Rohje Watches

Hello, Henry! What’s the Rohje project about?

Rohje is about four childhood friends, Antti, Ville, Arno, and me! We all come from Muurame, a city close to Jyväskylä, in southern Finland. We were in the same class since we were 6 years old. But as we grew up we moved to different places to study. Being separated we were looking for reasons that would bring us together once again, so we created a tradition to travel somewhere every year. We inter-railed across Europe, all kinds of trips. At some point we found ourselves in Switzerland, the capital of horology. As we’re all entrepreneurially-minded, somebody asked “why and how have this people developed such a watch culture? How does it feel to have your own watch brand?” This was in 2015, when our biggest project so far had been branded t-shirts and bags that we would wear on our trips. (laughs) Our group was informally called “turhat”, which means “pointless or useless” in Finnish. The joke being that we were pompous or vainglorious (“turhantärkeä“) doing the Turha Tour in our branded t-shirts and nobody would give a hoot about us. (laughs) So by the end of ’17 we started to talk about watches again. We all were into watches, and I was the guy who wore a watch 90% of the time.

Was it your idea then?

No, no. We don’t really know whose idea was it. We were all thinking “how can we create our own watch brand, when we are not watch-makers?” We had to start somewhere, so we began by choosing a solid movement. Should we go for a Swiss, Japanese, or Chinese movement? We chose a Japanese Citizen movement, which is reliable but not overly expensive. With that resolved we focused on the design, and Arno began to sketch.

Does Arno have a background in design?

Not really, he likes to draw things. (laughs) He’s a software engineer and UX designer. So he presented his designs to us and we would criticize them: “this here is good, this not so good. Keep this, take this out.” It was a long process because it was —and still is— a hobby, and we all have our daily jobs. I work on radio-communication systems at Airbus, for example.

What were you guys looking for, in terms of character for the watch?

We wanted to create an expression, a collage of things which are meaningful to us, starting with the idea of Finnish-ness or nordic-ness. Then our friendship, four guys from a small town in Finland, going abroad to exotic places. So we tried to represent all these ideas. For example, the dual time: when you go abroad you set the local time in the main dial, but in the sub-dial you set the time of your town, so you can always know what’s the time at home. (smiles) Then the top indicator shows AM or PM with a moon and a sun symbols. The idea is that in Finland, during summertime the sun is always shining, almost around the clock. But in wintertime it’s almost always dark. To evoke the nordic outdoors, the straps are made of real Finnish reindeer leather from Lapland and handcrafted by a small tannery in Tampere. All those details and design choices reflect the character of the people behind the watch.

How many models are available?

Just one for now, in dark and white. Soon a new variation in copper will be out; it will be called “ruska” after the beautiful colors of autumn in Finland. We’re also considering a smaller one for women, because right now it looks like a guy’s watch. (laughs) It is a bit of a downside to have only one model —obviously not everybody likes the same stuff— so we’re aiming to have our next new model out in early 2020.

Is it water resistant?

You can shower and swim with it, but it’s not made for diving (5 ATM is the specification). I use the one with steel mesh strap all the time, even in the sauna and while swimming, it still works! (laughs) So it’s made for urban and nature adventurers. That’s the name of the model, by the way. A portmanteau of the Swedish “turister”, and “adventure”: Adventurister!

What’s the process that results in a Rohje watch?

The Japanese movement is sent to China, where they do the CNC for the case. Another company assembles the units and ships them to us. We put on the leather straps, make quality checks, combine all together, and they are good to go.

Was it difficult to select a Chinese manufacturer?

I have actually lived in China. I did an internship in the same city where the cases are made, so we got connections and friends there. They helped us to find a trusty company, because sending money blindly from here to China can be suicidal; you need to know who you’re dealing with. We exchanged emails, sent pictures back and forth, got a prototype, made changes. All together we went through three prototype rounds for the Adventurister before we were happy enough.

What do the other guys do?

Arno designs and is the mastermind behind web-store coding. Antti handles the logistics. And Ville is an e-commerce payment professional. So we all contribute equally.

Living in different places, how do you coordinate activities?

We have a weekly conference call, and we try to meet once per month. We want to be four friends with a company, not a company with four colleagues, so on some weekends we all meet in one place and work for some hours on Rohje. Then it’s party time, something other than watches.

Where did financing come from?

All four of us invested our own money. That was in the beginning, and now it’s paying itself. One of our goals was to sell enough to pay for a nice trip, the Turha Tour (we’re planning to be somewhere in Asia in the next year). But our goal was to make something that looks and feels good, that people love and enjoy wearing. It’s a hobby for us, if we don’t sell any watches we won’t have to sell our houses. (laughs) If it fails we are okay with it, we will create something else.

But you are selling.

The store opened and began to take pre-orders in December 2018. Our first batch has sold out, and the second batch is doing very well. So it’s been a pleasant surprise, people wanting to buy watches from an indie brand and supporting some local guys.

Where can you buy a Rohje watch?

Online at our web-store. And at Koto Design Store, the physical shop in our home in Jyväskylä! Also from the Stockmann online store.

Did you get any criticism, accusing you of not being real watch-makers?

Yeah, there’s always criticism on the net. Like “this is a generic no-logo watch. They just bought it and put their logo on it”. Which is not true, because we know how much time and effort it took to design our watch. Others, seeing it’s not so expensive and made in Asia, assume it’s a copycat with our logo pasted on. But in contrast, we have received much more encouragement from people saying “that’s cool!” and “continue and see what happens, this is gonna be big!” and “let me now if I can help!” It’s actually been surprising how supportive the community has been.

What’s your local competition? Leijona?

Leijona are currently making some really nice watches, and I think that’s a good thing, a respectable Finnish watch brand. But if you Google “Finnish watch” there’s Leijona, us, and Aarni (watches with wooden cases) and then you step up onto an altogether different category, very expensive stuff. For 10.000 eu you’ll get something different from what you’ll get for 300 eu, the target is different. The aim was to offer high quality, that we ourselves could afford. Our glass is sapphire, for example, which rises the price a bit, but we wanted something that would last, it was important for us. And of course we could have chosen to make them here, but then who would be our customers? A handmade watch manufactured in Finland, retailing at 300 eu? Not possible. But for competition, I think it’s great to have more local brands. If people buy more watches and the whole scene grows, we all benefit from it.

What’s in the future for Rohje Watches?

We’re considering an automatic movement. A battery-powered watch needs only to have the battery replaced, which can be done anywhere. But a watch with an automatic movement needs more maintenance and service every three or five years. You need to implement a service model, and that’s more complex to set up and operate. We’re thinking if it’s something for us at this point, or for the future.

What does “Rohje” mean?

It comes from the verb “rohjeta” which means to “be brave, adventurous”.

Do you guys feel proud of your creation?

It’s been a very educational hobby so far. Every day that we make something new for it, it teaches you something back. And when I look at it, knowing the story behind it and what it means… Yes, I feel proud.

The Rohje web-store is here, and this is their Instagram.