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Travis Tan

Once something gets into our DNA, it will be there forever.  


Maybe that’s a knack for finances, cooking, or a deep connection and attraction to nature. Travis Tan, the founder of RZE watches, definitely has the latter. He’s had a passion for outdoor adventure since childhood, and that passion eventually gave birth to a company that makes rugged and comfortable watches tailor-made for the adventurous. Add to that a familial heritage of watchmaking, and you have the perfect recipe for a successful microbrand.  


Ultimately, though, this is a story about risk-taking and seizing the opportunity to do it all over again. Even in the best of times, not everyone has the cash flow and logistical support to create a company. Travis, on the other hand, dared to seize his opportunity just as the world was forced to shut down during the worst of times, the COVID-19 pandemic.  


It Was Destiny

Imagine you are a young James Cameron, and your parents gift you a waterproof watch that you can use when you swim. Imagine also that you live by the sea and spend a lot of time at the beach, where you wear your waterproof watch during shallow underwater explorations. It amazes you that you can take this timekeeping device along on your adventures and that it survives many years of underwater use on your weekends at the beach. 


Thirty years pass. Now, you are a filmmaker and avid scuba diver, and you continue spending time at the beach, but by now, you have replaced your child’s watch with a rugged, Swiss-made dive model. Anyone who knows you, then, would not have been surprised when you told them that you were about to lead deep, underwater exploration trips in preparation for your new movie, Titanic.  


Change scenes. Now, we are in Singapore, and this is where Travis Tan’s story begins.


Travis Tan and James Cameron certainly have points of similarity. As a Boy Scout, Travis spent tremendous amounts of time camping, and he needed a tough, durable watch to take on outdoor trips, so his parents gifted him a Casio Baby G-Shock. In high school, his parents gave him a proper G-Shock to take camping. Travis joined an outdoors club in college and spent many, many more days hiking with his buddies, as well as banging and scratching his G-Shock. Needless to say, Travis had been developing a symbiotic relationship with the outdoors and adventure in this formative period of his life, so it’s to be expected that he would drift towards tool watches for the better part of his twenties and thirties. 


Meanwhile, Travis had gotten his degree in electrical engineering and embarked on a career as a commercial airline pilot. As part of his job, he flew air routes to some European cities that would have a great impact on his watch collecting journey and his future foray into watchmaking. One of his long-haul flights took him to Milan where his captain took him on a personal visit to the boutiques of some of the main Swiss watch-making giants like Rolex, Audemars-Piguet, and Omega. That’s when he was introduced to automatic watches and the world of fine horology. That’s when things changed for him. 


Lucky Connections & Timing

For two years after his trip to Milan, this pilgrimage to the big watchmakers marinated in his subconscious. At this point, Travis got married, and like many men I know, he began to consider getting a watch to celebrate the happy event. This search prompted him to look even deeper into watches, and this is when watchmaking became a calling. His intuition kept pushing him to create his own company, but it’s not until his wife’s uncle, who owned a watch factory in Hong Kong, encouraged him to do so that Travis decided to pull the trigger. 


Hang on, though. 


RZE wouldn’t exist until six years later. There was an intermediate step that had to be taken first, a new brand called TravisLeon, which he created with a good friend named Leon Leong. They made one dress watch that was vaguely reminiscent of a Seiko with its fully polished Dauphine hands, multi-faceted indices, and date window. Although they only made one model, the process of creating this first company was a great exercise for Travis and Leon. They learned about the recently introduced crowdfunding website called Kickstarter and how to break even with production costs.

After the TravisLeon project ended, Travis worked on another startup but he eventually decided to return to his career as a pilot. Suddenly—drumroll, please—the COVID-19 pandemic grounded all airplanes for several months, and Travis was stuck with nothing to occupy himself with. 


The dream of creating a watch company had never really faded for Travis. Just like we may never let go of dreams of traveling the world or of having children (he did that too!), a deep sense of bringing something new and different to the world of horology just wouldn’t go away. Now that he had more time on his hands, he decided to just go for it. 


Building RZE


By the time the moment came, Travis was certainly not new to watchmaking, nor was he new to collecting tough tool watches. One of the watches he wore for most of the decade before RZE launched was a Sinn U1, a German-made underwater tank, the head of which alone weighed 113 grams. Travis asked himself the following question: “Why did I buy a $2,000 watch?” What made it so special that someone would want to spend this amount of cash after wearing G-Shocks for so many years? Well, because it was reliable, but Travis had always thought that the watch was too heavy to wear on a regular basis, so he decided to commit himself to finding out how to make a tough watch that weighs less. 


Just like a pilot who studies weather patterns and charts his course before taking off, Travis spent his free time researching the type of materials and technologies Sinn uses in its watches to make them so reliable and durable. Wanting to keep the watches light, he chose titanium over stainless steel for the watch case and bracelet, and he also chose equally reliable parts for the insides of the watch: the iconic Seiko NH35A and NH38A movements that powered the first four models of the RZE catalog and a Swiss SuperLuminova C3 and/or BGW9 lume. All of this says “serious adventure.”


