Jiro Katayama’s Otsuka Lotec Watches Focus on Mechanics
Some watch designers are inspired by the grand beauty and rich history of mechanical watches. But for Jiro Katayama, a Tokyo-based watch designer, it is all about the gears and pinions, elements of the industrial world where he began his career.
That influence — from growing up in car-crazy Japan of the 1980s to the instruments he encountered in automotive design school and his jobs with Lexus and other Japanese automakers — helped Mr. Katayama create Otsuka Lotec watches in 2000 as part of a design business, pivoting to just watch production in 2012.
During the next 10 years he made 400 watches by himself — the internal mechanisms, cases, hands and dials — but customers had to wait as long as two years for delivery.
To speed his output, Mr. Katayama, 52, joined forces this year with Precision Watch Tokyo, which assists watchmakers with production, sales and repairs. He now is working with three of its employees to produce about 15 watches a month, trying to keep up with demand for the brand’s two current models: upgraded versions of his No. 7.5 and No. 6 designs.
“Jiro hits multiple spots in the Venn diagram of horology,” Phillip Toledano, a visual artist and watch enthusiast based in New York, wrote in an email. “For me, he is like a one-man show creating interesting designs with amazing typography and at a seemingly implausible price.”
The brand’s typography is part of its overall industrial approach. For the company logo, for example, Mr. Katayama said he used a font from 20th-century German engraving machines, and characters on the No. 6 dial were inspired by Japan’s highway signs.
The approach might seem unorthodox, but “I’m not from a watch background,” he said. “I don’t get inspiration from vintage watches but more from mechanisms, such as cars, trains, airplanes, all kinds of vehicles and objects.”
Mr. Katayama earned a vocational degree in automotive design from the Tokyo Communication Art Training School and then worked for many years in the auto industry, including at Lexus, where he helped design the Lexus IS from 1998 to 2000. He also designed motorcycle helmets for the Japanese company OGK and household items for several companies.
Then, “I bought a bench lathe machine in 2008 because I wanted to create something new,” he said. “I couldn’t create a car by myself, but I realized that I could create a watch.”
His company, Otsuka Lotec, is a combination of Otsuka, the neighborhood location of his workshop, and the Japanese word for low-tech.
In the brand’s early days, Mr. Katayama made single copies of his No. 1 through No. 4 designs, creating only some visible parts, like the hands. Then, beginning with No. 5, also introduced in 2012, he began to make internal parts — the painstaking work that slowed production so significantly.
Why did he focus on enhancing two older models this year?
“I wanted to improve the quality of my current designs after joining Precision Watch Tokyo,” he said. “Starting next year, I want to gradually start working on new models.”
The upgraded No. 7.5, released in June, added Mr. Katayama’s design for a jumping hour module — a feature that makes the hour hand “jump” to the next numeral rather than move slowly through the period — to the watch’s Miyota 82S5 movement. It also replaced the original mineral glass crystal with a sapphire glass and engraved the brand’s logo on the strap buckle.
The design of the 7.5, inspired by an old 8-millimeter hand-held movie camera that Mr. Katayama owns, was not changed in the upgrade. The 40-millimeter watch still has three porthole-like windows, with the hour display at 10 o’clock, the minute shown on a rotating disk at 2 o’clock, and the second disk at the 6 o’clock position. And its stainless-steel surface and black calf leather strap add to the vintage camera look.
The watch is priced at 297,000 yen, or $1,990; all Otsuka Lotec watches are sold through the company website.
The revised No. 6, a 42.6-millimeter piece whose design was influenced by an air pressure gauge, is scheduled for release in December, priced at ¥385,000. The changes include an upgraded stainless steel case and sapphire crystal rather than a mineral glass crystal.
First introduced in 2015, the watch shows hours and minutes across the top half of the dial, with 0 to 60 for minutes and 0 to 12 for hours, a retrograde display in which the hands move in arcs, like on a speedometer, rather than entirely circling the dial.
While his No. 5 and No. 7 are no longer being produced, Mr. Katayama said they, too, may be revived at some point.
The watchmaker said he wants to continue his hands-on approach to production and maintain a personal connection with customers, even if he has to add workers.
“People show off their cars and their watches, and all product designers want to show off their products,” Mr. Katayama said.