In Asia, if You Like a Watch Brand, You Start a Club

On a Tuesday night at a cafe in the lively Shinjuku district, 10 people were gathered around a long table, chattering and sharing appetizers and drinks. Nothing unusual here — except each was wearing a Maurice Lacroix watch and, at the end of the gathering, they formed a circle and extended their arms for a collective wrist shot.

It was the Maurice Lacroix Watch Club Japan, a group founded in 2019 by a fan of the Swiss watch brand.

“I fell in love at first sight with the Aikon Automatic model at Baselworld in 2018,” said Koji Nakazawa, 43, who organized and now leads the club. “I fell in love not only with the watch, but also with the brand. As I learned more about it, I felt that it would definitely grow in the future.”

Clubs started by watch aficionados are nothing new: Tudor, Nomos, F.P. Journe and many others have them. But in Asia, such groups have been proliferating in recent years.

Group culture is one reason, according to Pierre-Yves Donzé, a professor of business history at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Economics, who is a specialist in the Swiss watch industry and luxury fashion.

“Individuals like to feel they belong to groups over the long term,” especially in Japan and East Asia, Dr. Donzé wrote in an email: Japan has the kind of deep-seated knowledge of luxury labels that easily translates to brand affinity.

The Lacroix club, for example, was the result of a lunch that the company held in Tokyo in August 2019 for collectors and friends of the brand.

“I could really feel the fans’ enthusiasm and passion for our brand and products,” Stéphane Waser, Lacroix’s managing director, wrote in an email from its headquarters in Saignelégier, on the Swiss border with France. “One of those fans was Koji Nakazawa. His motivation and dedication were immense.”

(As a brand, Maurice Lacroix has a much shorter history than many other Swiss watches. It was founded in 1975 by Desco von Schulthess, a Swiss distribution company, and named for one of the executives; it now is owned by DKSH Holdings, a business services company.)

A few months after Mr. Nakazawa established the club, he suggested that Lacroix create one of its Aikon timepieces for members. “This was the very first time we produced a limited-edition model for a watch club,” Mr. Waser wrote, referring to the 250-piece model now sold in Japan that he described as a collaborative effort with club members.

A Lacroix fan, Edward Wong Kar Fai, started a kind of international virtual club on Facebook in 2017, but the Japan club was the first Lacroix-focused organization to mix digital and in-person events. “Watch fan clubs seem to be more of an Asian phenomenon, as watch enthusiasts seem to share and discuss more spontaneously on that side of the globe than in Europe,” Mr. Waser wrote in a later email. “If there are clubs in Europe (e.g. Oris), it seems to be a brand initiative and moderated directly by the brand.”

The spread of Lacroix clubs in Asia probably influenced his perspective. After the founding of the Japan club, one was established in Thailand, then Malaysia and, most recently, Hong Kong. All the clubs were founded by individuals — the Malaysia one by Mr. Wong, actually, of the Facebook group — and Mr. Waser said that they all operate independently of the brand.

There is no official tally of the Lacroix Japan membership as the club does not require registration, but its Instagram site has 2,050 followers and its in-person events, held five or six times a year, draw as many as 30 people. Mr. Nakazawa said visits by Mr. Waser and other Lacroix executives attract the largest numbers, although boutique tours also have been popular.

At the Shinjuku gathering, the attendees were all male (although women often come to events, Mr. Nakazawa said) in their 20s to 40s.

Over pizza, draft beers and soft drinks, they mostly talked about watches and compared wrists. “I joined the club because I wanted to see how other people wear the watches I like,” Hiroharu Uematsu said, noting later in the interview: “There are not many watch enthusiasts around me, and I want to talk with people who like the same things as I do.”

Another member, dressed in a business suit and wearing a Lacroix model with a stainless steel bracelet, mentioned his plan to buy one of the brand’s brightly colored Aikon #Tide models, made of upcycled plastic and starting at $760. “I can share it with my wife,” he said.

Mr. Nakazawa regularly attends the club meet-ups in Tokyo, although it requires a round-trip train ride of more than three hours on the fast Nozomi train. He lives in Nagoya, a port city west of the capital, where he designs his own leather products brand, called Celieu, producing watch cases and coasters from discarded cuts (his collaboration with the French leather house Jean Rousseau Paris debuted early this month).

The camaraderie is well worth the effort, to his way of thinking. “I am very happy to have a fan club,” he said, “because I have been able to connect with people from all over the world.”

In August 2010, a fan of the Paris-based watch brand Bell & Ross organized a club in the Okayama prefecture, on the southern part of the main island of Honshu. (It isn’t the brand’s only fan club; the BR Gang gathers in France and Belgium.)

“We formed this group because we simply like Bell & Ross,” Hiroki Negi, 51, its founder and leader, wrote in an email. “We have individual personalities, talents and colors, and we can create new possibilities by connecting people with each other through the ‘and’ mark,” referring to the brand’s ampersand.

Bell & Ross was founded in 1992 by a designer, Bruno Belamich (the Bell in the name), and an entrepreneur, Carlos Rosillo (the Ross). It is known for its watch’s square cases and aviation-inspired design.

The Okayama club has about 80 registered members, half of whom, Mr. Negi wrote, usually attend major events like an annual product presentation by the brand. Small meetings over drinks or meals are held three or four times a year, usually drawing a handful of participants from Okayama and the surrounding area.

“People of different genders, ages, careers and areas have come together through their encounter with Bell & Ross and have become connected as a big family that is more than just friends,” he wrote, describing how members have shared advice about career changes and life struggles.

Franck Dardenne, the managing director of Bell & Ross Japan, said, “Having such a club of fans is extremely precious. We try to support by attending some gatherings, inviting fans to some events or sharing information in advance, but we can’t interfere.”

After all, he said, “a brand control would kill the spontaneity.”