No Time Like The Future

As one of Singapore’s leading watch retailers marks 40 years in the business, its head considers the transformations in the timepiece trade.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

As one of Singapore’s leading watch retailers marks 40 years in the business, its head considers the transformations in the timepiece trade.

For many people, joining a company when it is millions of dollars in the red, and the economy is still recovering from a major financial crisis, would hardly make for fond memories. Especially when you’re 24 years old, it is your first job and you are expected to help turn the company around as its business re-engineering manager.

Those were the circumstances facing Michael Tay, The Hour Glass’ group managing director, back in 1999 when he started out. But they are times that the 44-year-old – a perennially suited-up fixture on the watch scene – looks back on with gratitude. Speaking to The Peak in a phone interview, he recalls: “In a way, I lucked out with the Asian financial crisis. I joined the business when it was in its worst throes, and got to see the industry and the company go through some very difficult times. So, I was able to experience so much more than I would have otherwise.”

Founded by Tay’s parents Henry Tay and Jannie Chan in 1979, the luxury watch retailer celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It is marking this milestone with an exhibition (see sidebar “Time Display”), and limited-edition watches. The company has come far: Today, it has 40 boutiques in 11 cities in the Asia Pacific, and most recently posted a revenue of $720.9 million. In 2019, Tay will also mark his 20th year with The Hour Glass.

Even though these milestones seem to mark the perfect time for retrospection, Tay’s priority is the next lap. He says: “There are times you become complacent, and that’s when you start falling behind. You have to constantly forge ahead and stay focused on the future.” Here, he shares his thoughts on the transformations in the timepiece trade.

You joined The Hour Glass (THG) when it was in bad shape following the Asian financial crisis. Did that baptism of fire mean that few things could faze you thereafter?

No, you’re constantly being fazed. Just as you get comfortable, something changes. And this is why I enjoy this industry, it’s so dynamic. 

What’s the greatest change you have seen in the watch scene?

One area that has expanded is the global interest in fine watchmaking. The industry saw some of its darkest periods in the ’70s and early ’80s, during the quartz crisis. But some great stalwarts provided a flame of hope – guys like Andre Heiniger, the CEO of Rolex then; Philippe Stern, who had the mantle of Patek Philippe thrust upon him in the mid-’70s; [Swatch Group founder] Nicholas Hayek Sr, who was instrumental in combating the onslaught of the Japanese quartz watch. There was also Jean-Claude Biver, who declared that Blancpain – the brand he resuscitated then – would never make a quartz watch. 

To witness the renaissance of watchmaking in the ’90s and the early 2000s has been extremely satisfying. On our part, our mission has always been to advance watch culture. Over the last four decades, we have pursued that objective with single-mindedness and consistency. 

Some brands are looking to reduce their reliance on retailers and sell their watches on their own. Has this affected THG?

There are brands that have been streamlining their global distribution policies in favour of their own boutique network. But I will present a counterpoint to it: Two of the most successful brands today are Patek Philippe and Rolex. In Singapore, from the ’80s to the late ’90s, Rolex managed its own boutique. Its showroom was at Tong Building, selling watches directly to clients. Patek Philippe, from the early ’80s to the early 2000s, also had their own boutique at the Goodwood Park Hotel.

So two of the world’s most important watch brands, when they first entered the market, took their branding and positioning very seriously, and expressed this by opening their own flagship boutiques. But as the market matured, and their multi-brand specialist retail partners developed and grew, and improved the quality of their presentation within their own multi-brand stores, these two brands decided, “We have no desire to compete with our partners; we will close our retail boutiques, and let the specialists do what they do best.” The strategy that they have employed speaks volumes about how one can be very successful adopting a distribution strategy centred on retail specialists as long-term business partners.

THG has an upcoming anniversary exhibition, “Then Now Beyond”. You’re an art collector yourself. How do you go about building your own collection?

Art and watches are the two things I collect in depth. As with my approach to watch-collecting, I create themes and I curate exhibitions in my head. [Laughs sheepishly, and hesitates for a moment] I’m a little embarrassed to – it’s quite personal... I’ve collected around different themes, and I’m now working on the fourth theme, which is “painting after technology”. It’s about how computer technology has affected the medium of painting – because you can take a photo and manipulate the image. Andy Warhol was probably the first known artist to create a work of art with a personal computer, specifically an Apple. It raises questions like, “What is painting?” and “How does one create a painting?” I could babble on for hours about this.

Do you think watch collecting might be becoming more superficial, with the social media-fuelled culture of wrist shots?

I think people do become addicted to positive affirmation. Positive affirmation can come in many ways, and one of them comes from having people “like” an image you posted on Instagram. That’s why we think it’s important to continue to engage people and tell the real stories of watchmaking. To showcase the 600-year history of watches, and why a watch is not just a luxury object. 

We want to make sure that the new generation of enthusiasts and collectors develop connoisseurship for watchmaking. It’s not just about the next watch that is going to get you a gazillion “likes” on Instagram. 

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“Then Now Beyond“, an exhibition of temporality-themed design objects commissioned by The Hour Glass to celebrate its 40th birthday, opens on Nov 23 at the retailer’s salon Malmaison – but you probably won’t get to see at least one of the exhibits. Group MD Michael Tay reveals, somewhat cryptically: “Studio Wieki Somers has been developing an object that has never been done before and we are funding the R&D for it. They’ve been working on it for a year, and I don’t think it’ll be ready in time. But we’ll be able to present their ideas and a working prototype, hopefully.”

Good thing visitors will be able to see the rest of the exhibits, created by some of today’s biggest names in art and design: Daniel Arsham, Marc Newson and Nendo. American artist and architect Arsham explores the notions of time with his works. Having created an hourglass containing 21 million gold-coloured carbon nanoballs for The Hour Glass’ 30th anniversary, Australian industrial designer Newson now uses hand-crafted crystal and more than 2.8 million metallic nanoballs to reinterpret ancient time-measuring instruments.

And yes, there will be watches: The exhibition, which ends next Jan 31, will also showcase limited-edition pieces co-created with brands such as Audemars Piguet, De Bethune, MB&F, Tag Heuer and Longines.