In Asia, if you love a watch brand, you start a club

On a Tuesday night at a café in the vibrant Shinjuku district, 10 people gathered around a long table, chatting and sharing appetizers and drinks. Nothing unusual here — except they each wear a Maurice Lacroix watch, and at the end of the assembly, they form a circle and extend their arms for a group shot of the wrist.

He was Maurice Lacroix Watch Club Japana group founded in 2019 by a fan of the Swiss watch brand.

“I fell in love at first sight with the Aikon Automatic at Baselworld in 2018,” said Koji Nakazawa, 43, who organized and now chairs the club. “I fell in love with not only the watch, but also the brand. As I learned more about it, I felt that it would definitely grow in the future.”

Clubs started by spectators are nothing new: TudorAnd nomosAnd FB Jorn And many others have. But in Asia, such groups have proliferated in recent years.

The group’s culture is one reason, according to Pierre-Yves Donzi, professor of business history at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Economics, who specializes in Swiss watchmaking and luxury fashion.

“Individuals like to feel like they belong in groups for the long haul,” Dr. Donzi wrote in an email, especially in Japan and East Asia: Japan has the kind of deep knowledge of luxury brands that easily translates into brand affinity.

Club Lacroix, for example, was the result of a lunch the company held in Tokyo in August 2019 for collectors and friends of the brand.

“I can really feel the enthusiasm and passion of the fans for our brand and our products,” Stéphane Waser, managing director of Lacroix, wrote in an email from their headquarters in Saignelégier, on the Swiss border with France. “One of those fans was Koji Nakazawa. His drive and dedication was phenomenal.”

(As a brand, Maurice Lacroix has a much shorter history than many other Swiss watches. It was founded in 1975 by Disco von Schultheis, a Swiss distribution company, and named after an executive; it is now owned by DKSH Holdings, a business services company.)

A few months after Mr. Nakazawa founded the club, he suggested to Lacroix that they create one of the members’ ICON watches. “It was the first time we produced a limited-edition model for a watch club,” Mr. Wasser wrote, referring to the 250-piece model now sold in Japan and which he described as a collaborative effort with club members.

Lacroix fan Edward Wong Kar-fai started a sort of international virtual club on Facebook in 2017, but the Japanese club was the first Lacroix-focused organization to combine digital and in-person events. “Watch fan clubs seem to be an Asian phenomenon, as watch lovers seem to engage and discuss more spontaneously on this side of the world than in Europe,” Mr. Wasser wrote in a subsequent email. “If there are clubs in Europe (such as Oris), it seems to be a brand initiative and directly managed by the brand.”

Perhaps the spread of Lacroix clubs in Asia influenced his view. After the founding of the Japan Club, one club was established in Thailand, then Malaysia, and most recently in Hong Kong. All of the clubs are founded by individuals — the Malaysian club by Mr Wong is, in fact, part of the Facebook group — and Mr Waser said they all operate independently of the brand.

There is no official membership tally for Lacroix Japan as the club does not require registration, but its Instagram has a following of 2,050 and its in-person events, held five or six times a year, attract up to 30 people. Visits by Wasser and other Lacroix executives draw the most, Mr. Nakazawa said, though store tours were also popular.

At a Shinjuku gathering, the attendees were all male (although women often attended the events, Mr. Nakazawa said) in their twenties to forties.

Over pizza, beer and soft drinks, they mostly talked about watches and compared wrists. “I joined the club because I wanted to see how other people wear the watches I like,” said Hiroharu Uematsu, noting later in the interview: “There aren’t many watch lovers around me, and I want to talk to people who like the same things I do.”

Another member, dressed in a business suit and wearing a Lacroix model with a stainless steel bracelet, mentioned his plan to buy one from the brightly colored brand. Icon #Tide Models made from recycled plastic start at $760. He said, “I can share it with my wife.”

Mr. Nakazawa regularly attends club meetings in Tokyo, though it requires a round-trip train ride of more than three hours on the Nozomi Express. He lives in Nagoya, a coastal city west of the capital, where he designs his own brand of leather goods, called Celiowhich produces cases and watches for discarded pieces (his collaboration with French leather house Jean Rousseau Paris debuted earlier this month).

The camaraderie is worth the effort, for his way of thinking. He said, “I’m very happy to have a fan club, because I’ve been able to connect with people from all over the world.”

In August 2010, a fan of the Paris watch brand Bell & Ross organized a club in Okayama Prefecture, in the southern part of the main island of Honshu. (It’s not the brand’s only fan club; en BR gang gathered in France and Belgium.)

“We formed this group simply because we love Bell & Ross,” founder and president Hiroki Negi, 51, wrote in an email. “We have individual personalities, talents, and colours, and we can create new possibilities by connecting people together through the ‘and’ sign,” referring to the brand’s ampersand.

Bell & Ross was founded in 1992 by designer Bruno Bellamic (the bell in the name) and entrepreneur Carlos Rossello (the Ross). It is known for its square case and aviation-inspired design.

The Okayama Club has about 80 registered members, half of whom, Mr. Negi wrote, usually attend major events such as the annual product presentation by the brand. Small meetings over drinks or meals are held three or four times a year, usually drawing a handful of participants from Okayama and the surrounding area.

“People of different races, ages, professions, and fields were brought together by their encounter with Bell & Ross and connected more as one extended family than just friends,” he wrote, describing how members shared advice about career changes and life struggles.

“Having such a club of fans is very valuable,” said Frank Dardenne, managing director of Bell & Ross Japan. “We try to provide support by attending some gatherings, inviting fans to some events, or sharing information in advance, but we can’t interfere.”

After all, he said, “brand control will kill spontaneity.”