Is That Watch Made of Cardboard?

HONG KONG — In a Starbucks in Kwun Tong, one of this city’s waterfront industrial districts, Gabe Lau pulled a small black box from his bag and emptied its contents on the table.

Out tumbled what, for an instant, appeared to be a king’s ransom of vintage Rolexes, Omega Speedmasters and Cartier Crashes. But a second look showed that each piece had been painstakingly constructed from humble materials like corrugated cardboard and plastic wrap and then exuberantly detailed in acrylic paint and ink.

Mr. Lau’s creations aren’t copies, but more like originals reimagined with his style and personality: hand-drawn, uneven bezels, imperfectly shaped faces and quirky calligraphy. “It’s like bringing the watches down to earth, just having a bit more fun, not so serious,” said Mr. Lau, who is 36. “And making people laugh, because it’s awkwardly funny.”

Born in Toronto and based in Hong Kong for the last 10 years, Mr. Lau has become something of a superstar among watch fans on Instagram since 2019, when he put his first post up under @labeg (an anagram of his given name and initial). He had done a pencil sketch of a Rolex GMT Ref. 6542 (his grail watch at the time), cut it out with an X-Acto knife, wrapped it around his wrist and taken a photo, captioning it: “New hobby. Drawing watches I can’t afford.”

Since then, Mr. Lau’s work has evolved from two dimensions to three and from black and white to color. His watches are no longer wearable; they are presentation art pieces with stiff unbendable straps. Meanwhile, his Instagram audience has expanded (he now has more than 7,700 followers).

It seems to have resonated across the interconnected worlds of luxury watches, contemporary art and high-end bespoke fashion.

Mark Cho, co-founder of the men’s fashion retailer the Armoury and an early follower of @labeg on Instagram, commissioned Mr. Lau to create paper versions of two H. Moser & Cie watches that he sold, along with about two-thirds of his collection, at a Phillips auction in Hong Kong in November. Mr. Lau’s artwork went along with the watches to the successful bidders.

“Gabe is really able to hone in, capture and recreate the important little details that matter and are the essence of the watch design itself,” Mr. Cho said. “He’s really, really good at it. It’s almost like a caricature, but in a good way.”

Like many artists, Mr. Lau has a day job: He is the international sales and marketing director for Kam Pin, an architectural coating and metal fabrication company in Hong Kong that was founded by his grandfather in 1960. “We’re working on the Amazon headquarters in Seattle, and we did the Google campus in San Jose last year,” Mr. Lau said.

Mr. Lau had a childhood love of art, but decided to earn a degree in product design from Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. “I never saw myself good enough in illustration, painting or anything,” he said. “Even as a designer. I wasn’t the best.”

Discouraged, he stepped away from the art and design worlds and began competing in Brazilian jiujitsu and Thai boxing. Finally, in 2012, he made the decision to join the family business in Hong Kong, where a surprise awaited him.

“As a kid in Toronto I always loved watches,” he said. “But my passion for watches kind of exploded because of what I was exposed to in Hong Kong. Watch shops everywhere — there’s like two Rolex shops right beside each other! And it was amazing to be able to go to auction houses and see watches that I could never, ever obtain for myself.” (The city was ranked third among Swiss watch export markets in both 2020 and 2021.)

Tim Yu, a Hong Kong gallerist steeped in global contemporary and street art, met Mr. Lau through Instagram shortly after his first posts of that Rolex GMT. Mr. Yu, who collects vintage Rolexes, thought the work was “very funny and interesting — but at first the work seemed very rough, just two-dimensional pencil and paper.”

The men struck up an Instagram conversation about art and watches that eventually continued over coffee in a local shopping mall. “I told him that if you want to really become an artist,” Mr. Yu said, “maybe you can try working in cardboard, maybe you can try using acrylic and different mediums.”

He also steered Mr. Lau to study the work of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, as well as contemporary artists such as Tom Sachs and Bill Barminski, whose work, like Mr. Lau’s, plays in the spaces between high and low art, real and replica, handmade and mass-produced.

“Tim really helped me see my potential,” said Mr. Lau, who followed up his mentor’s suggestions with a year of serious, hard work developing his style.

It now takes Mr. Lau several days to finish a single timepiece. His versions of Richard Mille’s famously intricate creations include every gear, drawn with a fine-tip pen without the help of a magnifying glass. For his versions of Mr. Cho’s Mosers, he searched until he found a special matte acrylic paint that could recreate the Vantablack coating on the watch dials, which seem to swallow all visible light.

Recently Mr. Lau has been accepting commissions from collectors around the world, charging 3,000 to 4,000 Hong Kong dollars (about $385 to $512) for a bespoke watch creation mounted in a museum-quality frame.

Mr. Lau said that he hoped someday to have a gallery show. But for now he is enjoying, and delighting in, the support he has received.

“My collection of watches can’t compare with the collection of watches of some of the people that I know,” he said. “But because I’m able to understand the watch, because I’ve gone through the process of studying and recreating it.

“They own the watch, but I recreated the watch, and so we both know the watch very personally. And that’s how we can connect with each other.”