Independent Fine Watchmakers are Shaping Haute Horlogerie's Present and Future

Today, the vintage and the modern fuse together to create fine watches, that feel both classic and cutting edge. Many of those timepieces bear the logos of small, independent horologers

By: Dimitria Vitanova

Posted on: February 19, 2016

Moser & Cie Endeavor Center Seconds Funky BlueThe cerulean dial is devoid of any emblems or indices, revealing a vintage yet striking design. Another dual-time dial curves around a remarkable miniature rendition of the world map in 18-karat white gold. Yet another inky black dial bulges with several high-end complications – from a power reserve indicator to an amplitude checker to a performance readout. All three dials grace fine straps and rest atop slick cases of myriad, tiny devices, fine-tuned to measure the slippage of time. 

With their precision and excellence, these watches may remind a layman of haute horology labels like Cartier, Mont Blanc and Patek Philippe. In fact, they are H. Moser & Cie’s Endeavor Center Seconds Concept Funky Blue, Laurent Ferrier’s Galet Traveler Globe Night Blue and Urwerk’s EMC Time Hunter.  

With the onset of 2016, Laurent Ferrier nudges in its 6th year, Urwerk rounds up its second decade, while H. Moser & Cie marks its 188th birthday since its establishment in the distant 1828. They belong to a cohort of independent horologers, some fledglings other veterans in carving a niche for themselves in the exquisite world of fine watchmaking. 

Laurent Ferrier Galet Traveller Globe BlueHaute horlogerie has always seemed to split between the grand old names and the daring Bohemians. Although the latter have often championed innovation in ways the former seldom could, they have largely thrived on the horological sideway.

That is, until this past January, when the Geneva-based Salon International De La Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) recognized the rise of independents and opened its 40,000sq.m of winding halls and lavish chambers to nine artisan watchmakers – Christophe Claret, De Bethune, H. Moser & Cie, Hautlence, HYT, Kari Voutilainen, Laurent Ferrier, MB&F and Urwerk. Through a series of dialogues, we understand their motivation, experience and traditions.

During its quarter-century history, SIHH, an exclusive invite-only, five-day exhibition, has become synonymous with horological excellence, presenting novelties of brands with global renown. Maisons in the ranks of Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Officine Panerai have been SIHH regulars along with around a dozen others, the majority of whom huddle under the luxury umbrella of Richemont Group. 

Exhibiting at SIHH amounts to a seal of recognition, which for many small labels has resided in the realms of bold dreams never likely to be accomplished. Private hotel showcases during the time of the Salon have provided little exposure, if at all. 

Urwerk EMC Time HunterThat changed with this year’s installment of SIHH (Jan 18 – 22), which in an unprecedented move, invited the nine artisan watchmakers to form the Carre Des Horlogers at the shop Ralph Lauren occupied in past exhibitions. With a firm dedication to represent both the historic and the novel in haute horlogerie, SIHH submerged the newcomers in its exhilarating swirl of showcases, business meetings and press interviews.

SIHH through the first-timers’ prism: 
Vanessa Monestel, CEO of Laurent Ferrier: “The [whole] week was like a marathon for our very small team, hardly time to eat or drink but a lot of very interesting meetings with a great deal of people from all over the world.”

Estelle Tonelli, executive director of De Bethune: “Our stand was completely full, for the entire five days! Many people did not know that much about De Bethune and many of them discovered the brand, its creations and also our ability to craft unique pieces.”

Christophe Claret, founder of the eponymous brand: “We met several new retailers that we did not know, [they had] a great interest in our brand and I think we will definitely conclude a collaboration agreement in the coming months.”

Christophe Claret MargueriteIf SIHH 2016 stirred a furor, the process of accession sparks a thrill, on its own right. Obtaining a much coveted spot at one of the world’s most revered horological events exacts time, patience and effort. Initiated by SIHH’s organizer – Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH), negotiations to join the Salon usually stretch for so long that many watchmakers’ hopes for a formal invitation evaporate after several years. Yet others did not even suspect they stood a chance. 

The long route to the Salon:
Charris Yadigaroglou, head of communication of MB&F: “A long process with a very quick conclusion! There had been informal discussions with the FHH for many years - but we all knew it was highly unlikely it would ever be possible. Then, totally by surprise, we were approached mid-2015 by the FHH who informed us that there was a small window of opportunity.”

