Interview with Hajime Asaoka - Independent
Watchmaker of Japan
Many of you already know him or his work progress via Facebook and such. Here is the "real" Hajime Asaoka and I hope you enjoy this interview and many shots of his products and the process/ work.
Thanks to the introduction by Hirota-san, a well-known watch journalist, who also chaperoned me to his atelier, I was finally able to meet with Mr. Hajime Asaoke in person. I have heard of him and seen his tourbillon at Wako (a high end department store in Ginza) and had been very anxious to meet him for years. I found him, through this interview, a very unique independent watchmaker, even on Japanese standard... and at the same age as I am . Please read on how so and why.
His atelier or design room.
His machine room....
KIH ("PPro"): Thank you very much for taking time to meet with me today. I have been very much looking forward to meeting you in person.
Mr. Asaoka ("HA"): My pleasure. I see your website from time to time. You are the one with the avatar of mannequin with funny hat and the glasses on, right?
PPro: Yes, that's me. I am just doing this for fun and since I don't work now, I have time to do this more than before.
Then, he brought his latest creation and that took all our attention.... And Mr. Hirota's eyes were already glued to it and couldn't take them away
PPro/ Hirota: Wow, will you talk about this first?
HA: All parts are made in Japan (except for a few minor parts), designed and assembled in-house. All parts except for the case is made here as well. Case is made by the small factory in Tokyo suburb, who had never made anything watch related products. I just brought to them the precise specification and had them make it. Of course, they do just machining and the finishing is done here by myself.
Case diameter 37mm, amplitude is about 270 degrees, power reserve for 40 hours. 18000 vph.
16mm Titanium Balance wheel. The bigger balance wheel has the similar effect as the higher beat. And the moment of inertia is the same as the heavier material wheel. 16mm is almost as twice big as the one of, for example, El Primero, and if the diameter of the balance wheel is twice big, then the speed of the outer rim is the same as the half vibration movement (36,000vph vs 18,000vph).
Prototypes and the final result (from the right to the far left). Can take only one from the 32mm raw plate.
Front sapphire glass is both side anti-reflective coated. Back side glass is not coated.
The 2nd gear is offset (off center) and it was one of big hurdles to overcome . I managed to tighten the "play" of the additional gear to almost zero so that the "time lag" of the start of the minute hand after setting the time is about 10 seconds, while there are many watches which requires more than 30 seconds for the minute hand start moving.
Even with tightening the "play", special oil is used and parts worn-out is not of concern. Servicing period is expected to be 5 years, like many others.
The movement is not the thinnest in the world, and it was another issue I had to tackle. I did a few trick to make is look thinner. One of them is to make the dial domey (is this English?) or convex. See the second hand subdial. The gap on the 12h side is higher than the 6h side. BUT, the second hand subdial itself is tilted a bit to make the dial less convex to the extent the second hand never touches the dial.
Also, the center of the dial is made of ESD (Extra Super Duralumin) because it is part of the movement, to make it thinner. See that the center dial has two screw holes. So, the center is ESD, small second subdial is German Silver, and the outer of the dial is another material - could be fragile or soft material because it is pressed down firmly by the center dial which is screwed to the movement.
Second hand is made of ESD, red ink only on the top of it, not the side of it. See also the video how it is painted by hand.
Other hands are German Silver.
Accuracy is within or better than COSC standard (BUT, adjusted to SIX positions).
PPro: Now, may I start the interview? Please tell the readers of your background, history, how and why you decided to become a watchmaker and such?
HA: Sure. I actually graduated Tokyo University of the Arts, majored in Industrial Design (but studied Graphic Design as well) (Note: Tokyo University of the Arts is THE most difficult university to enter for those who want to be an artist!). After graduation, I was working freelance in the area of graphic design, mostly for advertisement. These on the wall are all my works. But that was not my real desire for life, but just doing it to make a living. My true desire was industrial design - but it is not easy to make a living doing industrial design only as freelance because it is always "project based" and income is not stable. I kept doing graphic design as the needs for advertisement is relatively constant and gave me the stable income. Also, I kept doing it to save up the capital to start the industrial design business, although I was not too certain which area or which products I wanted to do.
All his works.... actual photo + CG
PPro: When did you decide that you wanted to make watches?
HA: About 15 years ago, I was asked to design a watch. At that time, I found that it was not easy to design it without knowing the inside. So, I started to want to make watches myself. And then I started buying equipment about 10 years ago and started making watches 5 or 6 years ago. I studied how to make watches by myself by reading books. I read Daniel's "Watchmaking", too. That is a great book and I respect Mr. Daniel very much. But I think that what is written in there are all based on how watches were made 200 years ago, and I thought there could be more efficient ways today. So, I now design watches by CAD, and make parts by computerized machines and finish by hand. I experimented a lot to find out how to make it more efficient and as precise as possible. I made machines to make parts as well as to print the dial by myself. I can make all the parts here. Now I outsource the case machining (finish is done here by myself anyway), but I can make the case by myself here, too.
