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Interview with Dr. James Fan of J&G Watches & Review of the Exciton II

An interview with the founder and a review of the Exciton II

After a long day of work and braving more than two hours of traffic, you would think that Dr. James Fan would need a moment to get settled before we got started, but you would be mistaken. Meeting at a bar in Toronto, Dr. Fan gave an enthusiastic hello as he approached with the strides of a runner fresh after his morning stretch routine. With the clear eyes of a caring father keeping an eye on his children from afar, and a posture that would rival a concert pianist’s, it was abundantly clear that this driven human is special.

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What makes James special goes far beyond his demeanour; it is his integrity and quality of character. At various RedBar and other organized events surrounding watches, I have had many people approach me to peddle their wares and services. These people tend to come a few times and then leave, and our chapter members are thankful for their eventual and predictable departure. Upon shaking their hands and hearing their name, an unrefined and rushed elevator pitch is blasted in the direction of anyone directly in front of them as they compete with the music and soft roar of the crowd at the venue. This, thankfully, always leads to an awkward silence afterwards in which the venue’s commotion fills the dead air. What stays with all of us is their dead eyes, devoid of any moisture that accompanies their rehearsed pitch. This was not the case with James. It was not until three years after he became a member that I became aware that he had started his own brand.

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 “Wait,” I said in slight disbelief as I held an example of his Exciton II. “This is you?”

James quietly nodded while his good friend, who also became an owner of the Exciton II, proudly spoke and said. “Yes, this is his watch! Check out the bracelet,” he continued enthusiastically.

I had recalled his brand following me on Instagram a couple of years prior to this exchange. It was unfortunate that I did not take much notice of the account. Sadly, this was brought on by the gradual disillusion with all META platforms and interactions with unsavoury people and the prevalence of bots, scams and, of course, the dreaded algorithms.

Standing there with James and his friend, my mind started racing, and I quickly became resolved to get more eyes on his watch. This was due to his watch genuinely being impressive in person and because James turned out to be a good human being. Good people deserve the recognition they deserve, which is what brought about this article.

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An Introduction to J&G Watches

A common question that most horology enthusiasts blurt out for those who venture forth and start their own watch company is, “how did you find the time to do this?” In Dr. Fan’s case, it is unusual and speaks to the caliber of human that he is. What makes J&G Watches (more on the G soon) intriguing is that James started the brand’s journey as he finished his Ph.D. studies and entered the workforce as a professional in a very demanding field.

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Dr. Fan became a watch enthusiast during his studies, where he would reward himself with a timepiece for particularly hard-fought academic milestones. “The mental stress was so overwhelming that I needed to find outlets for enjoyment,” he said before continuing. “Getting published is incredibly difficult… (and) getting rejected multiple times is part of the process. This can take a toll on anybody’s mental health, and thus may be one contributing factor in the cause of depression in many graduate students.” Thus, watches became not only a conduit to find a valuable form of escape within, but as time went on, it also became an avenue for starting a watch brand.

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Dr. Fan took the route many watch enthusiasts do, where he joined the Toronto chapter of RedBar and met other collectors. What makes RedBar unique is that he also got to meet others who had started their own brands, designed their own timepieces for other brands, and made their own watches.

Looking back, Dr. Fan went on to say that “there were some members making their own watches from the RedBar Toronto group that inspired me. These specific watches were the Reference 1 by Birchall & Taylor, (the Laco) RAD-AUX by Matt Smith-Johnson, and the Burrard by Henry Cong (from York & Front).”

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J&G Watches came into existence through another forum where watch enthusiasts meet, and unlike RedBar, this one is virtual. Of course, this is the internet, but unlike the arenas, most enthusiasts meet, such as Instagram or Omega Forums, James met Gary Williams, his business partner, through Gary’s YouTube channel “I Like Watches.”