Unbeknownst even to himself, Travis had started the trend of using titanium instead of stainless steel in microbrand watches (titanium has been used by prominent Swiss and Japanese houses for a long time, but up to that point, it was a rarity for young brands). So there you have it: Travis started RZE in late 2020 with a field watch, the Resolute, before moving on to create an entire catalog of tool watches: divers (the Endeavour), chronographs (the Valour), and fliegers (the Fortitude). All three models were released in 2021, barely two years after creating the company. 


So what is exactly Travis’ process for creating models that enjoyed success after success? And how does he manage to release two models a year?

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The Process 

Naturally, Travis didn’t start working on the first model, the Resolute, on January 1, 2020. He started a few months beforehand, as the entire process—from the first drawings of the watch to the production of watch units for sale—takes 9 to 12 months. The Resolute—which has no bezel, chronograph function, or anti-magnetic cage (complications he added to his other three models)—took nine months to create, while his other, more complicated models took 12 months.  


If you were to create a first watch, it is very likely that you would base your first drawings on already existing watch designs that have proved to be effective and survived the test of time. This is not to say that Travis photocopied an existing design—quite the contrary—but it does mean that he started off with the idea that there were already things (like the Sinn U1) that worked. He drew inspiration from the idea that a watch should fulfill a specific function and yet be comfortable to wear and durable. That is how he came up with the selection of applied markers instead of painted ones, the dial colors, and the inclusion of a date function, in addition to using titanium for the case and bracelet. 


Consider the purpose that the Resolute would have to fulfill: keeping time during multi-day explorations of mountain peaks and distant valleys, the type of adventures in which we lose track of time, walk through all types of weather for hours at a time, and set up our camp at nightfall. In these circumstances, your watch should be light yet rugged, legible yet modern, and possess a date so that you do not completely lose track of the days and can make it back home when you planned. These are the kinds of issues Travis had to consider while designing each model. Conceptualizing the watch and drafting up the list of specifications, then, is a time-consuming process through which Travis navigates very carefully.


Once he gains a clear understanding of what he wants and what the factory needs to make for him, the engineer creates an appropriate structure for the watch: the watch’s internal dimensions and its case and bracelet. Travis’ reward for his patience in this phase comes in the form of black and white drawings showing all the watch specifications. He then pulls out his mouse and embarks on a detailed inspection of the drawings, after which he will modify them in Photoshop. Modifications include adjusting the watch dimensions or the dial colors. This back-and-forth takes about one to three months, depending on the model. 


The fun phase for any watchmaker is finally getting to hold the first prototypes in hand. After that comes another set of inspections lasting three months. When that’s done, Travis doesn’t waste a minute, immediately sending all final prototypes (as in all dial colors of the model) to the person who will produce most of the product photography and videography for the website and RZE’s social platforms. The photographer himself then sends out the prototypes to reviewers around the world while Travis—who still works full-time as a pilot, a father, and a husband—spends one month preparing the marketing campaign. 


Two weeks into the marketing campaign, Travis places the order for the production of all models, and three months later, he receives all units fully assembled at his office. Just like any serious watchmaker would do, Travis does his own quality control (the first one is made in Hong Kong before being shipped to Singapore), and he rejects any watch that has any sign of imperfections. One of the biggest culprits, he said, is the ultra-resistant coating that is applied on both the case and the bracelet. An uneven application, he explains, gives the bracelet or the case a different color, which means that both won’t look like they are made to go together. 


A labor of love? Absolutely. It is this dedication that makes RZE stand above the overcrowded microbrand scene as Travis produces original watches that all have the same manufacturing quality and utilitarian ethos. But what, then, drives Travis to continue to do this work, now that the pandemic is sufficiently under control that planes are allowed to fly again?

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Conclusion: A Watchmaker's Meanderings 

What motivates a pilot to fly one plane after another? It may be the fact that the pilot made the plane reach its destination with nothing more exciting than a little bit of turbulence or the satisfaction of ferrying a couple hundred people to the starting point of a new adventure. Travis lives for adventure, in both the literal and figurative sense. His adventures do not stop at flying a plane or at successfully launching a brand or a new model, but they do continue in the form of seeing customers enthusiastically wear his watches and discuss what they—and any other watch for that matter—mean to them. 


Although Travis definitely goes through moments of stress as owner of a watch brand, he also strives to keep things light. When asked what type of person he had in mind when designing his first watch, he said whoever he had in mind—be it a celebrity or a regular guy—should have a good time wearing the watch. His watches, therefore, are made for anyone who’s willing to hop on a plane, boat, or car and go on an adventure, someone who is interested in wearing a watch that says, “I am a world explorer.” 


Since its inception in 2020, RZE has produced four models, each of which has received praise in the watch community. This doesn’t mean that Travis plans to rest on his laurels. Quite the contrary. In 2021, Travis created a second watch brand called HVD (this stands for Handwound Vintage Design), and he has three new models coming up later this year.


Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more news about RZE. 


Thank you for reading. 

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