Interview with York & Front’s Henry Cong

Canadian Micro-Brand reveals the challenges of starting a new brand, and doing so during a pandemic

Starting a new venture is always a harrowing idea, so much so that many look up to entrepreneurs who decide to enter certain fields. Entering the watch industry in the “correct way,” which is to not crowd-fund a single watch, but instead to rely on one’s own resources, or those of a group of investors who believe in your company, is always applauded. Going down this avenue has been even more difficult with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new Canadian brand York & Front has had many challenges over the last two years, these being obstacles such as the aforementioned pandemic and sourcing their desired movements and parts. Given their continued efforts and resilience in pursuing this project, one cannot help but to admire the endurance and passion which the owners have for their company.


This brings us to our interview with one of the founders of York & Front, Henry Cong, who is based in Toronto. We will discuss the first watch for his brand, the Burrard, and the details of bringing it to life.


FWA: Hi Henry, seems like a lifetime ago when we bumped into one another at WindUp NYC in 2019. Before we go into what York and Front have been up to since then, will you give us a brief introduction to the Burrard and your reasoning for designing such a versatile watch?

HC: Firstly, thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with me about York & Front, and of course, our first model, the Burrard. The Burrard was born out of a conversation between myself and a good friend and co-founder of the company, Eric. Eric and I were colleagues in our day jobs after he temporarily relocated to Toronto, and we quickly became good friends. When Eric moved back to Vancouver, we stayed in touch talking about our many shared passions, one of them being watches.

Over the course of several conversations, we kept coming back to the topic of the perfect everyday watch. What did it look like? Complications? Must-have attributes? Most importantly, what would a fair price for such a watch be? We concluded that the perfect everyday piece would not be anything dramatic or fancy; it would be uncomplicated, and clean in design: a watch that we could easily wear with a suit in our day jobs, but also dress down and wear with jeans while hiking Algonquin Park or exploring the Canadian Rockies. The watch would have to be elegant, but not too dressy. Tough, but not bulky. We rationalized that a dressy field watch fit the bill perfectly, but very few options in the market offer such a blend.


We had candidate watches in mind, but there weren’t many, especially at accessible price points. In the end, I jokingly remarked, “Let’s just make our perfect everyday watch!” What started as a joke became more serious and as we did more research, we realized that we could very well prototype a couple pieces for our own collections; but if we were asking these questions, so were others within the watch community. Thus, we began our journey to build our ideal daily watch in the hopes that we could bring the same excitement and joy to other collectors.


FWA: The combination of durable features such as a screw-down crown and such an elegant font for the hour indices offers a striking presence in person. What was the process for you to land on such a font, and were there any extra challenges that you faced as a result? I can imagine that having applied indices such as these would not be as straightforward as simple numerals or simply a geometric shape such as a rectangle.

HC: This is a great question! Originally, we wanted a font that had more serifs, closer to the gorgeous Breguet style numeral. However, when we mocked this up, it looked “off” simply because it was too dressy for the everyday watch we were designing. Being so, we backed away from an entirely serifed font and looked at other dress and field watches for inspiration. In the end, our manufacturing partner had a deep catalogue of fonts to reference. We looked at dozens of different fonts and found this one to be elegant enough for dressy occasions but it still has some body and complete legibility to feel at home in a field watch.


FWA: The watch is available at launch with a matte black or a bright white dial. These two watches have very different characters when seen in person. First regarding the white Burrard, what was your goal with this colour variant, and given the differences in the dial and hand treatments, did this version present any unforeseen challenges?

HC: When we set out to design the Burrard, we thought of different colourway options but decided the traditional black and white variants would provide a great foundation to start with, and we could always expand from there. Also, these two colours tend to be easiest to pair with different types of attire, so they fit our goal for practicality well.

