We covered briefly the arrival and unboxing of the Kurono Chronograph 2 recently. And now bring you the detailed, hands on comprehensive review, after spending a couple of weeks with the watch.
If you have not read the arrival and unboxing article, please click on this link! In that article, we received some interesting comments on our subsequent feature of the Kurono on our Throwback Tokyo 2021: Six Most Compelling Japanese Watches article. (Edited to point to the correct article where the comments appeared). Do visit and read the comments, but it is perhaps clear that the commenters are not familiar with the work of Hajime Asaoka, and certainly none have visited or have had lengthy conversations with him. We have visited his workshop in Sibuya, Tokyo and have discussed his work with him extensively during our visits to Japan and also at Baselworld.
This is a self taught watchmaker, who willed himself the knowledge to make watches by reading the landmark book by George Daniels – Watchmaking and by watching YouTube videos. An AHCI master whose watches are highly sought after for their innovative designs as well as excellent craftsmanship, and attention to detail. Some of his earlier work is documented in these pages as:
- Introducing Hajime Asaoka – Baselworld 2014
- Asaoka Project Tsunami – Baselworld 2015
- Asoaka Chronograph – Baselworld 2017
- Asaoka Project Tsunami Deluxe Edition – Baselworld 2019
- Kurono Classic – his early foray to make his watches more accessible, as the earlier works were extremely limited in edition size, but also have a much higher price tag than the mass market that the Kurono projects are aimed at.
We are satisfied with the credentials presented by Asaoka. Since our first encounter with him in 2014, we have always been very impressed with his handmade watches. In our review of the Kurono Classic, we remarked that the watches are beacons in the world of watchmaking. Here a ultra high end independent watchmaker is doing his part to spread the cheer of beautiful watches at an affordable price. Of course, the watches are offered with mass produced Miyota movement in place of the hand made Asaoka movement. And the design features simplifications made to the case and dial. But overall, the Kurono retains the design DNA and aesthetic signature of the Asaoka watch. And here, we present the Kurono Chronograph 2, a second model after the first Chronograph, which was wildly successful and sold out in double quick time. The Chronograph 2 features a Seiko Instruments chronograph movement.
Comprehensive Review: Kurono Chronograph 2
Retail price was JPY 418,000 / USD 3,993 (approx SGD 5,700 including GST). The series is limited to 500 pieces worldwide (Including Japanese Domestic Market) of which 20% of stock will be reserved for JDM and Kurono Contributors. This sample No K231, was ordered under the allocation for Contributors.
Chronograph 1 which was released in a monochromatic colourway of either a black dial or silver dial (limited edition of 68 pieces in each dial variant). The Chronograph 2 features contrasting layers of gloss black and dark brown as its base, accentuated with a copper tachymeter scale and silver chronograph scale at its center and circumference respectively.
The case, dial and hands
The Chronograph 2 has a rather traditional round stainless steel case which is finished in a high polish. The watch measures 38mm excluding the crown/pushers and the case features a thin, concave bezel, with a raised box-style crystal over the dial. The pushers are also round pump shaped, with a large corrugated crown. The lugs extend smoothly from the case middle, which features a bombe shape with a rather pronounced convex bulge. The case is quite thick, at 13.9mm including the sapphire, and is a bit reminiscent to the Patek Philippe Ref. 3970 Perpetual Calendar Chronograph of old. Needless to say, only the shape of the case side reminds us of the legendary Patek, and only in a fleeting déjà vu moment.
The dial is rather special, in our view. The colour scheme is elegant, and refined, quite similar to the one Hajime used for the Deluxe Tsunami project, with a combination of black, dark brown and copper hues, and playing in counterpoint with bright accents of highly polished surfaces.
The placement of the tachymeter scale is rather unusual as it is a circle in the middle of the dial rather than at the outermost periphery, which is common in most chronographs. In the Kurono Chronograph 2, this tachymeter scale intersects with the elapsed time and continuous seconds sub-dials at 3 and 9 o’clock. The sub-dials are slightly recessed within the high polished steel ring which serves as a frame, and finished in concentric guilloche pattern. This contrasts to the smooth finishes of the rest of the dial. According to Hajime, this scale crossing two different finishing at two different levels require additional effort in the manufacture to ensure that the part of the tachymeter scale within the sub-dials are in alignment with the rest of the scale to prevent parallax error. As a result, the dial rejection ratio is higher than previous Kurono dials.
The hour indicators are polished steel appliqué and contrasts nicely with the gloss black and dark brown rings. The chronograph scale is made with a silver transfer print, and is placed on the dial periphery (a place usually taken by the tachymeter).
The date window features a high polish steel frame to bring even more contrast to the dial. The hour hand is a swallow shape, and the minute hand features a traditional Japanese “kyudo” arrow, and both are in high polished steel.
The Chronograph 2’s watch face is a play of elements which bring together the copper, silver, dark brown palate of the Reiwa watch, and the aesthetic is one which is very successful in our view.
The caseback of the Chronograph 2 is closed, and features just a polished stainless steel screw down cover. The key holes for opening the case is machined directly onto the case back. And in the center is engraved the the Japanese Characters “クロノ” – pronounced as kurono, or chrono. Also engraved on the back below the name is “Bunkyō Tokyo” – indicating the ward in the metropolis of Tokyo where is the place of origin. Below that is engraved “DESIGNED BY HAJIME ASAOKA” and the name of the manufacture “PRECISION WATCH TOKYO CO. LTD.” in two lines, followed by “Made in Japan”, “Water Resist 3Bar” and 24 Jewels” in three lines.
The movement within is the Seiko Instruments NE86A, which is a workhorse movement which is derived from the Caliber 6S. The 6S in an interesting movement, as it is also the base in which Seiko developed the 9R86 spring drive chronograph movement used in many of their Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph watches.