PPro: As for the case, you now said that it is outsourced now but are they watch parts supplier? I thought there were very few watch parts supplier in Japan
HA: No. They had never ever made any watch related parts. Just a small metal processing supplier and I just gave them the design with complete specification and they make it according to that. To be honest, I want these high quality "parts suppliers" to wake up and make something by themselves - they have equipment, technology, attention to details. They can do it. They are typically the suppliers for the big manufacturers and the demand is not strong now. I hope they do create something with their existing resource by seeing me doing it only by myself. I want Japanese craftmanship to rise again because, yes, they can.
The spring bar hole placement is well thought so that the strap doesn't touch the case and fit the curve of the wrist.
PPro: That is great. Let me ask about the progress of your watchmaking. Your officially first model was the Tourbillon model sold at Wako. What inspired that design? The appearance is similar to your first tourbillon watch, which you said you made as an experiment (who would be able to make a tourbillon watch as an experiment after only reading books?).
HA: Hmnn.... Yes, it looks like my first experimental tourbillon watch, but much higher quality and the level of perfection. The design is art deco. I wanted to make it dressy as well as weighty watch because it is not cheap and did not want those who bought it get tired of it.
His first "experimental" tourbillon..... Although it says 001/003, this is the ONLY one. Not for sale.
PPro: You said the tourbillon watch is not cheap, but normally, tourbillon watch is more expensive than yours. You put that tourbillon watch in the SS case, but there are those who prefer precious metal cases only. What do you think about it?
HA: I agree that platinum case is better as a high-end watch. But, stainless is tougher. I am sure I will make platinum case watch someday because the demand is there. Having said that, I think making watches in the precious metal cases doesn't mean much to me. There is no practical reason to do that. Pink gold may be interesting from design stand point. Also, titanium case has practical meaning to make. But platinum doesn't mean much - appearance is similar to stainless case. But then again, if I have tons of money, I want to make platinum watches and sell them and I will probably make precious metal cases on demand. Let me say this - as a material, I like stainless steel. It is a very good metal.
Tourbillon watch being assembled.
Hirota: You were making dials for certain brand. I understand that the quality of the dial you made for them was superb. At that time I didn't know what your real profession was.... How did you study or find out how to make dials? It is not so often disclosed in watchmaking books. Many independent watchmakers outsource dials, but you make by yourself.
HA: I just experimented numerous times. Information on printing dials is most scarce out there. But the result or what I found to be best is probably the same or similar to what they do in Switzerland. Of course, the ink mix must be different, though. I made the very precise dial printing machine - precision is the heart of multi-color printing.
Five times ink put!
Self-made printing machine.
And how he uses this dial printing machine....
PPro: How many can you make per month, either tourbillon or the latest one?
HA: One per month, either way.
PPro: What do you think is the difference or should be the difference between your watchmaking and Swiss watchmaking?
HA: Slightly different. Watchmaking has 300 years of history and perhaps the modern watchmaking has not been fundamentally changed since 200 years ago. In general watchmaking today is done by the modern technology, but the design, inside and outside, is almost same as 200 years ago. I believe that with today's technology, even the inside design (architecture or structure) can be slightly different or more efficient. And what I aim to achieve is making such watches. In other words, for example, there are parts that today can be made as one but still made separately - tourbillon carriage pillars, pins of the bridges, guard pin of the anchor, etc. The less parts, the better.
Self-made computerized milling machine - took him three years to make
How he actually makes the base plate (a bit longish, but very interesting)
Same machine as Mr. Daniel's.
Hirota: Your parts are very precise. Some watchmakers do not pay such attention to parts but adjust at assembling and later.
HA: I don't know how other independent watchmakers do, but I have seen the parts supplier in Swiss and they are doing pretty well. But I pay extra attention when processing the parts which requires both front and back side processing. When you flip it, it can slip or shift very slightly and that makes the parts not good enough. I use the jig for such processing only once. I throw away such jig each time in order to avoid such irregularity. I make the jig each time with the parts which finished the front side processing on it so that there is no room for error.
PPro: What is your favorite complication or you want to try next?
HA: There are complications I am interested, such as minute repeater, but I believe that it is more difficult to simplify than to complicate. So, I am rather interested in simplifying the watchmaking. I like to challenge solving the problems with simple solution.
PPro: What is your thoughts on finishing?
HA: I finish with hand but don't finish where it is uncalled for. Giving nice f inishing on where you can't see could actually cause the slight unintended "gap" from what had been carefully calculated.
PPro: Do you have any principle which you would never do or definitely do?
HA: I would not do something against the basic of horology. And I would not do unnecessary things that has nothing to do with the function of the watches.
PPro: In these two models you have made so far, is there something like Asaoka "DNA"?
HA: It may not be so obvious, but my watches will always strictly stay in the path to be the time measuring instrument. I am not interested in other gimmicks.
PPro: Thank you very much for your time today. I am looking forward to your various projects going forward. Please keep up posted.
HA: Thank you for coming and let us stay in touch.
As I said in the beginning, he is a very unique independent watchmaker. Never went to watchmaking school. Accomplished to this level by studying alone and making the tools or equipment by himself as well. Down-to-earth thoughts in terms of business as well as high hope for Japanese craftmanship. Hirota-san and I left his place very impressed. Hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I did.
Thank you, Asaoka-san and Hirota-san.
This message has been edited by KIH on 2012-12-01 07:00:11