By: Jeffrey P. Hess
In the current world of horology - or rather what passes for horology in this modern day world of what is more often closer to branding than science - Mr. Kiu Tai Yu stands out in a most unusual fashion. An unassuming man whose humble roots are in a small village of Suzhou (near Shanghai) in China, Mr. Kiu's intense passion for horology is pure and all encompassing. He can speak for hours about the finer points of his first passion - watch collecting. He collects (and buys and sells) not just for fun and profit, but because he is a student of horology. He learns from collecting, he says - and he collects all things fine and wonderful - but he has a special interest in Asian market pocket watches. Mr. Kiu speaks with great passion when he reminisces wistfully of the rare "World Time" wristwatch by Patek Philippe and Louis Cottier that he once owned a few years back. The watch, complete with enamel map in the center, was being shopped throughout Asia and thought to be a counterfeit. The owners of the watch thought that they might sell it to a novice collector and happened upon Mr. Kiu. Kiu, upon careful examination of the watch, drew upon his many years as a collector and bought it anyway. He purchased the watch and made a very tidy profit selling it at auction for over one million dollars. The businessman inside Mr. Kiu is very happy, but the collector and horologist inside him is sorry that he does not still own it.
The businessman in Mr. Kiu has always been secondary to the passionate Mr. Kiu. In fact, he is not just a watch collector/dealer; on the contrary. Mr. Kiu is part inventor and part artist, part historian and part scientist. Born in 1945, Kiu was surrounded by fine art and collectables. His parents, he told me, were antique dealers and artists in their own right, who dealt in many things but who specialized in Asian antiques. Kiu immediately took a keen interest in the old pocket watches that he saw laying around and at the age of 16 bought his first one. He soon began taking them apart and fixing them. He says he began fixing watched that were brought to him from neighbors and friend and classmates - and this, coupled with his natural curiosity and artistic background, made him decide to start making watches himself. He then honed his jewelry-making skills when working at a factory that made, among other things, medals for Mao Tse-tung. Eventually he built his own watch entirely by hand when he was just 23 years old. When he moved to Hong Kong in 1991, he continued to make a name for himself in watchmaking and collecting circles while secretly perfecting his pet project: the first tourbillon made entirely by hand in Asia. The genius that is Mr. Kiu, was able to make, in his own self-taught way, a tourbillon (a watch that previously was only made by Europeans). He has since made 16 of them, each proudly numbered on the dial and each one slightly better or more interesting than the last. His style has an Asian flair that reflects his own inner flamboyance as well as his artistic/scientific background. His current watches, of the 16 he's made, have fancy scrolled lugs as well as his signature lettering or red enameling on the sides or on the dial. But inside the watches is where the fun begins. Each tourbillon is unique. Each one is better or different from the last. What amazed the watch world in 1991, a simple (if that word can be used here) tourbillon has been improved upon to the point that his last one is an astonishing feat. Number 16 is a flying mystery tourbillon, without visible bridge or carriage. And that is not enough, the carriage is adorned with two fish! Mr. Kiu explains that fish are considered lucky and able to bring good fortune and balanced life in Asian culture - and because of his background and his heavy following in Japan, fish were his first choice to be seen swimming 'round and 'round his tourbillon. My favorite watch of Kiu's, however, may be number 11, made in 1996. This is a long rectangular model that was the first to sport the double fish, and also has the distinction of having a jumping hour! Number 4, made in 1994, had a double-dial configuration. Number 9 had a single bridge. Number 12, made in 1999, had a six second turn so that every ten turns equaled one minute. Number 12 was voted "Watch of the Year" in 1997 and was the first second-hand carriage tourbillon. The list goes on and on. Mr. Kiu loves to talk about watches in general, whether his own or antiques. He cites Abraham Louis Breguet as his major influence, saying with great reverence that Breguet seemed to "conjure up things out of the air." While Kiu, modestly, points out that he only improves upon what Breguet did 200 years ago.
And what is Mr. Kiu working on presently? Surprisingly, he is working on a limited-edition watch that will NOT be a tourbillon. And when Mr. Kiu says limited, he MEANS limited! He is creating a new automatic watch, which will be produced in 20 examples each of white gold, yellow gold, pink gold and platinum. Mr. Kiu says that he will NEVER produce a steel watch and is only making these non-tourbillons for his many friends who want one of his watches but couldn't have one. (Kiu says he receives thousands of requests each year for one of his watches and feels bad that he cannot provide them.)
He also remains active in the ACHI, the Academy of Independent Horologists, showing off his latest creations in a small and very modest portion of the booth at the Basel Fair, alongside Vincent Calabrese and Svend Andersen (who once made a pilgrimage to Kiu's small shop) and other independent geniuses who have yet to sell out to the big Geneva conglomerates.
Kiu also still enjoys simply buying and selling old pocket and wrist watches, setting up from time to time at watch fairs and shows, where passers-by often glance at his case full of old timepieces and idly dicker with quiet the Asian man behind the counter. All the while, they have no conception that this man behind the counter is a genius, once called the "Virtuoso if tourbillons."