He Makes Watches by Hand in China

When it comes to watchmaking, Logan Kuan Rao is motivated by a Chinese proverb that, loosely translated, says your character is shaped by your environment.

And by another, much less philosophical phrase: Made in China.

Both have been on his mind recently as Mr. Rao, an independent watchmaker based in China’s southern port city of Guangzhou, completed the first piece of his second design, called the Wuwei. It took time, but he has worked out how to use limited resources to make the watch, a 37.5-millimeter time-only mechanical piece, almost entirely by hand.

“Wuwei is a Taoist philosophical concept, not strictly defined, that means nondoing,” he said. “I’m only focusing on the design of the movement, the atmosphere, the shape, the parts in the movement. It’s a way of honoring the mechanical design.”

Mr. Rao, 27, hopes to complete another one or two Wuweis in the next few months. And now that he has honed the process, he intends to deliver 10 a year.

The past decade has been something of a horological journey, Mr. Rao said.

“I started learning watchmaking about 10 years ago in high school, when I was in a Chinese watchmakers’ forum, and I started collecting cheap Chinese-made watches,” he said. “Then, I started to collect vintage watches, and I developed a very niche taste. But the watches were too expensive. So, I decided to try to make one for myself.”

That led him to YouTube videos and books such as “The Watch Repairer’s Manual” by Henry B. Fried, first published in 1949, and “Watchmaking,” by George Daniels, initially published in 1981.

By 2017, he had introduced two prototypes of the Orca, his first timepiece, a 37.5-millimeter time-only model with a 42-hour power reserve.

The Orca’s design made a bit of a splash in the watch world, with the movement part called the wheel train bridge shaped to match the whale’s silhouette. It is visible on the case back, which was finished with the striped and textured engraving pattern traditionally called Côtes de Genève, a design that resembles ocean waves.

He made many of the Orca’s parts but ordered others, including the movement, from a watch manufacturer in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin.

“When I designed the Orca, I wanted to utilize the movement, to create a picture of the Orca jumping out of the water,” Mr. Rao said. “I wanted to give some meaning of the pure decorative things. But now I don’t need to give those things any meaning. So, I got rid of them and focused on the mechanics.”

His change of focus came while he was a student in London. (He earned a bachelor’s degree in materials science in 2018 from Imperial College and then attended the Royal College of Art for nine months in 2018 and 2019.)

During his studies, he went to the London Metropolitan Archives to see the records left by Mr. Daniels, who died in 2011. The English watchmaker is considered by many to be one of the greatest horologists of the 20th century — and Mr. Rao was inspired by the simplicity of his designs.

At the time, he already was working on the Wuwei, but he still hadn’t perfected his first creation. “In 2017, I promised that I would deliver the Orca by 2019,” he said, “but two years went by quickly, and it took me until 2021 to create the first one.” (He completed its limited edition of nine pieces late last year.)

Mr. Rao said he underestimated the difficulty of meeting his own timetable but used that knowledge in building the Wuwei. He made all its parts except for the shock absorber; the rubies, which reduce friction; the hair spring, which helps control accuracy; and the main spring, which coils when the watch is wound and, as it unwinds, provides the energy to run the time-keeping process. “I even grind the glass myself,” he said.

But living and working in China has meant limited access to watchmaking parts and tools. For example, he said, there is no supplier of calibers and movements.

“In Switzerland, if you want to put a watch together, it’s like Lego bricks,” he said. “You put a piece from one company here and another one there. But in China, it’s like carving wood or stone from scratch. I don’t have access to suppliers who are willing to send small orders.”

This led him to find creative ways to utilize the machines he had access to.

“For example, I have a precision lathe that is used to manufacture some cylindrical parts on radar antennas,” he said. “The size and precision requirements are similar to a watch case, so I use it to make my watch case and crown. Another pantograph milling machine was originally used to create injection molds; now I use it to rough-machine movement plates and fabricate jigs and fixtures.”

The Orca, made in 18-karat white gold, is priced at 125,000 Chinese renminbi, or $17,580; the Wuwei, in 18-karat yellow gold, is 245,000 renminbi. Mr. Rao sells through Instagram, WeChat, email and his workshop in Guangzhou.

Zepo Yang, a watch collector in Shanghai, had bought the first Wuwei and received it in November.

He said Mr. Rao’s creation had a particular appeal. “He designs and then makes the watch from scratch, and he’s completely self-taught, which is all part of the attraction,” Mr. Yang said. “I think Logan’s watches are destined to be appreciated by only a select few. Today’s independent watchmaking puts too much emphasis on the decorative finishing in the movement. I like the rawness of Logan’s work.”

That rawness is at the heart of what Mr. Rao is doing now — a true riff on “Made in China,” he said.

“It makes no sense to import parts from Switzerland and then export my watch to other countries,” he added. “I’m not the middleman. I’m the whole process.”

Sumber: www.nytimes.com