Watch out, be sure!

Watch lovers, collectors, repairmen and -women all face a core issue: How to determine whether a watch is running on time and whether it might need fixing.

Here’s the situation any watch fan might face: You’re at a flea market, a real one with regulars peddling what they found in the attic, and you see an old Angelus. The dial is all vintage  geekiness, but showing its age, which you write it off as patina. The case might be scratched, along with the crystal, the band needs replacement…. The real question is whether its heart is beating properly? It might go ticktock, but unless you are the love child of Viola Smith and Gene Krupa (and even then…), you will only know that the mainspring is wound and the escapement is sort of functioning.

The pin and the stones (all red elements) make the ticks and tocks…

Ticks and tocks

Because an escapement mechanism is a little more complex than what the ear can pick up. The ticktock sound is actually made up of three different ticks and tocks, as the impulse pin hits the pallet fork slot (in the rear), the entry stone at the end of the lever unlocks the wheel, and the fork hits the impulse pin again at the “back” of the lever. In fact, there are more sounds coming from the mechanism, but the real point is this: The best way to test a mechanism is by acoustic means. And a small industry has emerged that does just that, supplanting, in some ways , the old way of testing, which was to check with an accurate timegiver, like an observatory.

The solutions out there are mostly for professionals, and they do good work, of course. The watch fan and collector may want to grab one for home use, however.

Fast reading…. a must thin these days of instant gratification.

A few months ago, though, a friend tipped me off to a small company located in Cortaillod, near Neuchâtel, which has come up with a number of products that connect the professional and consumer worlds mainly through design. Oneof – the name is a little odd for Anglophones – was founded by Jean-Charles Rousset and Emmanuel Baudet, who were part of the TAG Heuer crew that produced such wonders as the prizewinning Carrera Mikrogirder. The two men were perfect complements to each other. Rousset, a materials engineer by training,  was in charge of innovation projects for TAG Heuer under the Jean-Christophe Babin, and Emmanuel Baudet, a research engineer at Lausanne’s famous EPFL specialized in instrumentation and magnetism. They collaborated on the Carrera MikroPendulumS double tourbillon, which included a high-frequency magnetic oscillator.

In 2017, Rousset and Baudet decided to strike out on their own, and so they founded their company. The aim was to revitalize the measurement tools used in boutiques and at workshops where watches are repaired. “Everything is sexy these days,” Rousset told me when I dropped by the company. “Vacuum cleaners are sexy, hair-dryers are sexy.”  Naturally, their products are designed to be sexy, too, which means excellent materials, and, these days, portability. They have essentially three key products. A watch tester and demagnetizer for retailers, which has already found its way into a number of boutiques. It is easy to use, requires little training for personnel, and can therefore be used as a teaser of sorts to satisfy a customer who has magnetized a watch (this happens very frequently, by the way).

Being consumer-oriented, though, Rousset and Baudet decided to make a version for the collector, whether upscale or average… The Accuracy2, which retails at CHF 269, or about $269, is a little box made of lightweight anodized aluminum with a soft covering, fits in the hand or pocket. It is minimalistic in style, recalling the LaCie external hard disc of the Porsche Design studio.  The logo on top, two squarish “Cs” facing each other, is a practical decorative element in good Bauhaus style: it’s where you’ll place your watch once the Accuracy2 has been connected to your handheld device or tablet.

A look inside the Accuracy2

The Accuracy2 does what all testers are supposed to do. It will show the three peaks of the ticktock, and determine the beat, which is the difference between the tick and the tock: A value of 0ms is outstanding, a value of 7 or 8 ms means there’s something wrong with the escapement and it probably needs adjusting. The rate of the watch is automatically determined, and the lift is estimated, whereby most watchmakers will prefer using amplitude, according to Rousset.

A similar product has been manufactured by a Geneva-based company called Lepsi. Their Watch Analyzer, for example, will do what any tester must: Measure rate variation, amplitude, and beat error quickly, and then reproduce the results on a smartphone or tablet. They also have a portable solution (the Chrono), which connects to a smart phone and is in the same price range as the Oneof mentioned above. But  Lepsi has gone a step further with a convenient wireless demagnetizer, which will identify immediately whether your watch has been zapped by magnetic waves in the first place, and it will demagnetize it as well. Just press the button it it has turned red.

Testing while it’s resting…. Lepsi’s home product.

There are other solutions. Browsing the web, you will quickly  stumble across Ofrei’s tester, which no doubt does the job, identifying beat rates of up to 43,500 vph, and with a preset lift angle of 52°. It’s not expensive ($189,95), according to the O. Frei website), but, to be honest, it’s not the kind of equipment you want lying around your luxury boutique or well-appointed home… It’s baroque, to say the least, but for those wanting the True Geek look, it’s good and affordable.

Baselworld 2019: peaks and peeks

Baselworld 2019 was quite exciting even without a slew of major brands, which stayed away this year.


The trickle of brands leaving Baselworld a few years ago turned into a torrent in 2018, with Swatch Group packing up its castle and kaboodle and leaving a big space free on the ground floor of the main hall in 2019. For the media, it was not a bad deal, since the press center was installed right there in the heart of things.  And it left a lot more time to visit those who were at Basel…

The nuclear option, from Urwerk

Five days, about forty-five meetings, three interviews and many spontaneous conversations about all sorts of topics cannot by any stretch of the imagination be properly condensed into a single article, and these days, even scrolling seems to sap the energy of the online reader …

MeisterSinger, just the facts

 At any rate, all shapes and sizes were on display, and all price ranges, from Urwerk’s AMC with an  atomic  time-setting machine already seen at the SIHH and going for around $2,700,000, to the delicate regulator watches of the Münster-based company, MeisterSinger, whose prices begin at around $800.

A coup de coeur is a French term indicating something that takes your breath away.  And this Baselworld was quite rich in these, so here are a few that I picked up along the way, certainly not an exhaustive list… And there will be follow-ups for certain brands:

Nature morte, really

ArtyA’s hypnotic Butterfly Iridescent

Day one,  Wednesday, March 21. My first appointment was at 1:30pm at the Ateliers , site of many smaller brands (Czapek &Cie, MB&F, Urwerk, Louis Moinet…the usual  suspects).  Being quite early, I sauntered over to ArtyA, where Yvan Arpa was setting up along with his extremely talented artist wife Dominique, who contributes her creativity to many dials, notably of the Son of Earth series. Arpa is a small fellow, the way a 300-Watt bulb is small.  He’s exuberant, full of vim and vigor, and very direct, which always makes for terrific banter.  He started laying out the novelties and other pieces the company produces, rapid-firing  the details, a watch with a dial of spokes inspired from motorcycles (“…each one is hand assembled.”),  the Son of a Gun Extreme with the 6mm  rounds in the dial,  a brand new Megève with the dial carved like a snowflake. And then there was the Son of Earth Butterfly Iridescent, which was a genuine coup de coeur. It’s a simple three-hander (essentially dauphine hands), powered by the ArtyA  automatic Aion movement (made in collaboration with Concepto, 28,800 vph, côtes de Genève, 25 jewels). The beauty is the natural mauve iridescence of the single butterfly wing that almost covers the dial and catches the light every time the watch moves. The luminescence reveals the structure of the wing and gives the dial depth, as if you were looking into a magic fountain filled with mystically glowing water.

