Master Lee has wondered why most of his opponents in Korea are seriously 빨리빨리 about most things — like hitting the canvas — and yet Korea does not have a watch culture. At least, it doesn’t any more. During the colonial period, both Japanese (Seiko) and American watch manufacturers like Waltham (in the first ad here transliterated in jolly Japanese as “wa-o-ru-sa-mu”) and Elgin (see second insert from Tonga ilbo [Tonga Daily] 21/12/1937) successfully marketed many of their products, primarily pocket watches, to the urban, corporate Korean and Japanese. Ads showed the various models, and offered a choice between basic models with 7 jewels or more expensive models with 15 jewels. On some occasions, they also showed the movement; evidence that Koreans could still be excited about the miniature technology (Waltham watch-based ad in Maeil shinbo 1/3/1928, p.3). In the 1950s, Omega entered the market (see pic taken by former US serviceman, presumably in an area with many US military such as Itaeweon), and we may assume that it was joined by several other brands popular with the US military, like Bulova, which had produced many watches for US troops during the Korean War, including the popular A17A model. Many big brands have earned a reputation during war time, but unfortunately Korea’s tech industry did not create a Korean brand of watches to support its troops in Vietnam.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, however, Koreans were in no position to spend much money on a watch, and if they did, they tended to rely on something that looked expensive, but wasn’t. Like elsewhere, display backs — the ones where the back lid had a small hinge — disappeared. Orient benefited from that trend: its dials boasted “21 jewels” and most of its cases came in gold-plated steel (see ad). Seiko also tried hard to sell its watches in Korea, but until the 1990s, the lingering resentment felt towards Japan made it less desirable to have a Japanese product as an accessory, as opposed to a Taiwanese-made one, so advertising would not make unnecessary mention of the two brands’ origin. In the 1980s the quartz watch phenomenon ruined whatever culture brands like Orient could nurture; Koreans now began to wear quartz watches that looked (and sometimes undoubtedly were) made entirely of gold.
In the 1990s, Koreans consumers began to pick up on the “real watch” fad so popular elsewhere, but again, and much like everywhere else in the world except Europe, mostly as a fashion accessory and its association with wealth. Few Koreans were interested in what went on inside a watch. A small number of Korean connoisseurs had always had a passion for horology, but their number certainly did not grow as fast as the number of Koreans spending money on non-quartz-based watches. Rolex and Breitling did well, because they make gold-plated watches and are associated with wealth (and an embarrassment to pulp, but let’s not go there), but IWC did not and so you are hard pressed to find an IWC owner in Seoul these days (although they exist, of course). A slow stroll around Seoul’s downtown Tapshimni’s second-hand market or Chongno 4-ga’s jewellery shops is no longer worth the effort. Because of the long history of automatic watches, and the easy of use of quartz watches, hand-wound watches have not been popular in Korea. In the beginning of the 21st century, when even limited-edition brands like Panerai and Jaquet Droz came to Lotte’s Avenuel store in downtown Seoul, the fact that the former offered mostly hand-wound models did not serve its popularity. What is more, as the owner of the Avenuel store told Master Lee, customers were reluctant to wait for a specific model (빨리빨리…) to arrive, and as a result Panerai died a premature death. Master Lee, however, has no time for quartz watches. He hopes for an innovative Korean-made brand of watches, and he says there’s no time to waste.