In Wrist Watch — our monthly column dedicated to “watch spotting” in the wild — resident horology enthusiast Randy Lai chats to key individuals whose collections exhibit some aspect of excellence (e.g. craft, rarity, historicity). Earlier this May, during a routine stopover in Shanghai, Randy sat down with Austen Chu: one of Instagram’s biggest watch collecting personalities (where he goes by the handle @horoloupe); and an authority on all things Audemars Piguet. Needless to say, when Chu agreed to share a selection of his favourite pieces with us, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. Buckle up readers: this might just be the most “hype” collection we’ve seen so far.
Even as recently as 10 years ago, the watch industry’s profile of China might as well have been drawn with crayon. In the early 2000s, the country’s rampant culture of “gift giving” — amongst certain unsavoury plutocratic elements — dictated what Swiss watchmakers sold on the Mainland; and the resulting image of the country’s consumer was far from flattering. Fortunately, time (no pun intended) has played a transformative role. Far from the stodgy fifty-somethings who were once the bread and butter of luxury watch brands; the Chinese collector of the 21st century is proving to be well-informed, cosmopolitan and (increasingly) millennial. Such adjectives incidentally describe Austen Chu: the 23-year old entrepreneur behind Horoloupe (a haute horlogerie-focused Instagram account with 103,000 followers); and a founding member of the Shanghai Watch Gang. “Relative to other markets, the Chinese learn and develop extremely quickly,” says Chu. “30 years ago there was nothing. Now they’re collecting AP, Patek and Richard Mille.”
Among the most influential voices in this emerging subset of collectors, Chu became interested in fine watchmaking relatively early on (he began collecting at the age of 17). He has amassed an international following over the years: thanks to an almost-exclusive focus on complicated Swiss timepieces — openworked AP chronographs, ultrathin Patek QPs, tourbillons — and a tone of voice which is celebratory rather than pontificating. Of course, the inexorable rise of Instagram — Great Firewall be damned — has also helped. The eponymous platform (along with local equivalents like Weibo) has given brands the intel they need to adapt in the world’s most turbulent and ephemeral luxury market.
“Changes in taste that take approximately five to six years in the West only require one or two here,” says Chu. “I think that boils down to social media. If you look at platforms like Facebook and Instagram, the conversation is essentially dominated by four brands — AP, Patek, Rolex and Richard Mille.” When asked about the important role he’s played in shaping said conversation, Chu remains grounded. “I honestly just buy what I like,” he opines. “It just so happens to be the stuff that serious collectors want or that’s cool.” Below, Chu takes us on a victory lap of his remarkable collection.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Tourbillon Chronograph Openworked (self-winding)
“This watch is extremely special to me. Not only does it showcase the pinnacle of what AP can achieve in terms of design and movement architecture, but it also shows the rest of the watchmaking world how forward thinking they are as a brand — constantly pushing boundaries in design and form. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that no one does openworked watches quite like AP: the peripheral rotor, which is visible on the dial, makes this the first ever self-winding Royal Oak Concept. What makes this piece even more special is that it made its global premiere through my Instagram: I believe this marked the first time that AP broke a new release via a collector, rather than through traditional press channels. This thing is seriously wearable in almost any situation: from bungee-jumping in Whistler to snowboarding across the slopes of Mt. Niseko.”
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar (in black ceramic)
“The watch I own that probably gets the most wrist time. Why? It’s simple, it’s durable, practically scratch-proof; and relatively low key because of the black ceramic case. What’s doubly impressive is how the quality of AP’s finishing (on the case and bracelet) manages to make the ceramic look and feel like a precious metal. The whole piece retains a shine that I haven’t seen in any other ceramic watches made by other brands. Given the right environmental lighting, it actually appears silverish/light gray.”
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “A-Series” (Ref. 5402ST)
“This watch signalled a paradigm shift throughout the entire industry. For those who know, the 5402ST was the first ever Royal Oak; and back then it was priced higher than a solid gold Rolex dress watch. I was lucky enough to have recently procured a 5402 A-Series, with its original box and papers — all verified by the AP Museum. One of the reasons why I love this watch so much is because of the dial: it’s aged from the original dark blue tone to a very even grey. This might have something to do with the fact that this particular Royal Oak was initially sold to Ahmed Seddiqi, and since the sun in the Middle East is so powerful, UV rays might have aged the dial in this very particular way.”
Patek Philippe Nautilus Perpetual Calendar (Ref. 5740)
“A timepiece that needs no introduction, the 5740 is significant for being the most complicated sports watch ever produced by Patek. The blue dial is stunning and this reference finally sees the transition from the traditional single clasp folding bracelet to a double! Both the case and bracelet are made from 18k white gold, and one of the main reasons why I love this material is because it oxidizes over time — giving a unique champagne hue.”
Hamilton Jazzmaster Face 2 Face
“This Hamilton was my first foray into mechanical watchmaking. I started making money when I was 15 and remember buying this watch a year later. At the time, it cost 70 percent of all the money I’d saved up but was the catalyst that ignited my passion for watch collecting. I distinctly remember it being the first watch I ever saw which gave me a burning, almost “high school crush” sensation and that drove me to purchase it, no matter the price.”