If you follow the local watch microbrand scene, you’ll know that there are numerous homegrown labels offering timepieces ranging from the dressy to the sporty. But what’s rarely seen is a metiers d’art watch – one featuring hand-executed, decorative traditional crafts and typically produced only by the biggest names in fine watchmaking.
Creating such a timepiece is a challenge that has been on the mind of watch collector and IT consultant Lim Yong Keong (YK) since he started his brand, Feynman Timekeepers, in 2018. While he spent the first two years building his main collection, which currently comprises two all-occasion models, Feynman One and Feynman Cove, Lim had a goal of “collaborating with Singaporean artisans, many of whom are talented but not very well-known”, to create a work of haute horlogerie.
Project Coalesce sees five individuals coming together to create a trio of watches featuring elaborate enamelwork – which involves the application of coloured powdered glass to metal. Inspired by Peranakan tiles, the collection comprises three dial designs: Peony, Lotus and Peacock.
Aside from Lim, the team comprises enamellist Charlotte Hoe (CH), leather artisan Ng Shuyi (NS), watchmaker Alvin Sim (AS) and Peranakan beadwork artist Raymond Wong (RW). In mid-May, just under a year after Hoe was roped in to work on the enamel dials, the first three Project Coalesce prototypes were completed. Six pieces of each design will be produced, and the watches are likely to be launched in the third quarter of this year. In a group chat via Zoom, the team shares the story of their journey so far.
1) How did the five of you end up working together?
YK: When I was creating my watch brand, I needed to gain some watchmaking knowledge. A few of my friends were attending private watchmaking classes conducted by Alvin, and that’s how I got to know him. When I first started Feynman Timekeepers, I consulted him a lot on the technical aspects of watchmaking. I knew Shuyi before that because I got her to make bespoke straps for the watches I own. Charlotte and Raymond were introduced to us by Yang Minxiang of Chrono.Design, which is our manufacturing partner.
2) Charlotte, you began enamelling in 2016 and you are now the master enamellist at your dad’s company, Royal Insignia. What were your thoughts when you were approached for Project Coalesce?
CH: This is the first time I’ve worked on watches, so I was a bit nervous initially. At Royal Insignia, I’ve done jewellery, but I mostly work on medals. Watches are a lot more intricate. One of the enamelling techniques I use for the watches is champleve, where cells are etched out and filled with enamel. For the dials, a single cell that you see can have three to four colours so as to produce a gradient effect.
3) Why the Peranakan theme for the three designs?
YK: I wanted to create something uniquely Singapore, and Peranakan design is very unique and rich. For instance, you can find hundreds and thousands of patterns on Peranakan tiles. I came up with several designs, which evolved along the way, after discussions with the others. Charlotte had a lot of ideas and advice on what colours to use, and so on.
CH: Reds and pinks are very temperamental and can react with silver, which is what the dials we’re using are made of. But we used quite a bit of pinks on the Lotus and Peony dials. Prior to making the dials, we did a few tests to decide on the final colours. Initially, the reds and pinks turned brown, but we managed to get the hues we wanted after a few trials.
4) As the founder of Yi Leather, Shuyi makes the straps for the watches in Feynman Timekeepers’ main collections. How are Project Coalesce straps special?
NS: For Project Coalesce, I played with little details. Each watch will come with two straps. For the first one, I use Epsom leather – a textured calf leather – for the top, and Alran Sully – a soft French goat leather – for the lining. Each leather is in a different colour to match the dials. Also, the first three stitches of each strap are in a different colour from the main stitches. We are still working on the other strap, which will incorporate Peranakan beadwork.
5) Raymond, you specialise in beadwork and embroidery for the traditional Peranakan nonya kebaya and beaded shoes sold at your shop, Rumah Kim Choo. What ideas do you have for watch straps?
RW: I’ve done beadwork for key rings, and cases for namecards and passports. Watch straps are challenging because we are working on a very small area. I will be making small strips of beadwork that will be inlaid into the leather straps. The challenge is getting the alignment of all the beads as straight as possible: The tiny beads can be of slightly different sizes, and because the beadwork is done by hand, there will inevitably be some unevenness.
6) Alvin, you are the resident watchmaker. How did you enter this field?
AS: I’m not a full-time watchmaker. I work as a director at a life-science MNC, but I’ve been doing watchmaking for 10 years now. I’ve always liked tinkering with things, and I started with vintage clocks, before moving onto pocket watches and then wristwatches. I’m largely self-taught, but in November 2019, I went to WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Programme) in Neuchatel, Switzerland, for a three-week chronograph course.
7) How are Project Coalesce watches assembled?
YK: For the Feynman Timekeepers main collection, assembly is done in Hong Kong and China, but quality control and tuning are done here. For Project Coalesce, the assembly is done by Alvin, using the same ETA 7001 Top-grade hand-wound movements and the steel cases that I designed for the Feynman One.
AS: It’s the last leg of the journey whereby I integrate the case, the movement, the hands, the dial and put them all together. The integration has to be seamless because watches can stop if there’s a bit of dirt or tiny hair in the movement. And then there’s functionality and field testing. I regulate the watch in six different positions, according to COSC standards. I also work on their waterproofing – the watches are waterproof to 100m. I do magnetism tests as well, to ensure the watches are not magnetised.
8) When developing a new product, hiccups are inevitable. Could you share any you have encountered?
CH: Enamelling can be unpredictable, and firing metal in the kiln can cause its dimensions to change slightly. I fire the dials after the application of each colour. Also, the cells have to be filled to the brim with enamel so the surface is smooth, which requires another three to four firings. After that, the dials have to be sanded and polished, and fired again. In all, each dial requires around 10 to 15 rounds of firing. I flattened the dials after each firing to minimise warping, but unfortunately, they still did, a bit more than I expected.
AS: Because the dials are a little higher than expected, we need hands with a longer tube, which is the component that holds the watch hands and goes through the dial and movement. I look at it as an opportunity for us to redesign our hands and to create an even nicer design.
YK: We are working with a custom hand-maker in Russia. The new hands are skeleton titanium hands and were designed from scratch.
9) Can you give us a rough idea of how long it takes to make these watches?
NS: It took me two days to make the straps for the three prototypes. One of the most time-consuming processes is edging, because I need to coat each edge, sand it, colour it, sand it again, and repeat the process if necessary. Each coat takes about half an hour to dry, so just doing the edging takes three to four hours.
CH: I work on all six pieces of one design at the same time, because the different-coloured enamels need to be prepped and they can’t be kept. Getting the colours done takes about two to three days, and this doesn’t include the time spent grinding them down and polishing them.
10) How will the watches be priced?
YK: We haven’t come up with an exact retail price because we are still collating the costs from our partners. But a rough gauge would be around $5,000. If you go by base numbers, we have a slight profit margin. But if you consider the time and effort we all spent on it, I don’t think so. We are doing this for the passion. I’m very confident about the product, and I’m sure real collectors will understand and appreciate what we have done.