 

Time unexpected

Same day, later…. An annual pilgrimage to the small booth of Itay Noy, whose watches – all in limited editions – engage the beholder in a conversation, usually about something larger than just time. And so his timepieces become like small poems, chrono-haikus, or philosophical fragments, or simply good old friends you like to meet over and over again… I haven’t asked him yet for his own interpretations (in my Maximalism, for instance, I see solid straight roots/rationalism on the lower half of the dial, and turbulent, baroque thoughts on the upper half…), in part because discussing it would be like writing the first sentence of a story, which will create certain inevitability in interpretation. REORDER WHITE LOW-REZNoy’s  concept of “dynamic dials” brings liveliness to the wrist and opens many possibilities for the creative watch designer. But what could be a worthy successor to the Full Month, which tracks the day using thirty-one numbers painstakingly cut into the dial over a disk that turns the right number red?  The answer is simply Reorder. Also a sandwich dial, but this time it’s the hours that are cut haphazardly into the dial. Noy prefers not to explain the system he developed to display time in this fascinating manner (no, it’s not as strident as Franck Muller’s Crazy Hours). It’s not about omerta, but rather to keep the mystery alive, he told me. “If you know how the magician does his tricks, it’s no longer any fun to watch.”  The watch features the movement he worked on together with a little company called IsoProg.

Art and the machine

One brand that has shown remarkable resilience in spite of recession and fitful starts and stops is Hautlence. Their products – 1970s-styled, television-shaped timepieces with intricate engines inside – are not for the faint-of-heart, nor for the classical purist…. Let me put it this way, if it were music, a modern Eduard Hanslick would  have had a fit. But, but, but:  You can’t deny the effort and the technical hijinks that go into these odd pieces. Becoming a member of MELB Holding, run byHL SPHERE_Mushroom_White Background

HTL 501-1_Front_Black Background
The HL Sphere’s mechanics.

 Georges-Henri Meylan, kept Hautlence in the market … After five years, according to Nathalie Cobos, the company came up with what should by rights be a winner:  the HL Sphere. Its most striking feature is the hour display on the left of the dial, a kind of blue globe engraved with numerals that travels on three rotational axes to give the hour. To the right is a retrograde minute display with a special twist. Thanks to a set of braking gears, the minute hand travels back to the big double zero  at a moderate pace. It allows one to really watch the mechanism at work, from both sides, if necessary, especially considering the artistry of the four conical gears that drive the “hour bubble,” as it were.

Simple complexity

Hautlence’s group sister, H. Moser & Cie, has been making a name for itself these past years, though without ever changing its essence:  minimalism. In January at the SIHH (Ed. Note: the review is still being tweaked), it presented a watch with a tourbillon, and that’s it. That didn’t mean the owner couldn’t tell time. The watch had a minute repeater as well.  Very clever, but it was merely a prelude to the  Endeavour Concept Minute Repeater Tourbillon, which has two hands and is all the more practical for it.

Endeavour_Concept_Minute_Repeater_Tourbillon_1903-0200_Lifestyle
H.Moser & Cie, the simplest complicated watches.

The dial is more exciting thanks to the two repeater hammers have been placed on the dial side and stand out sharply on the black lacquer dial. Not surprisingly, Pierre Favre and the Manufacture Haute Complication is behind this double whammy, the same company that provided the engineering  for ArtyA’s combo double-axis tourbillon with three-gong minute repeater.  The H. Moser piece distinguishes itself by being of manageable size (ø43 mm x 14mm) and with its white gold case, it’s not too showy until one looks a little more closely…

Interlude

I could mention at least a dozen other watches that made the trip to Basel well worth every minute. Nomos, for example, has gone sportive, with new additions to its Neomatik line that will thrill swimmers who refuse to wear some pedestrian waterproof watch. This sleek timekeeper can take a 300-meter dive. Note, too, the unique bracelet of tightly assembled slats that look like the smooth scales of a supple aquatic creature. From the same region, Glashütte, comes the magnificently elegant gold Tutima Patria with power reserve and a green Flieger that is taking the brand into a new era of color… all material that will show up in Wristwatch Annual 2020.  Some 40 kilometers from Glashütte is Dresden, home to another maker of classically fine watches, Lang und Heyne (see the Moritz, below).

The children are OK

 

Almost too perfectly, though, my last two meetings of the fair were with “watch-men” whose idea of design is very similar though the outcome is different.  The first man is Chris Long, founder and CEO of an unusual brand called Azimuth (which has been in Wristwatch Annual for as long as I can remember)….  A watch lover from his days as a student engineer, Long has never lost his youthful sense of humor and playfulness, and they pervade his brand’s output.

There is, for example, the Landship, a homage to the first tanks of World War One.  Or the King Casino, with a baccarat and roulette function. There are some simple regulators (Back in Time),  or more complex ones, like the Predator series, which feature a large fang-like minute hand with an opening at its base that reveals the hour on a disk, the whole thing skeletonized for lightness.  Others are inspired by sports cars (the Gran Turismo or the Twin Turbo) … When we met at the Swissôtel Le Plaza bar,  Long was wearing one of my favorites: The Mr. Roboto, now in brass, a face, with regulator hours, and small seconds for eyes, and a mouth housing retrograde minutes…. inside,  a movement modified in-house. More to come on this remarkable brand and its CEO.

Serendipitously, my final appointment of the fair was with MB&F, a brand with a similar vibrancy as Azimuth, though on a different level altogether. Founder and CEO Max Büsser,  the creative impulse behind MB&F, not only makes watches and clocks that do more than tell time; they function equally well as works of kinetic art, and like art, at times they turn the world upside down. Büsser works with a growing roster of “friends,” experts and paragons in their own fields, so the engineering and finishing are always top notch, and each new “machine” is unique. But so far, the watches were always inspired from external objects or ideas. The latest in the Legacy Machine is far more personal, as a quote on the MB&F website suggests: “I wanted LM FlyingT to possess the epitome of femininity as reflected by the women in my life, particularly my mother. It had to combine supreme elegance with tremendous vitality.

What the watch tells.

 

“Flying T” refers to the flying tourbillon that is built up vertically in the center of the dial and topped with a single diamond.  The area around it comes either in diamonds, a snow-covered field,  or in plain black, a deep sea. And at 7 o’clock, a small watch face, stares at the wearer from a perfect angle. It means an intimate moment with time, excluding all others for the duration of a glance . The entire dial is under a vaulted sapphire crystal, which instantly suggests one of those globes, which, when shaken,  produces a snow storm. All that’s missing is a dancing ballerina atop the flying tourbillon. Instead of a dancer, though, the tourbillon is topped with a single diamond.

What the eye does not see

 

The Flying T can be read at a deeper symbolic level as well, perhaps channeled by the designer.  The little dial recalls the moon revolving around the earth. The smooth rounded crystal could symbolize the rounded belly of a pregnant woman, or even a breast, traditional symbols of life itself. And the transparent case back reveals a special rotor, a voluble sun, symbol of nourishment (as Büsser himself states), and also of masculine energy and that of the visible world that meets the mysterious lunar world of the feminine.  Of the many complex watches that have emerged from the MB&F forge, this one, in its apparent simplicity, is perhaps the most complex and the one with the most profound story. It tells us that there is a lot more in time than meets the eye. None of us will survive time, but there’s hop in the cycle of death and life, and the magic of procreation that runs through the feminine.  The one woman from Büsser’s life who did not see this gem was his mother, who died a year ago. It may be solace to know that we all inherit our mother’s heartbeat, so a bit of her always lives in us and our children.

LM_Flying_T_Engine_LRES_RGB
Sun, earth and moon meet in one watch: MB&F’s FlyingT.

An Adventure for the wrist

Watches can be a major investment. So naturally, many collectors, especially of more recent vintage (and notably in emerging watch markets) prefer to play it safe and buy a big-name timepiece.  These are more often than not excellent, solid, well-conceived watches … but they tend to overshadow some eyebrow-raising watxches with less PR power, ones that are rare, exciting, and will not break the bank, either.

duManège comes out with a new watch

Here’s the short version of this story: You can get a well-designed, technically classy watch run on one of those brawny, automatic ETA movements: 42mm carbon case, stainless steel bezel, classy black dial and an elegant rubber/fiber strap for under $1000…. But only until July 29 on kickstarter. Here’s the link (Adventure), and here’s the rest of this story.

