Independent Insights with: Leonardo Tsai, Selten Watches
Updated: Sep 24, 2021
In this column, we interview brand-owners and creators in the independent watchmaking scene to learn about the people behind the brand, and the reasons why they do the things they do. Through these conversations, we hope for readers to discover that a brand is beyond just the sum of its products, and explore the depth of thinking that goes into shaping a brand.
This, we believe, will truly elevate the consumer experience, and redefine the way we enjoy a brand's products.
Schedule: Bi-monthly, or as our schedule permits
Leonardo Tsai, Selten
In this instalment of Independent Insights, we interview Leonardo Tsai of Selten. Known as an up-and-coming independent brand offering rare materials at unrivalled prices, and its wildly successful Kickstarter campaign having raised over USD 275,000, Selten is definitely the brand to watch out for in the microbrand segment. Find out more about Selten and the Series 00/01 at: https://www.seltenwatch.com/
Part 1. – Introducing Leonardo
Leonardo Tsai, founder and owner of Selten Watches
Constellar: Hey Leonardo, thanks for joining us for this session. Why not kick things off with an introduction of yourself and Selten?
Leonardo: I’m a person who embraces the spirit of adventure, exploration, and action and not just any wandering familiar spirit, and still learning to do things out of my comfort zone. Selten is a brand that doesn't want to be a stereotype. It’s a brand that wants to have a signature design that allows people to know this is Selten at first sight!
C: What has been your profession prior to establishing Selten? Is this a side passion project or a full time pursuit for you?
Leonardo: I worked for JP Morgan right before I started my own business. People often said that was silly as I could have a good career path with them, but I don’t feel like it. It felt as though I was doing the same routine task every day, and I didn't like the feeling that I wasn’t in control of my thing. I’m definitely not a control freak though!
I quit my job 18 months in, and I started my own business. I’m not sure if the past profession has helped my Kickstarter campaign, but I know I have no way back for me to work for someone else. I’m committed to my brand, and I’d like to give all I have to my customers!
C: That’s an amazing portfolio that you have there, and we’re convinced of your dedication towards Selten. What are your hobbies outside of watchmaking? Does it have any influence on your design language?
Leonardo: I ski, and I dive. These are the hobbies I’ve picked up in recent years, and I’d say these hobbies allow me to think out of the box more. You never know what you may encounter next!
C: We guess our hobbies bring out our creative side in everything that we do, and it’s always good to approach things differently. How would you describe your personal watch collection as a brand owner?
Leonardo: I don’t really collect watches because I invest most of the money that I earn back into the business. Especially in a place like Hong Kong, renting an apartment and an office already costs USD $4,000 a month. There are only a few watches in my “collection”, with my favorite being the JLC Reverso which is their classic piece!
C: That’s a grail-worthy piece! Great taste! Just from your Kickstarter campaign, we can also sense that there’s a lot of time and hard work dedicated to the business and we’re happy that it worked out well for you. With this legacy that you’re building, is there anything you want supporters of Selten to remember you for?
Leonardo: If you want unusual materials for your watch, you can come to me!
Part 2. Insights into Selten
Wristshot of the Selten Series 00 - Meteorite with Lance Hands
Constellar: Let’s now give our undivided attention toward Selten as a brand. How did Selten come into being?
Leonardo: Honestly the idea was rooted in my mind around 8 years ago when I just started to learn about crowdfunding. I didn't think of starting my brand before knowing more about crowdfunding. I thought it was something out of reach, and crowdfunding is a way to help people's dreams come true.
The beginning of Selten started eight years back when I witnessed a watch campaign doing very well. It was then when I started to think about the kind of watch I could make, and how I could incorporate my parents’ connection to the watch industry, which they had been a part of since before I was born.
C: Not everybody can say that it’s in their blood to be in the watch industry and mean it! We noticed this phrase “A Rare Kind, Not a Stereotype” in your campaign. What does this phrase mean to you?
Leonardo: The motto of our brand is "A rare kind, not a stereotype". We use unusual materials in our watches, and for our first collection, meteorite was chosen as our signature material for the dial. Apart from the material differentiation in the Series 00, I believe that our implementation to change the 24 hour disc to a Day & Night Indicator is distinct, and it’s hard for people to find a similar design in the market with. We have planned for some other exotic materials to be used in the next watch/collection.
C: We can’t wait for you to reveal new exotic materials for Selten! What would you say is your Vision for Selten, and what are your plans for Selten in the next 2 years?
Leonardo: I think it’s too early to tell, but I have already planned for our next 2-3 models, and it’s something I’ve been planning for a few years and wanted to release after the completion of our first collection.
C: We’ll surely be looking out for your new releases! What are some key design elements/recurring themes you like to keep in Selten’s future releases?
Leonardo: I’d say you would expect us to use some unusual materials or designs on the dial as it is our key design element, whilst keeping them affordable.
C: Unusual materials and designs do seem to be a winning combination. With the experimental nature of your materials and designs, were there any concepts / designs that didn’t work out before coming up with the Selten Series 00 and Series 01?
Leonardo: Damascus steel was planned for our first collection, but we have yet to find an economic way to manufacture them. We have over 10 patterns for our Damascus steel sitting in the drawer.
C: With the conceptualisation of Selten being many years in the making, how has the Selten Type 00 and Type 01 evolved over the years since it’s creation?
