Alumnus championing Chinese culture through luxury watches

Former LBS student challenging misconceptions about Chinese goods

Atelier Wen

Robin Tallendier has launched Atelier Wen, a Swiss-quality watchmaker in China, to challenge the notion that Chinese goods are second rate.

The Masters in Management graduate from London Business School (LBS) believes some people see Chinese-made products as “low quality” and cheap. “That couldn’t be further from the truth – China creates beautiful, interesting goods,” he said. 

Tallendier and business partner Wilfried Buiron – who met while studying at the University of Warwick from 2013 to 2017 – want to show the world that luxury watches can be made entirely in China using the same materials, machinery and skills as Swiss watchmakers. 

“Most watch brands have some operations in China,” Tallendier said. “Many parts can be made in China and then shipped to Switzerland to be assembled and fitted with a Swiss-made movement. The watch is certified as Swiss-made even though it hasn’t been made in Switzerland.”  

A crowdfunder was held in November 2018, raising €82,000 (£73,000) of startup capital that Tallendier and Buiron will invest in their first batch of luxury watches. They plan to sell them to consumers outside of Asia. 

“We’re the only Chinese watch brand operating in the west,” Tallendier said. “We will sell in the west to begin with and then start distributing the watches in China from March 2019.”

The components for each watch will be made by 12 Chinese factories that Atelier Wen has partnerships with.

Building relationships with Chinese companies is notoriously difficult, according to Tallendier. He did it through Wei Li, a friend, mentor and government figure with responsibility for the nation’s watch industry. 

When studying at Remnin University of China in 2014, Tallendier randomly met Li at a Beijing-based watch shop. They had, unbeknownst to them, actually spoken before on a website for horology enthusiasts.  

Li took Tallendier under his wing, taking him to watch factories to meet some of the industry’s leading figures. Those experiences helped Tallendier develop the contacts he needed to launch Atelier Wen three years later. 

“There’s a joke about the two things that are very hard to visit in China: government offices and factories. They are very wary of visitors. I had the industry access and knew everyone who was important, so why not do something about it?” Tallendier said. 

He added that launching the business would not have been possible without Buiron. “I had this idea but didn’t think I’d be able to do it myself,” Tallendier said. 

“Wilfried, who’s a good friend, was in to startups and could speak fluent Chinese. He suggested we do something together, I told him my idea and that’s how we got started.”

While studying at University of Warwick, Tallendier and Buiron spent a year on an international exchange programme with Guanghua School of Management in Beijing. It was then that they decided to set up a luxury watchmaker in China. 

The two worked on the business while Tallendier studied at LBS from 2017 to 2018. Studying alongside other LBS students convinced him to focus on Atelier Wen rather than take the safer option of becoming a consultant.     

“I’d thought about doing consulting or something more stable, as I’m quite risk-averse. But then at LBS, I realised that it’s ok to take risks. 

“Some of the MBAs I met who were in consulting said they didn’t want to do it anymore – they were glad to come to LBS as they wanted to start their own businesses. That made me think, ‘These guys are doing it, so why can’t I?’”

If Atelier Wen is successful, Tallendier and Buiron plan to extend the brand beyond luxury watches. “We’d like to make the Chinese culture stronger through watches and other products that use Chinese craftsmanship,” Tallendier said. “Our aim is to move into accessories in 2019, such as men’s cashmere scarfs; the finest cashmere comes from Inner Mongolia.  

“We’re also thinking of bracelets for women, cosmetics and clothing. The core of Atelier Wen is Chinese culture and any way we can showcase that is of interest to us.”