The Amazing Mr. Kiu

By Watchbore

May 2000


First there was the Breguet tourbillon, invented in around 1800. Then came the flying tourbillon — no bridge — from Glashütte in 1930. In 1993, Mr. Kiu invents the mystery tourbillon. No bridge, no carriage.

Mr. Kiu Tai Yu, however, makes all this sound much more dramatic. Carving ideograms in the air, hopping sideways to denote the passage of time, flinging away bridges and carriages, scribbling dates on scraps of paper, Mr. Kiu’s eloquence transcends his valiantly pronounced repertoire of a few dozen English words.

Anyone who makes or collects watches is a friend to Mr. Kiu. He knows the quality of any kind of watch, from an English Karusel to Bovet duplex. Mention his name among watch enthusiasts and the response is invariably a smile of affection.

On his 45th birthday in 1991 Kiu Tai Yu astonished the horological world by making the first Asian tourbillon entirely on his own. Two years and a prolific variety of tourbillons later, Mr. Kiu reduced the elaborate European tourbillon to its barest functional essentials in the Kiu Tai Yu Mystery Tourbillon. Its balance and escapement rotate without an enclosing cage and its bridge, and without visible means of support. To create the illusion, Mr. Kiu suspends the balance-wheel, with the spring underneath, from an invisible bar of crystal. The tourbillon carriage is reduced to its platform, shaped as a pair of fish, on one of which the balance-spring is pinned. All the watches he makes alone, with local materials.

The last time China made any impact on the horological world was about 10 centuries ago when Su Song, occupant of the dragon throne, and thus accustomed to keep others waiting, suffered a considerable loss of face when he turned up a month early for a summit meeting with the northern barbarians. When the barbarian delegation turned up at the next moon, it was with a total lack of refined behavior that they proceeded to pour scorn on the Middle Kingdom’s antiquated method of time reckoning.

It was thus that Su Song returned to commission his leading wizards and geomancers to construct the definitive time-measurement device as a standard for the Celestial Empire. The celebrated Su Song water-clock was the first timepiece ever to have a mechanical escapement, and is thus the direct ancestor of today’s Rolex.

In respect for the first emperor of the Song dynasty, horology made little progress in the Celestial Empire for the next 990 years, until Mr. Kiu shattered the myth that the tourbillon was exclusive to the primitive magic of a tribe of round-eyed, gold-hoarding barbarians inhabiting a remote range of mountains on the Western fringes of the empire.

Born 54 years ago in Soochow near Shanghai, Tai Yu evidently enjoys the benevolent interest of his ancestors, many of whom were artists, and possibly even that of the emperor Su Song himself. At an early age, he discovered a talent for fixing broken watches. His classmates brought him family heirlooms of great value to be repaired, and he memorized their structure and craftsmanship. Entirely self-taught, he built his first watch at the age of 23. Employed in a factory designated to make Mao Zedong medals, Mr. Kiu took responsibility for their technical and artistic execution. “I was the youngest and most impressionable,” he recalls. “The slightest mistake…” he draws an expressive hand across his throat.

In 1980, he took his wife and young daughter to distant Hong Kong to set up his own business as a watchmaker and dealer. He soon came to attention of Lord Sandberg, chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank (owner of a collection of watches of such importance that the catalogue alone costs 5000 dollars) who helped him secure a property at an affordable price.

The only way for Mr. Kiu to study watchmaking was to learn from the work of the masters, so it was natural for him to become a collector and a dealer. He specializes in pocket-watches, in particular those made for the orient, selected for their integrity and technical interest. His book, Time in Pocket, illustrates the quality of the collection in 200 watches chosen according to objective and scholarly criteria.

Kiu Tai Yu has been a popular exhibitor at the Academy stand in Basel since he brought his first tourbillon there in 1992. With unflagging energy and charm he receives dealers, collectors, journalists and watchmakers, grabs passers-by to pose with him for photographers or to be shown his tourbillons. He must be the only exhibitor at the show whose products are not for sale, merely demonstrations of his art. Mr. Kiu acknowledges he makes no concessions to European tastes in his watches. “You like, no like, no problem,” he says indulgently. And Mrs. Kiu, for the first time in Basel, hovers proudly in the background.

Copyright © Alan Downing May 2000