Bill Yao, the founder of MKII Watches (started in 2002), has built a devoted following for his homage watches that are known for high standards in build quality, as well as an esthetic that respectfully pays tribute to the original while establishing its own identity. One of his most sought-after models The Kingston, an homage to the Rolex Submariner Ref. 6538 “James Bond” watch, easily fetches double its original retail price on the second-hand market.
Bill, who is based in Wayne, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, granted worn&wound an interview in between building his watches, which his fans wait months and sometimes years for. But Bill, a Wharton School grad, makes no excuses for taking the time to make sure everything is built to his very high standards and if a single part is not up to his quality standards, the watch simply will not go to market.
He began his business as an aftermarket parts maker for Seiko watches, which grew into the current custom watch business.
worn&wound: When did you have a moment where you decided that you were going to get out of investment banking and move full-time into creating your own brand of watches?
Bill Yao: I was working on my MBA when I realized that I had the opportunity to do something different.
One of the reasons that I was able to make the transition was because I had great support from my family and wife. They didn’t understand my desire or decision, but they supported it. I have always been someone that is happiest when I am making things with my hands. Investment banking is a great career but it’s far too conceptual and transaction oriented for the way my mind is wired.
There was one point late at night looking down at Sixth Avenue when I thought may be I could pick up a second job working in a local brew-pub as long as they only did their brewing in the early morning. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I guess that was the first indication that I was in the wrong career since I was already working 80 hours a week.
w&w: What are your favorite watches of the past since you have an affinity for vintage pieces? Care to share a bit about your personal collection?
BY: Favorites in no particular order are IWC Mk XI, JLC Mk XI, Seiko “Hockey Puck”, Seiko SKX007/173, original Glycine Airman, any British MOD issued Lemania Chronograph, Tudor Sub (7928), Aquastar Benthos I
Most of my vintage collection is gone now. I owned, briefly, an Omega RN issued Seamaster. This turned out to be one of the only watches that I ever made money on when I flipped it, but of course the value jumped more than a 100 fold a few years after I sold it.
I still own an NOS Smiths W10 manual winding field watch, Elgin “Bomb timer”, and want to pick up a 70s/80s US issued manual wind field watch.
w&w: Do you have a favorite MKII project and why or why not?
BY: Usually my favorite project is the latest one. This is because we normally do at least one thing for each model that puts us outside our comfort zone so that we learn something. If you made me choose I would have to say the Kingston and Paradive have been my favorites. The Kingston because it’s a watch I would have done eventually whether there was a market for it or not. Fortunately for me I wasn’t alone in my interest in that project. The downside was that I probably pushed the envelope too far on that project which led to the notorious delivery delays.
The Paradive, because it is based on my favorite military dive watch. The shape overall is as close to ideal as I have worn and seen in a tool watch.
w&w: Obviously, people in the watch community have strong feelings about homage watches. What is your personal take on when a watch is a copy vs. paying tribute? Do you really care since it seems like demand for MKII watches is so high?
BY: Yes, I have given a lot of thought about what distinguishes an homage watch from a copy.
Fundamentally the world doesn’t need another watch company. Anybody can create copies and if I didn’t feel we were adding a new chapter to the story and design of the historic references I would never have started Mk II. When we consider new projects we specifically select ones where we can add to the original design. If it’s as easy as replicating a vintage design it’s not worth our time.
I think everyone can spot a copy. It’s usually the one that kind of looks like the original but also a bit weird at the same time, like a distorted photocopy. The problem that copies run into is that that 99 percent of the time the aspect ratio has to be changed to incorporate some modern component, like the movement. When someone doesn’t take the time to carefully make those adjustments the corners they cut show through in the finished product.
When you design an homage watch correctly you end up embracing these modern components as an opportunity rather than a problem to beat into submission. Through this process of integrating modern components and manufacturing processes, a lot of yourself ends up in the design. You develop a real understanding of the key elements and essence of the vintage design.
This is key because at some point you always get to a detail that doesn’t quite fit into the story you are trying to tell and you have to decide if that element is important enough to revisit the entire design or if your version stands on its own. You know when it’s right when the watch looks like everyone imagined it should while simultaneously being different in almost every detail. If you sat one of our watches next to the vintage piece it was inspired by they would look like cousins, not twins.
When done correctly the irony is that it looks effortless and the work you put into the design is heavily discounted. Maybe that’s why so few take the time to design homage watches well.
w&w: What’s a typical workday like for you as a one-man shop? We want to know about the life of the owner of a successful watch micro brand.
BY: Running a micro-brand the way we do is more of a lifestyle than an occupation. Like any craft, whether your a programmer, lawyer, banker, or watchmaker, at some point, if you really love your work, you realize that you have to dedicate as much of your being to your craft as you can.
For me it has meant learning to be more disciplined, taking care of my body as if I were preparing for an endurance race, and constantly pushing myself to do better and work smarter.
So basically I am constantly in motion. When I am sitting still my mind usually isn’t where my body is unless I am working. As for the details I have to break up the work into desk work and bench work. I dedicate one day to bench and the next to desk work and alternate back and forth. This way everything gets done and the operations stay in balance. ”
w&w: You made a photo series about why it takes so long to make your watches. Were you simply tired of this question being raised?
BY: That was part of it. The central reason was that my wife wanted to show everyone what was really going into each watch. She basically got tired of hearing about customers that looked at us more like a McDonald’s rather than a boutique workshop. Her goal was to show everyone that cared to know that we really are putting something of ourselves into each piece we deliver.
w&w: hat’s next for MKII? Can you break some news?
BY: We have been working on something for a few years now …hopefully ready for its debut next Baselworld. We’ll definitely keep you guys in the loop.
w&w: Tell us about what you like to do outside of watches. I see you like to travel based on your blog. Where do you find inspiration for your work?
BY: I do a lot of my own cooking, baking, and hopefully I will get a chance this Fall to brew some hard cider again. As long as there isn’t a risk of loosing fingers or breaking a bone I spend most of my free time making things, learning how other types of things are made, and seeking out people that care about the craft of making every day objects.
Traveling for me is a great opportunity to see what other cultures value and what they surround themselves with in order to get the most out of their daily routines. So when I am abroad I spend most of my time visiting coffee shops, bakeries, workshops, and a variety of boutique stores to see what interesting approaches and ideas people are exploring. When I was in Paris I stumbled across that wonderful watch strap store and visited the unique Telescope cafe. During my trip to Taiwan I met with an owner of a shoe factory, a machine shop, and members of the bicycle industry.
When I travel I love to just take a long walk and look for unusual street side restaurants and boutique stores. These various vantage points provide me with a tremendous amount of inspiration and affords me a deeper appreciation of what makes American culture unique at the same time.
For more information visit mkiiwatches.com