Time Goes Public: Interview with Nelson Lee of Singapore Watch Fair


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Singapore Watch Fair co-founder Nelson Lee

In recent years, Singapore has become well-established as one of the world’s top export markets for watches, boasting some of the world’s most engaged enthusiasts and collectors. As interest in horology continues to blossom here, it is inevitable that tastes develop beyond superficial interest in the usual top manufacturers. It is only natural that an appetite for vintage timepieces and independent watchmakers is burgeoning. In recognition of the increasingly diverse tastes in Singapore, Ali Nael and Nelson Lee began the Singapore Watch Fair (SWF), with the goal of helping establish Singapore as a regional hub for watchmaking and collecting. Since founding the Fair in 2017, it has grown, mirroring the island’s growth as a watch export market: from initially being the watch component of the luxury festival Jeweluxe to becoming a standalone event, supported by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Resorts World Sentosa (RWS).

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This year’s event, taking place at Resorts World Sentosa from 2-6 October, is set to build on the success of last year’s, with both STB and RWS continuing their support. Focus-wise, SWF will also continue to heavily feature independent watchmakers, whilst featuring more appearances from top manufactures, amongst other displays of watchmaking savoir-faire. Watches will remain the central attractions but this show is not just for collectors; there will be something for everyone as SWF demonstrates how and why beautiful watches are central to Singapore’s cultural landscape.

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In our recent chat with festival director Nelson, he reflected on the story of SWF thus far, and the new experiences attendees can expect to look forward to at this year’s edition.

Does the world need another watch fair?

Nelson Lee: Yes – especially one that is able to bridge the geographical distance between Switzerland and the region – not just in terms of bringing watchmaking expertise to Singapore, but also being able to gather regional interest in one place. There have been stellar examples of such events in the past, but there hasn’t really been one that is consistently held on an annual basis.

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Moreover, given how Singapore has cemented itself as a top export market for Swiss watches, there definitely is local demand for such events to be held in Singapore, which last year’s SWF proved. So, it wouldn’t be so much that the world needs another watch fair, but more that the region needs an annual watch fair in Asia to look forward to each year – one that caters to local interests, and that is able to form a point of convergence for the best of horology and devoted aficionados in the region.

A key focus of the SWF is that we’re always looking towards the future – this underlines our commitment to showcasing a variety of independent watchmakers every year, which stems from our belief that these independents represent the future of watchmaking, for instance, Krayon and L’Epee 1839…

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Why has it taken so long for there to be a standalone watch fair in Singapore?

Nelson Lee: To begin with, I believe it’s only in the past five or so years that widespread interest in independent watchmakers and vintage collecting has begun to solidify and take off. As with the rest of the world, the value and appeal of watches only really entered the mainstream consciousness during the COVID period of socio-economic volatility. In the years since, tastes have only developed and diversified to include appreciation for the fine work of independent watchmakers. The SWF has always mainly focused on independent watchmakers and vintage collecting – areas where we felt demand was concrete, and a platform on which we could showcase how far watchmaking has come, and how it could develop, through the juxtaposition of timeless vintage pieces with the finest craftsmanship and avant-garde innovation that contemporary watchmaking has to offer.

In terms of practicality, it was only in 2023 that we were able to secure the support of a second key partner, Resorts World Sentosa. Even then (and the support of STB since 2017), despite the fact that we are more motivated by passion than by profit, the cost factor is not something that can be easily ignored.

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How is the SWF improving upon the success of last year’s event?

Nelson Lee: In 2022 and 2023, the panel discussions spotlighting women who collect watches – conducted by TickTock Belles’ Stephanie Soh and Deborah Wong, amongst others – proved to be very popular. We see this as a reflection of change within the collectors’ demographic – where women are now keener to create a space for themselves in what is a traditionally male-dominated sphere, so we’re definitely retaining that and bringing more engaging perspectives from our female collectors.

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Besides the various watch panels and plenary sessions, we’re also looking to ramp up the interactivity of the event: through new, on-site, immersive audio-visual driven launches and dinners, as well as a new interactive activity driven by watch expert Carson Chan, perhaps better known on social media by his IG handle @watchprofessor.

In terms of a more hands-on experience, there will also be a strap-making workshop conducted by master craftsmen, which we hope will highlight the innovation and intricate craftsmanship of an oft-underrated aspect of watchmaking.

We are also looking to bring in two more established international watch manufacturers, to add a different dimension to the craftsmanship and innovation expertise that the independent watchmakers will bring.

For more on the 2024 edition of Singapore Watch Fair, click here.

For more on the latest in luxury watch reads, click here.





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