A week before Baselworld 2014, a friend called me to ask if I could quickly skim over a press release announcing a new brand. I can no longer count the number of times I get these calls , but I’m happily not blasé yet, and my curiosity and inner do-gooder inevitably get the better of me. So I corrected a shabbily translated press release that did, however, describe quite a sexy timepiece called Exploration, I couldn’t help notice.  It also landed in the Masters & Mavericks section of  Wristwatch Annual 2015, described thus:

“…a 44.5 mm steel case made up of several components and black ceramic inserts, definitely sporty, but not on steroids. The coolness is in the details—the satin-brushed surfaces, contrasting polished beveling, open-worked hands, markers that shorten on the left to make way for the subdials. For complications, he chose a power reserve indicator—the two spring barrels of the customized Technotime automatic movement can drive the watch for up to 120 hours—and a retrograde date hand that takes up about one-third of the dial.”

Julien Fleury, entrepreneur, jeweler, marathon runner.

The “he” in the piece turned out to be Julien Fleury. When I met him a few weeks later in the ground-floor bar  at the Ramada (today XXX), I did a double take. Fleury looked like he’d just hatched from an egg, short slightly spiky hair, thin as a rail. He could have been a school kid.  But there was something compelling about the intensity of his stare and his very serious demeanor.  I was not surprised to discover that he regularly participates in cross-country marathons, a sport that requires focus and self-control.

He is not a watchmaker, he told me off the bat.  He started his career in the jewelry trade but had studied graphic design. This did explain the very clear visual impact of the watches.

Businesslike, he explained his concept: He basically designed the watches and has them made by local artisans and friends from his native La Chaux-de-Fonds. They had helped him made the Exploration, and would continue doing so, he said confidently.

La Chaux-de-Fonds, UNESCO-protected watch cradle

Having visited the upper reaches of Neuchâtel canton and the neighboring Franches-Montagnes (Free Mountains) a few times, I realized he was not kidding around. People have loyalties there, and Fleury’s family had, he told me as well, a pedigree reaching into the industry. He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool chaudefonnier  with a special love for his native town. “Watches that say Swiss made are readily available,” he said, “but none say ‘made in La-Chaux-de-Fonds.” This odd city is indeed one of the cradles of watchmaking in Switzerland. After a fire destroyed the old town in 1794, a new town was designed along the best lines for natural lighting, a boon to the watchmaking industry. This particularly impressive combination of form and function earned La Chaux-de-Fonds and neighboring Le Locle a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

And so, Fleury aimed to render unto Caesar, as it were, and thus rightfully put that trundling, hyphenated name on his watch dials between 1 and 3 o’clock.  His second tribute to “La-Chaux” was the brand name, duManège. The “Manège” is the town’s old riding school built in 1855. It was later used as low-cost housing for poorer families and became an architectural ideal of community living.

The start of a dynasty
Once all the technical, financial and biographical issues have been taken care of at my first meeting with Julien Fleury,  there remained my key question for any new brand:  What are the plans for 2.0, 3.0, etc.. Because an idea in watchmaking is only as good as its subsequent generations. He assured me he had a concept, but he needed first to get his first crop into the market.

At any rate, I left the interview with an old quote from Le Cid  by the 17th-century French playwright Pierre Corneille: “Aux âmes bien nées, la valeur n’attend point le nombre des années.” The young Rodrigue, who goes on to duel a gifted swordsman, who had an insulted his aged dad, say s “To the soul well-born, the worth need not wait for years…”

Three years later, armed with better funding, Fleury got back to me with the Heritage line where he could use his jeweler’s talents, or tap into local crafts for a grand-feu dial or other decorative arts. He was even offering customized miniature painting.  It was a clear sign that his brand was here to stay. I made space for his watches in Wristwatch Annual 2018, including one of my favorites whose dial is covered in stylized fir trees in champlevé enamel. This  special chaudefonnier  art-nouveau motif reflects the local trees in that cold and snowy region. They are also a legacy of the city’s famous son, Le Corbusier.

More surprises

A few weeks ago, Fleury wrote me with a new duManège product, a sleek, sober, technical watch again (the 42-millimeter case is made of carbon composite), with a definitively sportive feel and story. It is called Adventure, and is dedicated to those who, like Fleury himself, practice elite sports. This means: a three-hander, lightweight and robust, screw-in crown, water-resistant to 30 ATM, a big superluminova-drenched 6 and applique markers for the other hours that stand out sharply on a black dial with a dynamic ribbing pattern. The rubber strap also contributes to the active look, and comes with a coat of technical fibers and color stitching according to the model. Time here is driven by a robust automatic ETA  2824-2..

A watch for all reasons: duManège’s new Adventure is funding sports and athletes

The watch comes in six different models, each dedicated to a separate activity, which is identified by a color code appearing on the second hand and stitching on the strap. Ball is yellow and stands for football (soccer); Slide (blue) for tobogganing;  Fight (white) is for martial arts, while Military is khaki obviously;  Motor is red for motor sports, and, finally, Mountain is green.

Twenty percent of the sale of each watch will go to a designated sportsman to help him on his way to success. These include Swiss bobsleigh driver Yann Moulinier (from La Chaux-de-Fonds) , who’s making a bid for the Olympic Games (Slide); soccer player  Neftali Manzambi, training to make it to the national team (Ball);  Ludovic Soltermann, Prestige Class motorcycle driver (Motor); Zakaria Khelil, a kickboxing and Muay-Thai specialist (Fight).

Getting it
These watches will be available online for chf 1390 (for dollar price, check the daily exchange rates), but Fleury  has started a kickstarter campaign to get them produced by the end of the year. His deal: Buy one through the crowdfunder, and get a 40% discount….

 

 

 

The genius of Paul Gerber

 

You haven’t heard this one yet: Four top experts, a micro-engineer, an industrial designer, an artist with a specialty in metalwork, and an accountant walk into a bar. And the barman says: “So, Herr Gerber, what can I serve you today?”… Add a really smart kid, but that would be getting ahead of my skis…

A slightly flippant joke like that above may not be the most dignified way to introduce a giant of watchmaking, but the real cognoscenti will know that the punchline is pretty accurate. This was confirmed to me during a brief and – as usual, fun – visit with him and his wife Ruth during the Easter break. Let me backtrack for a minute.

 

In case you don’t know Gerber too well or at all: Bernese by birth, but living and working in Zurich for nearly half a century, he has had his platinum fingers in the mechanism of many a great watch or clock over that half-century plus. Amongst his global creations is, for instance, the cool-calm-collected MIH watch made for the Musée Internationale de l’Horlogerie in La Chauds-de-Fonds. Two of his pieces have been in the Guinness Book of Records. One time was for the smallest clock made of boxwood, another for one of the world’s most complicated watches. It was originally a fairly simple pocket watch made by Louis Elysée Piguet in the early 20th century, but a new owner, Swiss entrepreneur Willi Sturzenegger (the “Earl of Arran”) decided to soup it up… Gerber also makes watches under his own name: they are easy to read, and with small touches of genius, such as a dizzying triple rotor. It’s Gerber’s understated humor coming out, a necessity for his version of “innovation.”