“During the beginning of the pandemic, I discovered Gary’s channel. One day he announced that an Aliexpress factory, Lugyou, wanted to rebrand, and asked his subscribers for a name and logo design. Lugyou was changed to Cronos, and I submitted my idea for a logo design,” said James. “In the same email, I also showed Gary the CAD rendering for the first Exciton watch.” Impressed with the design, Gary and James marched forward to create their first watch and managed to sell all of them through their Kickstarter campaign. Gary’s marketing blitz unleashed his strong following on YouTube and the community of creators in the enthusiast community, such as the SoCal Watch Reviews Podcast and Miguel and P. Ross. Every single person who had reviewed an Exciton in the past ended up buying one. Let us explore why this was the case and what makes this watch exceptional enough to have such an impact.

On Wrist

As a collector, James does not focus on any particular type of watch. “I do not focus on collecting one specific brand, type, size, or style of watch. I have a watch for almost every occasion at this point, and yet I still want more.” Thus, one would think that looking for inspiration in his watch from his collection would yield little to no results, but by looking closer, this assumption would be false. One only needs to look at the first watch of significance that he purchased, which was the Orient Mako 1.

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“I did not purchase another new watch during my undergraduate studies as I was satisfied with the One Watch Collection,” said Dr. Fan bringing home the point of this timepiece’s significance. The other watch from which James drew inspiration is his beloved Breitling, purchased after his graduate studies, and he wears almost this timepiece every day. This can be seen in some of the dial and caseback details, but what impresses me about the Exciton is how it adheres to its mission statement regardless of influences from Dr. Fan’s personal watches.

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The mission statement that the Exciton lives by is that it is an instrument for scientists in laboratory settings. As a result, certain constraints must be abided by; one is wearability. In the laboratory, the watch needs to be light, thin to slide under a dress shirt cuff if required, highly legible, and capable of timing various events and experiments. “The original Exciton was designed as a scientist’s tool watch. The watch was inspired by some vintage skin-divers,” said Dr. Fan before continuing. “I also designed the watch to be ‘wearable’ by people with small to large wrists (ranging from 5 to 8 inches in diameter). This was done by making the dial and bezel large while keeping the overall diameter small to 38 mm.”

On my 6.75” wrist, the watch wears incredibly well and never once announced its presence while on my wrist. The case’s 38mm diameter, 11mm case thickness, and lightweight design are accomplished here without feeling cheap. This is accomplished with the custom tapering engineer style bracelet and how well-designed and manufactured it is. With incredible articulation, it is easy to see this bracelet as a triumph and particularly impressive for the brand’s first watch.

“The bracelet took much longer to design than the head of the watch, as the CAD drawing took months of work before being satisfied with the end result,” said Dr. Fan before expanding on the process of designing the bracelet. “The tapering engineer bracelet was very challenging to design because I wanted to maintain the illusion that every single link looked the same size from the very top (20 mm) to the bottom (16 mm). If you make the 1st and 5th link too thick at the top, then it would look like a jubilee bracelet, but if you make the 1st and 5th link too thin at the top, then you take away the taper of the bracelet. Getting the individual link sizes “just right” took a lot of time in CAD, but luckily it paid off since the production of the bracelet was correct in its  first iteration.” While Dr. Fan did mention that he admired the bracelets as seen on the Gérald Genta designed Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, such a design would not accommodate smaller wrists due to the lack of articulation. This bracelet has proven so popular that a straight endlink comes with the watch, so the owners of the Exciton can mount this truly exceptional bracelet onto any watch they desire.

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This was made possible by Gary William’s relationship with the brand and manufacturer Cronos. The example I have for review is their DLC Exciton with the date window. The entirely brushed and coated finishing on the watch provided is flawless. Soft to the touch and incredibly smooth, every touch point on this watch and those that you will go out of your way to inspect are a delight to handle. There is a sense of quality when handling this watch. The experience of handling this watch reminds me of typing on a brand-new keyboard on a 2022 MacBook Pro. Everything about this watch feels deliberate and on purpose.

