A Review of Kurono Tokyo Grand Hagane
A vintage looking watch with translucent urushi dial and charming old kanji characters
Kurono Tokyo is an independent watch brand launched in 2019 by Mr. Hajime Asoka, a top watchmaker. The number of hand-made timepieces produced at his atelier is extremely small every year. He launched the much more affordable Kurono brand such that watch enthusiasts may enjoy his creations. He designs the watches for watch lovers including himself to wear on a daily basis. The results are “pure” watches based on his tastes and design ethos. Mr. Hajime is a watchmaker for his namesake high-end brand and a designer for Kurono Tokyo.
The timing could not be better. The “stay at home” 2020 and 2021 turned out to be a golden period for watchmaking that has no sight of ending. The demand has been growing rapidly with more and more people joining the watch collecting hobby. Furthermore, the Kurono team has been using social media effectively to tell the founder’s ideas and showcase the new creations. The very appealing watches combined with a customer-centered approach have made Kurono a runaway success. There are nine watch launches so far and each one has sold out very quickly, some even within 5-10 minutes.
In 2020, Kurono’s “Mori” 3-hand watch and “Chronograph 1” were voted into the final rounds of GPHG annual awards. This “double finalist” status for a young brand illustrated the high recognition from industry peers and experts. The collector community certainly took notice as well. In Christie’s online auction ended on Dec 10, 2021, three Kurono watches, each from a separate collection, were on deck. The final prices were 2 times (“Chronograph 2”), 3 times (“Grand Akane”), and 6.5 times (“Mori”) of the list prices, respectively.
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The latest Kurono creation was the “Grand Hagane” launched on Dec 5, 2021, the second member of the artisan-level Grand Collection after Grand Akane. The Grand Collection is Mr. Hajime’s most demanding and complex collection for Kurono in terms of craftsmanship. The new timepiece features an urushi dial handmade by master craftsmen, fitten on the iconic 37mm art-deco 316L stainless steel case that is uniquely Kurono. I was among the first lucky owners to receive this watch and I simply could not wait to open the box and put it on my wrist. What a stunning timepiece full of Japanese culture and history!
The Grand Hagane was inspired by Tamahagane, a special type of rare steel used by traditional Japanese swordsmiths. The word tama means "round and precious", like a jade. The word hagane means "steel". Mr. Hajime’s maternal grandfather ran ironworks, which explains his fascination with the ancient techniques in making the best quality swords. The urushi design was a reflection of the steel-making workshop that evoked fond memories. Furthermore, as “tamahagane” is often treated as a good luck charm, the Grand Hagane carries the sincere wishes from Mr. Hajime during this challenging time.
The most striking feature of this watch is no doubt the vintage-looking urushi dial with the 12 hours in “Kanji” characters. It is indeed the most “Japanese looking” watch among all of the Kurono creations so far. Mr. Hajime has arranged and designed this large character index to showcase the ancient Asian heritage. Notice that for Grand Akane, there is a single Kanji character “茜” in the center meaning “deep red”. For the Grand Hagane, the center character is “鋼”, referring to steel. The 1 to 10 indices are written in old Kanji style: 1/壹, 2/貳, 3/叁, 4/肆, 5/伍, 6/陸, 7/漆, 8/捌, 9/玖 and 10/拾. Numbers 11 and 12 are written in the modern Kanji style, 11/十一 and 12/十二, except the two characters are smartly arranged top to bottom on the dial, due to space constraint. The old Kanji style characters over the elusive urushi patterns are absolutely stunning. The retro feel of the dial design including the box sapphire crystal takes us back to the ancient time.
The urushi dial was made by experienced craftsmen by following the traditional methods strictly. There were many thin layers of highly refined urushi lacquers to be applied patiently, until each layer was dry and hardened. The surface was then sharpened by charcoal and polished by hands. The final result was the translucent mirror finishing that shows different shades of gold and brown colors under changing lighting. The numeral characters look almost like floating on the urushi surface, an amazing sight with moving viewing angles. It is quite wonderful that the character 7/漆 on the dial also means urushi.
The Grand Hagane is powered by Miyota 90S5, a premium automatic movement that has been used in the previous Kurono 3-hand watches. Miyota is wholly owned by the Citizen Group, a big Japanese watch group company including Arnold & Son, Frederique Constant and Citizen Watch. It is Mr. Hajime’s belief that 90S5 is a superior movement compared to ETA2824 (see this Q&A page). It is quite interesting that when MB&F had to design an affordable MAD Edition 1, they chose a Miyota movement as well (caliber 821A to be specific, a lower end model compared to 90S5). The movement 90S5 provides a hacking function and 40 hours of power reserve. The Miyota movements are made in Japan with exclusive Japanese parts. Therefore, the Kurono watch is entirely “JAPAN MADE”, as declared on the dial at 6 o’clock.
The Grand Hagane comes with a stainless steel case that is 37mm in diameter and 7mm in thickness without the crystal glass. It has a solid caseback and is rated water resistance to 3 ATM. On the caseback, Mr. Hajime’s signature is embellished in bold kanji calligraphy alongside the impression of his personal hanko stamp. Additional information shown includes “Design by Hajime Asaoka” and “Precision Watch Tokyo Co., LTD.”, the company responsible for the assembly of the Kurono watches. The watch comes with a black calf leather strap that is a nice match with the dark dial. The strap is soft and very well built. The watch is very comfortable to wear, thanks to the slim profile, relatively small dial size and soft strap.
Compared to the Kurono Classic Collection in trendy colors of green, pink (salmon) and blue (Tiffany), the latest Grand Hagane is certainly a creation to project a vintage look and feel. The urushi dial in gold and brown provides a translucent backdrop for the beautiful old kanji style handwriting. The exquisite hands remind us of the constant passing of time, ever since ancient time long, long ago. The character 鋼, the name of the watch in the center of the dial, tells us that the strengths of the best steel are what will carry us through to overcome any challenges and difficulty in the world. This is really a timepiece that gives us pleasure and strengths.
The number of Grand Hagane production is quite limited, due to the time consuming urushi making process. Kurono disclosed that only “hundreds” of pieces were made. For reference, 200 Grand Akane were made. The bulk of the Grand Hagane timepieces for global distribution (80% of total) were sold out in 49 minutes. For 2022, Kurono advised that the volume of production might even decrease, due to the supply chain issues. We should really cherish what we own today and be very happy.
Kurono Tokyo to Mr. Hajime is like the Louis Erad collaboration to Mr. Vianney Halter and the MAD Edition 1 to MB&F. To watch lovers and collectors, it is a blessing to be able to own a piece designed by the master Mr. Hajime himself, for the fans and himself.
Please check out my review of Kurono Tokyo Chronograph 2 here and the most read article of my newsletter so far, “Which Brands Might Be The Next F.P. Journe - 2022 Edition".