At the end of August 2015, I had the great luck to spend a few intense days with Paul Gerber and his wife and comrade-in-arms Ruth.  The occasion was one of his watch seminars, during which me and two other gentlemen were coached by Gerber while we took apart an old Unitas, changed the mainplate, decorated it, and put the whole thing back together again in a special case. The details of this exciting process, and the depth of learning can be found here

Easy does it

At the time, I had already developed a deep respect for this dyed-in-the-wool watch-genius. Nothing in his surroundings or demeanor suggested the extent of his know-how and experience. He seemed more akin to some regular Joe, puttering around his little den-like workshop in the basement of his modest house on Zurich’s western edge. But the three-day workshop, besides deepening my knowledge of the art, was also full of wonderful discoveries, tiny clocks, machines, movements he’d rebuilt, gadgets and gismos, and lever arch folders stuffed with thousands of pages and images fastidiously documenting the work of a lifetime.

We met at various events since, and each time he extended a generous invitation to drop by. Casually.  And so, earlier this year (2018),  I was able to finally take up Paul and Ruth Gerber on their invitation.

The real-life workbench of the genius.

It was a sunny day. But no sooner had I arrived, than Gerber took me to his workbench in the den-like basement. The operational word is work: The space is covered with motley items he uses to operate on watches, screw drivers, tweezers, bits of gummy stuff used to pick up tiny screws, a quadruple oil dispenser. There was also a broken wine glass he uses to protect parts from dust while they wait to be assembled. Most industrial watch workshops have elegant cheese bells: “I’ve had this since I started,” he pointed out with a mischievous smile. Gleefully he showed me a device he’d built… just to sharpen screw drivers. “The others don’t work well.”

But the pièce de resistance was undoubtedly a tiny ring-shaped part of silvery metal, stainless steel I assumed, which he picked up with a pair of tweezers and held up to the light.  I had no idea what it was. He explained forthwith: It was the frame of the watchstrap moon phase he’s made for the MIH watch. The story behind it was typical Gerber: A customer had wanted a moon phase on his MIH watch and rather than clutter up the dial of the minimalist watch, he decided to sink a small, battery driven moon phase into the strap, an innovative idea, if I ever heard one.

Discoveries

We were supposed to go out for lunch on this, the first real day of spring in 2018. But I had brought a big jar of mustard and spontaneously suggested it would be a great day to grill cervelat and enjoy the garden… Gerber seemed relieved, and I was to, and Ruth immediately set about organizing the lunch, while Paul disappeared somewhere to grill the sausages.

(Chatty aside: Is there any Swiss family that doesn’t keep an emergency reserve of cervelat, that short, thick wiener-like sausage wrapped in natural skin (it caused a bit of a stir about eight years ago when it seemed Switzerland was running out of skin? I guess not.)

Over lunch, Gerber talked about his early days in the biz. The quartz crisis was raging at the time he was doing his apprenticeship. And so he began by opening a watch and jewelry shop. As he spoke, I had difficulty imagining this brilliant watchmaker discussing watch straps with walk-in customers, or confirmation gifts for thirteen-year-olds. And he confirmed my feeling: Being in his watchmaking den, with his fingers on the wheels, was more along his lines. He sold the shop.

Child’s play

A distant connection of sorts flash through my mind. Gerber’s enthusiasm with watchmaking reminds me of a sentence Max Büsser (see MB&F) has made into his company’s tagline: “A creative adult is a child who has survived.” Survived the constraints, strictness, rigidity,  Gradgrindish goal-setting of the so-called adult world.  This explains his desire to stay close to his work, at home, in his basement, rather than delve in the flimflam of communication and publicity. The marketing masters of our industry love to talk about passion, and urge their copywriters to do “emotion.”  But Gerber does not perceive and then act in the spirit of passion (conjuring Hume, here), he just lives it as a cellular impulse. His rationality then steps in and tells him how to implement it in the 3D world.

Tweezers, improved by Gerber.

I mention a young  unemployed watchmaker I know, who has restored some surprisingly valuable watches (an Omega Seamaster, among others), and the  conversation drifts towards old movements and replacement parts. You’d think it is extremely esoteric and a little dull, but it’s not. Not when Gerber talks about it. It’s more like Wilhelm Kempff talking about piano strings or felt hammers. And so I learn that watchmakers who’ve started cranking a heavenly topping tool often leave a treasure trove of bits and pieces, sometimes even entire movements, for the next generation. These end up in flea markets, or are picked up by other watchmakers to fiddle around with. And are then passed down or end up in a special timepiece that may or may not be sold. More likely than not, it will end up in the recycling container. Gerber has his own collection of composants trouvés, as it were.

The ticking 70s ! Gerber’s collection of Oris alarm clocks…

Hobbies

Luxury wake-up: an old Oris alarm clock with tourbillon…

I thought his big hobby was fly-by-wire planes…. But after lunch,  Gerber steers me to a display case in his living room containing  one of his own collections.  Standing  on a shelf like little soldiers, are a battalion of old Oris travel alarm clocks, the ones that folded up into a hard shell, a clever design. Just for the heck of it, he built a functioning tourbillon into one of them. At some point, virtuosity is the key that unlocks total creativity, sort of like Picasso drawing Gertrud Stein as graffiti on a bathroom wall.

He had more to show me, down in his Ali-Baba’s cave, The Basement. Bellies full, we browsed through pictures of his special car, a Fiat 600 Multipla from the late 50s, adoringly restored. Interesting: Many watchfolk I know have flashier vehicles, but this one has personality… He dug up some mechanical place-name holders that show the diner’s name when a lever was depressed. I asked him about the amazing Earl of Arran watch, and he dragged me – where I had sweated for three days two years earlier decorating that Unitas movement – was a large and beautiful box with a leather insert, for the latest iteration of the (see the article on Paul Gerber, P. 1).

Flashiness is in the extraordinarily special design of this icon of Fiat.

Back in the basement, he shows me the large gearwheels he finished for one brand we shall keep anonymous. He dismisses the actual model they were fitted into with a sly, deprecating smile. But those gearwheels …. beveled to perfection, inside and outside edges, including the corners, which are exceedingly tricky, the three wheels displaying forty (40!) surfaces for his rock-steady file to transform from mundane metal to watchmaker perfection.  And that, for several models…  He also pulls out a thick folder to show the details of the order. Everything is documented, beginning with sketches, down to the last screw. That’s the book-keeping part. It’s a key to maintaining continuity; it’s a gift to future generations.

I think full circle. When I first left Gerber’s cavern a few years back, I thought hard on what elevates some watchmakers to the highest rank.  It’s not just the achievement and portfolio.  The challenge is this: Watchmaking taps into all sorts of fields. In addition to engineering, material science, gem-setting, enameling, a top-notch watchmaker will know history, navigation, astronomy, theology, philosophy, esthetics.  They are Renaissance people, they are the great (sea) venturers, to borrow a term from R. Buckminster Fuller, who required “…great anticipatory vision, great ship designing capability, original scientific conceptioning, mathematical skill, (…), able to command all the people in their dry land realm in order to commandeer he adequate metalworking, weaving and other skills necessary to produce their large complex ships.”1

The era of  the master visionary and  maker may be dead and gone in many other industries, but to create a beautiful watch, like composing a beautiful string quartet, you need a Beethoven, a Haydn, a Brahms, not a committee of brainstormers dreaming up target groups. Gerber is up there with the giants.

 

Buckminster Fuller, R., Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, A Dutton, New York, 1963, p. 17

SIHH 2018: a touch of madness

Disclaimer: Those who know me also know I do not have the gift of termination. Sure, I could “keep it short,” after all, in my day I did write compact one-minute reports, and could still do that, but my editor is often out these days working on other assignments, so I get away with writing as thoroughly as I would like to, even if that means losing the reader somewhere along the way. Besides… I write about big topics in vintage style, i.e.: as if it were for a big ole magazine, the kind people read when they had time for something more substantial than fast food, micro-waved dishes, and 300 words max.