The NE86A is a newer version (introduced in 2014) of the NE88 used in many of Seiko’s chronographs as well as supplied to other maisons. The movement features a column wheel and vertical clutch. The NE86 omits the chronograph hour totalizer, and presents the display with two sub-dials. Perhaps a more retro bi-compax look. The NE designation by Seiko indicates that this is categorized as premium mechanical, and is built to an accuracy of -15 ~ +25 seconds / day (23 ± 2 ºC). Not chronometer specifications, but in the two weeks that we have had the watch, it seem to keep good time.
At this pricing level, we do not expect any embellishments on the movement finishing, but trust that the Seiko finishing is at a high engineering level. In its use in other watches, the NE86 (and NE88) have been very successful as robust workhorses.
The competitive landscape
The landscape we picture the Kurono Chronograph to feature in is one where a major high end watchmaker makes a more accessible series available to the larger collector market place.
As a quick comparison, perhaps the Seiko Presage Automatic Chronograph (EUR 2,800) featuring the 8R movement may be instructive. It might be seen as the more accessible alternative to the Grand Seiko offerings. The movement is from the same manufacture, though not the same caliber. And the aesthetics are somewhat similar, yet not the same. The case shape is mildly similar, but the dial is completely different. The 60th Anniversary Automatic Limited Edition Chronograph which we reviewed had a magnificent dial in urushi lacquer. The 8R features a 3 sub-dial layout in 3,6 9, but the markings on the dial is simpler. No tachymeter. No multi-layered finishing on the monotone dial.
Louis Erard is perhaps not a high end watchmaker, but recently, they have made several collaborations with independent watchmakers, starting with the Alain Silbertein Regulator (CHF 2,950, limited edition of 2 x 178 pieces) which met with huge success. This was followed up two years later, with the Silberstein Tryptique (3 lots of 178 models with an entry price of CHF 3,500, and a collector’s box at CHF 11,111), which we find to be rather remarkable for keeping Alain’s design DNA. We feel the Louis Erard x Vianney Halter (CHF 3,500, limited edition of 178 pieces) is perhaps less interesting as we fail to see any strong elements to suggest that Vianney had put anything but minimal effort into the project. Nonetheless, the entire subscription was sold out very quickly. And also another remarkable Louis Erard collaboration with Excellence Guilloché Main (CHF 3,900, limited edition of 99 pieces).for the magnificent M.C. Escher inspired geometric shapes on the dial. But of the Louis Erard collaboration releases so far, only the Alain Silberstein Tryptique Le Chrono Monopoussoir offers a chronograph. It retailed for a price of CHF 4,500 landing it in the same ballpark as the Kurono Chronograph 2. The Chrono Monopoussoir uses a Sellita SW500MPCa movement, which we feel is roughly similar or slightly less desirable than the NE86 used in the Kurono.
Another might be the special edition of the M.A.D. Edition 1 watch by MB&F, which is priced at only CHF 1,900. But this special watch is currently only available as a “thank you” piece offered to friends of the brand, namely suppliers and Tribe members (collectors) of MB&F, who’ve helped shape it in all its 16 years of existence. We have obtained a piece from a collector friend, and will be doing a full review soon.
And as a final inhabitant in this landscape, one might consider Tudor. The Tudor Black Bay Chronograph (SGD 6,770) is offered as a more accessible alternative to the Rolex Daytona, not only as in lower priced, but also shorter wait list. The Black Bay Chronograph movement – the Calibre MT5813 is made by Breitling as the B01, and also uses a column wheel with vertical clutch.
Overall, we are rather pleased with the Kurono Chronograph 2. The aesthetics are very nice, and the DNA touches by Hajime is evident in the watch. The Japanese aesthetic presence is strong. The colour palate is interesting and tastefully done, if a bit dark, though the hands and silvered accents do pick up light easily and provide superb contrast. The watch does not feature any lume material, and thus is not visible in darkness.
The choice of the Seiko movement is perhaps wise, as it is relatively inexpensive but well engineered and robustly built. Though we might have preferred a better finished movement, we understand that this will blow the relatively low pricing that the Chronograph 2 is targeted at. The overall build quality is very good. We think it is probably better than most Swiss watches at this price level, but perhaps it might be more polite to just say it is highly competitive.
In conclusion, perhaps we might also note that it is perhaps not a totally altruistic purpose that Hajime Asaoka conceived the idea of the more accessible Kurono series. True, this puts the Asaoka DNA in a more affordable and more available (albeit only in comparison to the handmade Asaoka). But we also see that it a means for the tiny almost one man independent to survive. As his handmade watches take a long time to complete, he needs bread and butter products to keep himself in business. Perhaps a win win win for all. For Asaoka, it is the means to flourish. For mass market collector, to have access the watches with character. And for the high end collector, to be able to continue to enjoy the handwork from his atelier.
All photographs were taken in our studio with the Hasselblad H3D-39 with HC 4/120 lens, Profoto strobes. With the exception of supplied photographs and the one of the case back.
In the Hasselblad shots, we are experimenting with a narrower depth of field, shooting the watch at f/5.6 1/750s instead of our usual f/22 1/750s. Do let us know if you prefer this shallower depth of field, or the nearly all in focus ones we typically use. Or a combination of both.
Thanks for the review on a very nice watch and the links to the other articles on Hajime Asoaka. The last picture with the black Nikomat and chronograph is very nice and appropriate (in one of the articles you wrote that Mr. Asoaka is also an avid camera collector – I liked his macro setup with Nikon PB-4 bellows and Rodenstock enlarger lens). The design of the watch is imho very Japanese with all the subtle details. I like it!
That should be Hajime Asaoka.