The world of watchmaking is as wide as it is deep and, to me, an absolutely fascinating place. And while we can’t (or won’t) cover all of it, there are still hidden gems to be discovered. Newcomers like Aaron Sarauer or Minhoon Yoo, for instance, or even watchmakers that we haven’t come across before but have been working for years already. And with such a global environment to play around in, it’s inevitable to come across some unusual and provocative watchmaking styles. The latest indie watchmaker we will be introducing is Artur Akmaev, who ventured into watchmaking in the late 2000s. His work sits on the more expressive end of the spectrum, taking inspiration from comic books and video games, among other things. But don’t think this is childish watchmaking here, as there’s a ton of artistry and craftsmanship involved. To top it all off, we also learn about Artur Akmaev’s latest collection, called Carbon.
Artur, can you introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Artur Akmaev. I am a craftsman and a wristwatch designer. I was born in Moscow, Russia, in the 1980s. I was raised along with my two siblings by working-class parents. I went to a public school. Thanks to my parents, I was introduced to art at a very early age. I remember going to museums and art galleries before I even had my first LEGO set (which I desperately requested). I took art classes in middle school, made a lot of progress, and continued with evening classes. I learned painting, sculpting, and architecture.
Meanwhile, my grades were good, and I was good at physics and drafting. I took jewellery classes in high school, where I was first introduced to hand engraving. At age 19 in 2007, I went to Kosygin State University of Applied Arts in Moscow. My major was Art of Fashion Design and Accessories.
How did you get into watchmaking? What sparked your interest?
My first introduction to the watch industry started after I’d finished my first year of university. Before working on watches in high school and early in university, I worked on jewellery design and production. The production process started simple. I would receive an order for a piece that was already designed and modelled for mass production. All I had to do was go to a jewellery casting shop, pick up models from brochures, set stones and polish them. This was fine for a while, but then I got very bored and frankly demotivated. I like jewellery, and especially designing it, but I also wanted to produce it from scratch.
In 2008, while a student at university, I managed to have a flexible schedule that allowed me to have a part-time job without losing my scholarship, which was crucial to me. I had the opportunity to take a position as an engraver and work with watches, a brand-new product for me. A local watch atelier in Moscow was very interested in my engraving skills and offered me an apprenticeship. I learned the basics of watchmaking and began developing my engraving skills to be applied to watch components. Within the first year, I mainly learned about the mechanics of watch parts, assembly, and regulation.
I somehow knew it was a good opportunity to learn those skills besides focusing only on engraving. My duties at the atelier were mainly polishing, fixing, and refinishing cases and bracelets. Sometimes, I cleaned up dials and hands. And the rest of the time, I was practising engraving on a whole movement. After about six months, I finally got a chance to have one of my watches put together. It looked amazing! Yes, there were guys who were way ahead of me and also far more experienced. But I think that was the moment when I had a feeling of fulfilment and a sense of achievement that I used to get from traditional jewellery. There’s something magical about jewellery that’s mechanical and functional. And that’s when engraving on a timepiece became an obsession.
When I first started with watches, it was my hand engraving on jewellery that got my foot in the door. After years of learning and experimenting, I raised it to the level where I can do it on watches, whether it’s a little movement component or a dial. I use high-tech microscopes. This allows me to do hand engraving that is so detailed and meticulously cut. It can be viewed by a client using a 10x loupe. Even the most well-trained eye would see that I’m exceptionally clean, detailed, and consistent.
How would you describe your watchmaking style?
In my designs, I find that watches are a way for me to tell a story. Handmade watches, by nature, are timeless and a great medium for big ideas. In addition to a design concept, the process from conception to design to the fine craft details is a story too. My timepieces have elements of overarching artistic concepts and themes, handiwork skills, and a high-touch process from start to finish. I pay attention to the tiniest detail. I make sure I’m always bringing not just functionality but also aesthetic uniqueness. I want to create a watch that can tell more about a person who wears it than any other watch. Hand engraving plays a big part in it. I think that’s what distinguishes me from other watchmakers.
How did you learn the skills to make your own watches, dials etc.?
I started travelling in 2010. I learned English and communicated with people from other countries. I think that gave me a little push to think more outside the box. At that moment, I already knew how to work with some manual and automatic movements. The next step was to find reliable suppliers. My first few watches had cases of my own design; they were nicely machined. But unfortunately, I had to put aside that idea because it was too labour-intensive. I would have to charge a lot more money, and I thought it wasn’t the way to start. So I found a supplier in Germany, and since then, I have been working with them. Movements I knew were going to be a Swiss ETA; I had worked with those movements for so long that I knew how to take them apart, decorate, engrave, skeletonize and put them all together so they not only ran smoothly but also looked fabulous.
