Ming Thein: the photographer who refused the watchmaker’s title
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Plenty of people get their first taste of work with the McDonalds fast-food chain. But when Ming Thein took a job there in his early 20s, he was not flipping burgers — he was running the entire Malaysian operation.
If that sounds remarkably precocious, it pales into insignificance compared with his other achievements. Thein won a place at Oxford university when he was 13 and graduated with a degree in theoretical physics little more than three years later.
A decade of lucrative employment followed, but Thein came to realise the corporate world was not for him. So he sought to combine a flair for business strategy with his twin passions of photography and horology. Now, he is the name, face and designer behind a watch brand that, in four short years, has grown into one of the sector’s most talked about new arrivals.
Called simply Ming, its models first became commercially available in 2017 after Thein and five fellow enthusiasts set out to make and sell the type of watches that they liked, but struggled to find elsewhere.
The inaugural Ming 17.01, which was funded entirely by Thein and two of the other partners, was priced at SFr900 and offered for sale through the brand’s website in three batches of 100. The first reportedly sold out within three hours, and the remaining two batches in 90 seconds each.
The subsequent publicity led to the brand’s second model, the 19.01, being nominated for the Petite Aiguille award at the 2018 edition of the prestigious Grand Prix d’Horlogerie De Genève — the Oscars of the watch world. The 17.06 ‘Copper’ went on to win the ‘Horological Revelation’ prize the following year, and the 18.01 model was nominated in the ‘Diver’ category at the 2020 event.
“I think we just came out with the right product at the right time,” says Thein, speaking on a Zoom call from his home in Kuala Lumpur. “People were bored with what was available and they recognised that, with the 17.01, we had tried to put more into a watch at that price level than would normally be expected. The intention was to offer an original, high-value watch with a price tag of SFr900 — which we achieved, but only because we lost money on every one we made. We just didn’t appreciate the overheads associated with running a watch company.”
As a result, new offerings in Ming line have become gradually more expensive, with the most recent model — the 50-piece 20.11 ‘Mosaic’ released last year — costing SFr14,500 on account of its titanium case, bespoke Schwartz-Etienne skeleton movement and sapphire dial with a 3D laser mosaic pattern.
The fact that it, too, quickly sold out demonstrates that collectors recognise quality in Ming watches. According to Thein, some have been willing to pay up to $50,000 for the brand’s very limited “special project” pieces, such as the 20.09 Tourbillon and 19.CR chronograph — although there have been complaints about delivery hold-ups which are caused, in part, by the business being run remotely from Malaysia.
“From the very beginning, we have been completely transparent about the fact that we are not watchmakers,” says Thein. “I design everything with input from the rest of the team, and the watches are made and assembled in Switzerland with final quality control happening back in Malaysia. It can be a long process, because the finished product might be the result of 50 or 60 design drawings — one of our main barometers is the level of excitement we feel for a certain piece. We won’t make something we don’t believe in, because we know it would lack integrity.”
Thein, who still creates designs using pen and paper as well as higher-tech methods, says there are currently “50 or 60” new Ming models under consideration, some of which feature “very strange and unconventional construction”. He also hinted that some future Ming watches might incorporate rare, vintage movements.
According to Thein, Ming has sold around 3,500 watches this year and is confident about the brand’s future — although he finds the excitement in sectors of the market a little unsettling.
“At the moment, there seems to be a sort of hysteria around a lot of the things that I am interested in, not just watches but cars, cigars, bicycle components, anything,” Thein observes. “Things have become very heightened as a result of social media and, when I see examples of our 17.01 trading for five times what they originally cost, for example, I don’t feel comfortable.
“To me, that seems high. I think we have to continue being conservative and proceed with caution.”
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