An Interview with Bill Yao of MKII

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Li's first watch was a $105 Seiko 5 dress watch. That purchase started his obsession, though he has since moved a bit more upmarket. Today, Li is a fanatic for Seiko divers, both vintage and new, with a special appreciation for the Seiko Marinemaster 300m.
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  • I’m going to have to come back and read this interview fully because I think Mr. Yao is a legend.

  • alvinschang

    Really appreciate and enjoy Bill’s workmanship. W&W, thanks for the interview. Just a heads up: a few typos in your story!

  • BigZippo77

    I pulled my pre-order on the stingray 2 because the bezel on my paradive broke and Bill refused to repair it under warranty stating that I must have done something wrong on my end. I pulled my pre-order and sold the paradive never looked back since. The watch was nice but the customer service was lacking.. very lacking. Also the wait times and lack of communication was horrible. Because of this I’ll never buy another MKII watch or recommend it to anyone else.

    • palmenta

      how did it break?

    • Billykirk2

      Can I have his stingray II spot?

    • thievesarmy

      sounds very fishy since there haven’t been any pre-orders for Stingray 2 yet…

  • JayDub

    The first link in this article is messed up.

  • Chromejob

    I joined the Mk II customer family when I received my Kingston. I’d lusted for a ETA 2893-based LRRP but resisted, and I now clearly see the error of my decision. The Kingston is stunning, particularly its gloss black dial and gilt markings.

    After the Kingston, I’ve bought a Nassau “3-6-9” and a LE PMWF Graywater (2893-based Paradive variant). All are stunning watches, illustrating the meticulous attention to detail and QC that Mr. Yao exercises. Lately, both the Nassau and Graywater are barely +/- 2 secs/day, and within 0.5 sec/day of each other.

    I have to say that the “notorious delivery delays” for the Kingston were partly due to the Mk II’s high standards for perfection. A lesser watchsmith might’ve released product with compromises or options eliminated to maintain schedule. Mr. Yao stayed the course and kept his high standards, even when the production run was clearly becoming an ordeal. The Kingston was available with two bezel options, two dial options, two hand sets (rhodium or gilt), and IIRC two date wheel options. Result: beautiful watches that rival their antecedents or contemporaries. The appearance of each Kingston I’ve seen has been extraordinary.

    I’m confident that we’ll be hearing more of Mk II in the years to come. Those of us who have his early mods, his LRRPs, Stingrays, and forum specials will be in possession of historic items from a top-tier watch brand.

    • Jcp311

      “I have to say that the “notorious delivery delays” for the Kingston were partly due to the Mk II’s high standards for perfection. A lesser watchsmith might’ve released product with compromises or options eliminated to maintain schedule. ”

      Well there’s a false dichotomy if there ever was one. There are brands on par with MkII that don’t invoke images of horological sadism with their wait times. I have a mkii, but I don’t know if I’ll ever wait as long as I did for one again.

      The man clearly has a captive audience and sells what he makes/assembles.

  • thievesarmy

    Personally I like homages because the designs are all iconic classics. With new original designs, it can be hit or miss. Maybe some are looking for originality but for me, give me something that has stood the test of time. That’s how a WATCH should be after all.

  • Chromejob

    Clearly, homage models aren’t your cuppa tea. That said, if an original design is your bag, look for pics of the Graywater on WFWF and Watchuseek. Its DNA comes from a variety of historic models, but stands on its own as a military/UDT/aviator style timepiece.

    • Ilya Ryvin

      If you look at older timepieces you’ll see a pretty big overlap of design, likely the result of brands sharing suppliers. You could almost say brands were “inadvertently” paying homage to one another, yet today we don’t knock these older watches for being “rip-offs.” In fact, many of these same watches are often highly prized. The reason for this, IMHO, is that companies were still largely making quality timepieces, regardless of any similarity in design or aesthetic. Today, we have countless cheap homage brands floating around to the point of saturation. I totally understand the aversion to these watches.

      However, MKII is not one of those brands. With many of his releases, Bill has managed to take iconic designs (of often hard-to-get pieces) and make them his own, and doing so without cutting corners. All parts are built from the ground up, each made precisely to Bill’s high standards. I’d be proud to wear a MKII on my wrist.

  • Nard Dog

    I’d love to see them bring the Blackwater back. The Paradive is just too big for my tastes.

  • Blaise Wilson Brennan

    Typo: [W]hat’s next for MKII? Can you break some news?

  • Never really understood the MKII fascination. Wait 6 months to a year for what is essentially a $1000-$2000 Rolex copy with an off-the-shelf movement. With a little shopping around, you can pick up a pre-owned, serviced Tudor Submariner for about $2K or a vintage Rolex 14060 no-date for about $1000 more. Or you can go buy a brand new Steinhart for about $500 if you’re dead set on a “looks like a Rolex but isn’t a Rolex” . I understand that the fit and finish of Yao’s offerings are remarkable, but it would be great to see some truly original designs that are a departure from the ordinary.

  • FullCommunism

    I’ve never seen a micro brand owner with so much contempt for his customers.

    • canali

      i disagree….think it’s very insightful and responsible what they did….and i don’t find anything contemptible in the excerpt….he was trying to show in detail why they can get behind schdules…not many people understand this whole process….i certainly don’t.

      ———-

      “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.

  • Jesper_SB

    A big thank you to Mr.Bill Yao for creating such interesting and affordable time pieces. I appreciate why the question about homage vs. copy had to be asked, but it’s almost an insult to somebody like Mr. Yao. A man who takes his product and our passion for timepieces seriously, and has absolutely nothing in common with cheap, IP infringing Chinese copies of ex. Rolex. Keep up the good work Mr. Yao, I hope to own one of your fine watches one day.

  • MikeD

    I do have to stand up for Bill for a moment about customer service. Customer service is something that is extremely tough to do properly in this technology age. The internet has caused small business to almost fear their customers since with a few clicks of a mouse you can definitely hurt a business for really no apparent reason. Just recently we experienced a customer who received a gift for christmas that came from our company. They posted some extremely negative items on a forum, but none of it was accurate – all of it was a complete misunderstanding due to email replies going into to junk mail. There is nothing we can do now since the damage is already done, but do not always trust online reviews. Of course consistent bad one’s that may be a different story – but one single outlier?

    I have owned quite a few watches in my time and I currently own three MKII’s. All are excellent build quality and I feel very happy with my purchase. The only thing I am disappointed about is that I really want that white faced kingston now (in the pictures above)!!?? LOL

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