Who said we want a watch to tell us the time? We want something that gleams in the dark like Knight Rider could so fabulously! Even more since fancy LEDs serve not only as club decor and artsy design, like the LED table by Ingo Maurer or the 700,000 lights facade of Peter Marino’s Chanel Building in Ginza. Being small, versatile and luminescent, LED elements are ideal – on our wrists! Take Japanese design firm Sea Hope: Since ten years, their watches have abandoned traditional hands, showing the time artful encoded in LEDs, LCDs or analogue patterns you’d have to solve. PingMag was overdue in heading over to Yokohama to get our flash from Sea Hope founder Yasushi Kimura.
Written by Vicente Gutierrez
Sea Hope founder Yasushi Kimura wearing one of the first watches he made, an “EleeNo 001.” Photo by Martin Holtkamp.
Old-school analogue in a sleek new guise: the analogue “EleeNo Orbit.” Image courtesy of Tokyoflash.
When and how did you start making watches?
I was living in London for three years while I was working for SEGA. One day, I came across a guitar-shaped watch in a small shop in London – and ended up contacting the manufacturer about the parts. Then, I wanted to start designing my own watches around the concept of not using traditional hands to display the time, and started to in 1997. It’s been ten years and by now we are an international company.
So, what were your first watches like?
Our first was an analogue model, the EleeNo 001, and our first LED watch was the Pimp1 with red, green and yellow LED elements. At that time, red, green and yellow LEDs comprised about 80 percent of LED products and blue and white LED lights had just become available. So, the next Pimp models were embedded with blue and white LEDs. These ended up being really successful…
Sea Hope’s very first watch, without hands: artful analogue art with the “EleeNo 001.” Image courtesy of Tokyoflash.
No wonder! Who isn’t intrigued by LEDs? What’s your personal fascination with it?
Simply put, people like light and illuminations – it just enhances any accessory; especially in Japan, where it gets dark so early. For example, mobiles are just so part of our daily lives now and they have become very accessorised in trying to be unique and user-friendly with their displays. I think watches are just another accessory and LED lights give off an illumination everyone enjoys. The lights are like those small insects in the night, those bugs that can light up. They are fascinating little lights.
THE Scope: for your next sci-fi fantasy. This one was inspired by a movie, but Yasushi didn’t tell which one. Try to guess! Photo by Martin Holtkamp.
New LCD display, inspired by sci-fi movies and car audio stereo displays: the “Alien DNA.” Photo by Martin Holtkamp.
Glowworms! Are you more into Analogue or LED?
I feel a push and pull between complex and simple watch design. People love the latest technology but still want something simple. The watch market is so trendy, but as trends are always moving and changing, I feel the market is coming back toward analogue watches recently. However, LED watches peak in popularity about every ten years or so, but you can feel the sales pressure. Even though my market is really small, frankly speaking it’s easier to make and sell analogue watches. But I just want to make analogue ones in my own way, without hands.
Where do you find inspiration to make a watch from a stereo equaliser or a Radio Active model or the military-themed Scope?
I’m always thinking about everyday items and ways to make them into interactive watches: Sometimes it comes from light and interface designs in mobile phones or cars. Other times, I see movies or TV commercials and something catches my eye. For example, the idea for the Scope came from a sci-fi movie I saw. It plays a short illumination when it searches, then the two lines focus on the time. The Scope watch illustrates well what people want and we are now in the process of making the Scope 2 with new LCD technology.
So watch making is also about new technology…
We are always looking for new technology to use in our watches. People want newer and newer things so we have to stay ahead because that’s the way for us to survive. Though we could never compete with big watchmakers like Seiko and Casio, we still can try: As a result, my watches turn out to be quite different. For example, the idea to use LCDs came from car audio stereo displays: They show more detailed graphics and display the time constantly, while LED models display the time only after pressing a button. For the new Scope, we are using LCDs for the display as we did with the Alien DNA model. That was also an idea drawn from a sci-fi movie…
The making of the “EleeNo EG3:” from first sketches…
… to a dummy – still without the LCD display. Photos by Martin Holtkamp.
The earlier version of the “EleeNo EG,” an instant classic.
Also from the inside, your watches seem to be complexly built. When you design with LED and LCD elements, what challenges do you face?
I have space limitations: It’s like being an engineer because I have to fit in certain parts, like the battery and grid of lights, in a certain fixed space. But from a designer’s viewpoint, sometimes I want to make them bigger or wider but I still have to adhere to some size or capacity standards. Sometimes, it’s not even possible to make what I drew. The technology can set a limit and goes against what I want to do so I’m always working to find the midway.
Now we want to know all of the details: What’s the process of making one of your fabulous watches?
The next elegant release: the “Jekyll and Hyde,” analogue, again. Photo by Martin Holtkamp.
Our average LED watch takes one to two years to produce, whereas an analogue watch takes just about five months. First, I start drawing in my sketchbook whatever enters my mind and conceptualise what I want to do. Then, I lay it out on my computer. Afterwards there are a few steps I can’t show you, sorry… But then I begin to make a few dummy models, going back and forth in refining the design and changing the materials – until we get to the final product.
Interesting! Now, what will the future timepieces be like?
Right now we are in the middle of making a new line. Apart from LCD elements, we are beginning to look into chargeable watches, like a mobile: You can wear it out, and in your downtime, you charge it. Sorry, I can’t show you the new prototypes yet – but here is a new analogue model we are about to release, the Jekyll and Hyde.
Many thanks to Yasushi Kimura of Sea Hope, we look forward to seeing what clever timepieces you come up with next! For all of you global LED lovers: If you haven’t done it yet, head over to Tokyoflash for their international site.