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Review: Atelier Wen Perception

The last thing you’d think of when it comes to Chinese watches is quality. At least, not high quality. We’ve become used to China shipping cheap, reasonably reliable product for some time now, and we’ve even seen some basic attempts at novel complications like the tourbillon and perpetual calendar—but none executed with any real degree of quality. Atelier Wen wants to change all that.

Atelier Wen

It must be pretty annoying, as a nation of people, being associated with mediocre knock-offs of other brand’s icons. There’s certainly no pride or status in it, let alone anything close to a living wage. As far as Robin Tallendier is concerned, that leaves an opportunity wide open, just waiting to be tapped.

Robin’s not Chinese, he’s French. He, like you and I, was acutely aware that China was the place to go to for low quality, high volume at a cheap price—but he saw something more. In a nation of 1.4 billion, surely someone, somewhere would have the kinds of skills it would take to make proper, high quality luxury watches.

His fascination in Chinese wristwatches came as a child, when he discovered that, whilst the Swiss watches he so admired were well out of reach, he could save his pocket money for a Chinese-made Seagull. One Seagull became two, became three, and before he knew it, Robin had grown up and become the foreign advisor to the Chinese government for the international development of their watch industry. What is it they say? Get a job doing what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life …

But it wasn’t enough to advise on making the perception of Chinese watches better; Robin wanted to take a more active role in marking China on the watchmaking map. And so he founded Atelier Wen, a watch brand that proudly celebrated every aspect of Chinese watchmaking, right down to the movement.

Sounds all very well in theory, but to simply invest in high quality watchmaking in China as a business would result in a pile of watches and no money left in the bank, so Robin had to be a bit smarter than that. He knew that winning over a suspicious audience wouldn’t be easy, and so he had to think a little different.

That something different came in the form of a smart, simple looking watch with one addition that pushed it into a different league: a porcelain dial. What to the casual eye looks like a shiny white dial is actually layer upon layer of carefully applied clay, fired at high temperatures to become ceramic. A glaze is applied as a final layer for the ultimate shine.

The cheapest porcelain dials, such as the ones found in the Seiko Presage collection, fetch almost £2,000, because for every dial made, five times as many fail. Atelier Wen promised the same high quality made by Chinese artisans in the Porcelain Odyssey collection—but for a fifth of the price. Now Robin had people’s attention. And now he’s doing it again.

The Perception

The new Atelier Wen Perception makes no bones about what it’s trying to do. The name, Perception, comes from the Latin to understand, and today still very clearly makes its mark in the dictionary: to become aware of something through the senses.

That’s exactly what Robin is trying to do with round two of his endeavour to modernise the opinion of Chinese watchmaking: to make people aware that something different is happening, to make them understand. If you thought the porcelain dial was impressive, you wait and see what the Perception has.

Before we get to that, let’s talk about something rather obvious: the Perception is clearly taking advantage of the current trend for 70s sports watches. Robin openly admits to keeping up with the trends—and why wouldn’t you—but he insists his take on it is unique. The profile may be familiar, but the execution isn’t, combining the angular aggression of Audemars Piguet’s favourite with the shape of Patek Philippe’s.

The star of the show, really, is the dial. Available in pink, grey or blue, it serves as the canvas to deliver a slice of Chinese craftsmanship that, once again, massively undercuts its competitors. The design is inspired by Chinese culture, but once again Robin understood that he needed to be tactful. Stereotypical red and gold colourations emblazoned with dragons would simply be in poor taste. So instead we have subtle nods, like the Sunmao architectural principle, nesting layers atop one another, and the Huiwen pattern serving as a chapter ring around the outside.

But what we’re all here for is the way the dial is made: not with a CNC machine, but by a real life person using a rose machine. There’s not a spark of electricity to be found, the guilloche pattern applied in exactly the same way as the very oldest and best watchmakers—only this time, in China by a Chinese artisan. Even in Switzerland, there are only a handful of watchmakers doing this the old-fashioned way anymore. You’re talking watchmakers like Breguet here, whose prices number in the tens of thousands. Put simply, you will not find a watch with a dial made like this for less.

The budget, which we’ll get onto in a minute, hasn’t all been spent on the dial either. There are nice quality-of-life elements like the use of 904L steel, quick adjust buckle and quick release bracelet. Impressively, the watch is just 9.4mm thick, thanks to the use of the Chinese Dandong SL1588 ultra-thin movement. So not only do you get the famous Patek Philippe profile, you also get to enjoy its slenderness as well.

So, the cost. It’s not as cheap as the Porcelain Odyssey. It’s about £1,500, and that’s a lot of money to spend on a Chinese watch. It’s a scary prospect, trusting a relatively unknown brand making Chinese watches with that amount of money—but if you want a guilloche dial in an ultra-thin watch and you haven’t got a penny more, it’s your only option. Who knows—maybe it’ll change your perception.