Review: Atelier Wen Porcelain Odyssey “Ji”

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Rallying against the smoke and mirrors of the luxury watch industry in a slightly unconventional and indirect way, Atelier Wen is the creation of two friends and business partners looking to celebrate Chinese horology. Robin Tallendier and Wilfried Buiron met while studying in England, and they, along with designers Li Mingliang and Liu Yuguan, have combined their horological passion and business acumen to develop a brand they hope one day will come to represent “the new Chinese chic.”

We’ve seen countless new watch brands aiming to “disrupt the industry” with promises to offer the same luxury Swiss materials at a fraction of the cost by “cutting out the middle-man.” Although Atelier Wen are, in part, waging the same war, they are doing so with refreshing honesty—they aim to source the best components and skills in China, and then couple that with cultural influence and inspiration to match.

Today I’m taking a closer look at one of the two watches that make up the debut “Porcelain Odyssey” series. As you’re right to expect, both watches feature a porcelain dial in either white (the “Hao”) or blue (the “Ji”) as an unmistakably Chinese prominent feature. Let’s dive right in.

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$488

Review: Atelier Wen Porcelain Odyssey “Ji”

Case
Stainless Steel
Movement
Liaoning Peacock SL-3006
Dial
Blue or White Porcelain
Lume
n/a
Lens
Sapphire with A/R
Strap
Leather (faux gator)
Water Resistance
5 atm
Dimensions
39mm x 48mm
Thickness
11.7mm
Lug Width
20mm
Crown
Push/Pull
Warranty
Yes – 2 Years
Price
$488

The case of the Ji is styled as you would probably expect from a modern dress watch. There are clean lines, sharp angles and a pleasing mixture of brushed and polished finishes. The lugs in particular are vertically brushed across the top with a sharp angled chamfer—all aiding the case’s sleek, modern look.

A sub-40mm diameter is important given the expanse and prominence of the dial, and the lug-to-lug length comes in at just under 48 millimeters. Much like the finishing on the case, these dimensions are indicative of a contemporary dress watch. 

The thickness of the case, however, is a little less common for a dress watch. Standing at 11.7 millimeters, that height comes in part from the porcelain dial itself, and also from the sub-seconds module added to the automatic movement inside. In profile, some of that height is broken up visually with a lip towards the case back and by the contour of the bezel as it slopes toward the domed sapphire. The single continuous surface from the top lug to the bottom has a pleasing, slender shape to it, but in total the case feels a little too thick for a watch with such a dressy dial.

The case back can’t be faulted. Flip the Ji over and a deep stamping of the Kun Peng—a mythical giant fish transforming into a great bird—fills the expanse of the solid case back with great detail. Of course, a watch is never likely to be purchased for the case back alone, but this case back is definitely worthy of note.

At forefront of the design is the decision to use a porcelain dial across the series. Porcelain is distinctly Chinese, but it’s also an excellent aesthetic choice for a dial, particularly on a dress watch. Much like enamel, porcelain does not absorb light in the same way as many other materials do, so the depth of color and the way the light plays with the dial is often a bit more extreme. On the blue-dialed Ji, for example, I have found that the reflections of the dot indices appear across the dial, creating the illusion that the indices are floating above the brilliant blue.

The downside of using porcelain is that the firing process leads to imperfections, fragility, and ultimately waste—again, much like enamel. The Ji has the additional complexity of cutting small holes to seat the rhodium-plated markers. Any mistakes along the way means that you have to start from scratch.

But even with all that, the use of porcelain is undeniably stunning. What we have here is a deep and vibrant blue base that offers a very strong contrast against the polished indices and crisp white printing. The blue might have been overbearing if not broken up by the sub-seconds in the lower half of the dial and the inner “sector” ring that it interrupts. If the presence of porcelain doesn’t offer enough of a Chinese feel, then the sub-dial markings and minutes track push it further—and it’s all done without it feeling gimmicky. The sub-dial at six o’clock features the eight trigram lines from the Taoist Bagua, as well as the characters for Earth/North, Fire/East, Sky/South and Water/West.

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The leaf hour and minute hands are in keeping with a classically-styled dress watch and their appearance is dictated to a large extent by how the light washes across them, either appearing as dark silhouettes against the brilliant blue, or shining along with the applied indices. The small seconds hand is very simple in comparison to its surroundings.

The domed sapphire crystal has been given several layers of internal anti-reflective coating, which helps to combat the effects of the dial itself. The crystal and dial do remain reflective to a degree, but considering the choice of material and intended effects of that material I’m willing to forgo a little bit of legibility here.
Inside the Ji is the Liaoning Peacock SL-3006—a caliber chosen for its Chinese origins, as well as for its hand post positions. The base of the movement is the SL-3000, which is essentially a clone of the ETA 2824-2. Here, there is the addition of a module to switch from the seconds hand from the central position down to sub-seconds dial at six. Such a module adds approximately 1 millimeter to the height of the movement and ultimately to the whole package. Atelier Wen have also worked with Liaoning Peacock to remove the date wheel and associated crown position and for each movement to undergo a month of testing to ensure it meets requirement.

I haven’t had any prior experience with this movement, but over a few days the timekeeping has been well within its listed spec of +/- 10 seconds per day. Much like the ETA caliber on which it is based, the SL-3006 beats at 28,800 bph and has a power reserve of around 40 hours.

The strap here is a dark blue leather (also available is gray nubuck) of reasonable quality, and it features quick release spring bars. With such a vibrant blue dial and overall tone of the watch, I would expect strap choices to be limited to dressier leather options. Fortunately, the standard 20-millimeter lug width will help facilitate a lot of options. Complementing the color of the dial without taking any focus away from that blue porcelain could be a tough balancing act. Atelier Wen hope to be able to include a blue salmon leather strap when the final watches ship next year.

Many formal watches can be dressed down with the right strap pairing, but in all honesty that’s going to be difficult with the Ji. The dial is so ornate that I suspect it would stand out if paired with more casual attire and in informal situations.

On the wrist the Ji feels comfortable. The downward taper of the lugs helps the watch hug my wrist, but if your wrist is significantly smaller than seven inches, then I would expect that the profile and lug-to-lug length might not prove to be such a good fit. Although I mentioned above that the watch is slightly taller than expected, it doesn’t feel that way when worn and fits comfortably under a shirt cuff.

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. There is a small niggle in my mind that the use of a movement which started out as a copy of a Swiss caliber hinders that aim slightly and is also a contributing factor to the thickness, but the desire for an automatic caliber that can be revised to work with the dial design doesn’t leave too many options in the targeted price bracket. The rest of the watch acts as a platform to show off the skills and influences that were such a big influence for the brand.

The first duo of watches demonstrate bags of authentic character, and the overall attention to detail and quality is impressive for the Kickstarter launch price of $488. The showcase porcelain dial is what sets this watch apart, but ultimately what also precludes the Ji from being a more versatile, everyday sort of watch. But If you are after a bold, modern dress watch, then it’s certainly worthy of consideration. Atelier Wen via Kickstarter

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Brad stumbled into the watch world in 2011 and has been falling down the rabbit hole ever since. Based in London, Brad's interests lie in anything that ticks, sweeps or hums and is slightly off the beaten track.
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