Carbon under extremely high pressure and temperature turns into diamonds — a popular allegory for success that stems from surviving adversity. Boldr’s timepieces may not boast the precious stone, but the brand was forged under great pressure and persisted through a baptism by fire to reach its fifth year in business.
The Malaysian-Singaporean label, led by founder Leon Leong, made its debut on Kickstarter in late 2015. Its premise of a timepiece that combined classic analogue designs and a quartz heart, with smartwatch functions such as tracking movement, delivering notifications and controlling mobile phone cameras, resonated with the Kickstarter crowd and achieved its fundraising goal in just over 24 hours.
Then it all went downhill. Manufacturing costs suddenly spiralled, as did the cost of certifications necessary to internationally ship products that emit Bluetooth signals. Leong and his team had to either raise prices or risk hold-ups at customs that would delay product delivery to backers. Rather than tarnish their reputation, they decided to cancel the highly successful campaign, undoing countless hours of work and capital injection. They took time off to regroup and then put aside their first model, Voyage, to launch Journey, named in honour of the trials they had encountered. It took a few rounds of Kickstarter campaigns before the brand became self-sufficient, and the team has not looked back since.
Fans today see Boldr as a brand for those who do it all. Each timepiece is built to be “used and abused”, designed to take a beating, so its wearer is not held back on its behalf.
“One of the problems I faced with watches was that they were not very durable,” says Leong. “I personally love adventure but my watches would break under impact or spoil easily. That inspired us to create timepieces that could last, and they do. I’ve worn Boldr on days-long hikes in the mountains and while skydiving.”
Jaspal Singh, who oversees marketing at the watchmaker, is not quite as extreme in his pursuits, but jumping out of helicopters is not a Boldr prerequisite for ownership. “I wear the watches for their style,” he says. “You don’t have to get down and dirty with them ... these adventure watches look good in urban environments with both casual and formal attire.”
Four collections make up a matrix of hardy timepieces for any outdoor occasion — the daily beater Expedition, inspired by tactical military tanks; the automatic diver Odyssey, which is waterproof to 500m; the Globetrotter GMT dive timepiece, to keep track of multiple time zones; and the Venture field watch, with an automatic movement in an indestructible lightweight titanium case.
Venture was selected as the latest canvas for graffiti rock star Kenji Chai, better known by just his first name. When Leong and Jaspal came across Kenji’s profile, they were of course impressed by his artwork, but it was the story behind the man and Chaigo, his signature motif of a neon blue stray dog with his tongue sticking out, that sealed the deal.
Growing up in a broken home in Sandakan, Sabah, Kenji became estranged from his family and had to fend for himself at a young age. He empathised with the plight of the many strays that populated Kuala Lumpur while he was trying to make a name as an independent graffiti artist, and the wily four-legged survivors proved to be the unlikely inspiration for his most popular character.
Kenji, himself born in the Year of the Dog, christened the character Chaigo — a portmanteau word of his surname and “gou”, Mandarin for dog. The friendly turquoise pup that brightens many a street wall launched Kenji into graffiti fame, and his colourful expressions and massive murals now adorn building façades from Jakarta and Shanghai to Kazakhstan and New York.
“Kenji’s story was very interesting. His circumstances weren’t the best, but he persevered through,” says Jaspal. “He really believes in his work and vision. We’ve actually worked with Singaporean graffiti artist FreakyFir before on a different model and were looking for a new collaboration. When we reached out to Kenji, there was an unmistakable meeting of minds.”
That phone call proved to be fortuitous. The graffiti artist was coincidentally in the market for a watch collaboration and had spent many hours trying to make it happen with several brands, only to face creative or financial limitations.
“I was so frustrated, trying to work out how I could make this happen, when the phone rang,” Kenji recalls. “It was as if God had sent an angel to answer a prayer. Leon was on the line and he spoke about the Venture model and the creative freedom I would be afforded. I could see the same passion and vision in Boldr that I have for my brand and I told him, let’s do it.”
The Boldr x Kenji Chai collaboration resulted in the Venture Chaigo Limited Edition watch. The Venture dial has been turned into a sophisticated statement with time in a 24-hour format spelt out in two hour-rings, the outer citing 1 to 12 in blue numerals and markers, and the inner chapter marking 13 to 24 in red. The word “Chaigo” is stamped south of the dial, below a black-on-black engraving of the iconic dog at the heart of the dark canvas.
Kenji’s artwork is also embossed on the screw-down caseback of the 38mm titanium case with matching bracelet. Luminous white hands track the hours and minutes while a slim indicator outlined in red counts the seconds, all powered by the Japan SII NH35A automatic movement. The 160-piece limited-edition model is presented in a collectible box along with a Chaigo NATO strap, a set of Venture Chaigo stickers and a hand-painted Chaigo collector’s toy.
“The design did not go through many evolutions,” says Kenji. “Since my mediums of work are graffiti and cartoons, there was the risk of the design looking too childish. To ensure it was smart and edgy, we went with a black-on-black aesthetic. Not everyone will agree with this idea, especially with Chaigo so discreetly depicted, but I like that it’s subtle and concealed. I wanted something a little futuristic and was delighted to have complete freedom in arranging the dial’s layout. Fans will see a true coming together of the two brands in the Venture Chaigo Limited Edition, and not just a slapdash of my colourway onto the watch in the name of a collaboration.”
With Boldr entrusting him with an open licence to play, Kenji could explore with abandon. “A collaboration is about getting an artist’s vision into our watch,” explains Jaspal. “We want to embrace other perspectives and Kenji is very experienced in his genre of art, which really came across in the watch. This shared wavelength is something we always look forward to and it’s an exciting way to find new audiences.”
“His input pushed us to work in ways we had never thought of prior to this,” continues Leong. “It was beyond what we know to do and was so unexpected.”
Both parties seem optimistic about future experiments together, with Kenji especially pleased with the entire experience. “I’m so happy — not just with the product, but also the process of getting here and presenting the timepiece,” he says. “I worked with my favourite videographer on a video that captures the energy of both Boldr and Chaigo. We didn’t want to hard-sell the watch, but share the spirit of both brands.”
Boldr not only shares its name with the massive boulders that represent physical and metaphorical obstacles that have to be overcome in the climb to the peak, but also sounds like a rallying cry to have courage and take chances. It lives up to its moniker in more ways than one.
“When I proposed the idea of including the toys and stickers inside, which of course increases the weight of the packaging and price of overseas shipping, Boldr did not say no or cite financial or logistical restrictions,” says a clearly appreciative Kenji. “I think that was a really bold move on their part, to take that chance and trust that the timepiece — and its accessories — speaks for itself and will find its fans.”
Diamonds may not decorate the bezel or dial of Boldr’s timepieces, but the watchmaker does not need precious stones to dazzle. Its prowess in the rocky outdoors, the depths of the sea or the battleground that is the boardroom cements the brand as a boutique gem with global appeal.
The Venture Chaigo Limited Edition is available at S$682 (about RM2,086) at boldrsupply.co.
This article first appeared on Mar 22, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.