Here goes:

Recently, I received a very kind letter from a gentleman named Art Donovan  commenting on  the Letter to the Reader I always publish in Wristwatch Annual, the book/magazine/catalogue I edit each year as an English-language partial version of Armbanduhren by the brilliant Peter Braun of Germany. Donovan, owner of Donovan Design, a company manufacturing rather fascinating illuminating devices, welcomed my mention of the small independent brands that drive innovation in this industry and, of course, in others: “… it is our small size that affords us the flexibility to experiment and create new styles that are not yet produced by the majors. Sometimes we get lucky and our designs become popular. We can then continue to make and sell them, sometimes for years depending on the style . The majors can then jump on the new styles and manufacture the high volumes necessary to carry them through the year. Everybody is happy.”

This plain fact can been found in many other industries as well, notably the automobile industry, which relies on the flexible creativity and genuinely innovative powers of smaller units, start-ups, and brilliant engineers, especially in a time of rapid and deep change. This is true even in the age of Information by the way. Comforting, too, is the thought that there exists a creature such as the “inventor,” who, we might conjecture romantically, slaves away in his or her workshop or lab, coming up with new ways to make our lives easier while earning a living at the same time…

The watch industry is a good example of this at times uneasy relationship between Goliaths and Davids. At issue are not the core competencies, to use a tired business term, but rather thunder stealing. Most majors in the industry can produce technically and esthetically outstanding products but after attending the presentations, you can’t help noticing the fact that they are hampered by a need to feed their market and fans. So straying far from the beaten path is not really an option. That leaves it to others to capture the eye of the buyer with something unusual, rare, if not unique, elegant, muscular, perhaps a little crazy or playful…   The 28th edition of the SIHH, held in January 2018, revealed this dialectic between the established brands and the independents.

An overview of the SIHH…

In its early days, the SIHH was basically a rave devoted to the brands of the Richemont Group. Collectors, buyers, sellers and journos/copy writers came together with brands to inform the world of the Group’s latest products and drive the market forward. It was also the first big horological meet of the industry year.

H.Moser & Cie: the cheese watch is serious business

Other brands soon responded and started setting up shop in the local hotels or exhibition rooms, drawing. So two years ago, the SIHH decided to “keep its friends close and its competitors closer.” And so appeared the Carrée des Horlogers, a delightful “square” where smaller, independent brands could come and show their wares. It’s here that visitors could discover what really makes the industry tick, and where inchoate trends were being tested.

So what seems to be happening to the brands? The longish introduction may explain my initial impressions… In brief: Following the colors and a return to soberer vintage-influenced pieces, comes what one can best describe as a touch of madness, expressed in various ways, either as a real dial animations, technical advances, or – here I am somewhat critical – a tagline that is supposed to “disrupt,” one can only guess, by expressing toil, excessive speed, pressure, madness.

Are you nuts?

MoonMachine, MB&F plus Sarpaneva

The “touch of madness” has always been the spirit in the independents’ domain.

{Memories…Somewhere in my archives is an interview I did with Vianney Halter in 2007, in which he says “I’d like to make a watch that doesn’t tell time.” It was at a table  at the Métropole in Geneva with Felix Baumgartner and Max Büsser, who had kindly arranged  the three-way panel. Of course, Halter’s  Magritte-like statement was born of the overheated pre-Recession years, but fast forward to the Carrée des Horlogers 2018 and you find a watch in a case of cheese made by Moser & Cie. as a way to express support and solidarity with for really Swiss watchmaking. }

You can always count on Max Büsser and his MB&F(riends) to freely mix creativity with technical virtuosity. This year, the Can-Am case of the Horological Machine No. 8 was borrowed to house a second collaboration with the renowned Stepan Sarpaneva for a special moon phase, which is projected onto the lateral window using the clever and technically virtuosic prism system. A reminder: The “Frog,” MB&F’s HM No. 2 dating to 2012, also received a Sarpaneva moon…

At any rate, MB&F was my opening shot at the SIHH itself, and not one to be forgotten. It was followed by some meandering around the Carrée des Horlogers, a warm-up of sorts for the eyes, to see what was really happening in the industry. Having exploited the wow effect of its dual fluid pumps to the max, HYT is now exploiting the intricacy of its movement in the H20, whose sapphire crystal has expanded to act as a barrel for the watch. The customer and his or her neighbors can now admire the mechanism from all sides. Shaping sapphire crystals that way is no easy task, and it’s a testimony to the brand’s willingness to push the envelope, even though the result may not be to everyone’s taste.

Being and nothingness

Hautlence shares space with its MELB sister brand H. Moser & Cie. The latter still seems to be making heavy water of it with its very singular shapes, especially since the departure of Guillaume Tetu. The brand has gone through several crises already, but has always managed to recover somewhat and plough on. Whether the use of an ambassador like ex-soccer player Cantona was a good idea still remains to be seen. None of my American colleagues has ever heard of the man.  And as a non-fan, I must confess to my own ignorance of this erstwhile celebrity of the field.

Hautlence complicates matters

The company, however, has always  worked the edges, producing complex mechanical toys, with lots of crystal to exhibit the brand’s main claim to fame, a movement the produces jumping hours on a chain, or retrograde minutes, and so forth…. an engineer’s dream. H. Moser & Cie is quite the opposite.  The hallmark of the brand is a mysterious, smoky dial on the Endeavour or Venturer series. The simplicity extends to a number of technical/esthetic features, beginning with the escapement module inside, which vastly simplifies servicing thanks to the replacement of pre-adjusted modules. Add to that hacking seconds (precise adjustment), flash calendars, where needed, a seven-day power reserve (less winding) and a delightful miniature hand that serves as a date pointer by following the hours, of which there are twelve, just like the months….

Back on the grid

There is life outside the Carrée des Horlogers of course. It would be lèse majesté to elevate on the independents onto a pedestal, while forgetting the brands that toil in large, well equipped buildings and have markets and deadlines and major investors, even stockholders. The Carrée, though, is the place to whet your appetite for more reasonable watches … or spoil it, as the case may be….

The safest way to navigate choppy waters is to shore up what one has – and the waters are choppy, since the industry just came off one crisis, and the USA is on some strange self-destructive trip that may well engulf the planet. Montblanc, IWC, Girard-Perregaux, even Piaget are exploring some of their greatest hits. Montblanc is relying more and more on Minerva, loves the classics and the ultra-thin, IWC has revived an old 19th-century pocket watch whose bare-bones dial and digital hours and minutes actually look very modern, so when the presenter says timeless, this time you can believe it. This is the Tribute to Pallweber 150 Years edition (albeit driven by the 94200, a 28,800 vph  machine with a 60-hour power reserve). Vacheron Constantin has also steered a conservative tack with several lines, like the 56, but their métiers d’art series keeps on giving works of art, tiny vignettes, like the Aérostiers de Versailles 1783, featuring the hot-air balloons.

Testing, testing…

Some of the regulars at the SIHH were also showing signs of adventurousness and readiness to move into a different lane. Baume & Mercier, for example, took leave of the carefree and chic Great Gatsby-ism and is trying its hand at revving engines along with the Indian Motorcycle Company… . Bikers and Baume? It doesn’t fit somehow, not yet anyway, though the design of the trotteuses are really very sharp, no doubt about it. And for someone wanting to buy a totally in-house watch for a reasonable price, the new Baumatic is definitely worth the money. You get a silicon hairspring and other contemporary knickknacks, and all that at a very reasonable price. The big 35 on the dial might remind one of BRM, but that is just me, I guess…

B&M gets funky…

While on the subject of cars and other roughriders, should mention two brands that like Big Effects. The first is Roger Dubuis, whose presentations tend to be similar to earthquakes wrapped in eruptions drowned by tsunamis. It’s fun, no doubt about it, but the stuff should be commensurate with the product at all times… Cars and Dubuis are fairly congruent, especially the kind of steroid-pumped vehicles that are made for speed and seem to inspire lots of men – and women – to race around city districts making noise and  risking the lives of calmer folk. For watches, though, the hard sell on the issue is almost a shame. Noisy Lamborghinis and screaming tires seem as far away from high-powered watch mechanics as Planet X and and the Sistine Chapel. But the brand was selling different-colored watchbands made of the actual rubber of tires used for different weather conditions. 

