Why I bought it: Kurono By Hajime Asaoka Chronograph 2

Classic styling and fair pricing have won over industry peers and watch enthusiasts

Watch enthusiasts and collectors seeking affordable timepieces from top independent watchmakers will discover Kurono By Hajime Asaoka sooner or later.  Mr. Hajime Asaoka from Japan is a member of the prestigious AHCI, a group of 31 most recognized independent watchmakers in the world.  Hajime takes on every part of the watchmaking process himself for the high-end timepieces  such as the exquisite Tsunami collection under his eponymous brand. These handmade pieces take a long time to complete, so the quantity is extremely low and the prices are out of reach for most people.  In order to produce more accessible watches for a wider group of watch lovers interested in his work, Hajime started a new brand “Kurono Tokyo” (think “chrono-”) in 2019.  He is responsible for the design, specifications and even QA of Kurono watches while leaving the production to the Precision Watch Tokyo Co., Ltd, the same parent company as the high end Hajime Asaoka Atelier.    Kurono watches are all limited editions in the hundreds and are available through online purchase at the official site only.  The time-only pieces have been priced under $2000 and the chronograph pieces under $4000.  The offerings have all been sold out very quickly so far due to very high demand.

Kurono was a double-finalist in the 2020 GPHG, the Oscar Award of the watch industry, with the time-only “Mori” and the “Chronograph 1”, which was an unprecedented feat for a young brand that was just founded one year ago.   In the “Chronograph” category, 15 watches released in 2020 were included in the competition by a careful nomination process.  Through secret votes by about 350 GPHG academy members, six candidates including the Kurono Chronograph 1 were selected to advance to the final round.  This great honor may be better appreciated by knowing that the chronograph pieces that didn’t go to the final round include 2020 new watches from IWC, Chopard, Doxa and Maurice Lacroix.  It was indeed quite remarkable that Kurono was recognized by the industry peers in this most prestigious watch competition held every year since 2001.

Kurono is best-loved by its fans for the openness and transparency in how it develops, releases and sells watches.   I got to learn a lot about the brand and its wonderful team through social media, especially its instagram accountHajime himself would chime in from time to time to share with watch lovers his thoughts on watchmaking and the stunning pictures taken by himself.  The most impressive community building project to me is a beautiful, 52-page “Celebrating Collectors 2020 Photobook” of gorgeous pictures taken by the Kurono timepiece owners (a digital copy is available at the end of this page).  For the “Mori” release, Kurono team decided to increase production volume to account for glitches during the ordering process, a delight for many collectors. The Kurono team has shown genuine sincerity and fast actions in addressing customer needs, which set a great example of effective marketing and community building for other much bigger watch brands.  

My first purchase from Kurono was a limited edition, hand-made strap with a poet script engraved on the hand-patinated leather. When Chronograph 2 was announced earlier this year with stunning photos, I knew that I would want to have it.  I marked my calendar in February and set the alarm for an early morning in California to place an order.  A total of 400+ pieces were sold out in mere 2-3 minutes and there were 7212 visitors in the queue at its peak, as reported by Kurono. I was among the lucky ones who completed the transaction in time.   The Chronograph 2 arrived after 2.5 months in a very nice packaging including a beautiful wrapping cloth. The caseback of the watch is engraved with wordings “Designed by Hajime Asaoka” and “Bunkyō Tokyo”, which refers to the special ward in Tokyo where Hajime's design studio is located.  It is a super nice, vintage looking luxury timepiece from Japan through and through.  

It almost looks like Kurono has been leading the watch trends in dial colorway.  The green dialed Mori was launched one year ahead of the green-dial party at the 2021 Watches and Wonders. The Chronograph 1, with panda and reverse panda color schemes, was one year ahead of the talk-of-the-town Tudor launch of its panda and reverse panda chronographs.  Chronograph 2 debuts in a dark brown color which is a relatively unusual color for a watch dial but it looks perfect for the classic design of the watch and could set a new trend based on the past track records.  The dial design is a bit busier than Chronograch 1 yet the legibility is maintained just fine with contrasting colors and crisp markings.  

The Chronograph 1 includes a standard tachymeter function which  usually measures speed of the cars.  The Chronograph 2 moves the tachymeter scale towards the center of the dial which intersects with the 2 sub-dials in an interesting way.  A telemeter scale is added at the outermost area of the dial.  A telemeter enables a wearer to gauge the distance from an occurrence far away that is both visible and audible.  One example would be estimating the distance from a lightning by using the chronograph with the telemeter scale.   It is rare to offer both tachymeter and telemeter scales on a watch and they greatly enhance the tool watch appeal of the Chronograph 2.  The five different hands of distinct shapes on a perfect symmetrical dial and the color choices of brown, black, copper and silver project an unmistakably vintage look and art deco feel.  The overall aesthetic of the dial and case design created by Hajime  is what sets the Kurono Chronograph 2 apart in driving the strong collector interest. 

For the Chronograph 1 and 2, Hajime selected NE86A, the best OEM chronograph caliber available from Seiko, a top chronograph caliber producer not just in Japan, but in the world.  In May 1969, Seiko was the first in the world to bring the automatic chronograph watches to market with caliber 6139, followed by Zenith with its famous El Primero caliber and the Chronomatic Group including Breitling and Heuer.  For more than half a century, Seiko has continued to improve its technology as a fully integrated watchmaker.  The current Seiko 8R family of chronograph calibers are powering Seiko’s own Prospex and Presage collections.  In the meantime, Seiko makes available NE86A to independent brands which is almost the same as its most complicated, premium calibers 8R48A/8R49A with 34 jewels and 311 components (main difference with NE86A being the location of date).  We can be rest assured that Kurono Chronograph 2 is powered by a top-notch movement that the Japanese watch industry may produce at a competitive price.

The 311-part NE86A movement combines traditional chronograph features like a column wheel, vertical clutch, and a magic lever winding system with a unique three-pointed hammer system that starts, stops and resets all three wheels simultaneously. This system allows for all the counters to advance continuously rather than only at one-minute intervals.  This automatic caliber runs at 28,800bph and offers at least 45 hours of power reserve.  The timing accuracy is about +7.0 seconds per day measured over 48 hours by me with the “WatchTracker'' mobile app on iOS. The data points form almost a straight line which means that the movement may be further regulated to be higher accuracy at the rate is very stable.  The time/dating setting is very smooth and the operation of the chronograph is firm and crisp.  The winding of the crown is more audible than some other watches but I like it this way as it seems more responsive to me.  

I was really happy to add the Kurono Chronograph 2 to my collection, as it just ticks so many boxes.  The biggest delight is the classic aesthetic with a vintage, tool-like look and feel, derived from the DNA common in Mr. Hajime Asaoka’s creations.  The rigorous process of bringing every Kurono model to fruition with an artisan's mindset and eyesight is key to the success of the young brand.  The tireless efforts in pursuing excellence in watchmaking and engaging watch enthusiasts have resulted in GPHG nominations and successful launches of one model after another.  

Maybe the main drawback is that the Kurono watches are simply hard to get, due to supply greatly outnumbered by demand.  This often comes as a surprise to watch lovers who just discover the brand, like myself.  The Kurono team has to maintain the highest quality standards with limited production runs, but it is good to see that they are gradually increasing the production volume with each new model.  For Chronograph 2, the production number was 500, the highest ever.  Kurono further promised that for the upcoming anniversary release later 2021, all customers will be able to purchase a watch if completing the order within the time limit (which should be sufficient for normal transactions).  Good things in life will come with some patience.  I would advise folks new to the brand to be a bit patient, follow the brand on social media, and be ready for the future releases.