March 22, 2019

We’ve all heard of professionals leaving the corporate sector to pursue the arts. While photography can be considered a form of visual art (although some may beg to differ), it is a medium that has launched many successful careers.  

Graduating from Oxford at the age of 16, Ming Thein who is a physicist by training, cut his teeth in private equity. Despite his high-flying career, he was always passionate about two things: watches and photography. As a way of “owning” these luxury timepieces, Ming began photographing them to grow his portfolio and soon received commissions to shoot for international watch brands. Eventually, he took the plunge by leaving the corporate world to pursue photography full-time.

Constantly frustrated by how expensive horological watches are, Ming also ventured out of the ordinary to create his own brand, MING Watches, with the purpose of making intricate timepieces more affordable to a wider audience—a chutzpah move that every watch enthusiast dreams of accomplishing. Here, he shares with us his everyday essentials that give an insight into the lifestyle of this modern-day Renaissance man. 

What are your top 5 everyday items that you can’t live without?

I’m going to reinterpret this question slightly as my favourite daily indulgences:

  • Coffee: single origin Ethiopian Red Cherry + Columbia Supremo from a friend who sources and roasts in Penang, ground fresh and prepared with a filter.
  • A good pen. We don’t write enough, and the slower pace helps with thinking. Plus, there’s the tactile pleasure when you use a nib pen on a piece of paper, and the freedom of putting down ideas. I have a collection of fountain pens, but right now it’s the Lamy 2000 50th Anniversary edition.
  • The Stax 007 Omega II electrostatic headphones are a good pair if you want to escape into an immersive little oasis.
  • I like my briefcases for the tactility, practicality and craftsmanship. Right now, I am using the Louis Vuitton Porte Documents Voyage in Nomade leather.
  • Lastly, one of our MING watches. But it varies depending on mood and what I’m doing or who I’m meeting. Most of the time it’s my 19.01 prototype, being the first horologically significant piece we made.


Do these items reflect your personality too?

Some more than others. The preferred taste of one’s coffee is very personal, even though all coffee looks pretty much the same. Some things are more functional and serve a purpose like my headphones, while others are a bit of both, like my choice of pen. The watch is definitely a reflection of my personality as it isn’t a necessity at all—even more so when you’re the designer. I’m not sure there’s any higher expression of personality than that!

Is there a story behind any of these items?

A close friend introduced me to really high-end audio headphones about 15 years ago; at the time I didn’t have the ability to fully appreciate or afford them, but they made me pay more attention to music. The experience must have left an impression on me as I spent the following years trying to find other headphones with similar sound quality, only to realise that I should just buy the same thing. 

The story of our watches is a story of friends: I founded the company with five other enthusiasts after we thought that we might be able to design and produce something interesting for both ourselves and the market in general. That began in 2015, with our first watch (the 17.01) launching in 2017. We just launched our new flagship and fourth model line, but every single one is special in its own way. When you design something, there has to be a bit of your personality in it, and at the same time, you’re constantly reminded that it could not have happened without those friendships, partnerships and supporters.

What is a typical day like for you?

I don’t really have a ‘typical’ day as my roles are quite varied. We have a three-year-old who doesn’t seem to need sleep, so she’s bouncing on the bed before the alarm goes off. Coffee (and breakfast) with my wife before we go off to work; she runs a chain of hospitals and I work out of home when it comes to the design of watches and my photography. There’s inevitably a pile of emails to deal with as stuff comes in overnight from Europe and can vary from production to R&D and customer service. I’ll head into the office mid-morning to meet with the watch team and take care of any other miscellaneous matters. After that, it’s quite flexible as it depends on where we are in the production schedule; there may be customer meetings or product photo shoots, or I might be designing/doing CAD layups. Sometimes I may spend the whole day shooting on site with other non-watch related clients, as I still photograph professionally for some of my long-standing clients.

Which is your first love: photography or watches?

Watches, which then turned into photography as I couldn’t afford the pieces I liked. But I met a lot of fellow enthusiasts who would let me photograph their watches, and it was the only way I could get to ‘own’ them in some way. Gradually, that hobby turned into something more as I shot for various brands and met their principals at various events. This ran in parallel with my corporate career, until I finally became a full-time photographer about ten years later. At that point, I’d had my fill of the corporate world and felt the need to create something tangible. 

Was the transition hard for you? And what were the biggest challenges that you faced?

Yes and no. Yes, because it took three attempts before I made it stick, but in hindsight, I made a lot of amateur mistakes (too specialised, too generalised, no marketing, no business acumen, etc.). However, I got lucky when I few things happened at once—major commissions, an exhibition and a brand ambassadorship—that basically said, ‘It’s now or never, you’re not going to get a better opportunity than this.’ The first year was really tough, but I was fortunate things settled down by the second year. The biggest challenge was being in the wrong part of the world for my initial set of clients; the watch industry is in Switzerland, not Malaysia. On top of that, clients in Malaysia tend to go by price first, followed by quality, a distant second. It took me a long time to learn that there were right and wrong clients. I still don’t think this has improved much, but fortunately, I have a bit more international visibility now.

How did Ming Watches come into fruition?

Three friends and I were on the way back from an industry event in 2014 and felt that something wasn’t right in the watch collecting experience. It wasn’t fun anymore, it was bloody expensive and moreover, the retail experience wasn’t making us happy. We went down the independent/custom route for a couple of years before seriously considering if we could do it ourselves. The timing was right for us to access suppliers with excess capacity, gain visibility and for consumers to buy online. We started with something a bit cheaper to minimise our risk and see if the core design philosophy would hold up. We also had to learn very quickly about production realities, supply and demand, and logistics.

[Related: Su Jia Xian: The Romance of Watch Collecting]

Is there an item that you always had with you throughout your career, even until today?

I don’t have a specific item, but ever since I could afford a nice watch, I always wore one. I like to steal glances at it and enjoy it privately too. The type of watch changes depending on the circumstance and I feel quite naked if I don’t wear one. I always had a camera with me, and anybody who knows me would tell you that the specific model changes as frequently as the weather.

Describe the perfect watch.

We haven’t made it yet! It has to be visually arresting, technically interesting, complex but reliable, comfortable to wear, durable, distinctive, and preferably something I can afford…

What was the proudest moment of your life so far?

Realising that I could make a living doing something I enjoy and that there’s always an audience, an opportunity and friends and family who believe in me enough to back what I’m doing. 

What is your biggest regret?

I’m not sure I can have one; without the things you’ve done (or not done) you can’t be where you are today. We are a product of your experiences and therefore changing something in the past would change everything thereafter.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in your life?

I went to university at 13 and graduated at 16. Socially and academically, it was extremely difficult. I had (and still have) no clue what on earth people are thinking most of the time. Experience says that I should get better, but having Aspergers doesn’t really help, either. It’s much worse when you must personify your brand in order to succeed, and have the ability to engage and sell to a very wide range of people. Social situations are still very tough for me.

What would you like to achieve in your career before you retire?

Creating a perfect watch sounds pretty good to me. 

[Read More: Everyday Essentials with Aik Beng Chia]

[Read More: Everyday Essentials with Hans Ding]