I received some publicity for the very first time in 2015 when Karel Bachand of ablogtowatch.com published a nice piece on my work. This was when I was still back in Moscow, so the article was published when it was nighttime, and I remember the next morning very well. I received a large number of emails. It took me a few days just to sort the ideas out. A lot of them were so interesting that I spent a good chunk of my time reading and researching them. For example, I had an order to make a watch with the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Together with the client, we designed a very special watch with a lot of interesting details.
I made a lot of drawings that year. And after a while, I had to learn how to use computer programmes for illustrators. Eventually, that experience helped me to figure out how to transfer my drawings on watch parts and dials much quicker and more efficiently.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
Primarily I’m inspired by practicing my craft. I’m energised by the process of combining materials, techniques, colours, and elaborate hand engraving into a piece. There’s always something new. At the start of a project, it’s exciting to take an unexpected design concept and see how it can adapted to a wristwatch. At the end of the process, I get joy from a completed product ready for a luxury magazine, useful to anyone who might wear it.
I also learn a lot from my clients and the projects they suggest. It’s been a pleasure to work so closely with individual clients on bespoke watches. I take notes and sometimes make quick sketches every time I learn something interesting or new. It can be after going to museums, live shows, concerts, movies and music. I go through my notes every once in a while and see if any of those ideas are ready to be transformed into a watch. I check out other artists and watchmakers on Instagram, what they do, and where they find their inspiration. Also, another source I should mention is going out in nature; hiking can be very refreshing. I clear my mind and think of something that I usually don’t have time for. Luckily I live in Santa Monica, California. There are many places that you can go and enjoy wildlife – and get away from the city noise.
Your Epic Fan collection is all about comic books and the superhero universe. How did that collection come to life?
That can be a very long answer, but I’ll try my best to be concise. It all started with the Batman watch. This was the very first watch I made for myself, and I still wear it. As I was learning English back in Russia, I was watching a lot of movies in English. A favourite was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. That movie made such a huge impression on me; the script, the city of Chicago, actors, music, costumes, dialogue, and how the movie could have so many little details that I was able to discover after a few times of watching. So for me, it’s a piece of art, a well-oiled machine with zero backlash.
Coincidentally, at that period of time, I was thinking of making a watch that could represent my craftsmanship ability, engraving skills, and artistic vision of making unique timepieces. I am a Batman fan, even though comic culture wasn’t a big part of my life, but I did love watching DC animated cartoons when I was a kid. It didn’t take me long to decide to make the Batman watch. Because I was making it for myself, I made it as personal as I wanted. That watch became my portfolio piece. I was showing that watch and saying, “Here is what I can do”. When I moved to the US in 2016, over the years, I made a few upgrades to that watch. Since my skills were improving, I thought the watch should display that.
The other watch from that collection is called Epic Team, with the most influential heroes from Marvel. Only one was made. It was a very special project and super fun to work on. I made a lot of drawings and also read all the iconic books like ‘The Big 3’ and ‘Infinity Gauntlet.’ I wanted that watch to look like a page from a comic book, colourful and full of action!
The Ancient Asia collection is another striking range of watches. Can you tell us more?
This collection started a long time ago when I was thinking of making a traditional dragon hand-engraved watch. As I was researching, it seemed almost every watch brand has a dragon watch, and I wanted to make one, but in a way where I can tell a story within it. Years went by, and I moved to the US, where I got one of my first orders to engrave a vintage pocket watch. It had a hunter case, so there was plenty of room. The inspiration was the Japanese art of woodblocks with images of floral elements and traditional temple architecture. While working on sketches, researching and reading about ancient Asian culture, I learned about the koi fish and their cultural role and symbolism.
When designing watches and ideas, I often talk with my sister, Dinara Akmaeva. She is a very talented artist and painter. She is always excited to listen when I share new projects. So I talked to her about this pocket watch project and the koi fish as a symbol of luck, prosperity, and good fortune, and also of perseverance in the face of adversity. About a week later, she sent me a few of her ideas with the koi fish on a watch dial. And somehow, naturally, after the pocket watch project was finished, I started working on the koi fish watch. It was the first design that became a series of its own. I called it Dancing River. Dinara helped me to make a very fine and detailed painting. I made a few more versions with slightly different colour combinations. And I have more orders coming in.
