Shenzhen watchmaker: How a self-taught man learned to make $80,000 watches

Jan 25, 2021

Lin Yonghua learned how to make watches by taking them apart. Now, he is one of China’s few Swiss-accredited watchmakers.

Rolex, Breguet, Patek Philippe—they’re some of the biggest names in luxury watches. But there are also many independent makers whose designs rival those of the big brands, both in quality and price.

Independent watchmakers stand in contrast to the big companies that make up a majority of the market. They more or less make the watches themselves, injecting their own personalities into designs. Most spend months working on just one piece, a culmination of skill, passion, and patience.

Lin Yonghua is one of only three watchmakers from China certified by the AHCI, a Swiss organization that represents independent watchmakers. Membership is exclusive and requires one to make a watch completely without assistance.

All the more impressive, then, that Lin is mostly self-taught. He grew up in China at a time when most people could not afford luxury watches, let alone make one.

Lin Yonghua is one of only three people in China accredited by the AHCI, a prestigious association of independent watchmakers.
Lin Yonghua is one of only three people in China accredited by the AHCI, a prestigious association of independent watchmakers. / Photo: Xin Fang

Now, his pieces, which are sold under his label LYH, go for $10,000 to $80,000. In 2019, a watch he designed, with a complex spider web chassis that resembled a time zone map, earned him worldwide acclaim. He’s particularly proud of the piece.

“This design was an innovation in the watchmaking industry at the time,” he says.

Trial and error

Lin’s fascination with watches began at an early age. As a teenager, he would take apart watches and try to put them back together again.

“I was fascinated by the ticking sound,” Lin says. “I wanted to know how a watch was built, but when I put the components back together, it wasn’t as accurate as before.”

(Read more: What happened to the Rolex of China?)

In 1991, he started working at a watch factory in Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub just north of Hong Kong. Over time, he switched over to watch repair, where he came in contact with luxury pieces from abroad.

“It was 2000,” he recalls. “The first luxury watch I encountered was a Breguet. It was very different from the watches we made at the factory.”

Lin’s spider-web design .
Lin’s spider-web design . / Photo: Xin Fang

With each restoration job, Lin learned more about the mechanics of luxury watches. In 2009, he started his own repair service while studying on the side. In his spare time, he worked on his own watch, constantly refining it, with the goal of earning AHCI accreditation.

Applicants must be independent—they cannot work for any watch company—and must assemble an original design themselves. The watch is then judged based on criteria such as creativity and functionality.

(Read more: The Hong Kong metalsmith who still makes jewelry by hand)

In 2017, recognition came when Lin presented a dragonfly-shaped tourbillon watch—considered the most complex type of watch—in Switzerland.

“It’s very difficult to do everything by yourself, especially with the possibility of not getting it in the end,” Lin says, “but I’m glad I finally got it.”

Lin in his studio in Shenzhen.
Lin in his studio in Shenzhen. / Photo: Xin Fang

Lin continues to make watches, in addition to repairing them. He mostly works by himself, save for help from an apprentice, which is why one piece can take him eight months to complete.

To keep himself grounded, Lin starts every day the same way: he burns a stick of incense, takes a sip of tea, and starts his workshop’s machines.

“It might sound repetitive and boring to others,” Lin says, “but this is the most peaceful time for me. I can concentrate and translate my vision into reality.”

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Producer: Xin Fang

Videographers: Zhang Canrong and Xin Fang

Editor: Hanley Chu

Narration: Tiffany Ip

Mastering: Victor Peña