The other brand that likes its emotions fortes is Richard Mille. The ultimate technophile, Mille has been amazing the world with some genuine innovations. Who can forget the tourbillon with the magnolia for women, which seemed infinitely more erotic in many ways than the sophomoric RM 69? Or better yet, the Nadal watch with the amazing shock absorbing system using pullies and hyperfine cables. This year (2018),  Argentinian polo player Pablo Mac Donough (yes, he is from Argentina) became the model for the RM 53. And if you thought polo was a sport for the dainty, time to reset… Mc Donough suffered a devastating injury to the head as a kid playing polo, but got back up on his horse once healed and went on to become one of the world’s best. What does a watch face under such circumstances: getting bashed out of existence. So Richard Mille set about creating one that could suffer crushing polo whacks.

Revivalists

Not everything that glitters is madness; classic lines never really go out of style even if creative heads in colorful shoes are trying hard to push the envelope. And most brands have some delightful designs tucked away in the attic worth bringing back for a brushing off and some updating. Jaeger LeCoultre relaunched Memovox, a robust 1968 (yes, 50 years) diver’s watch with an alarm to warn the diver when to start surfacing procedures. It is accompanied by the Polaris, etc…  The sales tagline is made by makers, and involved a high-end bootmaker from Argentina and…

The 60s are back

Variations on themes…

Audemars Piguet, for its part, never stopped relaunching its phenomenally successful Royal Oak, which this year comes in a few new versions, like a thinner one, which reveals the brand’s undisputed technical prowess. The publicity film about this was meant to suggest some deep philosophical discussion on how to evolve while being the first (?), on youthfulness and hipness. According to CEO Benhamias, younger watchmakers and older ones were at loggerheads regarding how far to push the technical limits for this new Royal Oak offshore…. This sounded a little far-fetched, but, OK, we old guys are a bunch of sticks buried in the mud of the Joux Valley, and, the young are there to show us how it goes, we got the message, let me take a pic and fire it off to my IG ccount, which is connected to my FB account and automatically sends a link to my Twitter feed… Cool. Nevertheless, with some relief and a feeling of expectancy, Bennhamias announced that after years of development, AP will be coming out with a new line next year. Everyone looks forward to it. (Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Grande Complication, I like the black version slightly better, because even though the white version may be more technically advanced, there’s something extremely cool about an pitch-black, hyper-complicated, anniversary Royal Oak Offshore.)

AP…. the Oak is still Royal, but is there something new on the way?

Steadier and franker, Panerai made no fiery speeches about innovation and disruption and DNA: The Italian brand, which has a remarkable fan club (I know one or two, they’d kill to defend Panerai’s honor), seems happy with its magnificent Lo Scientato and tungsten rotors, it’s fascinating sandwich dials and for men who want to feel like men and women who like to slip into something more masculine. Now, the same watches are coming out in 38-millimeter case that lets one wear a Panerai without necessarily attracting envious stares or tearing one’s silk sleeve.

Not all brands have chromosomes that reach back multiple generations or deep into the glebe of the Vallée de Joux. But remember when the news came down that Peter Speake-Marin had sold his brand to some investors and was just leaving his name? He may be one of the only living watchmakers who can boast a brand bearing his name and his codes without his having to lift a screwdriver to make it happen. A quick survey of the new collection (I did not see all of it, but keep an eye out or Wristwatch Annual 2019) reveals some refreshment to the brand, a tighter case, a modernized look, with a bolder approach to colors.

SIHH 2016 (part 1): wild cards

Tivoli Soldat Dos

2016-SIHH-02-149

The 26th edition of the SIHH closed its doors recently and so it is time to take a look back over four plus days of watch-watching, of receiving the skinny on the latest models from the brands, and of sharing ideas, views and some minor scoops with colleagues in the hallowed halls of the SIHH, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva, Switzerland.

First and foremost, the big news much appreciated by many of the invited guests present (and surprising to some of the extramural journalists, who tend to know only the really Big Brands): This year the SIHH welcomed nine sort-of independent brands into a square space called “Carrée des horlogers,” which loosely translates as Watchmakers’ Plaza. That is not too many, mind you, but among them were some of the most genuinely innovative, not to say wild and wooly, players of the industry. Urwerk, check! MB&F, check! HYT check! Christophe Claret, check! And more, but let’s get ahead of ourselves.

The effect of these dashing horological beatniks was shattering, to quote an old British vodka ad. Just imagine, one minute you are enjoying the smooth presentation of the Baume & Mercier collections, which are geared towards a generation of up-and-coming young adults moving about a connected world, but still engaged in human-to-human activity. The Petite Promesse with its doubly-wound bracelet is indeed a cute piece, and the Capeland Shelby Cobra is a solidly attractive chrono even for those not necessarily enamored of automotive “sports” – interestingly, it avoids lots of ostentatious Ferrari red in favor of a less familiar black dial with yellow hands, tachymeter and strap pattern.

M0A10290 Continue reading “SIHH 2016 (part 1): wild cards”

This time at Baselworld (2011), part 2

 

The Hautlence HL2 a breath of 70s as well

From steam to punk and thereabouts

 As time moves along, styles are becoming jumbled. The 1930s and Art-Deco have become something of a fixation, and for good reason (see below). Ingersoll is even gambling on a string of revived original Mickey Mouse watches mostly in quartz. And there are signs that the 70s and their horizontally rectangular television view of the world could be making a comeback.

The 70s are back: CHF 150k for this mechano-digtal leader

Last year saw Hamilton’s re-release of a Pulsomatic, and the new-born 4N brand resorted to the great Renaud & Papi to implement an iconic “digital-looked” watch with an industrial price-tag.

But the persistent driving force behind design is mechanics. The internal combustion and steam engines are the source of inspiration for many brands. It all has to do with the fascination of reorganizing raw materials into a function whole, that warm and fuzzy feel of pistons sliding inside the oiled sheath of a motor block, the demented samba of the valves, the easy transfer of power from the wild explosion through the camshaft to the wheels that gives men, as a rule, the definitive feeling of once and for all overcoming their insignificance.

Meccaniche Veloci, a motorbike on the arm

The success of such a simple esthetic strategy lies essentially in the level of separation between the metaphor and the message. Dozens of brands steer close to the source,  like the German “airplane” watches Breitling and Fortis, or the less famous Meccaniche Veloci, from Smits Uurwerken, whose open plan booth flickered to a film of a motorbike racing around, over an over again, sounding like some demented bee caught inside a violin. The message has all the subtlety of an anvil falling on a bare toe. The watches are bold, round and with four subdials. One piece, in vermilion red, is made from a bike that has been dissected and whose remains stand in a corner of the booth for all to see. Is this piece of metal better than a newly machined bit of steel? And what fate befell that motorbike? No idea. Somewhere among the fluttering axons and dendrites is the lost message that a vehicle is a functional tool, but the rugged feel sparks the male id, no doubt.

(A footnote: There are other ways of expressing one’s disorganized personality or its opposite and nemesis. An example: the purity of a Nomos, which avoids the user needing to pull out an iPhone to tell the time. And besides, do I really want to have a spiritual whiff of Easy Rider on my arm, when CHF 25,000 or so will get a Romain Jeromethat includes a bit of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano – now there was shocker – or some rusted leftovers of the Titanic – a symbol of the world economy? – or even a bit of dinosaur feces? Tbd…..)

