How to Build a Watch Brand in Hong Kong: The Story of ANICORN Watches

By Wristcheck
16 Oct 2022
5 min read

While Hong Kong is known as a city of watch fanatics, the opposite is true when it comes to the craft of watchmaking. Graphic designer-turned-watch entrepreneur Joe Kwan of ANICORN Watches sheds light on what it’s like on the other side of the divide


Despite the rows of watch shops that line its streets, and the droves of watch enthusiasts who debate the latest and flashiest releases over baskets of dim sum and drams of whisky alike, Hong Kong is no easy place to be a watchmaker. Yet there are a brave (or foolhardy) few who take the plunge, driven by passion, a desire to express themselves, or a combination of both.

Among them is Joe Kwan, a graphic designer by training who co-founded ANICORN Watches in Hong Kong in 2014. One look at the brand’s portfolio and it’s clear this isn’t one for tradition. At ANICORN, the usual facets of a watch face—hands, dials, complications—have all been subverted in one way or another. Take, for example, the debut Series 000, featuring a watch face of concentric dials that resembles a speedometer sans needle; or the minimalist Trio of Time models, where the hour numerals have been replaced variously by clock hands showing the respective time, or stacked dots, or a gradient watch face that rotates to reveal contrasting numerals printed directly onto the crystal.


Joe Kwan, a graphic designer by training, co-founded ANICORN Watches in Hong Kong in 2014 Photo: Perkin Yu/ Wristcheck


“I’m definitely not someone who has collected watches for many years, or was obsessed with horology. I began this without having any of that knowledge,” says Kwan. “I did it because my background is in branding and graphic design—I felt like serving clients was quite boring, and I wanted to prove my designs were worth something, or could tell a story.”



Indeed, Kwan’s approach at ANICORN has more in common with a sneaker or streetwear brand, where the watch acts as a vessel for experimentation and collaboration rather than an unchanging standard. The brand’s collaborations run the gamut from contemporary artists like “the crown prince of pop art”, Philip Colbert, and fêted sculptor Daniel Arsham; to a long-running series with none other than NASA—which itself has branched off into three-way co-branded designs with New York streetwear brand Staple Pigeon, and most recently, Kojima Productions, the studio founded by iconic Japanese video game designer Hideo Kojima that’s responsible for blockbuster titles like the Metal Gear Solid franchise and Death Stranding.


nasa anicorn
Photo: Perkin Yu/ Wristcheck


Another approach ANICORN borrows from the world of streetwear is the concept of a drop, where each timepiece is released as the lynchpin of a little constellation of lifestyle products that flesh out the joint vision of Kwan and his collaborating partners better than any standalone unveiling ever could. “It’s like directing a movie. With a watch you might not be able to express the breadth of the story. But with a collection with many different products, people will see it as much richer in scope.”


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This vision is realized in its fullest in the NASA x ANICORN “Mars Mission” collection, which, in addition to the timepiece itself, consisted of no less than an American football, a messenger bag, a basketball, potpourri with the supposed fragrance of Mars, stainless steel bracelets, golf balls with matching tees, and a skateboard.


Limited to 500, ANICORN Watches most recently teamed up with renowned game designer Hideo Kojima and space organization NASA to launch "SPACE LUDNES" Photo: Perkin Yu/ Wristcheck


With ANICORN’s international vision, does the fact of being based in Hong Kong express itself through Kwan’s designs at all?

“I don’t have that consideration. When you sell a watch, you might pay attention to what message the watch is trying to project—especially in terms of politics and whatnot in Hong Kong—but that’s not who I am, nor do I believe customers care about that side of things. On the contrary, it’s more important for you to accomplish a lot of things, and then for people to find out you’re a Hong Kong brand.”

Citing Kojima, Kwan says, “he does his own thing without having to overtly tell people he’s a Japanese creator. His vision in his video games is international—his story can be understood by people who aren’t Japanese. This is very important for a creator, that you’re not just talking to one group of people.”

Of course, there are the geographical advantages that come with watchmaking in Hong Kong. “Honestly many suppliers are still in quite close proximity to the city,” says Kwan. “We’ll use movements from Japan, but you’ll hardly find brands manufacturing watches there because it’s too expensive. A great thing about making watches in Hong Kong is the low cost.”


ANICORN Watches' "2BUSY" timepiece from the M/M Paris x ANICORN "2" collection Photo: Perkin Yu/ Wristcheck


And as for the typical Hong Kong consumer? “The older generation mostly look at the resell price. There’s no way around it— for example, Rolexes are seen as a way to retain value,” Kwan admits. “If you ask me, most Hong Kong watch buyers won’t look too deeply into the craftsmanship or the concept, as long as it retains value. It’s a bit better these days though—the younger crowd will be more interested in things like the movement, or the story behind the design.”

Kwan is also realistic about the ordeal of founding a watch brand in Hong Kong. “Prepare for a lot of pain [laughs]. It’s a very long process of brand-building. Creating a watch is just the tip of the iceberg. You also have to think about how to sell, how to market, how to package. That takes up around 80%25 of your time. Designing and producing the watch is actually the fastest and cheapest part. It’s never a case of ‘once you create it, they will come’.”

Yet, there’s no denying that ANICORN has bucked the trend in a city fixated on traditional symbols of value. “When I founded the brand in 2014, I really wondered if people would buy it. Now we’re at a point where we’re collaborating with creatives I really admire,” says Kwan. “None of it was planned.”