Inside & Out : Kent Wang Art Deco Review
I firmly believe that all watches tell a story, regardless of brand. It doesn't matter whether the watch cost $500 or $5,000 or $50,000; when it comes down to it, they are all the same. My friends often think that because I work with luxury watches, I might look down on a piece that doesn't come from a prestigious brand, however that couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, I have my own preferences, but there are only two things that matter when considering a watch: A) Do you like it? B) Does it tell the time. Everything else is superfluous. A few weeks ago, I was given the chance to spend some time wearing the Kent Wang Art Deco watch and I think it perfectly encapsulates this feeling. Whatever the price, all that matters is the enjoyment of what's on your wrist.
In keeping with the inspiration of the Art Deco period, Kent Wang decided to utilize a manual wind movement rather than an automatic. Their reasoning behind this decision is that automatic movements were not invented till the end of the Art Deco era so by choosing a manual wind movement, this piece is somehow more faithful to the esprit de corps of Art Deco. I don't doubt their motivations, however the first automatic movement was created by John Harwood in 1923 and the Art Deco period lasted until the end of the 1940's. By this time Rolex had improved on Harwood's temperamental design and had created their Rolex Oyster Perpetual (The name perpetual came from the fact that Rolex's rotors rotated a full 360 degrees rather than the "bumper" motion of Harwood's which was limited to only 300 degrees). Perhaps this criticism is picky, as the manual wind movement does hearken back to that time period, making it an appropriate feature. The case back has a circular sapphire crystal window to the movement and the steel has no engraving whatsoever. This is where I feel Kent Wang could have placed their name on the piece without it being distracting to the aesthetic, however I respect their decision to keep it blank.
Inside the watch is a Chinese Sea-gull ST17, an originally automatic movement which has had the rotor and relevant gears removed. Whilst the exterior design of the watch (especially the dial which we'll discuss later) was influenced by Art Deco, I feel that the movement itself was lacking a little in necessary embellishment. There is a token effort of a Cote de Geneve across the main plate, however the obvious missing automatic parts distract the eye from the little decoration there is. I have no qualms with non-Swiss movements and their use in micro brands. In a watch in this price range I find that the quality of a Chinese movement will easily stand up against any ETA or Sellita equivalent. Consider that an automatic Tissot in a similar style can set you back anywhere from $450 to $1000 and that there very little differences in the movement that would impact your experience much at all, as the amount of decoration on an open backed Tissot will be very minimal. The majority of the Swiss watch industry would like you to believe that all Swiss movements are hand-crafted by a kindly old gent called Pierre who lives in a log cabin and slaves away hour after hour on your watch. This just isn't true. A friend who visited the factory of a company utilizing ETA movements said it is very much an automated assembly. Less Pierre more Pierre-Bot 5000. On the other hand, if you just have a personal issue with non-Swiss watches then I completely understand. Whether it's due to a commitment to the tradition of the industry or issues with quality then that is your prerogative.
I didn't have any issues with time keeping whilst wearing the watch and it easily lasted the stated forty hours power reserve. I will say that I did find the crown slightly sticky (technical term) whilst moving between different positions and winding. I assume that this is either an issue with my piece or perhaps just my delicate sensibilities. Something that was different to what I expected was the height and size of the piece. A height of 8.8mm doesn't sound like a great deal but for a vintage inspired piece I would have expected something more slimline. I would guess the decision to use sapphire crystal combined with the unique shape of the case added depth. Having sapphire crystal on this piece is welcome and the added height it gives is a fair comprise for long term wearers. The case size is a modern 38mm which might put off some purists however I appreciate the up-sizing for a modern consumer.
