When you first see the Atelier Wen Perception's dial, all of the watch's other interesting features become secondary: its elegant take on the integrated-bracelet trend, the brand's controversial "proudly made in China" ethos and its exotic features — it's all overshadowed as the dial's shimmering guilloche texture steals the show. Even more stunning is its price for what it offers.
Founded by two sinophile Frenchmen, Robin Tallendier and Wilfried Buiron, Atelier Wen's second product, the Perception, offers a ton of talking points. Number one is the aforementioned real guilloche dial, produced by China's only known master of the craft — and nearly unheard of in south-of-five-figure-price territory. But how does this ambitious product and the brand's unique approach come together as a whole?
After spending some time testing the Atelier Wen Perception, here are my impressions.
At a Glance: The Atelier Wen Perception
Case Diameter: 40mm
Case Depth: 9.4mm
Water Resistance: 100m
Movement: Dandong SL1 automatic
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds
What's Good About the Atelier Wen Perception
The dial is incredible, and completely unheard of at this price
Again, this dial is utterly mesmerizing.
Guilloche (or guilloché) sometimes refers to a pattern, but in a strict sense, it's a technique of decorative machine engraving. Similar patterns on watches that don't cost five figures are usually achieved by stamping or CNC, but when you see one that's been produced in the traditional way, using a hand-operated rose engine lathe, you get it: there's nothing like the real thing.
Carved into metal (in this case, copper), the the geometric patterns of the Perception's dial come to life as they glint in different lights and angles. There are three available colors, but the version I reviewed has a pale, metallic blue finish, which can even take on the rainbow effect of oil slicks at times when it catches sunlight or colors from the environment. Try as I may to convey through pictures and words just how cool the effect is, there's nothing like seeing it in person.
In case you can't tell, I'm smitten with this dial. And aside from the guilloche texture, other elements such as the ("sunmao") Chinese lattice-style minute track, three-dimensional indices and legible, lumed hands complement it well.
The Perception's dial has an incredible story
That's the draw of the dial's visual effect, but knowing how it's made only adds to its charm. Rare and expensive, real guilloche dials are typically only found from high-end brands such as Breguet or independent watchmakers such as U.S. watchmaker JN Shapiro, for example; there probably aren't many masters of the craft in the world.
Atelier Wen's dials are made by Cheng Yucai, the only such master in China and possibly in all of Asia. Mr. Cheng is very impressive himself: completely self-taught, he designed and built his rose engine lathes from scratch, without the help of technical drawings of existing machines. His own rose engine lathes are patented.
It takes Cheng about eight hours to complete a single dial. And just to add some color to your mental image, his studio is in "an actual cave," according to Atelier Wen.
It doesn't look like a Royal Oak or Nautilus
The Royal Oak and Nautilus watches designed in the 1970s by Gerald Genta are currently the height of hype. Any watch with an integrated bracelet and even vaguely octagonal (or similarly geometric) shape is inevitably seen as drawing upon their iconic status.
Yes, the Perception is part of a current trend of such watches, but Atelier Wen managed to avoid looking like a homage. Its case shape and bracelet nod to the Patek Philippe Nautilus in particular, but other elements (not least, that dial) give the Perception a character all its own.
It nails the specs, with bonus points for thinness
Contrasting brushed and polished finishes, double-domed sapphire crystal, ample anti-reflective coating and a sport-watch-appropriate water resistance of 100m — these are all specifications that are standard among luxury watches above and below the Perceptions's price point, but they're not a given. Atelier Wen not only checks all those boxes, but further ups the proposition by using 904L stainless steel, otherwise known as Oystersteel when used by Rolex for its superior hardness and shine compared to the more common 316L variety.
Best of all, the brand managed to keep the case remarkably thin, at just 9.4mm. So many watchmakers inspired by Gerald Genta's greatest hits are distracted by the likes of integrated bracelets, octagons and exposed screws. They ignore Genta's basic tennet of thinness that makes those watches so wearable, but Atelier Wen got that right, too.
What's Not Ideal About the Atelier Wen Perception
The movement's Chinese origin will make it a tough sell for some
Fair or not, a Chinese-made product will automatically have its quality questioned by some. It's worth noting that many of your favorite products — everything from luxury watches and other premium products to low-end disposable items — likely use at least some Chinese-made parts. It's also fair to note that some of the best-known Chinese watch movements have had quality control issues.
Atelier Wen uses the extra-thin, automatic SL1588 movement from the Dandong Watch Factory. Also known as Liaoning or Peacock, this is one of the country's big watchmaking factories, often considered one of the best, but remaining little known outside of China.
The SL1588 is a version of one of Dandong's existing movements, which Atelier Wen has had especially upgraded. It now boasts tighter tolerances, improved accuracy of +/- 10 seconds per day (compared to -15/+25), regulated in five positions, a longer power reserve of 41 hours (compared to 38), Geneva stripes and perlage decoration, and a custom rotor with a black finish. You can get a partial glimpse of the movement through the window at the caseback, the remainder of which is decorated with a Chinese lion motif.
Addressing the question of quality control, Atelier Wen told me that once the watches are assembled they're subject to a week of continuous testing before being shipped out because "we noticed that most of the movement issues materialized very soon after assembly," cofounder Robin Tallendier told me. "As it is the case with any mechanical watches, we still anticipate a small 2-3% defect rate and we have ordered more than enough spare parts to deal with it properly."
The movement's country of origin doesn't bother me, and I've been impressed with some Peacock watch movements I've previously encountered. Further I didn't experience any movement issues with the watch I tested, and I actually find that the movement makes the watch more interesting. But there was one feature that bugged me...
A non-hacking movement
Hacking? That means, that when you pull out the crown to set the time, the seconds hand stops. Lacking this ability isn't a dealbreaker, but hacking is a handy feature I've come to expect in modern watches; I like to set the time with the seconds hand at zero and the minute hand as centered on an index as possible. It's also useful when photographing your watch if you want the hands to stay in place (say, at 10:10) or take a long-exposure #lumeshot.
There are perfectly respectable watches without a hacking feature (the venerated Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711 before 2019, for example), but I tend to think of sub-$100 Seiko 5s. I write it off as a quirk in the Perception, but the watch would be improved with hacking.
It was difficult to get the bracelet and strap to fit well
I should mention that I tested a prototype, and the brand assures me that it's taking steps to address these issues in production models going forward. But I need to mention my experience.
I have some tools and experience in sizing watch bracelets, but they weren't sufficient in the case of the Perception. Though not my first such experience in watches, I eventually gave up on the bracelet when its pins didn't budge. Luckily, changing to the supplied rubber strap via the quick-change system (requiring no tools) was a breeze. Unfortunately, even on the last hole, the strap was a bit too long for my skinny 6.5-inch wrist.
Atelier Wen Perception: The Verdict
This is a watch full of talking points, quirks and impressive qualities. In the end, I understand those who feel hesitation about dropping more than $2,000 on a watch with an unfamiliar movement. But with the brand's openness it doesn't feel like a gamble, and considering all that it offers, the Atelier Wen Perception seems like a remarkable value.
For those that are drawn to its dial, story, style and other qualities, I see no red flags that should stop you from pulling the trigger. I'd love to add one to my own collection, despite not being especially enthusiastic about the luxury sport watch trend myself. It's a watch that feels special for a host of reasons, but it'll be that dial that takes your breath away on a regular basis.
The next run of the Atelier Wen Perception will be of 100 examples, and is expected in late 2022.