Tourbillon Watches, Made in Hong Kong

A Ulysse Nardin Watch Fan
September 5, 2016
Wild About Watches
September 5, 2016
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Tourbillon Watches, Made in Hong Kong

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HONG KONG — On the eighth floor of an industrial building here, along a concrete hallway lined with metal security gates, is a lovely wooden door carved with Chinese designs. And behind that door is the headquarters of Memorigin, a tourbillon-watch maker in a city better known for selling luxury products than making them.

Founded in 2010, Memorigin now offers about 100 watch models priced from $3,800 to $38,000 — and all designed to reflect Hong Kong’s love of Chinese symbolism, pop-culture kitsch and flash. They feature swirling dragons, jade panels, cartoon pandas, Marvel superheroes and even Bruce Lee rendered in gold.

During a recent interview, William Shum, the company’s 31-year-old founder, had on his own wrist a Wall Street-friendly bull design, with a diamond-encrusted arrow signaling a rising stock index. (It can be yours, with forest-green alligator strap, for about $12,000). “Bulls are hard-working, plus they represent the bull market,” he said.

Like many Hong Kongers of his generation, Mr. Shum was sent to the United States to study career-friendly topics like finance and economics. “They wanted me to do banking, not factory or manufacturing work,” he said of his family’s expectations.

So after studying at the University of Southern California and Cornell, he returned to Hong Kong and a job in investment banking. But in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he found himself working until 1 a.m. every night and figured there had to be a better way.

He was drawn to the same interests as his father, an avid collector of beautiful miscellany and the co-owner of a factory in Hangzhou, China, that began making tourbillon movements in 2000.

The company, like many Chinese manufacturers, had the technical know-how to make the gravity-counteracting devices still considered intrinsic to elegant watches but no experience in designing, branding or retailing their own creations. “There were only about 30 factories in the entire world making tourbillon, and only a few in China,” Mr. Shum said. “The Swiss models were so expensive. I thought, ‘Could I make one more affordably?”’

The inspiration for Memorigin came when he visited his father’s warehouse, where he had stored intricate Chinese carvings and 19th-century European pocket watches. “I wanted Swiss precision with Chinese characteristics,” Mr. Shum said.

Since its first release, the 2011 Antique series that now sells at about $3,800, the company has moved into higher-end collectibles like the 2013 Emperor Jade, which required artisans to painstakingly grind pieces of the precious stone into translucent sheets. Mr. Shum said about 10 of those watches have sold, each for about $38,000.

Its most popular watches, he added, feature Hong Kong celebrities like the actress Michele Reis and the Marvel series, some of which has sold out.

Mr. Shum’s personal favorite is Window of Time, by Edwin Chuang, a local designer and hotelier. “Each layer is like a transition in life,” Mr. Chuang said of the watch’s tiered concentric circles. “It’s important to William that he captures Hong Kong’s spirit.”

These are tough times for luxury businesses anywhere. Memorigin, as a privately owned company, does not disclose sales or revenue figures. But in Hong Kong, the world’s largest watch importer, Mr. Shum said the sharp decline in sales of high-end Swiss watches had been affected by global stock market fluctuations, weak European currencies, Beijing’s corruption crackdown and a decline in the number of mainland Chinese tourists.

Just before his interview, Mr. Shum had returned from a promotional event in Macau and was preparing for the Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair, scheduled to begin Sept. 6. He ran around his office in a trim navy suit, having quick meetings with staff members and answering numerous phone calls.

His father, Shum Mak-ling, who is now Memorigin’s director, took a more leisurely approach. He showed off his collection of 19th-century Swiss cylinder music boxes, decorated in gilt and mother of pearl with bells, drums and dolls. Cranking one of the handles, he sent the sound of a Strauss waltz into the air.

He then walked along the halls to the company’s new research and development center. He sealed his shoes in plastic, entered an air-shower chamber and then donned a white lab coat before sitting at his own workspace.

“We don’t want to just copy the Swiss,” he said, looking up from peering at a watch through a loupe. “We want to learn from their culture. Even 100 years ago, they could make something of such precision.”

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