In the increasingly competitive realm of independent watchmaking, the lion’s share of the glory has gone to people with European names. In auction houses and at points of sale around the globe, collectors jockey for position to buy original pieces from Britain’s Roger W. Smith and George Daniels, Switzerland’s François-Paul Journe and Rexhep Rexhepi and Finland’s Kari Voutilainen, to name a few. But in Japan, where the development of the quartz movement sent the entire Swiss watch industry into a tailspin in the 1970s, a burgeoning class of watchmakers has spent the past few years producing exceptional pieces infused with the essence of traditional Japanese craftsmanship—and has gained significant acclaim among those in the know.
These artisans hail from distinctly different backgrounds. Some worked in the luxury industry before coming to the world of horology; others studied design or attended the only watchmaking school in the country. What they share is an unparalleled ability to combine signature elements of Japanese culture—glass cutting or lacquerware, for example—with extraordinary and often self-taught technical skill. Which is why their work stands apart from the best of Swiss, German and French design. Meet the makers of Japan’s new expressionism.
A typical suburban-style house in a sleepy residential neighborhood in the city of Funabashi is probably not where you’d imagine that some of the world’s most exquisitely crafted timepieces come to life. But from an atelier inside his home, 39-year-old Masahiro Kikuno meticulously polishes and assembles the components for his ornate and unusual watches. His lathes and larger machines take up most of the garage. “I don’t have a car,” Kikuno says. “I use my bicycle to get around, or the train.” His space is warm and welcoming, just like Kikuno himself, who is dressed in all-black traditional Japanese work clothes known as samue—a jacket that ties at the waist and matching trousers—on a recent summer day.
As an example of Kikuno’s dedication to his art, he graduated from the three-year watch-repair course at Tokyo’s Hiko Mizuno College of Jewelry in 2008 and decided to stay an extra year to attempt to build a piece from scratch. “Just by myself, to make my own watch, by trial and error,” he says, while using the school’s equipment and tools. He did make one key purchase: George Daniels’s seminal tome, Watchmaking. Kikuno studied the images while painstakingly translating the text with a Japanese-English dictionary.
Relying on that same penchant for precision, Kikuno now makes just one or two watches per year. By his business’s 10th anniversary, in 2021, he had released 18 watches, for a total of 17 customers. He has temporarily stopped accepting new orders as he works to complete some placed four years ago. Always innovating, he has created eight models but has sold only four, holding back the others as prototypes. “Even if I make the same watch over and over, it’s not easier,” Kikuno says. “It’s as difficult as creating something new.”
In 2011, he constructed his first Wadokei (or Temporal Hour) wristwatch, based on an old style of Japanese clock that counted hours by dusk and dawn times, which vary seasonally. This system was used until 1873, when Japan adopted the Western calendar. “I saw a TV documentary on the wadokei clock, a 150-year-old machine that was made back then all by hand,” he says. “People from the past were able to create this without instruments—why couldn’t I today?”
The dial on Kikuno’s version is adorned with numerals in kanji (the written version of Japanese based on Chinese characters) corresponding to each sign of the Chinese zodiac, with blue hands pointing to traditional seasonal time and purple ones to modern time. His model is outfitted with an automatic index, which adjusts seasonally. “It’s the only one in the world,” he says. “The mechanism is different because it’s on a smaller scale than a clock. I had to compress, condense and adjust.” It took him five years to realize, from planning to production. The square case is inspired by inro, small, carved ornaments that were popular appendages to kimonos from the 17th to 19th centuries; cases holding pills hung from netsuke, and eventually watches were added so people could easily see the time. The six daylight hours and six night hours move around the dial with the seasons, and the movement is tuned to the customer’s latitude for accuracy. At exchange rates as of press time, prices start from about $126,000.
Armed with his creation, Kikuno was admitted in 2013 to the prestigious Swiss Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI), an association of independent watchmakers that counted Daniels as a member until his death in 2011. Despite his work backlog, Kikuno is also dedicated to transmitting his know-how to the next generation. Once a week, he teaches two students at his alma mater who, as he did more than a decade ago, are spending a year creating their own watches. “That class is about problem-solving,” says Kikuno. “When students encounter troubles while making their watch, I assist them.”
All the pieces Kikuno has made incorporate Japanese elements, such as dials with mokume-gane motifs, intricate wood-like patterns created through the forging of different metals. The result resembles a topography map in three colors.
When it comes to crafting his timepieces, Kikuno finds meeting and communicating with the client essential to his practice. “Talking with them gives me inspiration that is infused into the design,” he says. “It’s Japanese culture philosophy. Like a secret between myself and the customer.” With help from his wife, he documents his process in a photo album he gives to the buyer, so they can see their watch come to fruition.
“I want my watches to last forever, but I am aware they might disappear with their owner,” he says. “I don’t mind, however, because I know the value of the watch was understood by them.”
