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Review: Kuoe Kyoto

We’re all chasing the next biggest, bestest watch on Instagram, the one with more bells and whistles than a 1930s steam train. Kenji Uchimura has a different approach, however, looking back to resolute simplicity to find comfort and satisfaction. Can his affordable watch brand Kuoe provide a purer approach to enjoying watches?

Kuoe Old Smith 90-001

Today I learnt a word. Saudade. It’s Portuguese, and it describes a feeling of deep, wistful longing for something absent, often felt for something never actually experienced. I had it very recently upon hearing the new Beatles song, Now and Then. I didn’t grow up when The Beatles were together, but the song makes me wish I did.

There’s an essence of saudade with Kuoe watches. The cheapest we have here, the Old Smith 90-001, in quartz with a Seiko powertrain, is blessed with an effortlessness that makes me yearn for a time when that was enough. The information overload that is the 21st century is exhausting, and the steadfast ticking of the Old Smith is a bit of an antidote to that.

It’s just 35mm across, which is very small by today’s standards, but that’s exactly what this watch is trying to evoke. This isn’t a watch for today’s standards. It’s not connected, it’s not touchscreen and it’s not on the blockchain. It’s exactly what you see, small, unadorned, unassuming.

There’s an ivory dial with a black railroad chapter ring, embellished with raised numerals and a small seconds sub-dial. The hands are blue—painted, not heated—and the text is limited to the name of the brand, where it’s from—Kyoto—and of course the pride of its Japanese manufacture. And that’s it. It’s shamelessly restrained but refreshingly satisfying, like how only water will do after a gruelling period of exercise.

The mind is as vulnerable to strain as any other part of the body, and Kuoe’s approach to encouraging downtime is graciously appreciated. Put this watch on and take a day to read a book. No devices, no communication, just one single direction of thought. Because that’s the biggest challenge, isn’t it? Our attention is pulled so many ways at once that the fulfilment of achieving a single task from beginning to end without interruption is a fading memory. $248 for the mineral glass version—add $138 for sapphire—and it’s a small price to pay to get some relief.

Kuoe Old Smith 90-002

Kuoe isn’t a one-trick pony, however. If the Old Smith 90-001 is the perfect accompaniment for a good book, perhaps the Old Smith 90-002 is the one that reminds you to take some time out in nature and go for a good, long walk where phone signal just can’t reach.

The field watch design, again in 35mm, adds a robustness throughout compared to the 001, the crown knurling deeper, the dial black with a granular texture, and the hands and markers inflated with a caramel lume to better make them legible in trickier conditions like a bright day outdoors, or a gloomy evening. Water resistance goes from 50m to 100m and again, sapphire crystal is available as a $138 option. There’s also a nylon strap option and a $70 bracelet upgrade.

Making the most of the outdoor wearability is the Seiko NH38 self-winding, an upgrade from the 001’s quartz. When not on the move, it’ll keep the watch wound for around forty hours. It’s not a particularly accurate movement, but that’s not really the point. If -20 to +40 seconds per day is going to make all the difference, you’re doing it wrong.

The $358 Old Smith 90-002 is a watch to unwind with. You take off your Apple Watch, leave your phone behind and strap this on. It’s a reminder that, for the next few hours, you’re there just for you. Take stock. Enjoy the minutes as they pass slowly by. Be in the moment you didn’t even realise you needed.

It’s then you’ll appreciate the essence of the 002, its origins as the evolution of the pocket watch, wearable with convenience on the wrist and usable in all conditions. This design, this functionality, used to be the peak of technology, and really that time wasn’t as long ago as it seems.

Time hasn’t passed quite how you think it has. It’s just been filled with more and more and more stuff. That’s why boredom feels so slow. There’s nothing in it. We’re not used to being bored any more. We should really learn to appreciate it again.

Kuoe Royal Smith 90-006

Our last moment with Kuoe is with the $528 Royal Smith 90-006, the brand’s crowning jewel. But you won’t find actual jewels or anything ostentatious like that. Still in 35mm, the case is PVD-coated steel and set with a traditional Japanese “washi” paper texture dial, set with gold alternating markers and faceted dauphine hands.

This time the watch gets Japan’s automatic Miyota calibre 9039 which improves the accuracy of the Seiko to -10 to +30 seconds per day. It also has a higher beat than the Seiko at 28,800 vph, so the second hand moves smoothly around the dial.

It’s in this watch that the saudade is strongest. Perhaps it’s the warmth of the paper dial, or the golden case, or even the oiled, Italian leather strap. Whatever it is, it makes me wish to be back in a place I’ve never been, a liminal space that has probably only ever occupied my dreams. Wherever it is, it’s not here, but it feels like somewhere I might be able to get to when I’m wearing the Royal Smith.

Perhaps that’s what Kenji Uchimura intended when he conceptualised the brand back in 2010. Perhaps Kuoe isn’t so much a collection of watches as it is a set of keys to different doors, to unlock the spaces we need to be in to unwind from the reality of modern living.

So the story goes, Uchimura was inspired to create Kuoe when he saw a vintage Smiths on a trip to the UK, one he couldn’t afford. And it’s not just the look he’s replicated, but the feel as well, the very moment that Smiths was created, captured in steel, just like a fly in amber.

It’s not got the hype and the buzz of a complicated, slick, high-energy concept brand, and perhaps we need to recondition ourselves not to expect that every single time. A Red Bull isn’t the best drink before bed. You’d be better off with the old wartime favourite, Ovaltine, another relic of a simpler time. And maybe that’s just what we need more of in all walks of our life, if for a moment here and there, to unwind from the relentlessness. Plain, ordinary simplicity.

What do you think of Kuoe and its range of simple, functional, affordable watches?