Exclusive interview with Ming Thein of MING watches: From talking about upcoming 2020 novelties to COVID-19’s impact on the Swiss watch industry

Exclusive interview with Ming Thein of MING watches: From talking about upcoming 2020 novelties to COVID-19’s impact on the Swiss watch industry

Ming Thein is a man of many talents. From having been a theoretical physicist working in the finance and consulting industry to establishing himself as a photographer — consulting and shooting for some of the major Swiss brands — writer and educator, Ming Thein has now emerged as a force to reckon with within the global watch industry.

Ming Thein and his co-founders — Dr Magnus Bosse, Kin Meng Chan, YF Chek, Jacky Lim, Praneeth Rajsingh — already have a few feathers in their cap.

Ming Thein
YF Chek, Kin Meng Chan, Ming Thein, Jacky Lim, and Praneeth Rajsingh Image Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

The namesake MING watches 19.01 has been nominated as a finalist in the Petit Aiguille category of the Grand Prix D’Horlogerie De Genève 2018 Edition, and won the Aurochronos Festival 2018 Grand Prix.

MING 17.06 Copper then took home the Horological Revelation Prize at GPHG 2019. Since then, Ming Thein & Dr Magnus Bosse have also been invited to join the Academy of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.

Ming Thein
Ming Team accepting Horological Revelation Prize at GPHG 2019. Image Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

The most impressive part about all of this: MING has been in existence since only 2017! To put in simply, the MING watches team has come a long way.

Recently we had the opportunity to review their last release, the MING 17.06 Slate. It is essentially the same watch as the award winning 17.06 Copper, but with a different coloured aesthetic. You can read about that here.

Impressed, we wanted to find out more about this new disruptor that’s taken the centuries old Swiss watch industry and stirred it more than James Bond’s martini. We ended up conducting an interview with the man himself, Ming Thein.

The first thing that hits you like a welcome spring breeze is Ming Thein’s genuine love of watches. I have been around enough phoney watch enthusiasts and sales people in my own personal watch collecting journey to spot a gem in the rough. 

Ming Thein
Ming Thein Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

“We make watches for us,” says Thein.

It’s a short, to the point statement. It’s also a bold one. 

“This is a heavily loaded statement…,” he says. “… it carries the weight of our personal expectations and experience and commercial/business ones, too. And the team has very diverse tastes.”

Not many brands can honestly claim to say this. More often than not, brands are churning out watches for those who simply wish to show off the wealth they have; it’s all become a mine’s-bigger-than-yours syndrome rather than pandering to the true love for horology. 

Ming Thein
Ming Thein Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

This statement also drove closer home, because we started — it’s just two of us at Watch Ya Gonna Do About It, watch enthusiasts, collectors, admirers, whatever label you wish to put on us — this new review website solely because we wanted to write about watches from the perspective of what we would like to read. 

The industry has become heavy on snobbism, and we wanted to break away from that. We strongly believe that for someone a quartz TAG Heuer watch that would be blasted left, right and centre by watch collectors could be equally grail worthy as a Patek Philippe Nautilus. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and the love for a watch should be personal. 

This is more true especially these days in the current COVID-19 virus laden global pandemic that’s shutting down small manufactures and affecting the global luxury industry far worse than the recession from the last decade. With actual retail fronts being closed or restricted to limited working hours, and people being confined to their homes, the safe queens will remain in the safes. 

Ming Thein
17.06 Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

What will flourish is the genuine love for watches, because that’s more of an intrinsic value for humans rather than a show-off piece. 

The pandemic will be affecting the entire Swiss watchmaking industry as a whole, and not just affect the relatively smaller, upcoming independent brands like MING. 

“I think we’re all going to be equally affected, mostly by the smaller critical suppliers of things most collectors don’t even think about – screws and gaskets, for example,” says Ming when asked about how this pandemic will affect the entire Swiss watchmaking industry as a whole

“Whether a brand survives or not has nothing to do with its size, but the way the business is run. Where larger brands will be more heavily impacted is in reliance on physical retailers that must have foot traffic in order to sell – that’s totally gone – and a lack of online sale infrastructure. I think where we’ll see a huge shift is in the physical retail landscape, especially in Asia which has historically been less online friendly than Europe or the US,” he adds when asked if he thinks the power of balance between big and smaller brands will change

17.03 Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

Thein has much more positive expectations on how MING will be performing and if its being affected harshly in these times though. 

“Probably less than the other brands as we don’t have retail locations or a huge staff. But home base in Malaysia is effectively under martial law and all of our suppliers in Switzerland have shutdowns, so basically nothing can happen for now. Unfortunately this means some deliveries are going to be delayed until assembly can resume,” says Ming when asked about how the current global pandemic is affecting MING. 

“We are somewhat fortunate that we are between product cycles at the moment, but it does mean two launches have been delayed or pushed back indefinitely including our new flagship. In theory it should be a good time for e-commerce, but this doesn’t work in practice because logistics is not operating at full capacity and people can’t even go to the office to ship things,” he adds.

Moving beyond the doom and gloom aspect, we covered much more in our interview with Ming Thein, especially about MING watches in particular. 