Even after working for over 30 years in the luxury industry in Japan, including in the planning and designing of limited-edition Swiss timepieces for the Japanese market, Naoya Hida still could not find his perfect watch. “At that time, as I continued to discover vintage watches, I wondered if my ideal watch was perhaps available in the vintage world,” he says. “But I realized my ideal watch didn’t exist.” From his point of view, the delicately sized watches that inspired him, such as the 31 mm Patek Philippe Calatrava from the 1930s, were too small for modern life, in addition to not being water-resistant. “I had two choices: Give up or make my ideal watch.”
He chose the latter. Hida, now 59, joined forces with watchmaker Kosuke Fujita, whom he met in 2007 when they were both working at F. P. Journe, and engraver Keisuke Kano and established Naoya Hida & Co. in Tokyo in 2018. Turns out they all shared the same dream of attaining perfection. “We believe that it is important to pursue what we consider to be beauty,” says Fujita, who wanted to create an original watch after working for many years repairing every kind of timepiece, from high-end Swiss to cheap fashion versions. “We spent a lot of time on design balance and detail.”
The company’s designs are inspired by vintage models but have a contemporary flavor thanks to their 37 mm size. They also combine advanced, ultra-high-precision micro-fabrication machining with Kano’s hand-engraved components. “Some customers think the style is Japanese Zen and minimalist,” says Hida. “Perhaps that’s because I’m from Kyoto.”
The brand has primarily used stainless steel, but one of its 2022 models, the Type 1D-1, is adorned with an 18-karat-gold bezel and hands and is priced at about $19,000. Like Naoya Hida & Co.’s other pieces, the watch is made of the high-quality SUS 904L stainless steel (also used by Rolex), which is known for its corrosion resistance—and the difficulty artisans face working with it.
Kano hand-engraves the Breguet Arabic indexes on the Type 1D-1’s dial. “I work with a technique known as Western-style metal engraving, which is different from traditional Japanese-style metal engraving,” Kano explains. “Many of the tools I use are modified by myself.”
The models all have dials with depth. “I have always been fascinated by the three-dimensional dials often found on Swiss-made luxury watches in the past,” Hida says. His company has achieved the effect through a combination of latest-generation Bisai micro-fabrication machines and the handi-work of skilled craftsmen. “It combines the cutting of thick chunks of German silver by micro-machining and the engraving of the indexes by hand.”
For the hands, thick sheets of iron or stainless steel are cut with the Bisai machines, without the use of presses. “This allows us to obtain beautiful three-dimensional shapes,” Hida says. “The thickness of our hands is two to three times greater than that of normal luxury watches.”
In 2019, its first year of production, the team released seven pieces, which sold out in three months. In 2020, all 25 watches released were snapped up in seven months. In 2021, a total of 40 watches went in just three days. And in 2022, 70 timepieces were spoken for. There were five models, including one in collaboration with the Armoury, called the Lettercutter, named after the craftsmen who specialize in carving letters into stone, in a new Art Deco–inspired font designed by the Armoury and engraved by Kano. This year, the partners implemented a new application system to avoid the first-come-first-served madness of the previous years—and to give loyal customers dibs.
The recent pace of growth will not continue, however: The company intends to remain small. “Because we want to make our ideal watch, and for each component, we invest a huge amount of money for hands, movement, case, dial,” says Hida. “I saw a lot of brands grow quickly in a small amount of time. It becomes overwhelming, and their lifestyle changes. I don’t want to become like that. I want to stay small and create the product we want to create.”
In April, Daizoh Makihara returned home from the Masters of Horology event in Geneva triumphant. Not only did he earn plaudits for what was only his second model, the Kacho Fugetsu, but he also won a prize of sorts: membership in the prestigious AHCI.
The fast-rising watchmaker fuses haute horlogerie craftsmanship with Japanese techniques, such as the 18th-century glass-cutting practice edo-kiriko, to create his intricate, sculptural dials. In this method, artisans use a diamond sharpener to cut patterns freehand, fashioning a motif one stroke at a time. “I had to meet eight different companies before one finally agreed to do it,” he says, because the glass he uses is much thinner than some craftsmen are accustomed to, and the work is extremely delicate. His initial model—the Kikutsunagimon Sakura, which features cherry blossoms—was the world’s first to incorporate edo-kiriko when it was released in 2018. Makihara, 43, does everything else by himself, working in his one-room atelier at home in Saitama prefecture, about one hour outside central Tokyo.
For Kacho Fugetsu—the name translates to Beauties of Nature—which was released last year, he again turned to edo-kiriko, this time to render images of flowers and birds. Each of those two elements, along with the wind and the moon, has a corresponding kanji, or Chinese character; together they form the name of the timepiece. “It’s a poetic watch,” he says. “It’s a way to convey the essence of Japanese culture, through poetry.” It took Makihara almost three years to complete. The most exquisite feature is the automatic petal mechanism, allowing the brass flowers on the dial to bloom and close at 24 hours and 12 hours.