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J&G Exciton II Specs

Case Width

38mm

Lug-to-Lug

43mm

Case Thickness

11mm

Lug Width

20mm

Water Resistance

200m

Strap

Bracelet

Crystal

Sapphire

Lume

Super-LumiNova BGW9

Movement

Miyota 9015

Price

$315

Design Details

Designing a new watch from scratch can be a daunting task. Configurations, scales of typefaces in relation to other elements, and ratios of dimensions between the dial, case, lug width, and hands have all been set by centuries of customs and rules. These rules came to be for a good reason, and the modern consumer sometimes loses sight of this even though their access to such information has never been higher. What makes the Exciton interesting is that it was designed from the ground up as a tool, not a piece of jewellery. As a result, some aspects of its design may leave traditionalists cold and even have people like me wishing for a traditional design element or two. All of these concerns get washed away once you understand what the watch’s mission statement is and how it was designed to work within its intended environment. This environment, of course, is in the demanding settings of scientific laboratories.

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Legibility was the most important factor in design. “The dial numerals were enlarged on purpose, and the minute markers were pushed to the bezel instead of on the dial,” said Dr. Fan before moving on to the choice of bezel design. “A rotating bezel is a great tool for scientists because it allows them to keep track of chemical reaction times and instrument warm-up times.” 

The hands, as a result, needed to accommodate this design decision. “The handset was chosen for the purpose of tracking time, not to ‘look nice.’ For example, the second had was the tip pushed all the way to the extremity of the dial. The main functionality was to use this to monitor sub-one-minute reactions. The minute hand is oversized specifically to allow better tracking of the bezel elapsed time.” 

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There is no confusion between the hour and minute hands, for the minute hand is also noticeably thicker and longer. What impresses me about this watch and its minute hand is how the thickness was kept in check so as not to stand out too much. However, the seconds hand reaching the extremities of the dial to reach the bezel takes a little getting used to. I initially would have preferred to have the rehaute/chapter ring to have a seconds/minute track. Still, after some time with the Exciton, I have come to appreciate the cleaner look of having that area either in plain black DLC or stainless steel, as seen on other variants of the Exciton.

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Collectors and enthusiasts have been trained to think that watches are antiquated and have no place in professional settings. I had written an entire article on this before here, where I interviewed several professionals who are also watch collectors. Though this may be the case in certain circumstances, having a wristwatch can make one’s life easier in a dive operation, hospital, or in this case, a laboratory. Dr. Fan confirms that this is the case by mentioning that “unfortunately, I would say about 25% of people I see in the sciences wear watches, this includes Fitbit’s or the Apple Watch. I hardly see people wearing mechanical watches, and even fewer people wearing luxury watches.”

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The act of timing is essential within his work environment, and Dr. Fan went into great detail about the instruments they use and the surprising stresses put upon them. “Interestingly, we use a lot of digital stopwatches during lab work. The lab I worked in purchased many Marathon digital stopwatches to accurately monitor reaction times. What is funny is that due to working around a lot of organic solvents, the constant splashing of acetone, methanol, and dichloromethane melted many of the buttons into place. Therefore, half of the stopwatches were actually broken, and many people called dibs on the good ones.”

Thus, wearing a dive watch with robust gaskets and seals in such environments makes sense. Doctors I have interviewed in the past preferred wearing dive watches for similar reasons. The hands, indices, bezel markings, and even date window border are all generously lumed with BGW9 Super LumiNova. Furthermore, the bezel action and alignment on the example I received are perfect and pleasing to operate.

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The dial on this model is a deep purple with a subtle sunburst effect. This particular dial colour has been referenced as blue, but in person, it is a radiant purple. The typeface of Exciton is also purple on this and other models, which is deliberate. When asked about this, Dr. Fan’s enthusiasm erupts as he goes into why this colour was chosen and how it relates to the name Exciton.