17.01 Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

Watch Ya Gonna Do About It: Why are the watches names numerically — 17.06, 19.01 and so forth — is there a conscious effort to not have standard names as collections? 

Ming Thein: We avoided names from the beginning due to cultural sensitivity, personal affiliations, trademark issues etc. It started with 2017, model 1 etc. but this quickly went out the window when we realized the realities of production. 19.01 was meant for 2019 but ready much sooner and we elected to release it to break the expectation that all we make are 17-level watches. Others never see the light of day because once we have attached reference numbers to components and discussed them with suppliers, we don’t want to run the risk of getting the wrong parts. 

Our naming system has since matured to represent first two digits = family; second two digits = model. The higher the number, the higher it sits in the lineup – until you get to the 2x.xx series, which will be second generation, 3x.xx as third generation etc. It’s probably easier just to think of them as reference numbers. 

Ming Thein
19.02 Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

WYGDAI: Are you looking at developing / incorporating in-house movements in the near future?

MT: An in-house movement is only useful if it offers an advantage over something that already exists – maybe size, maybe complications, maybe something else. It doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of money developing another time only movement that won’t be as reliable as something that’s already gone through extensive testing and development. However, we already heavily modify movements from the ‘original’ configuration; often beyond recognisability. This will continue both up and down the lineup, with the intention being to deliver the greatest horological bang for the buck (but not at the sacrifice of other things such as value or reliability). At the moment we have the best of both worlds – partners with movement design and production capabilities, and a level of integration with Schwarz-Etienne that means effectively we make a lot of our own product ‘in-house’.

17.03 in Black and Burgundy Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

WYGDAI: Any upcoming 2020 novelties you are free to talk about? 

MT: We are still planning to debut our second generation design language this year. The first generation was exploratory and for us to figure out what we liked, what our customers liked and what had staying power from a design standpoint. The second generation is about consistency, maturity and refinement. The plan is for three watches – an ultra thin, a diver and a new flagship.

WYGDAI: Watch brands often collaborate with either celebrities, publications etc. – any in the pipeline for you? 

MT: Not celebrities or publications, unless we can find one where the relationship isn’t purely commercial and is a product born of chemistry and genuine love of watches rather than the need to make money. We have no interest in changing the dial colour or making a reissue and overhyping it.

Ming Thein
19.01 Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

WYGDAI: So far which release are you most proud of and why?

MT: The next one. Always the next one…it has to be better than the last one. If we’re not doing something better with each try, then we probably shouldn’t be in this business.

WYGDAI: We read somewhere you design your own watches – what inspires you creatively?

MT: It’s not a rumour, it’s one of the cornerstones of the brand. I personally designed every single watch we have produced. It is the one massive value add, unique selling point – pick your business school jargon of choice – that a brand can have to differentiate itself. Not only do I design everything but I also push our partners and suppliers to use existing technologies in new ways; for example lasering or case construction or use of luminous materials. All of this will become more evident in this year’s releases as we had to establish that level of credibility before this became possible. On top of that, I also do all of the primary photography – if the designer cannot highlight the elements of the piece they want the customers to see, nobody can.

18.01 Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

Inspiration comes from everywhere and everything. It could be a classical Renaissance painting, the interplay of light on water or engine components. Probably least of all existing watches as that’s a surefire way to limit one’s imagination. I prefer conceptual inspiration to form-based; for example, the idea of transparency and layering as opposed to “use sapphire here”. 

WYGDAI: You have been in the industry for a while now, anything you wished you had done differently?

MT: Some minor things to do with production efficiency and modularity of components, but nothing major. 

Ming Thein
19.02 Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

WYGDAI: If you were to choose between increasing sales and developing own patents, you would choose… ?

MT: They’re not mutually exclusive. You have to do one to have the funds to do the other, and you have to have a reason for people to notice you in order for sales to happen. Given the choice I will always spend money on developing a better product rather than trying to convince people to buy a mediocre one. We are never going to outspend the big brands on advertising, so it would be stupid to compete on that basis.

WYGDAI: If your kid wanted to buy a first watch, you would recommend… ?

MT: Buy what you like, even if other people tell you otherwise. The only way to learn your own tastes is by experiencing a wide variety of watches and making some mistakes. That, and there are some prototypes in that box over there…

19.01 Courtesy © HOROLOGER MING 2020

In addition to Ming Thein’s responses, we wanted to find out the thoughts of other founding members as well. These questions were aimed at the entire collaborative team to answer.

WYGDAI: What is MING’s ideal customer profile? 

MING Team: We don’t have one. We have watch lovers of all ages, locations and genders. This is one of the beauties of being in an online market that doesn’t discriminate.

WYGDAI: The direction of the company – where do you think MING is headed? 

MING Team: We won’t grow much bigger. That defeats our original objectives of being able to engage with our collectors. We might go up in price a bit so we can offer more; a 17.06’s price point leaves very little production budget to play with. By the end of year four – 2022 – if all goes well, we won’t have a single watch with a standard movement in it.

We would like to thank the MING team for their time with this interview.

This is the first in our new series of interviews. Stay tuned for more exciting interviews coming soon.

To discover more about MING watches, head to their website here.