Review: Ming 19.02 Worldtimer
Whether it’s advancements in CNC machining, increase in small-business investment or quite simply a global dose of a lunacy in the drinking water, micro watch brands are now very much a thing. And whether they’re charging a few hundred pounds or many thousands, there are plenty of micro brands out there willing to take your money. Thing is, most of them aren’t, well—they aren’t very good. Are there any that are?
There’s a very distinct reason why micro brands tend to be rubbish. In fact, there’s a multitude of reasons why micro brands tend to be rubbish. Imagine how many people think that, just because they like watches, they’d be good at making them as well. Now imagine out of all those people, how many of them actually are.
Then there’s the matter of time, budget, expertise, marketing, etcetera, etcetera. You’d need to know or pay someone who knows how to actually design a watch, decide how you’re going to power it and whether the cost coincides with the price you plan to charge, get the thing built, then somehow persuade a bunch of people to buy one.
You won’t get the benefit of economies of scale, of design teams, accountants, factories, limitless resource; it kind of seems like it would be impossible to operate a successful watchmaking business that makes a high-quality product and actually generates a profit without significant investment. There’s certainly a lot of evidence—by which I mean failed attempts—to suggest that this is the case.
Nevertheless, and no doubt despite warnings from friends, family, accountants and bank managers, Malaysian Ming Thein decided he was going to give it a go. Not only that, but he actually managed to persuade five others to go along for the rollercoaster ride with him.
Now, if you’re not familiar with Ming Thein, then you should probably make yourself acquainted pretty sharpish. He’s a photographer, a proper one. Never mind taking a few snaps at a friend’s wedding as a favour—he’s legit. One of his favourite things to take photos of is watches; now, you’d hardly say that the natural next step was to make his own watch, but nevertheless, in 2017, that’s exactly what he did.
Ming had two choices: make something more affordable with a basic movement inside or make something exotic and charge some serious cash. Or, the third and most reckless option, double the risk and do both. Of course, Ming went with that, and the world was introduced to the 17.01 and the 19.01, costing about £1,000 and £6,000 respectively.
Were they any good? Well, the 17.01 is completely sold out and the 19.01 was nominated in the coveted GPHG awards—and is also on backorder until 2020. So how on Earth has this modern miracle been achieved? For a start, Ming Thien designed the watch himself. I mean, he’s seen enough of them. That way he was able to choose details that would be both realistically achievable and also visually pleasing.
Then he built a collection of people around him with skillsets relevant for every detail of the watch’s manufacture. He makes no bones about the 17-series watches sourcing movements from ETA, and 19-series watches from Schwarz-Etienne. Assembly, regulation and testing happens in Switzerland, with final inspection done in Malaysia by the man himself. It’s a compact, refined process that does without a lot of the extraneous expenses that bloat a typical watch company’s bottom line.
This all sounds good on paper, but we’ve yet to actually see in any detail what all the fuss is about. So let’s do it with this, the latest watch from Ming: the 19.02 Worldtimer. It all starts with one very simple yet impossibly hard decision: what should the watch look like? Should it be classical and run the risk of blending in with the crowd, or should it be contemporary and equally run the risk of looking like design for design’s sake? For the 19.02, like the 19.01, it’s a line that’s straddled in a way that, in theory, shouldn’t really be possible.
Here’s what I mean: most watches like this are usually sized at a predictable 42mm. The 19.02 is 39mm, however, with a thickness of just 11.2mm, even with the prominent box crystal. And watches like this are usually heavy; not so the 19.02, weighing in at, well, barely anything really, thanks to the use of grade five titanium.
And the thin-bezelled titanium case and box crystal together give off vibes of retro-vintage, but thanks to the unusually twisted lugs, avoid becoming pastiche. Even the dial performs this trick well, in essence a simple two-hander on a classic gloss black finish. Except the gloss black bleeds away at the edges to reveal a glimpse of what’s waiting beneath. It’s such a simple idea, but I’ve never seen it before. Subtle markings guard the perimeter of the display from the underside of the crystal, including the very small and very unimposing brand mark, with the whole thing ringed with a line of luminous paint. These are all things I’m familiar with—just not like this.
New for the 19.02 is the world timer function—as the name suggests—which adds a ring of cities around the dial where the 19.01 was plain. A handy function for a traveller to be sure, but really the big update for the watch is what powers it, the Schwarz-Etienne ASE220.1, plated in rose gold. Although it’s not an in-house movement, it’s still custom-spec’d for Ming, the bridge design and branding, like in the 19.01, designed by Ming Thein and executed exclusively for the 19-series.
And I have to say, it is a very attractive movement. Despite the watch being a sensible thickness, the calibre has a level of depth that reveals much more of the working mechanism than is usually on offer, thanks to the offset micro-rotor. You can watch the mainspring compress as it winds, follow the wheels of the going train from start to finish—and if you look really carefully, you can even see the tail end of the pallet fork doing its thing with the balance wheel. For the enthusiast looking to learn a little bit about how watches work, it’s a visual treat.
If you’ve seen the price of the 19.02—about £2,500 more than the 19.01—you might be wondering why there’s such a big jump. There’s the added world timer of course, and the rose gold plating, but that hardly feels like value for money. Well, there’s another little trick up the 19.02’s sleeve that puts the cherry on the cake: the hand-polished anglage. Where the 19.01 has quite a simple edge decoration, the 19.02 gets a mirror finish, applied by hand, bringing the movement up to another level. If you know your high-end watches, you’ll know how much you have to pay for this kind of treatment—and it’s usually way more than the £8,500 asking price. It’s a surprising and special addition to a surprising and special watch.
It seems then, that Ming Thein has defeated all the odds. It’s not a matter of opinion—his watches are a runaway success, despite the colossal challenge stacked up against him and his partners. Okay, so he’s not going to be troubling Rolex any time soon, but he’s achieved his goal of building a watch for enthusiasts by enthusiasts, that takes everything he loves about the hobby and offers it in a new and refreshing way—and then some. Perhaps that’s the secret to a successful micro brand?