The white dial is a personal favourite of mine. Although we wanted both variations of the Burrard to be equally versatile, we thought it would be interesting to lean dressier on one, while opting for a sportier feel on the other. The white dial naturally would take on the duties as the dressier example. Being fans of the crispness and brightness of enamel dials, we wanted to replicate that look using high-gloss paint. This allowed us to achieve the aesthetic that we were looking for without increasing the cost, without using enamel, to keep costs lower.  With the numerals on the white dial, we wanted them darker in colour to aid contrast and legibility. However, being that this is a piece with a stark white dial, applied numerals, and minimal dial text, we felt this setup ran a risk of being a bit empty or boring. We worked with our manufacturing partner to find a way to apply ion plating to the markers in several thinner layers so that the brushed texture of the numerals was visible. This causes the markers to shift from a silver to a black depending on lighting and angle. The effect came out more dramatic than we expected, and we were very happy with this lucky turn of events!

The hands went through the same treatment as the dial markers, of course. We kept the minute track white to match the rest of the dial and to maintain that clean dress watch feel to this version. We did a mock-up of a black minute track, but that had too much of a sporty feeling.


FWA: The matte black variant which has a white minute track surrounding the black dial has a more focused, and some would be forgiven to say, a sportier character. With the added legibility of the white seconds hand, it is obvious that the level of attention given to the two variants left nothing to chance and that every aspect of these watches is deliberate. What were you trying to achieve with the black variant, and how do you see its customer being different from the white dial?

HC: Thanks for pointing out the black has a sportier character to it, and that was certainly a deliberate outcome. When we originally mocked up an all-black dial, it took on a dressier personality, much the same way the white version does. Being that we wanted this version to lean more toward the sporty side of things, we opted to go with a matte black finish, like many a dive watch or a field watch would use, but added the white minute track to give this version a subtle bi-colour treatment not unlike what you would see in a panda colourway chronograph.

The hands and markers on the black version are all brushed but do not have the ion plating that we see on the white version. On both models, we opted for brushed finishes as the light play from a brushed marker is much more complex, unpredictable, and interesting in comparison to a highly polished marker that we tend to see. One of my favourite attributes of the markers on the black dial is how the markers almost have a golden hue to them in the right lighting!

The white dial speaks to clients who are looking for more of that classic dress watch feel, whereas the black dial speaks more to those who lean towards the classic field watch. But again, the beauty is that both of these models can shift gears and dress up or down depending on the strap that they are mounted on!


FWA: Many new brands, and even those which have been established for more than a decade, decide to source movements from Miyota or Seiko for watches in this price range. What was the driving force behind your decision to go with a Swiss brand such as Swiss Technology Production, and why the STP 1-11 in particular?

HC: At the beginning, we started by doing a survey of the microbrand market to see what movements our peers were using in their watches and their corresponding price points to better understand how the Burrard would fit into the competitive landscape. Then we set out to find out a manufacturing partner and spoke with firms in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and China. In the end, the Swiss company we had engaged provided a strong offer, and was responsive and supportive of our vision, which gave us the confidence to go forward with them. Interestingly, this is one of the most influential aspects of why we went with the STP 1-11. Let me further explain.

Being an avid collector of modern and vintage Seiko myself, our first stop for movements was the Seiko NH35. We looked at comparable movements from Miyota as well and took notes. We also noticed many up-market microbrands were utilizing the ETA 2824, and other movements of similar architecture like the Sellita SW200 and the STP 1-11. Comparing all our options, we felt that if we were able to make use of any of these three Swiss movements but bring the Burrard to market at an accessible and competitive price point, it would be a differentiating factor for our watch. Having handled watches with all three of these movements on many occasions and speaking with numerous enthusiasts sporting micro and major brands that run these three movements, we felt confident in going with this highly regarded workhorse architecture.


On top of this, we wanted to make sure that the movement we opted to use could be provided to us without the date complication, thereby removing the dreaded phantom date crown position and date wheel under the dial. STP was very professional to deal with and willing to supply movements without date complications for us, which helped make the decision easier.

Finally, a major bonus of choosing any of these three Swiss movement options are that parts are available in abundance, and watchmaker familiarity is strong so there will be no servicing challenges for our customers for many years to come.

FWA: The drilled lugs on the watch are a dead giveaway that these watches were designed by enthusiasts. Such details gives the potential consumer the insight to your having a deep understanding of what it is like to live with them and to actually use them.

When looking at watches that you enjoy to wear yourself, what details did you add to the Burrard that the average consumer may overlook, but ones that the enthusiast would appreciate?

