By Alec Wilmot
Wristwatches are the perfect platonic gift for workmates, friends and family at any time of year. A watch is something that’s aesthetically pleasing on the wrist – subtle enough to appeal to broad tastes whilst serving the age-old function of telling the time at a glance, but it should also have a very personal touch. You could spend countless hours trawling downtown Yangon’s retail stores for just the right timepiece and still come away unsatisfied with the choices, so, what about trying the alternative? The best way to ensure you’re getting precisely what you want is a bespoke product with end-to-end design choices that’s guaranteed to makes a statement. That’s exactly what Burma and Watches and Mandalay Watch have brought to the market.
“The idea of custom watches came into my head a few years ago, when I couldn’t find a wristwatch with Burmese numbers on the face. I knew they existed, and I really wanted one,” said Mr Charlie Artingstoll, founder of Burma Watches.
Charlie’s search led him to a watch repair shop at Sule Pagoda, where the owner told him he could make a custom Burmese watch face and then place it inside an existing piece. Charlie was thrilled as his new timepiece started catching the attention of local and foreign friends alike who all said it was the only real-life Burmese watch they’d even seen, and that they’d love to own one. Charlie, a small time businessman and entrepreneur, saw an opportunity, and soon coined “Burma Watches”. The name was chosen because the Bamar typeface would feat neatly into one line.
In 2014, Kyaw Thuya Naung was a first year student of the University of Manchester and an avid collector of wristwatches. He loved the almost surgical disassembly and repair of minute watch mechanisms, and dreamed of owning a watch company of his own one day. His first project was producing 40 wristwatches with his own 3-D designed exteriors. His friends in the UK ate it up, and he quickly found a following on social media. When Kyaw Thuya Naung returned to Myanmar, Mandalay Watch was born.
“The first forty pieces were really successful, but I realised I couldn’t keep up that energy on my own. I reached out to factories around the globe and now in Hong Kong where Mandalay Watch timepieces are constructed based on my designs, and then imported here,” Kyaw Thuya Naung said.
Mandalay Watch has put out slick video advertisements, which netted it real attention. Kyaw Thuya Naung said, “I give credit to my friend Snow Miley, she really made a masterpiece. She takes care of all the videos and they hit the internet”.
Both men had stumbled on the idea of custom local watches at approximately the same time, and both had discovered there was a fascination with Bamar numeral watch faces. Bamar faces would become the similarity between Burma and Mandalay brand watches, but the production processes are fascinatingly different.
Charlie retains just partners in Burma Watches – U Kyaw U and U Lu Maw, both older men with decades of experience in watch repair. Charlie refers to the Burma Watches process as the more ‘informal’. A custom order will come over Facebook, then, Charlie purchases a pre-made watch and has it professionally taken apart. The pieces travel to North Okkalapa where U Kyaw U and U Lu Maw do their work on the thin mental disks. They burn off all the stock paint with acids before beginning the complicated work of hand-painting Burmese numbers on the clean surface. Then, for the logo and other small parts, they brand the face using a form of linography. It’s a hot, finicky process, but results in a totally bespoke, hand made watch face for the customer.
What makes Mandalay Watch different to Burma Watches is that the body of their products, the entire exterior, are Kyaw Thuya Naung’s personal designs, mixed and matched for variety. These watches arrive in Myanmar retail ready with perfect, factory-made faces. Their face designs are beautiful and all aspects are by catalogue choice. The customer can get a sneak peek of what the product looks like once the order is made. Overall, Mandalay Watch offers a smoother couture experience while Burma Watches offers something a bit more rough-and-ready, a genuine, locally handmade souvenir, which lends authenticity, and makes Charlie’s watches popular with foreigners. What unique about Burma Watches is the service of printing your name on a personalised watch face if you want an exclusive gift. The next step, Charlie says, is working with a local leather smith to soon offer Myanmar made, genuine leather watch straps.
The two watch companies charge similar prices for their products, around K120,000, meaning customers can decide between the two both on aesthetics but also with the processes in mind. Both offer to put names on the face of the watch. Mandalay Watch is in a better position to fill bulk orders for weddings, conferences and the like, and are also pushing a line of watch straps that embrace traditional Myanmar patterns (Chate). Charlie pointed out, however, that Burma Watches’ handmades appeal to be more intricate detailing on the faces.
“It’s fine to have competition,” Charlie said. “I think the customers can see that we’re not offering the same product. There are subtle, but important, differences”.