Whenever I would pick up my pen to write a piece on watches, I felt somewhat bitter. I would start thinking, ‘It would be great if we had our own awesome watch brand.’ Germany, Japan, the US, not to mention Switzerland - the ultimate powerhouse for watches - all have great watch brands with instantly recognizable names.Our country, on the other hand, is almost a wasteland when it comes to the watchmaking industry. Tucked away between world-famous brands from all over the world, Korean watch brands had been withering away. Not anymore. We now have an oasis in these barren wastelands. A Korean watchmaker insisting on selling “Made in Korea” products has appeared on the market.This oasis of a company looking to breathe some new life into the Korean watchmaking industry is Harriot. Buoyed by joy and anticipation, I went to interview Hong Seong-jo, the CEO of Harriot. Following is a Q&A from my interview with Hong Seong-jo./Hong Seong-jo (CEO of Harriot) stands in front of a showcase for Harriot watches. You've dove into the world of watchmaking in Korea, which is widely regarded as a wasteland when it comes to watchmaking. What spurred that decision?Originally, I started out looking to do business in fashion, not watches. I majored in fashion marketing, worked for Ralph Lauren Korea for a while, then I left to start my own fashion company. Perhaps because of my experience with Ralph Lauren, I wanted to sell other fashion items and accessories along with my clothes even if I did continue my fashion business. As I was looking for fashion items that would go well with my clothes, I came across a watch brand called Daniel Wellington.At the time, Daniel Wellington was an unfamiliar brand. When I would Google “Daniel Wellington” back then, the search results would turn up only a few images posted by bloggers. Nevertheless, I liked the Daniel Wellington’s concept as a brand, so I contacted them. After that, I started buying a small inventory of watches to retail in Korea. That was how my journey with watches began. For two years, I ran my fashion business alongside my watch business.But soon, I realized that only my revenue stream from watches was trending upwards. My fashion business was struggling. Assessing the situation, I thought I should focus my attention on the successful branch of my business. So, I closed down my fashion business and started to concentrate my resources in watches. Although my watch business began with myself importing and distributing watches from overseas brands in Korea, today I own my own brand named “Harriot.” ▲Habstore in Yeonnam-dong, Seoul. Harriot sells its watches here. ▲ View inside the Habstore. Customers can experience watches from Harriot as well as other brands. I am curious about the moment you launched Harriot.I’m afraid it goes back to Daniel Wellington again. I suffered from a lot of stress when I was importing and retailing Daniel Wellington watches. Their head office was not particularly cooperative, there were so many different restrictions, and major distribution companies in Korea entering the market always caused so much anxiety. I was fortunate enough to discover a great brand, which helped me grow my company. But I couldn’t rely purely on luck to guarantee success in the future.After thinking long and hard, I decided to launch my own brand. Also, there’s another thing I learned while importing and distributing several overseas brands after Daniel Wellington. There were plenty of watchmakers in other countries with short histories that had successfully branded their products despite actually manufacturing them in China. I thought to myself, ‘If they can do it, why not us?’ Also, our country was once one of the top-3 watchmaking countries in the world. We were a powerhouse with a booming watch industry. It felt unfortunate to me that we did not have a flagship Korean watch brand in spite of our illustrious history with watches. In the end, all of these factors formed the springboard for Harriot as a brand. Why do you think Korean watch brands have not been as successful as they used to be? All due respect to other Korean watchmakers, I think their branding had a lot of holes in them. Honestly, branding wasn’t particularly important during the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, foreign watchmakers were hard to find in Korea, and the flow of information was limited. So, if consumers thought something was ‘good,’ it did well in the market. On top of that, labor was cheap which meant that companies could compete in the market. Today, the circumstances are completely different.Labor is expensive, and people are inundated with information. That makes branding the key component to success. Despite the situation, I think the few remaining Korean watchmakers are more interested in sponsoring celebrities rather than actually branding their products. I believed we could do well if we took a different approach. We started small, but I am certain that we’ll find a way if we keep branding our products well. ▲Plant that manufactures watch dials for Harriot. ▲Technician manufactures a watch dial for Harriot. Did you face any obstacles producing, retailing, and marketing watches in Korea?There were plenty of obstacles. First of all, it was difficult to control quality due to the fact that there weren’t many factories capable of manufacturing watches left in Korea. For instance, China has so many options. If you don’t like this factory, you can choose the one next door. Also, because they make so many watches in China, factories are all equipped with the latest machinery. In contrast, watchmaking factories in Korea have extremely poor conditions. We had to meet with representatives from various factories constantly to find ways to improve quality and secure the right production volume. Retailing and marketing weren’t cakewalks either. We were unsure whether people would pay attention even if we emphasized the fact that our products were made in Korea. So, we focused our energy in explaining why Harriot watches are valuable and what message we wanted to convey to consumers. During the early stages of our marketing, we chose ‘Beauty,’ ‘Value for Money,’ ‘Made in Korea’ as our three main concepts to promote Harriot, and observed how the brand was received by the public. Results from our study revealed that ‘Made in Korea’ had the most positive response. I think the fact that our watches were made in Korea was refreshing to see for consumers. How does Harriot stand out among other competing brands?’Made in Korea’ in itself is a differentiating factor. There are a few Korean watch brands in the market other than Harriot, but I think we are the only brand that actively advertises the fact that our products are ‘Made in Korea.’ I would love to see the watchmaking industry in Korea come alive with more factories, which might allow us to produce movement mechanisms on par with products made in Switzerland. I would love to say, “Korean watches are the best in the world” with conviction. In reality, however, I can’t. So, Harriot wants to appeal to the industry and plead, “Let’s grow our business together.” “Seohae,” “Gayang,” “Gwangan” - Harriot has unique names for its collections.Why did you choose ‘bridges’ as the underlying theme? Bridges look like simple structures from the outside, but they are feats of engineering that require significant amounts of technology. Bridges also have the meaning of connecting two distant places, which we thought was great. From those to perspectives, we believed bridges and watches had a lot in common. So, we decided to use the names of bridges in Korea for our collections and reflect the distinct image and ambiance of each bridge in our products. From numerous bridges in Korea, we listed names that were easily recognizable and relatively easy for foreigners to pronounce. Then, we interpreted the meaning of each bridge and applied it to our collections.For instance, ‘Gwangan Daegyo Bridge’ is a landmark that symbolizes Busan. If you think of Busan, you naturally think of the ocean and beaches. That is why the “Gwangan” collection has a sporty image that goes well with the ocean and other outdoor environments. On the other hand, the “Seohae” Collection uses ‘Seohae Daegyo Bridge’ - the longest bridge in Korea - as its motif. As such, it looks a little fancier. Please share some information on current projects of upcoming plans.First of all, Harriot uses Miyota movement products made in Japan. That was a decision based on value for money. But we recognize that some consumers may feel uncomfortable with Harriot using a Japanese movement on the one hand, while advertising products as ‘Made in Korea’ on the other. That’s why we are in the process of replacing our movement component with a Swiss-made movement. Until now, Harriot has mostly launched quartz watches with classical designs. Next year, we’re planning to launch a mechanical watch or a number of other models with various functions e.g. day-time/night-time indicators, etc. ▲ The “Dobo” Collection watch created to commemorate the North-South Korea Summit in 2018. 500-piece limited edition. We also want to continue doing things only a Korean watchmaker brand can do. A great example is the “Dobo” Collection we created to commemorate the North-South Korea Summit in 2018. Companies in Switzerland or Japan can’t turn something as moving as the North-South Korea Summit into a watch. Only a Korea watch brand can do it. I hope we can keep making limited edition watches that celebrate historical events for our country. Additionally, if we get the opportunity, we want to make watches for the Blue House. ▲Harriot’s first photo shoot with ordinary consumers as models. What does a watch mean to Harriot?When I first told people that I was starting a watch business, I lot of people around me voiced their concerns. Chief among which was, “People check the time on their smartphones these days. Who wears wristwatches anymore?” But the watch Harriot aspires to create is different. We see watches as accessories. Think of them as bracelets. A watch can be the most glamorous and beautiful bracelet. On top of being a great bracelet, it tells time as well. If you think of it that way, there’s nothing like it. Who do you think will look great wearing Harriot watches?Harriot watches are for everyone. It’s a great fit for young consumers and more elderly citizens. In fact, when we did our first photo shoot for Harriot, we recruited ordinary consumers across a variety of different age brackets from high school students to senior citizens in their 60s. All of them looked great with Harriot watches. To Hong Seong-jo, what constitutes a ‘good watch’?A watch that fits the occasion, a watch that suits the outfit, a watch that lasts long. Telling the exact time isn’t as important because watches cannot be as accurate as smartphones. ▲Hong Seong-jo wears a Harriot watch. Which model watch are you wearing at the moment?It’s Harriot's very first model. The Seohae Collection. We faced a lot of challenges as we were creating our first model. Assembling watches in poor conditions lead to a large number of defective prototypes. I’m wearing one of those defective watches. The index was slightly lifted more than it should have been. Apart from that, everything is in working order. So, I’ve been wearing this for three years. Finally, what is your wish as the CEO of a Korean watchmaker?The Korean watch market continues to grow. 97% of it, however, is dominated by imported brands. It’s an unfortunate situation. Of course, I want Harriot to do well. But I also want entrepreneurs to see Harriot’s success with its ‘Made in Korea’ message and create their own Korean watch brands and increase the overall share of Korean watchmakers in the watch market. If you look at the domestic fashion market, dozens of brands appear and disappear every day. That means the market is extremely active. Although a lot of brands disappear, some do have staying power. As they establish themselves in the market, apparel factories make a lot of money. That’s what I want for the watch industry. I hope more Korean watch brands appear on the market. Some may succeed, others may fail. But I believe that entire process of trial and error will enrich the manufacturing base for watches in Korea. If the pie of domestic watchmakers increases, a company willing to develop a Korean movement may even emerge. In terms of casing, only a few factories capable of producing low-end alloy cases remain in Korea. There are no factories capable of producing stainless steel cases. So, Harriot is planning to produce its own stainless steel cases next year with a partner. Moving in this direction is a positive thing. I just hope we could do it a little quicker.