Pimped mechano sets

A few steps up the sophistication scale are brands like Eberhardt, where the dashboard look seems almost incidental. Something about the asymmetry of the four subdials on the famous Chrono 4 series treats the eye and the mind to a little diversion. Many other brands have achieved some remarkable effects with the same idea, such as Chopard, which  has integrated design elements recalling those bulky engines of the 30s. Armin Strom, too, besides revamping it

TAG Heuer can now measure a 1,000th of a second.

s booth to make it a lot lighter, has developed a new collection, the Racing series, which is in sharp contrast to the Elements series. Two models are equipped with the in-house movement and are made of car parts as well. The dials range from straightforward to fairly complex, the Regulator consisting of interlocking subdials that give the sense of optical depth. Finally, a mention of the remarkable TAG Heuer Mikrotimer Flying 1000 Concept Chronograph, which measures 1000thof a second thanks to a special spiral, the absence of a balance wheel and a host of other patent-pending innovations. The brand pushes automobile names, like the Carrera, but what this has to do with the watch itself is anyone’s guess.

 

 Engineer’s dream

For many brands, it is of course not about the cars but rather about the nostalgia of our dying world of mechanics, and here the automobile and plane references join a far larger archetype.  Think Mazzuoli, who was not at Baselword, and his espresso machine pressure-gauge watches, or the Contagiri (rpm counter). Or the one-handed wonders of  Meistersinger, extremely basic, and yet with lots of space to let the imagination wander, particularly back to simpler times. The watches of the small brand Ernst Benz might have been taken straight from the cockpit of an early model crop duster,and will therefore

harmonize well with muddy overalls or a casual three-piecer. The Michigan-based company’s latest idea is a tip of the hat to the old vinyl records industry, with concentric circles as a design element: just imagine a caveman faced with a jukebox playing Elvis in a greasy spoon outside Biloxi. Another Swiss-made American brand is Ball Watch– yes, it’s the origin of the expression to be “on the Ball” – A conscious effort has been made

The Ernst Benz Chronoscope

to trace back to the birth of the watch in the high-employment

 

The Ball Fireman Storm Chaser – decades of glow

world of hogheads, bakeheads, yard rats and the other railroad denizen of the late 19th century, when people had their feet on the ground. The watches are all about functionality, including the use of tritium-filled vials to ensure lasting illumination in the dark.

 Impossible to list all of the brands that pay homage to the age of real manufacturing, with metal parts and great wheels turning. Ultimately, however, that is the core beauty of a watch, the wheels, pivots and screws that reproduce the movement of the spheres in the galaxy. In his new X-Ray Series, Israeli horologist Itay Noy simply shows those inner workings of the timepiece on the dial as quasi-abstract element, one that suggests the workings inside. As a teacher of industrial design, Noy is educating a new generation of inventive designers, whose work is testimony to the limitlessness of the imagination when liberated from the illusion of market demand.

Itay Noy, his family of watches is growing by the year

DeWitts, always combining style and mechanics

Other brands revert to Art Deco as the polite side of Chaplin’s Modern Times. The Twenty-8 Eight series of DeWitt is a superb example of the sheer timelessness, the industrial elegance of the 20s and 30s, be that the plain automatic in a chocolaty hue or the complex Tourbillon Regulator Horizons, with what seems like a homage to New York City. At the top of the gamme here, too, are the unique timepieces of Jean Dunand, and the Palace mentioned last year in this blog,the symphony of cylinders called the Shabaka, or the contrasting Tourbillon Orbital, a delight for those who enjoy top-drawer detail work and made-to-order individualism. Modern and playful, too, are the Perrelet turbines. The turbine itself no longer drives the automatic movement, since it had the drawback of acting as a brake, but it does produce a lively play of light and colour on the dial.

Turbine xl, Perrelet flashes quietly.

In the same vein are the outstanding pieces that need to be mentioned this year again: the fantastic – in the original sense of the word – Urwerk creations and the collective masterpieces organized by Max Büsser, which combine perfect craftsmanship, functionality and scintillating humour not often seen in the industry. And place must be made, too, for Hautlence’s HL2 collection, a mechanical tour de force with honeycomb dial, a jumping hour chain, various connecting rods like the eccentrics on a steam locomotive, and a particularly large crystal that allows a deep view into the mechanical pyrotechnics (see top of page). The watch comes straight out of an engineer’s LSD trip.

The stunning lucubrations of Felix Baumgarten and the Urwerkers.

Ladoire gentrifies the message a little bit

Finally, mention should be made of a brand that is nosing into this field, Ladoire.  Last year, Lionel Ladoire’s colorful  Mohican was probably more talked about than his massive platinum watch, which could easily serve as an arm weight for joggers (with CHF 108,000 plus to spare). A heavy off-rectangular frame surrounds a multi-dimensional dials that move, in part, around fixed hands. The movement is home-made. Buyers of the first editions could opt for an intricately machined titanium frame that lightened up the whole affair. Ladoire and his merry cohorts, who work in sophisticatedly trash offices in the Acacia industrial zone of Geneva have now come have toned down the steampunk look with the Black Widow series, lightened the watches and streamlined the face to make reading time a little easier. The turning dials are heavily painted with SuperLuminova, giving off an eerie glow in the dark.  The price has been halved, but the customer can still have the watch customized, and by that Lionel Ladoire does not mean etching one’s favorite animal on the rotor.

 The artists

 

One of the earliest steps in procreation is attraction, and that needs the wow. Nature has colorful feathers and great sexy manes for the male of the species, humans have the combined forces of Madison Avenue and “The Industry,” which manage to enliven the whole process of self-advertising for Him and Her alike. Creating colorful dials and strange shapes for watches is one possibility. But it only

 works if it appears natural, otherwise a watch might have the same rhetorical vigor of an annual report in spite of the bells and whistles. Alain Silberstein, for example, continues to produce stunning objects with his daubs of color that either confront or enhance the severity of a timepiece, like the MB&F Horological Machine No. 2. Not far from his booth this year was Christophe Claret, who was presenting his third watch, the Blackjack. The name says it all: you can play blackjack with it, it even dings results. Roulette is played on the back, and craps in a lateral window. Though the theme is similar to Azimuth SP-1 Roulette, which was also on display, the style is very different.Chris Long and Alvin Lye push the envelope rather far out in their horological Träumerei. Their current creation is in the shape of a World War One tank, with the hours but definitely needs some tweaking to be more readable and perhaps a touch more elegant. For the moment it’s seems liable to tear off your cufflinks.

In time of war (World War One tank, by Azimuth)

 Primeval soup

As every year, many real cherries for any visitor to the fair were located up in Hall 5, the so-called Hall of Emotions, perhaps the most appropriately named.  It is here that I returned to Thomas Prescher, who is involved in the Promethean task of getting his Mysterious Tourbillon to work properly while surviving on a his outstanding record of special concepts. Rebuilding older watches for customer is the bread and butter of his business, and a few of those were on display.Two independents have also emerged who caught my eye.

Marc Jenni’s JJJ in rose gold

The first is Marc Jenni with his JJJ, a tribute to a distant relative in the past, the 18th-century watchmaker Johann Jakob Jenny. The watch features a large lateral winding crown and some surprising display elements, such as a window giving the ancient – Roman – daily planets, the moon for Monday, Mars for Tuesday, and so forth. The other buzz is about the One Hertz by the Grönefelds, two Dutch brothers from a family of watchmakers, who have turned time on its head with a large subdial featuring deadbeat seconds driven by their own movement,  and hours and minutes in a smaller subdial at 2 o’clock. At first glance, this is a minimalist’s dream, but  slowly the different layers of the watch face and indicators begin to interweave and the beauty and balance of the piece hits home, like the alcohol concealed in the easy fruitiness of a thirst-quenching cocktail.

