Hands-On: Atelier Wen Perception - Proudly Made in China
A critical closer look at the new sports watch from Atelier Wen
When I go hands-on with a watch, I try to evaluate it in a vacuum — devoid of social media, other opinions, or scrolling to the bottom of the big H for those comments that always feel like a bad car wreck — you want to look away, but you just can’t.
When I got the new Perception from Atelier Wen, I did the same thing, so I’ll start with my honest impression of the watch. But this is one of those watches that’s also “more than a watch,” so after that we’ll zoom out for a minute to see what it all means for watchmaking.
The Atelier Wen Perception is a “Proudly Made in China” (yes, more on this in a moment) take on the familiar Genta-fied steel sports watch. It’s fascinating that, over the last few years, this has become a category all its own, and it’s no longer prima facie derivative or a “knock-off” for a brand to release a steel sports watch. Everyone, from Lange to Seiko to Atelier Wen, now has a right to build their own sports watch, much the way most brands have a dive watch in their catalog.
It’s the curse of popularity, I suppose: If one brand knocks off your design, they’re stealing, plain and simple. If ten or a dozen do it, it’s a new category.
Aesthetically, the dial is what sets this watch apart from those other sports watches. It features a beautiful guilloche pattern completed by hand by Master Cheng, who Atelier Wen says is the only guilloche master in China. Cheng became determined to study the art of guilloche after first encountering it in 2013. Eventually, he created his own rose engine lathe so that he could perform the arduous task by hand. According to Atelier Wen, it takes Cheng 8 hours to complete each dial.
I wrote an article about the art of dial finishing for A Collected Man last year, and one of the most exciting developments in modern watchmaking for me is companies that are making an effort to make these beautiful, traditional techniques more accessible to all (AnOrdain is also doing this with its enamel dials).
The rest of the watch is more familiar. The case and bracelet are made of 904L stainless steel, the stuff that’s slightly more resistant to corrosion than 316L. The case resembles the Patek Philippe Nautilus, though at this price point it might be a closer competitor to the Seiko 5 “Nautilus” SNKK45. The bracelet no doubt resembles the Vacheron Constantin 222. The clasp is well thought out — push the subtle Atelier Wen logo in and it allows for easy micro-adjustments (more big brands are adding this too, but no-tool micro-adjustments should be standard at this point).
Atelier Wen also sent the Perception with a rubber strap, and they’ve made both the strap and bracelet easy to change without any tools. Honestly, the bracelet didn’t quite work for me. The links pinched and pulled on my arm hairs a little too much. That said, I like the way it wears and the way it articulates around the wrist. But no matter; the rubber strap integrates nicely into the case and gives the watch a fun, casual vibe that I may have enjoyed more than the bracelet anyway.
The Perception’s movement is also made in China by Lianoing Peacock based in Dandong. It’s an automatic movement with some Geneva stripes and beveled bridges and a tungsten rotor, measuring just 3.4mm in thickness. Much the way I found Baltic’s use of a micro-rotor interesting, I also think using a super-thin automatic movement here is exciting, and something not offered by the common third-party movement suppliers we all know and love — ETA, Miyota, Sellita, etc.
The steel case is nicely finished, brushed on the top and with polished bevels that reach around the entire case, also lining up with a bevel on the sides of the bracelet. The lugs are angled downward so that the case hugs the wrist.
The caseback has a partial display caseback to expose just a portion of the movement. The rest of the caseback features an engraved lion motif.
In all, it’s a fun $2,000 take on the steel sports watch. I’d like to see it at a slightly lower price, but that’s just not possible with the guilloche accomplished here. Atelier Wen is offering the Perception in three dial colors: salmon (seen here), blue, and grey. It sold out of the initial production run of 300 just 16 hours after launch. But, you’ll get another chance at the Perception when Atelier Wen opens up for regular orders later this year. Perhaps the only other guilloche dial being offered under $10,000 comes from Louis Erard, so the handwork of Master Cheng truly sets the Perception apart.
Proudly Made in China
So that’s the Perception. Let’s get back to the whole “proudly made in China” thing. Atelier Wen advertises that the Perception is part of the steel sports watch trend, but says it’s still unique.
“Proudly Made in China” has been a calling card for Atelier Wen since it was founded by Frenchmen Robin Tallendier and Wilfried Buiron in 2018. Both studied in China, where they became involved with a Chinese committee charged with promoting Chinese watchmaking around the world. Their first releases, the Hao and Ji, featured porcelain dials made using traditional Chinese methods.
For the Perception, Tallendier said that he wanted something that “would be less of a literal ‘pasting’ of Chinese elements — I had no interest in putting red, gold, and a dragon; that is the most cliché thing ever — but rather an interpretation of key aesthetic concepts to a watch format.”
Instead, Atelier Wen turned to Chinese architecture for inspiration. The dial structure follows the Chinese architectural principle of Sunmao, with all of the dial elements nesting into each other. This gives a contrast between the dial depth and the watch’s overall thinness.
To be honest, I didn’t think much of the “Proudly Made in China” messaging when Atelier Wen sent me the watch. I unabashedly bought a Baltic (made in Hong Kong) last year, and have respect for Seagull and other Chinese movement manufacturers.
But, reading through the 150+ comments to the “Introducing” article on Hodinkee — many either negative or uninformed — made me realize the challenges that Atelier Wen still faces.
I do think one distinction should be made: Atelier Wen is celebrating Chinese watchmaking, which is different than Chinese manufacturing. Sure, the watch is manufactured in China, but before commenting or criticizing the Perception, I’d ask people to step back for a moment to learn about the country’s watchmaking history too, separate and distinct from its reputation as “the world’s manufacturer” for all types of low-cost or high-end goods.
The Perception is the latest step forward for Chinese watchmaking, not just Chinese manufacturing.
Dial: Handmade guilloche dial
Case: 904L stainless steel
Crystal: Double-domed sapphire crystal
Water resistance: 100m
Caliber: Extra-thin Automatic Dandong Peacock
Power reserve: 41 hours
Limited: Yes, 300 pieces produced during pre-order period (SOLD OUT); regular production coming at the end of 2022.
Price: $2,088 pre-order; $2,588 retail
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