IN CONVERSATION WITH : Ming Thein, the Benevolent dictator at Horologer MING

While the surge in micro-brands has been measurable to a decade or so, none a brand has influenced collectors and enthusiasts; alike, as Horologer MING. Limited production, accessible price-points and a neoteric take on design, has propelled the brand into a ‘cult-classic’ status, within the inner realms of the collector fraternity.

While history, heritage and technical savoir-faire remain the pillars of horology, MING contradicts tradition, by making watches that he loves.

Ming Thein – the Benevolent dictator at Horologer MING, shares his vision and insights with The Hours Markers

THM: From photography to watches, take us through this journey.

MT: My interest in photography started first as a way to record my experiences at university and later progressed as a way to have piecemeal creative interludes between boring periods in my corporate job. In parallel, I fell down the horological rabbit hole after initially doing some research into a ‘nice’ first watch; the two combined because I quickly discovered at the time there was no way for me to afford the watches that captured my imagination on a junior auditor salary. (Ironically, they were also the days of $5000 Lange’s and $20,000 Dufour Dualities.) I made friends on the online forums who were kind enough to let me photograph the watches, and thus experience them in my own way. One thing leads to another and to the natural question: what if I could make my own? Though many things were drawn, I went through another ten years of corporate and six as a professional photographer (starting out and specializing in – of course – watches) before anything would happen.

THM: You personally design all the MING watches. What inspires you?

MT: Anything and everything. At a conceptual level, I make the watches I want to wear. On a finer level, there may be a certain concept or detail I see in another field that I want to translate to a watch. I use a lot of symmetry, balance, and visual layering in the form of both dynamic reflections and hierarchy of prominence of various features. I think a good designer always has to be open to inspiration from all sources, especially those outside their field – but at the same time mindful of the end goal of the thing they’re designing. This means a watch still has to be easily legible, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing.

THM: Talk us through the design process and concept behind your first watch: the MING 17.01. 

MT: It feels like a very long time ago, but we started that particular watch around 2015. It took a while to decide on conceptually what our first watch should be – high end? Mass market? Complicated? Knowing that it would later define us, we decided to make it something versatile, everyday-wearable, suitable for all occasions but also robust. It would be manual wind to retain some interactivity but minimize complications as we were (and still are) a small company with limited financial risk ability. The rest was a case of design by reduction – removing the unnecessary elements – and repeatedly refining. On average, our design cycle for any model lasts 6-12 months before we go to prototyping, allowing for plenty of sitting time. 

THM: Do you think the watch industry in general has become heavy on snobbery?

MT: It’s impossible to say what any individual’s motivations for buying a watch are; the companies and brands that serve them are just as diverse in their approaches. Is there sometimes a lack of intrinsic value and overpricing? Yes, but that’s probably also a consequence of the existing tiered retail setup and the kind of buying experience a customer expects at a given price point. The higher that price point goes, the higher the expectations go – and the cycle compounds. We believe in value – this is independent of price – but also a very personal buying experience that larger brands can’t offer. Ultimately, we have to make watches for people like us (i.e. people who buy what they like, not what they think others will like) because that’s the market we understand best. 

THM: Has the current Global Pandemic impacted MING?

MT: Of course – it’s impacted everybody. Our team is fragmented internationally (across Malaysia, India and Austria) and hasn’t met in person for the whole year; we and our suppliers are going through cycles of lockdowns and quarantines and restricted movement. Our business is heavily dependent on our being able to travel to meet customers, and we just can’t do this. The Malaysian members of the team for instance aren’t allowed to leave the country for the foreseeable future. We have had to indefinitely postpone the flagship chronograph we were supposed to launch this year, which is how the prototype landed up in the Philips x Blackbird Retrospective auction in November – we had to do what we could to recoup huge sunk R&D costs.

THM: Your thoughts on the relevance and importance of in-house movements.

MT: Use the most appropriate movement for the watch you want to build – that might be in-house if you can’t find it elsewhere and your company is big enough or niche enough. But if you don’t have the resources to create an entire movement from scratch, make it reliable, and support it properly – then it already isn’t as good as a proven solution. There are still ways to customize and individualize existing movements to the point they are distinctly unique; I think we’ve proven that with the 19-series and 27.01.

THM: Who would you say is an ideal MING customer?

MT: There isn’t one – anybody who loves watches and can objectively look beyond brand to see intrinsic value is going to find something to like in our lineup.

THM: “Sold out and permanently retired. These watches will not be restocked.” This is something we read a lot on your website. Although it clearly reflects on the demand for MING watches do you think it could have an adverse impact amongst watch enthusiasts?

MT: It doesn’t help us to make fewer watches than there is demand. But at the same time enthusiasts need to understand that a) we are a small company with limited financial resources; b) there are serious movement supply constraints and politics going on with ETA; c) product cycle times are 12-18 months because we are not a big customer relative to the other industry players. 

This means we could make more – but at a higher price because we have to pay market rate (very different from official list price) for movements, and run the risk that there is no demand when we actually have stock a year and a half from the last run – and that there’s no money left to make new models or continue business. I think it’s pretty clear why we have no choice but to work the way we do.

THM: How large is MING today?

MT: Between 7 to 20+ people, depending on how you look at it. While it’s just the core team of six plus Sandra, who handles a vast majority of customer communication at MING – we also have dedicated project managers at Schwarz Etienne, Jean Rousseau and various other partners and not to mention the watchmakers and various other individuals who help produce a MING.  

THM: What is the way forward for MING? Will we see an increase in production?

MT: Continued design refinement. We will of course still make what the market wants – but it might be an evolved version. While it makes sense for us to increase run sizes, it also significantly increases our risk. We are still a new player and don’t have enough information to forecast demand accurately 18 months ahead of time (which is essentially what we do when we have to place production orders). I will say though that we won’t increase production at the expense of quality or customer service experience.

THM: What makes MING so different? In terms of the watches and the success story of the brand?

MT: We’re customers ourselves, and we really care about every detail of the experience and the watches themselves. We always ask ourselves ‘how can this be better’? and ‘would we be happy with this as a customer?’ It’s personal, because my name is on the dial. I suppose this is good and bad, because it makes the emotional investment very high, too. I like to think this results in a watch that speaks for itself – there are already high expectations going in because of what everybody else is saying, but we still want to find a way for it to surprise in the metal.

THM: What can we expect from MING next?

MT: If all goes to plan, next year should be a major one for us – we’ll have a new flagship, the next 17-series, some collaborations, more ultra-thins, and a big surprise in the second half of the year… 

THM: Besides a MING, what are the watches we would find in your watch wardrobe? Any favourites?

MT: There used to be, but these days if I find there’s something, I want that we don’t make, it’s time to start designing again…

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