HC: Another great question! Thanks for pointing out the drilled lugs. As an enthusiast who loves wearing my watches on straps, drilled lugs are unquestionably one of the greatest features on my watches that have them!

As mentioned in my previous thoughts on the movement, one of the biggest oversights – and I have seen this come up time and again on forums and within the community – are date-less watches that have the calendar complication hidden away under the dial, leaving you  with that phantom crown position. It may be a minor detail since it is only obvious when setting the time. However, without too much effort the entire complication could be removed! It really shows when a brand is thinking about the details when they address this from the get-go. And in this hobby, we all know that we’re sticklers for detail!


The next point, perhaps due to a personal bias, we opted to go with a well-executed, machined case back. As enthusiasts creating watches for other enthusiasts, we all understand and know what a stock STP 1-11 or an ETA 2824 looks like; it’s not incredibly exciting. For new enthusiasts discovering mechanical timepieces for the first time, it’s great to be able to take in that rotor spinning and the balance wheel beating away, but if the movement has an unsigned rotor and undecorated bridges, we felt it was more compelling to make a beautiful case back that would greet the wearers every time they turned the watch over.  Of course, the money saved by not decorating the movement, we passed back to our customer in the form of a lower MSRP. In the end, we wanted to balance a well-spec’d and executed watch with an accessible price point.

Finally, I think the one thing we’re most happy about, while it may seem minor to some, are the hands, or specifically the length of the hands. Thinking about it now, short hands, and seconds hands that do not meet the minute track bother me most about a watch. Unlike the hidden date complication, it is just something that one cannot hide or unsee. Being so, we are glad that the second hand is properly long and the balance of the three hands is just right.


FWA: Those who frequent sites such as this one easily fall into the category of enthusiasts of timepieces. For the most part, they understand the challenges that a new brand faces when it comes to releasing the watch. This has been made much more complicated with the pandemic.

To better educate our readers and the community, what are some insights that may help them better understand the struggles you experienced over the last year, and the eventual pricing of a watch from a company such as yours?

HC: There are so many little challenges and roadblocks that aren’t obvious. I think one of the biggest challenges we faced was the lack of information as to how to start a watch-based business, like how to get in touch with a manufacturer that would be willing to partner with us or how to set up the business side of things. Once that was sorted out, we began to realize that designing a watch that is cohesive, balanced, and has its own unique DNA is also tricky. We found it was easier to put together a design that was complicated with lots of flourishes compared to creating the Burrard, which is ultimately quite a simple watch. When there aren’t many individual design elements to a watch, each little piece has to be carefully considered to ensure that the entire design works well together; doing the basics right is how we like to look at it. It is also a bit easier to design a pure dress watch or a dedicated field watch, but much more challenging to take two styles of watches and combine them effectively.


Beyond the design stage, we originally were planning on releasing in November – December 2019 – the pandemic wasn’t in full swing as of yet – but we ran into major roadblocks sourcing Swiss movements at that time. ETA had finally began shutting off movement supply to non-Swatch group clients, pushing many brands into buying up Sellita SW200 and STP 1-11 movements as a result. After the initial panic settled down, we were able to secure a full batch of STP 1-11 movements without the calendar complication and we thought we were set! Then of course the pandemic set in and heavily impacted our supply chain for not just the watches, but the accessories like straps, packaging, etc. As 2020 progressed and businesses started find their stride once again, we were back on track and launched pre-orders back in November 2020, a year behind schedule.

Marketing also was tricky as we were an unknown commodity – and still working to establish a brand and reputation – and given the precarious economic climate, we were uncertain if selling a luxury good in such a market would even make sense! We understood many would not be in the financial position to splurge on a new watch, especially on a microbrand with no proven track record, so the Kickstarter/pre-order model posed substantial challenges. In the end, we did run our own self-directed pre-order but funded the majority of our production costs ourselves; we acknowledged and decided to take on the financial risk of producing and launching our watch instead of asking our client base to do so. With that being said, we have captured some pre-order sales and are incredibly grateful to our very supportive early customers!

