In our “Faces of the Industry” series, we highlight the world’s most remarkable watchmakers. In this article, we’ll be focusing on the self-taught Japanese watchmaker Hajime Asaoka. Now considered a master of his craft, he has produced some incredible timepieces. His repertoire even includes tourbillons, arguably the most difficult watch complication to produce. So let’s dive into Asaoka’s story and find out what inspired him to become a world-class watchmaker.
Hajime Asaoka was born in 1965 in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. He graduated with a degree in design from Tokyo University of the Arts in 1990 at age 25. As a trained product designer, Asaoka has always been adamant about resisting conforming to the corporate machine. That’s why he established the Hajime Asaoka Design Office in 1992. He began by designing furniture and electronic appliances. Part of his work also included laying out luxury fashion magazines. In the process, he became better acquainted with watches. By 1997, a true appreciation for the beauty of watches had blossomed, and he started spending his free time learning to build these delicate machines. He funded this new hobby by continuing his day job as a product designer. As it turned out, this was actually the start of a new career for Asaoka.
However, there were some big hurdles in Asaoka’s way: He didn’t know any Japanese watchmakers who could teach him, and he didn’t speak English well enough to turn to a foreign watchmaker. Fortunately for Asaoka, he could read enough English to make use of George Daniels’ book Watchmaking. After learning the basics, he bought the necessary watchmaking tools from DIY stores and online actions in 2002. His first proper foray involved placing a Citizen movement into a self-made watch case in 2005. Soon thereafter, Asaoka would begin focusing on watchmaking in earnest.
By 2007, he was working on his second timepiece: a tourbillon watch. This is particularly remarkable considering most watchmakers see this as the pinnacle of watchmaking. Undeterred, Asaoka demonstrated his exceptional skills and produced three prototypes. This eventually led to the Tourbillon 1 in 2011, which became the first timepiece he ever sold. The watch put Asaoka in the limelight and earned him a reputation as a rebellious and ambitious watchmaker. However, this wasn’t enough for Asaoka; he is constantly looking to improve and take things to the next level.
The Hajime Asaoka Collection
His current collection of watches consists of four main models. The first and most famous is the Tsunami, a 37-mm three-hand watch. The magic of this timepiece is on its back, where you’ll find a stunning view of the movement and its huge 15-mm balance wheel and large barrel. Asaoka designed and produced the movement himself at his Tokyo workshop.
The next model is the Hajime Asaoka Tourbillon Pura. As its name suggests, Asaoka was going for a pure and clean design. Both the front and back are extremely tidy. The focus is placed on the movement inside the 40-mm case. The Tourbillon Pura movement uses a plate to keep every component in place, thus guaranteeing greater accuracy. The tourbillon carriage is made of A7075 duralumin, a lightweight yet durable alloy also used in the aerospace industry.
The third model, the Project T Tourbillon, is also a tourbillon watch. It’s the result of a collaboration between Asaoka, Yuki Precision from the aerospace industry, and OSG – a manufacturer of high-quality tools. Their most ambitious goal was to create a movement with 13 ball bearings, including the world’s smallest ball bearing for the tourbillon. Ball bearings improve a movement’s endurance and shock resistance, which is especially important for tourbillon watches.
The final model is the Hajime Asaoka Chronograph. Asaoka is a big fan of chronograph watches from the 1950s and 1960s, so it was only a matter of time before he created his own unique version. His creation has an open dial that allows the wearer to view the chronograph mechanism at work. The contrast of a busy dial with a simple case back shows Asaoka’s out-of-the-box approach to watch design.
The Hajime Asaoka Design Style
Asaoka is the epitome of an independent watchmaker. He’s earned the respect of the entire industry and its fans, who heap praise on him for his innovative approach to watch manufacturing. Considering his background, it should come as no surprise that people also love his designs. In fact, Asaoka admits that most of his watch designs are influenced by the Art Deco movement. He stated in an interview that his Tourbillon 1 watch gets its look from the flamboyant Delage and Delahaye coupes of the 1930s. Asaoka has also cited Albert Potter – an American watchmaker who relocated to Geneva in the late 19th century – as having a major influence on his conceptual thinking for watches. All this is a testament to Asaoka’s independent spirit. It’s extraordinary characters like Hajime Asaoka that make the watch industry so exciting. In truth, we need more characters like Asaoka, who will keep pushing the boundaries of what’s imaginable.