Edouard Meylan, CEO of Moser & Cie: “They [FHH] came to us out of the blue to let us know that we had been selected. No need to say it was an amazing surprise. The selection has been extremely strict with a precise criteria based on brand positioning, production methods and quality.”

On Horological Inspiration and Tradition  
Described by SIHH as the epitome of fine watchmaking’s “new guard,” the nine independent horologers flaunt leading-edge aesthetics  – sometimes astonishingly classic, but often extremely modern. They spell out innovation within tradition, ingenuity within precision, distinction within artistic defiance. 

De Bethune World Traveler

In craftsmanship the new guard rivals the old. In creative aesthetics it winds further than the establishment. From sleek designs of myriad complications and basic movements, each artisan workshop creates watches that do not merely tick time away. They style it. 

From MB&F’s HM6 to Kari Voutilainen’s GMT-6 to De Bethune DB25 World Traveler to Hautlence Invictus 04 to Christophe Claret’s Marguerite, the intricate measurements of fleeting moments charter various creative spurs – from vivid dreams to quirky cartoons to horological tradition. The latter, as paradoxical as it may initially sound, defines and drives innovation.

The customs behind the artist’s work:
Felix Baumgartner, co-founder of Urwerk: “Tradition is the cement of our work. My father and my grandfather are the ones who taught me the history of Haute Horlogerie. And it’s because I know my basics that I can play with them, break them and go a step further.”

Hautlence Invictus 04Sandro Reginelli, co-founder and CEO of Hautlence: “We bring our unique vision of time to more than 400 years of watchmaking history. In other words, we are borrowing from the past creating our own unique signature.”

The pursuit of individuality often warrants independence from industry’s large players. Paired together, freedom and expertise spawn zany yet refined, provocative yet elegant timepieces, often rendered in traditional materials like gold and steel that only accentuate their  unconventional designs Such bravery to experiment with concepts and techniques is rare among the old corporate brands.   

The independent business model 
Kari Voutilainen, of the eponymous label: “There is a person behind [the brand], we do our movements entirely in my workshop, customers can shake the owner’s or founder’s hand and visit the workshop where the watches are made.”

Mr Yadigaroglou of MB&F: “The big brands are businesses – they naturally follow a logic that makes business sense, since their objective is to maximise their shareholders' value. 

Kari Voutilainen GMT-6

Independents like us have an entirely different logic. We create products which we believe in and are proud of, without taking into consideration factors like market share, pricing, profit, etc... This is why independents take much more creative risks!”

On Baselworld 
With a modus operandi that escapes corporate trappings, many artisanal watchmakers have for years participated in Baselworld – a rather fitting exhibition as it is largely considered unbendable to the whims of dominant luxury businesses. Since its inception in 1917, its pavilions have annually hosted thousands of watch and jewelry brands as well as precious gems companies. Held in March in Basel, Switzerland, the week-long show has cobbled a reputation of a trendsetter, drawing huge throngs of mavens, journalists and customers, alike. 

Despite its buzz and inclusiveness – or, maybe, because of them, Baselword has offered independent fine horologers a somewhat subpar experience, compared to the exclusivity of SIHH. Although there is no dearth of attention, deep appreciation may be elusive in the exhibitors’ frenzy to unveil their latest collections and the crowds’ urge to glimpse them all. 

Nevertheless, for some of SIHH’s newcomers, Baselworld remains an exciting chance to mingle with clients and peers - an once-a-year opportunity they are reluctant to forgo. Others took a drastic decision.   

MB&F HM6Between Basel and Geneva:
Ms Tonelli of De Bethune: “We indeed decided to concentrate our resources on one exhibition [SIHH]. There are only two months between the two major events and we made a choice.”

Ms Monestel of Laurent Ferrier: “Our participation in SIHH 2016 is a significant investment that impacts the available budget for our booth at Baselworld. We will exhibit in Hall 2.0 instead of the Palace but we are happy with the location and space as it is still important for us to be officially present in Baselworld.”

On the future
With a trifle over a month until its opening, Basel promises to carry on a shift in fine watchmaking that SIHH only officially exposed. Shaken is the rule of big names and automatic watches. Haute horlogerie returned to the mechanical era of small watchmakers. In an age of a constant obsession to measure, divide and optimize time, independent fine horologers – reverent to the past and hopeful of the future – are blazing on a novel way to render time timeless.    

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