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“An exciton is a bound electron-hole pair, which is existent in semiconductor materials. The manipulation of excitons through a semiconductor material can power the operation of a light-emitting diode (LED) screen (exciton recombination), or a solar cell (exciton generation and extraction). Researchers are constantly trying to make their excitonic materials emit towards the purple side of the electromagnetic spectrum, as having a purple emitting material opens opportunities for developing next-generation LED displays,” he said before continuing. “One major challenge is that the synthesis of purple emitting excitonic materials results in many defects, and thus the overall material will tend to emit a green hue. To the best of my knowledge, in 2022, the materials chemistry required for creating a solution-processed, commercially available, oxygen and moisture stable, purple exciton emitting semiconductor material does not exist.”

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One last detail which ties in with the watch’s mission statement of being a tool for scientists and a major influence on Dr. Fan is the caseback. As mentioned before, one of his favourite watches is the Breitling pictured here. Whereas the caseback of the Breitling has markings for various conversions for volumes and mass, the Exciton also does so with markings that are useful for scientists.

Breitling

“The caseback of the watch has some engravings that helped me throughout my studies. The first symbol at the top shows an exothermic reaction coordinate diagram, reminding me that overcoming a difficult time will result in a relaxed final state. The second line shows the conversion between nanometres, electron volts, and bond-breaking energies (kJ/mol), which represents the communication between physicists, electrical engineers, and chemists. I have added a deliberate error in this line; perhaps a reader can identify it. The next few lines show conversions from metric to imperial units, and the final line shows temperature conversions in Celsius, Kelvin, and Fahrenheit,” said Dr. Fan as he explained to my layman’s ears what I was looking at with the watch turned over.

CaseBack

Behind that caseback is the beating heart of a Miyota 9015, which helps J&G achieve the 11mm case thickness. Additionally, knowing that a reliable and well-supported movement powers the watch should serve as peace of mind for their customer.

Final Thoughts

On the wrist, the Exciton does not disappoint. It blends in with office attire and is a joy to wear due to its excellent comfort. For their next effort, J&G are hard at work on a more formal watch called “The Academic,” which, like its predecessor, is designed for scientists. This time, however, it is for scientists outside the lab and in more formal scenarios and teaching environments. As seen here in the prototype, the design language of the Exciton lives on in the Academic. This can be seen by how the lugs turn downwards on both models, in the vintage-watch-inspired seconds hand with an open-circle counterweight, and in their oversized numerals. 

Watches such as the Exciton do not have any competition to compare it to in order to help you make a buying decision. It is in connecting with the humans that bring this watch to market and why they have done so which makes this space so compelling. If you do, you will certainly not be disappointed by the Exciton if you purchase one.

Epilogue

Upcoming micro-brands such as J&G Watches offer something unique in the world of horology. Never have entrepreneurs with such vast backgrounds outside of watchmaking and horology made so many different types of watches on the global scale that they do now. Dr. Fan is in Canada, his business partner Mr. Williams is in the United Kingdom, and Cronos make their watches in China to which they are sold worldwide. This presents something new in the world of watches that should be celebrated and not berated by the industry’s incumbents. 

We see designs that are purpose-built for professional arenas such as scientific laboratories and even boardrooms by those who occupy these spaces during their 80-hour workweeks. To have their designs not be guided or filtered through years of design or watchmaking school results in watches such as the Exciton. This is something enthusiasts, in particular, should be excited about. As enthusiasts and collectors, we fawn over watches used as tools in decades past and show even greater passion for tool watches currently being used in the field. Are some design elements, such as the typeface or proportions of the hands not in line with what classical watch design lays out? Yes. Is this a bad thing? Most certainly not. I am excited to see what Dr. Fan and Mr. Willaims release next, for the place they are conceived is a wholesome one fueled by a brilliant mind and an eco-system of undying enthusiasm.

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  1. Great article. I work in the field of Forensic Molecular Biology and purchased watch #54 or the original 100 Exciton run. Imagine my surprise at seeing this article and looking down at my wrist and seeing the dial that looks so much like mine. Thanks for the great review and providing Exciton owners a little bit more of a glimpse into the life of the creator Dr. Fan.

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