For your average horology entrepreneur, one brand would be plenty. Since 2012, Benjamin Chee has established three fine watch brands that are highly regarded by collectors and the media.
The long-time horology enthusiast has also ventured into other fields such as fashion (including a remote bespoke suit service and a high-end polo shirt business) and, interestingly enough, caviar (now on pause because Chee wants to focus on his watch brands).
When we ask if he has always been entrepreneurial, however, the 37-year-old demurs. “It never started as an entrepreneurial thing,” he says in a cheerful baritone from a private room at the local Ritz-Carlton, where he is on a two-week workation. “It’s more about me always wanting to tweak something to my exact wishes because I feel I can do better, whether it’s caviar or watches. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, for better or for worse.”
A quest to design something nicer and better
His belief that he could create something better led him to design his first watch in 2012, a Chinese-inspired timepiece with a guilloche design resembling the petals of a plum blossom. This was a few years after he had returned to Singapore from reading law at University College London. While he came to realise that the legal sector did not appeal to him, his time in London was not wasted. It was then that he developed a passion for Chinese culture and history. “Living in a Western country made me more aware of my heritage and roots. Aside from that, London has some of the best Chinese artefacts in the world.”
After seeing Chee wear a skeleton watch by Chinese brand Seagull, his sister asked him to help her buy another one. It was this simple request that got him thinking he could design something nicer. This led to the creation of his first watch, the Imperial Plum, and his first watch brand, Celadon. The 100-piece watch run, which used higher-grade movements made for him by the Beijing Watch Manufactory, sold out within a year.
Ambitious plans for his watch brands
Marking its 10th anniversary this year, Celadon now comprises two lines: Celadon Haute Horlogerie (HH) and Maison Celadon. Prices for the former start at US$15,000 (S$20,873) and come with exclusive movements created by Chinese watchmaker and Academie Horlogere des Createurs Independants (AHCI) member Lin Yong Hua. Additionally, some models feature cloisonne enamel dials created by Xiong Songtao, a third-generation enamel artisan. Maison Celadon offers timepieces that use Beijing Watch Manufactory movements, and cost between US$1,000 and US$3,000.
Chee has also founded two other brands. Millechron produces “vintage-inspired watches reinvented for modern use”, in a price range of US$4,000 to US$15,000. On the day of his interview with The Peak, he wore the Monarque M, a slim yellow diver. It was designed by Chee (as all his timepieces are) and is apparently the first in the world to use the latest version of the micro-rotor 5401 movement by high-end movement maker Vaucher.
The most recent addition — and Chee’s most expensively priced brand — is Benjamin Chee Haute Horlogerie (BCHH). Here, he works with independent watchmakers such as Svend Andersen and Italian clockmaker Alessandro Rigotto.
For pieces such as an enamel-dial world-time watch created with Andersen, prices begin at more than 50,000 Swiss francs (S$71,697). The BCHH collection also includes the Celestial Infinity, a statement clock created with Rigotto that features a sky chart with 461 diamonds representing the stars over Milan.
Of course, Chee’s higher-end brands focus on customisation, with clients able to modify elements such as case, dial and movement.
It all sounds pretty impressive, but he is just warming up. For starters, the Chinese culture buff has lofty goals for Celadon: “I don’t want to just create a brand or a watch. I want to create my own school of Chinese high horology, much in the same way A. Lange & Sohne pioneered the Glashutte school of watchmaking back in the 1800s.
“China is great at the technical parts, but not so much when it comes to design and branding. I feel like that’s where I can come in. I’m not a technical guy, so I partner with the best watchmakers, artisans and component manufacturers, while I handle the conceptualisation and design.”
He makes no bones about his desire to be at the top in the rarefied field of high horology. Plans are already underway for future models that will be priced at seven digits, and “push the envelope on what is technically possible”. Says Chee, matter-of-factly, “My way of handling competition and standing out is simply to be in a category of one — to be unique and the best.”