In Seoul, Watchmaking With Subtlety

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Minhoon Yoo, who introduced his first watch in February, says it’s the details that interest him.

Minhoon Yoo, a watchmaker based in Seoul, unveiled his first watch in February.
Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

SEOUL — Minhoon Yoo doesn’t think of himself as a workaholic. But his cluttered studio — which contains a 100-year-old watchmaker’s lathe machine purchased on eBay, a bevy of old-school tools and a skateboard tucked in a corner — is a second home to this 31-year-old, who has been called a rising star in independent watchmaking in South Korea.

And despite the frenetic work schedule he has kept up to fill the orders he received since unveiling his first watch on Instagram in February, he has been thinking about his next design and pondering his own ideas of what defines a South Korean watchmaker.

“People seem to expect Korean themes from Korean artists, and I’ve seen many artists paint certain traditional patterns, but I wanted to do something more subtle,” he said in a recent interview from his studio in the Seongdong area of central Seoul. “For my first watches, I added an old design element called swallowtails from the hinges of old Korean furniture.”

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Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

That abstract approach played out in his Carved Piece, a 37-millimeter manually wound watch priced at the equivalent of about $18,000 (he has sold nine and plans to deliver the first one in September or October). The swallowtails are delicately placed around the nameplate, which reads simply Minhoon Yoo, and on the serial number plate at the bottom of the dial. But the motif is most prominent on the buckle, adding a touch of sophistication to the strap.

It’s a flourish some viewers might miss, but that’s part of the point for Mr. Yoo. He is interested in details and what each person sees in his work.

“The phrase ‘the more ambiguity there is, the more rich is the conversation’ inspired me when I read that in a book in 2011,” he said, referring to a quote by the Korean media artist Nam June Paik. “With abstraction, there is more room for imagination.”

Playing with abstraction and traditional Korean décor is part of his training. Mr. Yoo enrolled in art school at Hongik University in 2010 (taking two years off for his required military service) and graduated in 2016. There, he studied South Korea’s “art furniture,” a style that has become hugely popular here and overseas. But he became more interested in the mechanics and the intricacies of design, and he found his niche in mechanical watchmaking.

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Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

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Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

“The students before me were going on to great careers in the modern furniture world in South Korea,” he said. “But I’m expressing my identity with watches the way art furniture designers are expressing theirs.”

The leap from furniture to watches began during college, when he saw a documentary about the Swiss watchmakers Philippe Dufour and Antoine Preziuso. Mr. Yoo became enthralled with their devotion to their craft, and in 2016 a professor invited Mr. Yoo to join him at the Baselworld trade fair and on a visit to the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program, best known as Wostep, a watchmaking school based in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He briefly considered enrolling in its two-year course.

“Then I thought maybe it was better to use that money to open my own workshop,” he said. “I purchased a copy of ‘Watchmaking’ by George Daniels, which I believe every watchmaker has. He is a legend.”

With that book by the British watchmaker, who many said was among the world’s best watchmakers until his death in 2011, and plenty of YouTube videos for guidance, Mr. Yoo began his journey into luxury watchmaking.

“I think I was a bit arrogant and young, and I thought I could do everything myself,” he said. “It took a lot of time to learn many things properly, especially the technical side.” Carved Piece took six years to develop, he said.

His parents, both teachers (his mother is retired) in the coastal city of Busan, where he grew up, have continued to help him emotionally and financially. “My father is still working because of me,” Mr. Yoo said with a laugh. “But now I’m starting to make money.”

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Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

With that in mind, he said he hoped that local luxury watch lovers and collectors would buy his work because South Korea imposes a large import tax of 20 percent to nearly 50 percent on watches priced at more than about $14,000. Yet, all of his first nine clients have been foreigners.

And, he estimated, it will take him almost two years to fulfill their orders. “Each watch takes about two months, but I’m expecting to increase productivity when I buy new machines,” he said. “I will do all the work alone for now to train myself better.”

Mr. Yoo buys and then modifies the ETA Peseux 7001 movement for his watches. He makes the silver dials, the hands, the click springs and the nickel-plated silver bridges.

He buys his watch cases from Germany, although he said he hoped to create his own at some point. And the straps are made by Keepiece, a company owned by Mr. Yoo’s first customer, Jarrod Cooper, a watch aficionado in Los Angeles.

Mr. Yoo does much of his work on a Schaublin-Villeneuve lathe machine, which he bought in 2015 from a seller in France for about 1,000 euros (about $1,035 now), which he said was a huge bargain.

It was just part of the good luck that he said he felt he had had all along the way. In February, he married just after he introduced Carved Piece. And, from the publicity that surrounded the debut, he said he had discovered more support.

“The amazing thing about watchmaking is that collectors also become friends and become part of the journey,” Mr. Yoo said. “They want to help new watchmakers. It’s more like an art market. They are discovering new artists.”

And now that he is in the post-discovery phase of his career, he feels it is essential to balance the demands of today and his hopes for the future.

“I have an idea for my next watch that’s inspired by the curves on traditional Korean roofs that are created using rope and gravity,” Mr. Yoo said. “I will somehow apply that idea to my next watch.”

“But first I have to deliver nine watches,” he added. “Then I can get more creative.”

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