Leonardo: I would say the most significant difference for Series 00 is the Day-Night Indicator. You can see from the first prototype on the left photo, it’s completely different from what it is now on the right. We did a lot of trial and error to make it right.
Evolution of the Day/Night Indicator on the Selten Series 00
C: As a new brand owner, what is your most unforgettable experience in running the Selten Kickstarter campaign?
Leonardo: I guess it must be the moment we have passed our goal! That's sort of proof that people truly believe in my work that I have done so far!
C: Oh yes, Congratulations once again on the amazing campaign performance with over 700 backers! Speaking of which, in your opinion, what do you think contributed to your resounding success for the Series 00 and Series 01 on Kickstarter?
Leonardo: Thank you for your kind words. I’d say it’s due to the preparation done over the past 4 years, and the help from my family. Not to mention my wife who has been supporting and believing in me since day 1.
C: What advice will you give upcoming Brand Creators that plan for their watches to be crowdfunded?
Leonardo: A pre-launch campaign is a must. In the meanwhile, you can also get an idea of how well people respond to your watch. You have to be different in this field as the competition now is more aggressive than before. Customers are also more cautious about crowdfunding, with some being more willing to purchase your watch only when your production is finished rather than backing you during the crowdfunding campaign! And please make sure you have your watch interviewed by several reviewers right before the launch!
C: We are pretty sure many will find these tips helpful especially with so many new brands popping up every now and then. What is one thing you will like your supporters to know about Selten?
Leonardo: Selten is a German word meaning “rare”.
The Selten Series 00 in Meteorite and Heated Blue Steel Hands
C: That’s an interesting fun fact that is in line with the theme of the brand! Selten has been very successful in bringing a good value at an affordable price. How does Selten manage to achieve this, and how does this fit the long term strategy of Selten?
Leonardo: There’s no doubt that the pricing has set my watch apart more than anything. Some may think that my prices are unrealistic, especially because there are so many applied parts on the dial, not to mention the usage of meteorite. And yes, the fact is, the margin for my watch on Kickstarter may not be as profitable as other creators. But I don't rely on this campaign for a living.
The main reason I could price it at this affordable level is because I source for the meteorite on my own. I believe this gives me a huge advantage in terms of pricing. Considering this is my first collection, nobody knows about my brand, and I decided to set my price lower, attract more people to buy, and deliver the watch in the quality expected. Hopefully, they will come back as returning customers, and share the watches with their friends and community via word of mouth, thus making my brand more reputable. In the end, what many would call this a "loss", but I would consider this as an early investment that will bring me more profits in the future.
Part 3. Industry talk
Constellar: Let’s move on to talk a little bit about your thoughts on the Micro/Independent brand industry. What do you wish you knew, before stepping into the industry?
Leonardo: Get your TRADEMARK registered!
If people have been following my journey, they'll remember I posted some of my progress on the microbrand group. And this was when a lot of people learned that the name of my brand wasn't called SELTEN originally, it was something else. However, I was notified that the original name had been registered by someone else, and I had to change my name or face legal charges. That was in 2019. So, as I said before, please make sure to register your trademark after you've decided on the name!
C: That’s great advice! It would certainly be disorientating to have to think up new brand names suddenly. In your opinion, what do you feel is currently lacking in the industry?
Leonardo: Some “never-seen” designs, recently I’ve come across Nautilus from Horizon watches, you gotta check out their caseback!
C: We’ve seen their teasers. They are indeed really original and a breath of fresh air! What predictions do you have, for the micro/independent scene in the next 3 to 5 years?
Leonardo: The competition is getting more vigorous, as you know the movement supplies are getting more intense, and you may need to wait for more than 6 months to get some of the popular movements. For new joiners they may not have much money to place for the deposit for the movement, also it’s hard for them to anticipate the quantity they need for production, thus making it harder to enter this industry.
I think it’s an unhealthy cycle for the industry, as it only makes the better get better, as they may have more financial support already, and they can afford to develop more models for their brands.
C: That is an interesting take on the industry. We certainly agree that the industry may face some aggregation of sorts especially when powerhouses are already appearing given the nascent stage of our industry. Given your personality, we are sure that you have looked up to some brand owners prior to launching Selten. What are some brands and brand owners you admire, in our segment?
Leonardo: I'd name Roy from Valhalla of Norway, Yong Keong Lim from Feynman Timepieces and Elshan Tang from Zelos. Roy is the first microbrand owner I’ve met in person during the meet up for microbrand owners in the Hong Kong Watch Fair a few years back. He’s super nice and he has got his design vibe in his watches. I also met Yong Keong at the meetup, and what impressed me is that he said that he is a lover of manual wind watches, thus he made his first watch using a manual wind movement! And lastly Elshan, as there is no doubt that Zelos is the pioneer brand for most of us.
C: Who would you like to know more about as a brand owner, in our segment?
Leonardo: It would be Roy Klokk from Valhalla of Norway!
C: Awesome! We hope to be able to interview him one day in the future!
Part 4. Upcoming release
C: What is next for Selten?
Leonardo: Currently, I am focusing on the production of the recent campaign. And I'm planning to release new materials for the dial on our current SERIES 00 & 01 collection. Do wait and see!
Part 5. Closing words from Leonardo
Leonardo: Thank you so much to those who believed in me. I couldn’t have achieved this without any of you.
C: Thank you once again for joining us Leonardo. We look forward to seeing future developments from Selten!