Now despite some small issues I have with the decoration of the movement, I think that the overall design of the watch is an absolute winner. The first thing that strikes you is the dial, which was designed by Art Deco expert Louise Fili, author of six books on Art Deco. The dial features an Art Deco sunrise emanating from the six o'clock position with raised ripples flooding the space. Rather than a printer effect (which I'm sure would have been cheaper), this engraving really makes the dial jump out at you from the wrist. Running round the outside of the dial is a train track minute counter framing the dial nicely which allows for more accurate time setting and is in keeping with the style of the period. The numerals are hand-lettered in Louise Fili's signature style and I especially like the overextended 4,6 & 9 which add a personal touch to the piece. Yes these numbers are printed on rather than applied which some could feel detract from the appearance however it didn't bother me at all.
Something that you might have noticed is that there no branding on the piece at all, despite there being ample space for a K.W or similar beneath the 12. This was a decision made by Kent Wang who say that "You already paid for the item - we don't need you to be a walking billboard". Whilst I like the sentiment I do fee that perhaps on this piece it does leave the center of the watch looking quite open, especially with the thin sword hands. Whilst I think the dial is probably the Kent Wang's best feature I sometimes did find it hard to distinguish between the minute and hour hands at a glance as they are of similar length and width. I would have liked to see a wider hour hand that was common of the period however one cannot ask for everything. Whilst wearing the piece and writing this article I found myself forgetting that this was a micro-brand piece and that sometimes budget and availability of parts play a significant factor in the design process. This forgetfulness of the Kent Wang's relatively humble origins was perhaps what struck me the most, as I would often find myself comparing it to pieces double its price.
Speaking of the manufacture, something that surprised me was the case. I don't know why but when I hear "micro-brand" my brain thinks of the case lacking substance. Perhaps it's my time in retail and seeing watches in a similar price range from fashion companies where base metal/low quality steel is the norm, but when it came to the Kent Wang I was surprised at how good the case was. The Art Deco features a long angular barrel shape with two steps on either side. It is uncommon to see a rectangular case nowadays for a men's watch with the only time that come to mind immediately are the Longines Evidenza Tournaeu and the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso. There are obviously more however the fact that I can't think of any off the top of my head speaks to their uncommon nature. The steeped sides draw inspiration from the glorious Art Deco skyscrapers that sprouted up in New York City during the late 1910's and 1920's.
At the time NYC zoning laws prohibited buildings to have a flat front wall past a certain height as this would block out sunlight from reaching the streets below. Architects, inspired by Mayan temples, created tired steps that went back from the street (not entirely relevant but you should all listen to Higher and Higher by the brilliant 99% Invisible podcast. It's all about the rivalry between the creators of the Chrysler building and the Manhattan Company building and their race to create the world's tallest building. It's really really good). Whilst on my wrist the sides did add a nice simple embellishment to the watch where plain flat sides wouldn't have. However, the sides are a simple embellishment and it seems that nothing about Art Deco style should be simple. The Art Deco period was all about creating eclectic designs with bold colors popping from detailed and intricate geometric shapes and not about simplicity. It would have been great to have a set of knotted lugs or detailed engraving on the steeping sides. I know it's not feasible, but that doesn't make me want them any less.
I think it is fair to say that watches are not Kent Wang's first priority as they are found listed under "Misc" on their website alongside sunglasses, umbrellas and suspenders. Kent Wang's primary focus is to be a modern haberdasher and their selection of four watches I would treat as a nice addition to their collection rather than the focal point. Having worn the watch for a week I thought it was a fantastic piece if you're looking for a time-only dress piece that doesn't cost the earth. If you're thinking of getting a cheaper fashion watch or even a Tissot/similar for a black tie event then I heartily recommend the Art Deco watch. That said, this watch isn't going to be for everyone. The formal look and intricate detail on the dial look completely out of place whilst wearing jeans and T-Shirt, so this isn't going to be your next daily beater. However the Kent Wang isn't attempting to do that. This watch was designed for event wear, like a wedding, formal dinner or a black tie event. It's rather fitting for a haberdasher to create a watch that doesn't draw attention to itself and instead is a subtle piece that can pair with a tuxedo and accent it perfectly, yet under closer inspection you can see the details that bring the piece to life.