In today’s day and age, the world seems to be getting smaller by the day. We literally can go anywhere we want, and have the world at our fingertips through the internet, smartphones and social media. This gives access to people we otherwise would never have met, and this also applies to the world of watchmaking. There are countless dedicated men and women working hard to find their place in the industry, and you just have to do some digging on social media to discover fascinating stories. Recently we’ve been interviewing several young and upcoming watchmakers, often found by chance through Instagram. And today, we add the next watchmaker to that gradually increasing list of future stars. Coming from South Korea, not the most expected place to be honest, Minhoon Yoo has been painstakingly creating his first-ever mechanical watch, the Carved Piece. This wonderful looking watch comes with a few unique touches and an abundance of handmade components and hand-applied finishing. So without further ado, let’s find out more about this young man and his work.
Minhoon, could you briefly introduce yourself to us? What is your background, where do you come from, etc?
No problem. My name is Minhoon Yoo, an independent watchmaker based in Seoul, South Korea. I was born in Busan in 1990 and moved to Seoul in 2010 with the start of my Art School education. I’ve been training and studying to craft things myself with the idea to present them as art pieces. I opened my own watchmaking studio in 2020 and since then I’m developing my very first wristwatch, called the Carved Piece.
You come from Seoul, South Korea. Can you tell us something about the watchmaking culture in your home country?
In reality, there are very few people doing independent watchmaking in South Korea. Kwanghun Hyun (@3hands_studio on Instagram) is one of them, making mechanical watches, automata, and cameras. He taught me the basics of machining and advised me which machine to buy to start making watches the right way.
There is an interesting region called ‘Jongro’, where most private watch repairs and restorers are located. If you get to South Korea, that is the place where you get a sense of the local watchmaking culture. I like to visit there to check out some vintage watches, get ideas and inspiration, and talk with old watchmakers there. They think it’s weird that I make my own watches though.
How did you get into watches and watchmaking?
When I was a student in Art school some of my seniors were having successful careers in the field of art furniture, which is expressing ideas as a form of furniture. I always thought it would be a cool job because as an artist you can express yourself through objects under your own name.
So I started to make art furniture during my studies, to be a full-time artist like those seniors. But one day I got to see the documentary of NHK about Independent watchmaking. Two watchmakers, Philippe Dufour and Antoine Preziuso were preparing for the Baselworld exhibition in the film. I was fascinated by not only their skills and dedication but also the philosophies they spoke about.
After watching it I consider a mechanical watch as a form of art and researched more about indie watchmaking. I found myself loving both the conceptual aspect of Art furniture and the technical aspect of watchmaking. Independent watchmaking seemed like a perfect path for me, so I slowly started to buy machines and books, and post some of my work on Instagram.
So at one point, it was time to start making your own watches. How did you start, and where did you find your inspiration?
Yes, I started to study watchmaking and machining while making the very first test watch based on an ST-36 mechanical movement. The ST-36 is a Chinese copy of a Unitas 6497 movement, so very big and good to start with. I already had an idea about Carved Piece back then, so I kept practising and buying the right tools to improve the quality. Since I had no one to talk to about such things, several watchmakers on Instagram, and my friend Nicholas Williams, really helped me to move forward.
I try to find my inspiration inside of me, I keep thinking of concepts I feel interested in and develop them in my mind. I start to visualize it when I can convince myself that it is worth making.
Your first watch is the Carved Piece. Can you tell us something about how that came together?
I read a book by Korean artist Nam June Paik (Korean media artist) during my military service in 2011. The phrase ‘the more ambiguity there is, the more information it has.’ inspired me to start this project. When people see abstract paintings, each individual can see different things, as everyone has his or her own perspective. So an abstract painting contains more information than just the figurative image itself. Its meaning can be expanded by the participation of observers.
