For the ladies, luxury handbags from brands such as Hermés may be a status symbol but for the men, it’s usually watches. You may be familiar with luxury watch brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe, but did you know that Malaysia has its very own watch brand, Fateh Watches, the first to make luxury counterclockwise watches in the country?
A Fortuitous Opportunity
Tuan Haji Zainal Mohd Ali first received his early formal education in Segamat, Johor, and Malacca. Zainal started working at an engineering factory in Shah Alam.
Out of the blue, he received an offer to obtain formal watch-making training at Stern Frères Fabrique de Cadrans, a business partner of Patek Philippe as its supplier of dials in Geneva, Switzerland. Soon after, he started his career in the watch-making industry.
Although Zainal didn’t have a clue what his training was about, he found he was about to learn about the manufacturing of watch dials. Coincidentally, he had an interest in timepieces, and he felt very lucky for the opportunity.
On top of that, no Malaysians at the time had the opportunity to learn about watchmaking. After two years of training, together with his employer, Rolf Schnyder, the legendary CEO of Ulysse Nardin who revived the company, they set off to Switzerland to look for new and second-hand watchmaking machines as well as the necessary materials.
Fun fact: Zainal was the one who introduced Rolf’s wife to him, Datin Chai Schnyder who is a Sarawakian. After Schnyder' sudden death in 2011, his wife, took over the company till it was acquired by the Kering group in 2014.
They then built a factory in Sungai Merab, the first watch factory in Malaysia. In six months, the staff were trained in the process before they moved on to mass production. There Zainal worked on assembling watches for renowned brands such as Audemars Piguet, Omega, Longines, Favre Leuba, Titoni, and Tag Heuer.
When Swatch (yes, the same brand which is currently embroiled in controversy locally) was first released in the Malaysian market, Zainal was the one who worked on it. He went on to serve there for almost three decades before the factory shuttered due to internal shareholder issues.
After the closure, Zainal was scouted by a Taiwanese man who requested him to head there for three weeks as a consultant. As the factory was old and had been around since the 50s, Zainal worked on overhauling the system. After that, the man convinced Zainal to fly to Taiwan again for six months before informing Zainal that he owned two factories in China. Zainal found out that the man was one of the biggest watch manufacturers in the world and had 2,000 staff under him.
From then 2003 to 2016, Zainal worked in China while travelling to Taiwan and Hong Kong. There, he worked on assembling watches for brands such as Corum, Bulgari, Hublot, Cuervo y Sobrinos, Frederique Constant, and Swiss Army before deciding to retire at the age of 63. During the duration of his tenure in the industry, Zainal worked on watches from brands such as Armani, Dior, and Fossil.
After becoming a retiree as he did not work as a public servant, Zainal didn’t have any savings in the Employees Provident Fund (KWSP) but only had his gratuity. He thought to himself that the money would run out if he didn’t invest it wisely. It was then that Zainal decided to establish his own watch company in 2016 based on his decades of experience.
Time to Make a Name for Himself
Despite his experience, it wasn’t smooth sailing for Zainal at the onset, he told MStar, “With my experience, I didn’t have any issues with the design, technique, manufacturing, and so on until the watches were produced.”
“In the beginning, I thought that this product would be easy to sell. Just post it on Facebook and people would buy it. But throughout that period, there weren’t any buyers,” the 68-year-old said and admitted to feeling disappointed.
He set off on his own initiative to market the products as he had already made 300 watches and he had support from his wife. “One day, my wife told me to sell the watches wherever I could and start from there. I visited shops such as the Proton and Honda service centres.”
“After making 10 rounds, I sold only two watches. At the time, the watches were only around RM500 each. Then I tried selling them at the Pasar Tani Stadium Shah Alam.”
Although he had to hustle and go all out for his business, Zainal put in all his effort and then tried to sell his watches at the mosque next to a Pakistani man selling songkoks, starting his sales after the Zohor prayers. Within an hour, his watches were sold, and Zainal started selling at mosques all over Shah Alam, pasar malams, and markets. The watches started selling well to clientele such as engineers, professors, Datuks, and even Tan Sris.
The Fateh Watches empire got off the ground when Zainal started to explain to them about the watchmaking processes and they believed in his story. It was under a tree that he managed to sign a contract to produce around 200 watches.
Since 2017, FMT reports that his son Muhammad Fitry Zainal has assisted him to establish Fateh Watches as a timepiece brand which produces high-grade watches which are still affordable compared to other brands in the market.
Now, every model which is produced is sold out as only 300 models are made each. Amongst the models which the brand has produced so far include The Legacy Series, Automatic Moonphase Skeleton Strata, Octagon, Discovery, Discovery II, Discovery III, Hagia, and Pearl. In 2022, Fateh Watches won the Malaysia Good Design Award, the highest recognition from the government for the design industry.
Image credit: Fateh Watches, fondationrolfschnyder.org