Thursday, 2 April 2015

Up Close With The Hajime Asaoka Tourbillon #1 (With Original Photos, Review & Price)

Designed and produced almost entirely by one man in a home workshop, the Tourbillon #1 was Hajime Asaoka's first timepiece and proof that is he one of the best emerging independent watchmakers.

Hajime Asaoka is a remarkably accomplished watchmaker, despite having no formal training. Working from a converted apartment, he learnt the craft from books, taught himself machining and created his first watch six years ago, the Tourbillon #1 (which was also the base for his collaboration with artist Takeshi Murakami). 

Hand-wound with a one minute tourbillon, the Tourbillon #1 set the template for the rest of his timepieces, boasting careful hand-finishing, precise machining and an unusual Art Deco inspired aesthetic. More importantly, it proves what a motivated and talented individual can accomplish with minimal training or equipment.

Asaoka makes most of his watches himself, including the movement, case, dial, hands and crown. Amongst the few components he does not manufacture are the crystal, jewels and strap. A common thread that runs through the entire watch is impressively precise machining, even for small parts, an achievement that's all the more remarkable considering Asaoka makes them in a studio apartment that's been converted into a workshop. (I visited his workshop in 2012.)

[Ed's note: This watch is owned by a collector, and not a factory fresh specimen, explaining some of the wear and tear in the photos.]

The dial has an obvious Art Deco influence, with vertically stepped hour markers that bring to mind skyscrapers. While most of his watches have black dials, this particular specimen of the Tourbillon #1 has an green lacquered dial decorated with a pinstripe guilloche.

The perfectly defined shape of the 12 o'clock marker.

And look at the razor sharp edges of the hour hand

Notice the transition from flat to rounded for the central strut of the tourbillon bridge

Especially notable is the tourbillon bridge, not the flat portion that makes up most of it, but the rounded bar in the middle. Despite its simple appearance, it is a complex part to machine, because of the narrow space in between each strut of the bridge.

The tourbillon itself is relatively conventional, a one-minute tourbillon with a three-armed cage. It's decorated carefully, right down to the components that are barely visible, like the bridge for the escape wheel.

The escape wheel bridge below is bevelled and polished

Each of the arms of the tourbillon cage are rounded and polished

The rear of the watch presents a more traditional appearance. With the graceful, flowing lines characteristic of pocket watches, the bridges are made of untreated German silver and finished with striping and anglage, or bevelled and polished edges.

The finishing is excellent, with proper treatment of each component. The polished bevels on the German silver bridges are wide and mirror-polished to a degree that is impossible to achieve mechanically.

What is particularly interesting, however, is Asaoka's use of precision machine in conjunction with traditional hand-finishing. The inner rim of the gears, along with their spokes, appear to be bevelled and polished, but exceptionally close inspection reveals that the inner edge has been bevelled by machine, and then polished. That gives the inner rims of the gears an unusually well defined edge.

The care in the finishing is evident even in the most obscure locations in the movement.

Lightly polished teeth on the barrel ratchet with well spaced pearling on the plate beside it

The underside of the tourbillon carriage

The watch case is also the product of fine machining, with the carefully milled relief logo on the crown serving as a good example.

The lines of the case, where the lug meets the case band for instance, are likewise well defined.

With the weakness of the Japanese yen, the Tourbillon #1 is comparatively affordable, retailing for ¥6.925 million, equivalent to about US$57,000 at today's rates. The Tourbillon #1 is available from the Wako department store in Ginza, Tokyo, or from Asaoka himself.

Osaka further refined his approach with the second tourbillon he made, the Project T. That is  made with even more sophisticated machining, with Asaoka recruiting some of Japan's best machining specialists to make the tooling and parts for the Project T.