe