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Her Watch, Her Story: Sonya Yu’s Watch Collection is Not Just About Grails
Culturecheck

Her Watch, Her Story: Sonya Yu’s Watch Collection is Not Just About Grails

By Zarah Cheng
4 Jun 2024
12 min read

Creative Consultant Sonya Yu is a collector of many things and her watch collection is the stuff of legends. However, it’s more about an appreciation of time and craftsmanship than it is about acquiring “grails.”

Although timepieces had at one point in time been considered solely just thus – as keepers of time – the world of horology has evolved into something else quite entirely. Within the worlds of art, fashion and culture, watches have become zeitgeists that define the overall spirit of a moment in time. In a rather beautiful way, timepieces are able to capture a moment in the human experience, wholly separate from measured associations of time itself. Instead, watches capture the very essence and soul of a moment. They capture values that we hold. They capture us at a particular stage of our lives. They capture self-expression in a way that becomes invariably tied to identity and individuality.

Within the space of watch collectors, there is perhaps no one who understands this better than Sonya Yu, a true polymath whose extensive list of titles includes art collector, magazine editor and creative consultant, to name a few. Born in Beijing and raised in the Bay Area with humble beginnings – where her mother was a waitress and her father a legal assistant – Sonya Yu is a self-made woman who built her career and name from the ground up. 

Her Watch Her Story: Sonya You
Sonya is the founder of Four One Nine, a creative ecosystem built around an agency, as well as a stunning studio-gallery space in San Francisco / Photo: Ja Tecson

Today, Sonya is the founder of Four One Nine, a creative ecosystem built around an agency, as well as a stunning studio-gallery space in San Francisco. When asked about Four One Nine’s mission to support artists and to foster a dynamic creative ecosystem, Sonya explains that “Four One Nine was born out of a vision [she] had to bring together [her] experience in the boardrooms at successful startups, with [her] passion for uplifting artists and their voices.” 

Alongside its fully integrated physical space, Sonya’s mission to cultivate creative freedom is, at its core, all about people. “I’m a firm believer that the biggest potential for personal and creative growth can be found in the ‘gray areas’ of life, or the places in-between what you believe and what others believe about you,” she reflects. “This philosophy has driven me not only to remain curious and continue to grow personally, but also to coach other leaders in the creative space to grow as well.”

“My watches are a direct reflection of my identity and passions."

When it comes to being a purveyor of good taste, Sonya is the paradigm. The worlds of fashion, art and culture collide for the entrepreneur who is known for her impressive collection of art, sneakers and yes, also watches. Her long-standing love for horology has become an intrinsic part of her identity, a manifestation of her very spirit. “My watches are a direct reflection of my identity and passions. Each timepiece embodies thoughtfulness and meticulous attention to detail in how I choose to wear and complement them with my style,” she tells Wristcheck. “Watches help ground me, and when I look at my wrist, I’m instantly anchored to the present moment, unbothered by the digital distractions that pervade our modern lives.” 

Her Watch Her Story: Sonya You
Yu's long-standing love for horology has become an intrinsic part of her identity, a manifestation of her very spirit / Photo: Ja Tecson

Here, Sonya articulates a beautiful sentiment kept by watch collectors that often gets lost on those who are purchasing watches simply for the hype – timepieces are a representation of the wearer and a symbol of one’s personal journey and innate relationship to time. “My collections serve as a compass for me, as I’m not collecting for aesthetic purposes or just looking at price. What really stands the test of time for me is a collection that represents me and my values,” she thoughtfully explains. “Collecting watches is another form of personal expression for me, and every acquisition is a celebration of that individual pieces’ craftsmanship and creativity.” 

On the concept of time itself, Sonya also brings up an incredibly pensive point that prompted me to reflect on my own personal perception of time. “Time is the ultimate equalizer for all of us. It moves the same way for everyone regardless of gender, age, income – anything,” she reflects. “For me, watches are a respectful nod to the craft of keeping time. Any time I’m reminded of that craft through a timepiece, I feel myself tuned into time that much more acutely.” 

Her Watch Her Story Sonya Yu
Collecting watches is another form of personal expression for Yu, and every acquisition is a celebration of that individual pieces’ craftsmanship and creativity / Photo: Ja Tecson

In terms of how that translates to her perception of collecting, Sonya describes, “When you have the ability to collect something simply from a romantic point of view, that is a mark of success to me. It’s a privilege that success can afford. However, what we’re chasing most and trying to buy more of with success is time, making it truly the ultimate luxury.” 
And when it comes to questioning the status quo, this is something that Sonya does in a truly unrelenting way – inquisitive to a fault almost, but perhaps her greatest strength and why she is the successful woman that she is today. When asked about what it has been like for her to collect watches within a space that is notoriously male-dominated (her anecdote told to Hodinkee about the acquisition of her Patek Philippe Rose Gold Nautilus 5711 was appalling to say the least, but unfortunately a common occurrence for many female collectors), she recalls how her love of all things analog comes from her grandfather and how at its core, watches are part of an ongoing personal journey for her – gender be damned. 

“My journey in the watch collecting world has been Sisyphean in many ways. I have such a deep love for the geekiness of watches, and it’s really personal to me,” she explains. “I found my love for all things analog through my grandfather, who hand-made instruments and showed me the beauty of vinyl records. My love for this craft runs deep, so I feel that the best way for me to combat the judgment I face is continuing to be myself.” 

Her Watch Her Story Sonya Yu
For Yu, watch collecting is about a community that is bound together by a shared interest in preserving time / Photo: Ja Tecson

On how she reacts to women often being placed in a box – both within and without the watch industry – it is an ongoing battle, but one that she is seasoned in facing head-on. “The tendency to judge or put someone in a category is a common experience for women, especially women of color, in male-dominated spaces. I feel like we are constantly fighting for respect, only to be dismissed or judged,” she shares with familiarity. “It honestly hasn’t been easy to fight against this, but it has fueled me to show up authentically every time and nerd out over what I love. At the end of it, there should never be judgment for what anyone likes or doesn’t like. We are all here because we love watches, and they should connect us - not repel us.”

“There is no set of ‘rules’ that you have to follow, and there is absolutely no right or wrong way to get started…

For when it comes to watch collecting, at the end of the day, it is really about a community that is bound together by a shared interest in preserving time. “There is no set of ‘rules’ that you have to follow, and there is absolutely no right or wrong way to get started,” Sonya advises. “I would encourage women looking to start a collection to observe how any given piece makes them feel. Do they feel connected to a moment in time, or even a particular story about the piece? Watches are worn so close to our hearts, and often take on a different patina depending on who is wearing it. So it should be something that you connect with and that you feel good about wearing.”

Her Watch Her Story Sonya Yu
Yu's Rolex GMT-Master II "Pepsi" on Jubilee Bracelet / Photo: Ja Tecson

She also gives a gentle reminder that at the end of the day, a spirit of inquiry is absolutely vital: “As a collector of any kind, it’s so important to continuously practice curiosity. Watches not only help me learn so much about the analog world and its intricacies; but also I am constantly learning more about myself.” 

Sonya’s approach as a collector sheds light on the nuances of watch collecting in a way that creates room for much introspection. Ruminating over the notion of time as true wealth, mulling over true indicators of success – Sonya Yu truly is an empowering voice, allowing space for those around her to harness their creativity and to change the way that they perceive the world. As I reflect on our interview, one thought that I will undoubtedly take with me moving forward is to always, always stay curious. 

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