“I was inspired by automata of Jaquet Droz designs,” he says. The watch has a perpetual moon phase, with a one-day margin of error in 122 years. Makihara hand-engraved the off-centered dial and movement plates with a hemp-leaf pattern, a traditional symbol for a child’s growth and health that is also used to ward off evil spirits. The hands are made of blued steel, and the movement is a manual winding Cal.DM 02. The price is about $154,000.
Makihara was 27 and working as a cook in a hotel when he decided to enroll in the watchmaking course at Hiko Mizuno Jewelry College in 2007. (Like Kikuno, he now teaches at his alma mater.) In 2009, while still a student there, he was featured in a local TV program in which participants get to meet a famous person they admire. For Makihara, it was Philippe Dufour, the illustrious Swiss independent watchmaker. “I went to Dufour’s atelier in Le Solliat and learned how to polish for two days,” he says, referring to the elaborate haute horlogerie practice of finishing and decorating movements. (Dufour later saw Makihara’s first watch during a 2018 trip to Japan and complimented him on the polishing, which, in watchmaking terms, is akin to a blessing from the Almighty.)
Makihara is duly busy. “Until March 2023, I have to complete three more orders of the first model,” he says. “After that, I can start working on the new model,” for which he already has two sales. He, too, needs to feel a connection with his clients: While in Geneva last spring, Makihara took a day trip to Paris to meet one of the customers who ordered examples of both editions—they had lunch together at a Japanese restaurant. “I like to meet in person, because for each watch I make, there’s a customization part. I have to create a trusting relationship.”
A peek into Hajime Asaoka’s studios reveals what sets him apart from most of his peers: his unique background as a designer. Unlike typical independent watchmakers’ workshops, his atelier is a lab-like space filled with computers. Asaoka taught himself how to use early Macintosh models when he was studying design at university, with the support of a professor who was familiar with the technology. And the autodidact didn’t stop there: He also taught himself watchmaking.
A pioneer of independent watchmaking in Japan, Asaoka, 57, runs two brands: Hajime Asaoka Tokyo Japan, for which he makes everything from scratch and releases about five pieces a year; and Kurono Tokyo, which produces hundreds of watches annually.
After graduating from the design department of Tokyo University of the Arts in 1990, he established his own office in ’92. “I was engaged in the product design of watches, but I was not satisfied with the quality [of the finished pieces],” he says. “So I decided to create my own watch.” After acquiring the know-how on his own, he then started manufacturing in 2005. In 2009, he launched the first watch in Japan to feature a complicated tourbillon mechanism in a movement made in-house, which attracted plenty of attention. He began selling his pieces to the public at Wako department store in Ginza two years later and became a member of the AHCI in 2015.
The signature timepieces of his more limited namesake brand are the Tsunami, with three hands and a full-plate movement; Project T, a tourbillon that uses ball bearings instead of ruby jewel bearings; and Chronograph, which is based on the Tsunami movement with a new module. Prices typically range from roughly $35,000 to $70,000.
Asaoka also strived to create a good, reliable and reasonably priced watch that could be worn daily. “As an independent watchmaker that produces very high-end watches by hand, my production numbers are very small,” he says. “And the costs involved in making my atelier watches are high.” Hence the birth of his second line, Kurono Tokyo.
The timepieces, some featuring urushi (lacquer) dials embellished with traditional Japanese patterns whose colors change over time, are not mass-produced but rather are achieved in collaboration with master Japanese craftsmen. The high-quality pieces come at a more affordable price point, starting around $1,400. “It’s not a diffusion brand,” Asaoka says. “I’m involved with Kurono as the designer, but even if the production is outsourced, I am very satisfied with the quality. All five models, which come in limited editions ranging anywhere from 100 to 999 pieces, tend to sell out in just minutes when they are released.”
Kurono uses parts and movements from Seiko or Citizen, and Asaoka’s focus is on the exterior. That emphasis on aesthetics, in his view, is essential for up-and-coming artisans. “While it is important to learn watchmaking in the watchmaking school,” he says, “a design sense is very crucial to become successful.”
Asaoka notes that becoming an indie watchmaker is probably more challenging in Japan, “as opposed to Switzerland, which has a watchmaking culture.” But that hasn’t stopped him from building Precision Watch Tokyo Co., which he established in 2016, into a company with a staff of 11. Asaoka has three separate workshops at the headquarters in the Edogawabashi area of the capital, a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood just a few minutes from the neon lights of Shinjuku. When asked about the next item on his agenda, Asaoka remains discreet about the details but hints at something a bit bigger than a model of wrist-watch: “We are thinking about launching a new brand.”
From the sound of it, Asaoka’s—and Japan’s—independent horological ambitions are only just beginning.