(Left: Gangwon-Do wooden chest, National Folk Museum of Korea – Right: Swallows, photograph by Jongyuk Lee @thorongilstrider)
I wanted to visualize this interesting concept in the wristwatch, by replacing geometric Guilloche patterns on the dial with random hand carving. Hand-carved patterns of Carved Piece have more indeterminacy than geometric patterns. All the indices have random-style shapes to go along with the general concept of design.
Although one of the virtues of mechanical watches is precision, I hope people can see the joy of uncertainty through the Carved Piece. And since this watch is made in Korea, I added Korean traditional elements to the Carved Piece. The nameplate design is inspired by traditional Korean furniture, with a ‘swallow-tail’ style shape. In history, Korean people believed this shape brings goodness to our lives, we call this Bok.
You do a lot of work yourself. Could you elaborate on that?
I make the silver dials and hands myself, which I learned with the help of George Daniel’s book. So the structure of the silver dial has his DNA. I love white silver dials because it’s a very pure colour of the material, and very different from colours of lacquer or electroplating. I cut the hands by CNC and do all the hand-finishing myself. I try to make as many facets as possible when I design the parts because I feel the combination of well-finished parts gives depth and adds nice reflections.
On the movement side, I make bridges with Nickel silver, which gets a warm creamy colour. I like this colour also because it comes from the material itself. I designed and made a completely new style of click spring as well. I also polished the teeth of the ratchet and crown wheels and applied snailings on them. Most of the parts are polished, bevelled, and black polished on both sides.
Can you take us through some of the specs like dimensions, materials, price, etc?
Carved Piece is a time-only watch with a small second subdial. The movement is a modified Peseux 7001, which is manually wound. The watch measures 37mm in diameter and only 7.3mm in height, with 45mm lug to lug, so it wears really easy on the wrist. A lot of the components of the Carved Piece are made by me, by hand. The indices, the dial, the hands (although I use CNC machining for the general shape), the click spring, the bridges, that’s all done by me.
It comes on a black alligator leather strap with a swallow-tail shaped buckle to match the case. Each one takes two months of full-time work to complete. The cost is USD 18,000 (with a 50% deposit), which is a lot but I hope people will recognize the amount of work that goes into it.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge in creating the Carved Piece so far?
I can say two things. First, making a nickeled silver bridge for the 7001 movements. The Peseux 7001 is a very small calibre, and the thickness of bridges is less than a millimetre. It would have been easier to make the bridges with brass as nickel silver is tricky to machine without distortion and deformation. Especially with the thinness of the movement. To solve this problem my watchmaker friend Nicholas Williams flew to Korea and helped me for a month in my workshop, despite the pandemic situation.
And also Eduardo from Atelier de Chronometrie helped me with this problem by giving sound advice, so I want to say thanks to them through this article. Second, making the ticking click spring on such a thin bridge. I wanted to design it to be seen as a part of the bridge. I had to make many test springs to squeeze it onto the bridge and obtain the right amount of tension to amuse watch owners every morning. In the end, I’m happy about how they came out.
How can people get in touch for more information, or perhaps order one of your watches?
I’m currently building my own website, but that will take some time. People interested in my watches can message me through Instagram (@minhoon_yoo) or email ([email protected]). As I am mostly working on the Carved Piece, I generally answer quicker through Instagram as it is just easier.
What’s your plan for the future in watchmaking? What can we expect from you in the long run?
Since my background is in design and art, I think the inspiration and the design process are a little bit different from most watchmakers. In the future, I want to try to talk about more diverse topics and inspirations in the format of watches and I feel they will look a bit different from regular watches.
For example, in my next project, I’m planning to make watches inspired by Korean architecture. Project by project, I will make more parts in-house. I’m not obsessed with in-house itself, capacity for parts making is a tool of expression in watchmaking. I would be happy to be supported along the journey and hope some people really like what I do.
Any final thoughts to share with us?
Thank you Robin for finding my project interesting and giving me the chance to talk with watch lovers through MONOCHROME. In Korea I felt alone for a long time since there are not many people to talk to about indie watches. I feel more connected with the right people these days, I will do my best on my own work to create more interesting watches.