Finally, there are so many little things we didn’t consider when designing the Burrard. For example, one would assume that the case of the watch would be a decent percentage of the total cost, but we were shocked when the initial quote came back and the boxed, double domed sapphire crystal was several times more expensive than the entire case and case back assembly! Being so, we had to work hard to balance the input costs while maintaining a high-quality standard so that our watch didn’t end up being too expensive. The drilled lugs also posed some challenges in that we had to move them because the original position of the holes broke up the lug bevels and didn’t look ideal. In the end, we have developed a greater appreciation to how very minor details can make or break a design, and really respect the amount of thought that goes into designing timepieces.


FWA: Instead of asking you about your personal history of watches, or your focus in your collection for you are also a watch collector, what important watches inspired the Burrard? This could be in regards to actual design, character, or how the watch functions.

HC: When Eric and I came up with the ideal everyday wearer, we knew the end design would likely be a cross between a dress watch and something more tool- / sport-oriented. The field watch turned out to be the ideal candidate as there are a lot of similarities in fundamental design traits between these two watch types. Being so, we looked a lot at vintage Seiko dress watches in my own collection. Especially with the King and Grand Seiko pieces, we found a lot of inspiration from Seiko designer Taro Tanaka’s Grammar of Design philosophy, which utilizes strong bevels, sharp transitions, and flat surfaces to reflect light. Watches designed with this philosophy generally have very elegant and simple dials but incredibly interesting cases, which catch and play with light the way we wanted our watches to. The Seiko SARB family of watches to me is a perfect contemporary size for the enthusiast; not too big, not too small, so we used that watch as the size benchmark for our Burrard.

Finally looking at field / tool watch inspiration, we looked at staples from companies like Seiko, Hamilton, Marathon, CWC, Sinn, and even IWC for inspiration and ideas as to what elements we could incorporate into a design that was both utilitarian and classy at the same time.


FWA: As a watch collector, what do you think the Burrard would offer collectors who have  many watches in their collection? How do you see this watch competing for wrist time with such owners? These owners typically are people who own dozens of watches and who typically wear a different watch every day.

HC: I think this goes back to the original design objective of the Burrard: a clean, dependable, everyday piece that is at home in any situation. Having a large collection myself, I find there are days where I’m craving a certain style or even a specific watch. Other times when I’m in a rush, or don’t have a specific wrist-goal in mind for the day, I like to reach for a watch that will pair with my attire, and blend into my day without much drama. A dressy field watch like the Burrard fits this bill well. I think this is a similar situation for many collectors looking for versatility but simplicity.

Our target customer for the Burrard is the discerning enthusiast who can appreciate that the Burrard isn’t designed to be flashy, but a watch that seeks to do the basics really well. I think the Burrard fills the niche for these collectors looking for an alternative to their staple pieces that is versatile, well-designed, well-built, and flies a bit under the radar.


FWA: Lastly, what are your hopes for the Burrard in the future? Can we expect other colour variants in the future, or are other models more likely to be seen from York and Front?

HC: This is a very exciting prospect for us. We should have Burrard Series 1 in inventory by the end of March and are focused on delivering these to our customers, but of course we’re already looking ahead to Series 2. We always wanted to do the black and white colourways first, then experiment with more colour in subsequent releases. For Burrard Series 2, we’re looking at injecting some dial texture as well to complement new colours.

We have a few other ideas floating around for the Burrard, but are also working on a second model, which would lean towards the dressier side of the spectrum, making use of a slim manual-wind calibre, and perhaps feature something like a sector dial or a slightly more intricate dial without over-styling the piece. We look forward to sharing more information on these projects over the coming year.

As a company, we intend to be here for the long run. This project was never intended to be a get-rich-quick strategy, but more so to create a community around the brand, our watches, and a group of likeminded enthusiast collectors. The Burrard and subsequent models are planned to be core pieces in our portfolio, so we hope to continue refining and offering these watches over time. We are excited to have met many incredible people already and are thrilled to continue the journey and meet many more in the years to come! Thanks again for the opportunity to chat about York & Front; it has been an absolute pleasure.

You find out more about the York and Front Burrard by visiting https://yorkfront.com or on Instagram @yorkfrontwatches

Check out more of Furry Wrist Abroad’s article here, including more interviews

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