An “affordable Chinese watch” doesn’t sound unique, but this young brand has a statement to make about the watch industry and the perception of Chinese watchmaking. Atelier Wen wants to show you, rather than tell you, the kind of quality that China is capable of, with a stunning debut collection of porcelain dial watches. Yes, it’s also about the value proposition, but founded by two Frenchmen, there’s more to the brand’s story than that — and there are few other companies out there offering the same combination of features.
Case Diameter: 39mm
Case Depth: 11.7mm
Water Resistance: 50m
Movement: Liaoning Peacock SL-3006 automatic
Notable: Atelier Wen’s white porcelain dial has a visual pop and unique look that stands out, with super-sharp, crystal-clear legibility at all times. It’s not only beautiful, but adds an element of technical interest to the whole package and is a tasteful way that emphasizes the brand’s Chinese-made concept. They are further making a statement with relatively extensive transparency about its various Chinese suppliers, and this widens the watch’s range of talking points. On top of that, overall feel and construction is satisfying and solid, and the price point is attractive.
Who It’s For: Seasoned enthusiasts will appreciate the automatic movement inside and the technical challenges of producing porcelain dials. They will also appreciate the looks, but so will just about anyone else — from fashion-conscious millennials to those who can simply admire a beautiful object of any kind. A retail price of $720 is relatively approachable for beginning and budget-conscious watch fans, but experienced collectors will be attracted to the value and product too. Styling, however, is on the formal side, so those who exclusively wear sport watches will probably look elsewhere.
Alternatives: There are a lot of options at Atelier Wen’s price point, but not many with porcelain dials, and the brand is offering strong value for its quality and features. That said, there are some comparisons to be drawn from a couple of other brands.
Porcelain and enamel are chemically different (porcelain is a type of ceramic), but they are both difficult and expensive to produce and result in elegant dial executions. They are generally considered a premium feature found on higher-end watches. Out of Scotland, anOrdain is offering in-house produced enamel dial watches with Swiss automatic movements for a pretty reasonable price of ~$1,042.
Finally, a brand called Celadon is of note not for porcelain dials, but for its “Made in China with pride” brand concept and restrained, tasteful approach at a similar price point as Atelier Wen.
A proudly made-in-China watch with an elegant porcelain dial is not the whole story of the Atelier Wen watches. Behind its features and specs is the entrepreneurship of two young Frenchmen — and a brand concept that is like a commentary on current watch industry issues.
It’s no secret that many (most) “Swiss Made” watches are in no small part reliant on the industrial capacity and lower cost of Chinese production. That means the Chinese watchmaking industry should get at least some credit for the quality that Swiss watches are lauded for, but the opposite is often the case. China has the ability to produce high-quality products, but is still battling not totally unfounded stigma associated with inexpensive, mass-produced products.
The general rise of value-focused microbrand watches in recent years is in many ways reflective of consumers’ disillusionment with the opaque Swiss industry. Atelier Wen is not the only such microbrand to offer extensive transparency, but they are one of the few that make a point of advertising being wholly made in China. This approach seems to work well in tandem with what is a clear interest of the founders in Chinese culture (the word wén refers to “culture” in Chinese and is pronounced much like “one?” in English).
Both in their early 20s, Robin Tallendier and Wilfried Buiron launched the company on Kickstarter in 2018. The New York Times reports that the two college friends both studied abroad in Beijing as business students and developed contacts in the watch industry there. Atelier Wen uses eight factories across the country, with final assembly and quality control performed by Fiyta in Shenzhen.
The automatic movement inside, of particular interest to many watch enthusiasts, is produced by the Liaoning Watch Factory, otherwise known by its more recent product rebranding as Peacock. The brand is not well known internationally, but they do some impressive work and are capable of producing complicated, well-finished movements.
With a 41-hour power reserve, the automatic SL-3006 movement is pretty simple and said to be based on an ETA 2824-2 clone, but with some notable modifications for Atelier Wen: the seconds are displayed in a subdial at 6 o’clock; the date mechanism has been removed so there is no “phantom” click at midnight and no useless crown position for it; and the movements are said to be tested for one month. The somewhat stiff feel of the crown when winding the movement manually is one of the few elements of the watch that stands out as needing some improvement.
There is no display window to view the movement, and instead the solid case back features a pretty darn cool high relief-embossed motif of the Chinese mythical animal called a Kunpeng, according to the brand. In mostly polished stainless steel with the tops of the lugs brushed, the case measures 39mm wide and 11.7mm thick, and is water-resistant to 50m. A thin bezel leaves the dial room to spread out and wear prominently.
The beautiful porcelain dial speaks for itself, but is undoubtedly best appreciated in person, with a level of contrast and texture quite unlike any other material. The text and lines are sharp, crisp, and of a brilliant blue against soft white on the model called Hao. Under an antireflective-coated, double-domed sapphire crystal, legibility is excellent.
The use of porcelain references Chinese culture and history, the material itself sometimes called china. Examples of “proto-porcelain” ceramics date to the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC), and the blue and white motif echoed on the Atelier Wen Porcelain Odyssey Hao is an iconic symbol of the country that many people around the world recognize. While the brand was conceived by Frenchmen, the designers are two young Chinese, Li Mingliang and Liu Yuguan.
The periphery of the dial features a minute track that is clearly reminiscent of Chinese latticework, and there are two Chinese characters in the seconds subdial. They refer to dawn and dusk hours in the ancient Chinese method of dividing the day, so they are not relevant to the seconds and, rather, ornamental. Atelier Wen debuted with two models, the Hao (reviewed here) and the Ji. The blue-dialed Ji model has a different dial design but similar approach.
The Atelier Wen Porcelain Odyssey Hao is an overall impressive product, and even the leather strap options it ships on are refined, featuring a buckle with mixed brushed and polished finishes (thumbs up for the blue “salmon leather” one shown here in particular). Clearly on the formal, conservative side stylistically, it nonetheless offers a bold and modern presence for a dress watch. With evident quality, this Chinese watch is impressive for its price and its porcelain dial is a delight to experience on the wrist.
Verdict: The Atelier Wen Porcelain Odyssey Hao makes an impression on first encounter but is further impressive to wear over time. The stunning texture and colors of the dial are revealed under different lighting situations. While the dial is the highlight, it’s backed up by good quality in other components, and the brand has a personality and something to say — as well as a commendable mission of championing and celebrating the best of Chinese culture. All that makes its price of $720 seem pretty reasonable and attractive.
What Others Are Saying
• “From the outset Atelier Wen are looking to create a watch and a brand that represents the very best of China, its artistry, and its expertise… The first duo of watches demonstrate bags of authentic character, and the overall attention to detail and quality is impressive.” — Brad Holmes, Worn & Wound
• “As an independent maker with a porcelain dial priced at U$720, we are hard pressed to think of co-inhabitants in the landscape.” — Peter Chong, Deployant