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A Chinese watchmaker rubs shoulders with the world's finest廊桥表瞄准高端奢侈品

Buy any product that is considered a luxury item, including watches, and you can be almost certain that it will have had its genesis in the West. For decades the finely made watches of Europe, particularly from Switzerland, have stood head and shoulders over their rivals in the international high-end market.

Mi Changhong, a watchmaker in Shenzhen, wants to loosen their stranglehold by building an internationally recognized watch brand born and bred in China.

"So far, none of the Chinese watches enjoy the same brand awareness in the world market as their top European counterparts," says Mi, 45, founder and chief designer of Longio Watch. "I want to prove that China is not just a watch OEM base, but can also be the birthplace for world-class timepieces."

Far from being fanciful, that dream is on its way to being realized.

Eight years after Mi created Longio, it is becoming an increasingly sought-after brand for the elite and the fashionistas in Europe and the US as soon as one of its models hits the market.

"The number of Longio's keen collectors keeps growing," says Mi, who was relatively young and little known in the Chinese market when the watch made its debut.

Many Chinese would be surprised to learn that Longio, its metal dial engraved with the words "Made in China", is on display with the world's most luxurious watch brands in some upscale watch stores in Switzerland, he says. "We retail Longio watches exclusively to high-income groups in Europe and the US."

Each watch is individually crafted, he says, and only about 1,000 are made each year.

In Europe, the watch will set you back between 1,250 euros ($1,600) and 19,600 euros. If you want to splash out a lot more on a hand-tailored limited edition watch made of very precious materials, such as a combination of jade and gold, think in the millions.

Mi attributes Longio's appeal to European consumers to its exquisite craftsmanship, but most importantly, to the design's originality and creativity.

"My design, which is a fusion of Eastern and Western culture and aesthetic values, brings something fresh and new to shoppers in the West," Mi says, saying that many people are captivated by the watch's unique exotic beauty.

Watches with a refined dial inspired by Chinese historical anecdotes and legends, combined with very simple watch cases, are Longio's most classic design, and it became an instant hit in Europe.

To ensure every design has Longio's characteristics, Mi insists on hiring only Chinese designers, the rationale being that only Chinese can produce designs that have an authentic Chinese identity.

"Many of the world's top-brand watches have tried to apply elements of traditional Chinese culture into their design, which shows that Chinese culture is loved by people everywhere. But I think only Chinese are able to create authentic Chinese-style designs."

Mi says that people in Europe have nursed a prejudice that Chinese watchmakers are only good at making replicas of famous Swiss watch brands, but Longio's success has been a strong antidote to that idea.

He started up Longio's retail business in Europe instead of China not only because Europe has a richer and longer watch culture, but because he knows more about the European watch market and the taste of its consumers, he says.

Like most Chinese watchmakers, Longio started out as an OEM factory. Mi began to make components for European watch brands in 1996. Before Longio was born, Mi produced watches for some of the world's most luxurious brands.

"The OEM orders from those high-level overseas customers pushed us to keep upgrading our production technology to meet their strict quality requirements. It also helped us to understand trends in the international watch market, especially in Europe."

But Mi was aware that doing OEM business kept him at the bottom of the industry chain, and as the most vulnerable to market fluctuation.

"I saw many OEM factories in Shenzhen fold as the result of economic downturns or of fierce price wars. I had to evolve to survive, and as a keen lover of watches, I always dreamed of having my own brand."

A watch is not just for telling the time, but also reflects the taste of its wearer, Mi says. "I wanted to express my understanding of the perfect watch, making a timepiece that was a piece of art."

Since 2007, Longio has been invited to take part in Baselworld Watch and Jewelry Show held in Switzerland, the world's biggest trade show for watch and jewelry industries. "Through the contacts and exchanges with those internationally renowned watch manufacturers, we know better what we need to catch up."

Mi says Longio has just been invited as the only Chinese watch brand to present at the Top Marques in Monaco, the most prestigious luxury show for the world's best cars, luxury watches, yachts and jewelry, in April. "The invitation is a great recognition of the Longio brand," Mi says.

As China's demand for luxury goods continues to grow, he says, he plans to bring Longio back to his home country. "China is poised to become the world's largest luxury goods market, so it's no surprise more affluent Chinese need branded watches to reflect their status."

Mi will open his first flagship store of more than 100 square meters in Sanlitun, an upmarket shopping zone in Beijing, in January. He plans to open 20 such stores in other major Chinese cities within five years.

"As China becomes stronger, Chinese who used to be a bit shy about their culture and economy have started to feel proud to be Chinese. So despite the strong competition from Switzerland and Japan, I think this rising cultural pride will help Longio win more Chinese consumers."

2012-01-13 By Liu Lu (China Daily European Edition)

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