Japanese watchmaking isn’t just about efficiency. Masahiro Kikuno’s creations are about translating complex ideas into watches.
By now, you’ve probably heard of ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,’ the hit Netflix series about a woman who’s so good at keeping things neat that she inspired an entire slew of long-form essays, parody videos, and reactions all over the net.
Marie Kondo encourages you to ask yourself if something sparks joy. And if it doesn’t, you just get rid of it. Fair enough.
The Japanese have this reputation for restraint, simplicity, being obsessed with minimalism. And that’s partly true. That’s where all this comes from, anyway. It helps that Marie Kondo backs this up with her neatly trimmed bangs and a penchant for wearing white, which she somehow keeps clean the entire time she’s sifting through other people’s clutter.
You’ll see hints of this in Japanese watchmaking as well. Sometimes, their watchmakers do things that are extremely detailed, yet are still focused on the essentials of watchmaking: accuracy, craftsmanship, and beauty in simplicity. Take Seiko and the crazy amount of fine detail they include in every Grand Seiko, and of course, in lower-cost timepieces like the Starlight, a watch with a dial that’s based on a whisky cocktail that resembles the night sky. That’s how obsessed they are with elevating simplicity. The watches are highly detailed, finely engineered, but never seem excessive.
But even such a country, with its restraint and minimalism, has its breakout ideas, its own wild genius. In the same way Marie Kondo is the poster girl for making do with less, Masahiro Kikuno is a watchmaker that takes complex ideas, profound philosophical concepts, and watchmaking rocket science, then makes them all fit on your wrist. Still, somehow, just like Seiko, they never seem to look excessive.
Kikuno became famous in the watchmaking world in 2011, when he presented three of his timepieces at Baselworld, one of which was a perpetual calendar. He was only 28.
If you know anything about perpetual calendars (you can read about them in this entry of Watches and the Pedestrian), you’ll understand just how big a deal this is. Perpetual calendars are some of the hardest complications to make, and only the most distinguished watch houses can even produce them.
And get this: all of Masahiro Kikuno’s watches are handmade. He has no CNC machines at all, which means he has to cut and engrave and bevel everything completely by hand, without the aid of computer-guided machines. Think about that.
What was I doing when I was 28? That’s right: not making perpetual calendars by hand in my backyard.
So, do his watches spark joy? If you have a few million yen lying around, yeah, they will. They’re highly complex pieces that somehow get shoved into a tiny package. Just look at his work:
Before the introduction of Western standard timekeeping in the 16th century, Japanese traditional timekeeping was the norm in the country. It was a complex system where each day only had 12 temporal hours: six hours from morning to sunset and six from sunset to morning. However, as the seasons went by, each hour would naturally “stretch” or “contract” because of the longer daylight time during spring and summer and then the longer nights in autumn and winter. Antique Japanese clocks used different ways to adjust the hours: moveable hour indicators, replaceable clock faces, and so on.
Masahiro Kikuno recreates this system in a modern watch. The hour indicators automatically move and adjust to the varying hours, each one attached to an arm. A single cam controls these arms, and the cam’s movement will remain accurate throughout the year.
So, how does this work for people who live outside of Japan, where the length of days will be different? Masahiro Kikuno adjusts the groove of the cam, depending on the latitude of each buyer’s home country.
The watch’s name literally means both the new and full moon: “saku” being the new moon and “bou” the full moon.
Okay. So sure, this is a moonphase. That’s not much different from other moonphases on the market. But the idea behind the Sakubou itself it what makes it special. Look at the dial. There are no numbers, no minute indicators. Only studs to mark the hours set against a dial with leaves engraved by Masahiro Kikuno himself.
The watch is meant to be a nostalgic piece. In Kikuno’s description, today’s world is so full of lights that we forget to look at the moon: once the main source of light in the evening, the way to tell tides, and a source of inspiration.
It’s also meant to age with the user. The copper alloy acquires a patina over time, and this, along with the gradually changing cycle of the moonphase, makes you reflect on the process of aging itself.
Masahiro Kikuno describes the watch like this: “The Sakubou will let you feel the art and beauty in the ‘aging’ process. Which is not the deterioration but the change caused by the time passing, just like us.”
It gives you a different perspective on today’s society, where new and right-out-of-the-box are always better. This watch is meant to get old. It doesn’t come with a haiku, but if Kikuno’s description doesn’t get to you, then 5-7-5 lines of prose won’t do much to change that anyway.
This is probably one of the wildest of his creations.
Kikuno had always wanted to build an automaton and a repeater into one of his watches but could never figure out a way to do it. One day, he took a break and stayed in a small countryside inn. That was when he saw an origami crane. It was made of glass, but the style was drawn from the traditional paper-folding art of the Japanese.
The idea stuck with him and he decided to start working on a moving crane for his new watch, as well as a repeater, which is a complication that uses small chimes to tell the time by sound. Upon pressing a pusher at the side of the watch, the crane moves around and flaps its wings, and the repeater strikes out the hours. Again, all of this is made by hand, adding another level of complexity to two complications that are already difficult to create.
Without a massive factory, without computer-assisted cutting, without even any significant marketing to back him at all, Masahiro Kikuno is one of the watchmaking world’s modern rock stars. And even if his watches don’t spark joy in you, they’re going to make waves (tsunamis!) for a long while to come.
Aurelio Icasiano III has been in media for 14 years: as a television producer and writer, travel correspondent, book editor, and as editor of an internationally-awarded men’s lifestyle magazine. He runs an electrical construction company by day but spends all too much time thinking about the next story.