I felt very good about this collection and decided to have another look at the dragon watch idea. I shared with Dinara all my previous ideas and new thoughts that came along. We came up together with the design. I must say it looked much easier than the watch I eventually produced. That watch felt special from the very beginning. I was very happy and grateful to have the dragon watch competing in the Fondation du Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève 2022.
And what about the Press Start Vol. 3?
Who didn’t play video games when growing up? For me, this series was all about nostalgia. This is a very fun collection of watches I made that was also pretty challenging. How do you transfer little coloured characters that are moving simultaneously and sometimes chaotically on a black screen into a watch? Without losing a sense of action? That was my challenge: each watch required a different approach to its creation. I like them all, for sure!
The Tanchiki (tanks) watch was based on the Battle City video game. It was the first video game I played endlessly. This was around the time when computer clubs were introduced in Moscow, and we kids were gathering there after school. I should mention Dinara again. At the same university where I went years before, Dinara was working on a jewellery collection as a part of her diploma project, for which she made a few watch designs. One of them was based on the Battle City game. She did all the drawings and renderings, and then I made the watch. She successfully presented it at her diploma gala. And after that, I kept the watch for my collection. The other two watches were made exclusively, limited 1/1, for a customer who was also obsessed with video games that captured his attention and imagination.
Not too long ago, you introduced the Carbon collection, which takes things in a much more traditional direction. What can you tell us about that?
For years I was making unique custom watches. Every one of them is exclusive, sometimes very personalised and specific. I very much enjoy working that way. I know that each piece I make has its own story and identification. However, I recently discovered that it is helpful to have a foundation-level watch. And that’s how I started the Carbon collection. This design is a bit more traditional but still includes hand engraving that demonstrates my skill and a high level of finishing work. Since the design has been established, it helps to standardise the production process.
The first series in this collection has a lepidodendron bark texture on the main portion of the dial. Lepidodendron is an extinct lycopod plant, it thrived during the Carboniferous period. These plants were the size of trees we have today, but unlike the trees, their bark was covered with diamond-shaped leaf scars. You may ask how I learned about this. And the answer is simple: from one of my clients. He is an archaeologist, and I am very happy to have delivered his watch as the very first of the collection.
The first series of the Carbon collection has a multi-layered dial. The centre section has the tree bark hand engraving, as does the hour ring that goes on top. I offer different colours and metals for both parts. Also, there are different surface treatments, such as sunbeam graining, frosting, and whitening. Further, solid rose gold hands with black polished top surface. It has a stainless steel case, 39m in diameter. I use a Swiss ETA 2824 movement with the highest-grade machine finishing. I plan to continue this series with the tree bark for one more season and with some different experiments in metal.
You also work for and with Josh Shapiro, known for his guilloché dials. Is there a connection with the Carbon collection?
Yes, I work part-time for Josh Shapiro. We started to work together back in 2018. I did a lot of finishing work on his Infinity series watches. And when it was requested by a customer, I did hand engraving. While working for Josh, I’m learning a lot about high-end finishing, working with manual watchmaker machines and operating a fibre laser marking machine. Of course, all that experience helps me to enhance my watch projects and allows me to use more tools for expressing my artistic vision through my watches.
I would also like to mention David Walter (a clock- and watchmaker from Santa Barbara). I met him many years ago, the same day I met Josh. Within the first few years of living in the US, I had an opportunity to spend some time at his shop, learning as much as I could. Also, I will never forget that when I started settling my business in the United States, he presented me with a few of his tools. I am very grateful for his influence on me. I do work with him sometimes on his remarkable projects, helping with finishing and hand engraving.
Another person who I would like to mention is Jeff Park. He is a very talented artist, one of the best hand engravers out there and a very friendly person living in Arizona. I took a week of individual classes with him in 2022, and that helped me to take a big step up in my engraving techniques and productivity.
What’s on the horizon for you as a watchmaker?
I’m going to stick to committing to very high-quality work and professionalism. Right now, I am focused on how I can expand my options for the movements and cases. I want to keep creating pieces of quality and have access to the appropriate components. I will be working on a new series for the Carbon collection. I have a few collaboration projects coming up soon, too! There’s still room for me to take my watches as a whole to a higher level.
How can people get in touch to learn more or get a hold of one of your watches?
I am usually online, uploading content to my Instagram. I recently set up a few cameras that can record videos of me engraving, hoping the content is interesting to a wide audience. I can be reached out there on IG and also through my website ArturAkmaev.com. I always try to reply as quickly as I can. The Carbon collection is going well; I am happy to offer that as quick as 4-6 weeks lead time. Also, I do take orders for custom watches with unique designs; those take much longer to have ready to deliver.