Tim and Bart Grönefeld, the One Hertz

 Eastern winds

This all too brief review of the Baselworld 2011 closes with mention of two remarkable young watchmakers from the east. The first is the Hungarian Aaron Becsei, whose Dignitas collection seems inspired by architectural historicism.

Aaron Becsei’s Diagonal Tourbillon in the Dignitas series.

 His timepieces surprise with odd outbursts, like a slanted  tourbillon carrying a seconds indicator that seems to have landed in the watch face like a ninja star, retrograde minutes in a frame with a curiously angled foot and jumping hours. Here is a watchmaker of extreme skill, who obviously has the courage to break out new ideas and then put in the days, months, even years to see them to fruition.

Becsei’s collections include intricate table clocks as well, with tourbillons and eclectic decorative  elements. Not unlike his neighbor at the AHCI booth, Konstantin Chaykin, a thin, intense Russian autodidact with a track record of particularly complex timepieces. Last year he displayed an intricate table clock with a complication showing the Orthodox Easter, another with a Muslim calendar, and a watch with ancient Jewish time in the back (see…). This year, he brought the Lunakhod, a masterstroke made of, among others, Wootz – a very special early steel alloy known inIndia over 2000 years ago – with a harmoniously integrated gray band. The watch has a could blend into the pebbles on a beach. With his sister, Nadja, interpreting, he explains that we always see the same side of the moon, so a moon phase with a turning moon is not really authentic. There in the middle of the dial  is a 3D moon. The phases are shown by the shadow slowly folding over it, a neat and well executed complication. Another little detail is the semicircular display for the hours, which is not retrograde: p.m. is shown by a moon at the tip of the hour hand, a.m. by a little sun. The seconds are in a subdial. And the dark side of the moon is in the back where it belongs. Altogether Dostoyevskian in its duality. And a stroke of genius in the overall concept.

This time at Baselworld (2011), part 1

Zenith represents well the changes that have swept the Swiss watch industry over the past, say, 10 years, when people believed in the magic growth of money and the Madoff snake oil. How could something promoted with loud and ostentatious events and fetching
absurd prices not be worth a lot of money?

Whither the watch

Anyone with a decent nose and a functioning lizard brain would have noticed the change 20 meters after the turnstiles at Baselworld 2011. The pungent, oily smell from the tchotchke candles sputtering away at the Zenith stand had vanished into last year’s thin air. Gone too were all the signs of the Thierry Nataf era, including those pseudo-brainy ads with the frowning male models and the girlies pushing very costly and blustery watches. What remains is sobriety, functionality, understatement, in other words pure Zenith from the days of 2 + 2 = 4. The Striking Tenth, already prominently displayed last year, still has flagship radiance, the new Stratos is a relaunch from 1969, sportive, muscular, but not steroidal.

Zenith passes the breathalizer

Zenith represents well the changes that have swept the Swiss watch industry over the past, say, 10 years, when people believed in the magic growth of money and the Madoff snake oil. How could something promoted with loud and ostentatious events and fetching absurd prices not be worth a lot of money? Today, the company is buying back the unsellables and moving forward with its classics – with, I hear, some technical involvement from LVMH Group partner Hublot. Not everyone thinks poorly of Nataf. “Whenever I used to show my watches to distributors, I was ignored,” recalls one former Zenith salesman from the early days. “Now they wouldn’t dream of doing that anymore. That is to Nataf’s credit.”

The big picture

Essentially, the industry is back with an excellent year behind it and rosy, nay incandescent, prospects for the coming one, provided some new bubble doesn’t appear on the horizon and then burst again: Exports rate up around 22 percent, February seems set to be a record month, even beating the great 2008. The exhilaration was palpable, audible and legible across the board, and was not really affected by the war in Libya or the threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan (this issue did allegedly keep some of the Japanese away, but one distributor mentioned that it would be out of character for them to actually not show up) … From Karl-Friedrich Scheufele of Chopard, to Jean-Claude Biver of Hublot, all were radiant, enthusiastic, ecstatic. It was more than just the usual uplift; for even at the height of the Great Recession, while easily-earned yet vaporous cash snapped, crackled and popped under the dousing by the liquide glaciale of reality, the mood at Baselworld remained, at least rhetorically, positive. Nevertheless, this year there a slightly giggly mood going round, similar to that at the foot of a particularly shaky rollercoaster, when the pale passengers disembarking  look around to see if  anyone had flown off the carriage. In fact, just about everyone seems to have made it, even though there are a few bruises and headaches.

Dazed and dazzled, however, the industry was to an extent caught by surprise by the surge, as Max Büsser of MB&F told me in an interview in his customary pithy style: “The suppliers were anemic in the crisis, and now they’re being asked to run a 9-second 100 meters, and that’s impossible.”

In other words, supply might be  lagging somewhat, while some brands, caught unawares, have to restock not only on product, but on the talent they threw off the bus perhaps a little hastily.  The demand itself is driven mainly by China, which picked up around half the exports; Europe is doing well and the USA is, well, no one really knows, while the Middle East no one seems willing to talk about.

Different day, same hit

On the Jaquet Droz stand, enamel drawings

What Chinese demand really signifies  in terms of design is difficult to tell. Some brands have an older connection to Asia, like Jaquet Droz and the so-called “Beijing collection,” whose styles range from minimalist to complex.  At the booth, one of the Droz artists was demonstrating the extraordinary technique of drawing on enamel, which has been one of the brand’s trademarks.
The deeper question though is whether tigers on watches is going to truly appeal to Chinese consumers. As this segment of the industry is mostly market driven, determining what is going to be the big hit is perhaps irrelevant. Hardly astonishing then to find horological innovations that are carrying on from last year’s trends. 2010, one might remember, was back to basics. As the economy is as predictable as the weather along the English Channel, few seemed prepared to take massive chances. Watches were a touch smaller, some flatter, steel was back (that trend has slowed), and prices were looking reasonable even in the haut-de-gamme range. And so the sudden surge may have caught the industry off guard, an industry that produces new material with lag uncharacteristic for our just-in-time times.

Patek …. A simple solution in the Grandes Complications

A Blancpain Villeret, for those in need of a classic

So steering a solid course through the recession without trying anything outrageously new proved to be the only strategy, hence many of the booths revealed good friends from last year some in new guise, some appearing perhaps a tad larger, with a few extra daubs of color or deco. Hall 1, home of the biggies including Swatch Group, Patek Phillippe, the LVMH companies, seemed full of watches that were indeed beautiful, sexy, masculine, anything but outrageous. From Breitling to TAG Heuer, from Breguet to Longines, there were no shocks to the fans, to the collectors, none, at last, that were truly visible. And while the crowds were fairly heavy, the frenetic feeling was not there. Even Blancpain, whose CEO Mark Hayek succumbed to the sophomoric dream of driving a fast car with the shape and color of a crushed beetle, happily continues to thrive with its classics, notably the Villeret Complete Calendar.

The Hebe Crepuscule, skeletons in the closet

This overall cautiousness – or is it just the surprise – may be the chance for brands with lower budgets and less visibility.  The Tensus: patents, quality, delivers the commoisseur's discreet wow.Or for those who seek a more intimate sense of beauty and quality. Or even for the newbies on the block.  Heritage Watch Manufactory, which went live in September 2010, has come up with a purist’s delight and has done its marketing properly. This classic looker (the Tensus, for instance) , boasts five patented innovations, including a special escapement, double spring barrel and an adjustment system It will no doubt find its fans, perhaps among those who wish to remain in the Glashütte mold, in spite of a solid price tag ranging from CHF 15,000 to CHF 50,000.  On the other side of the scale is the simple craftsmanship of the tiny Hebe Watch company, which is buried up in Alle the Jura and whose booth was tucked at the farthest geographical point from the entrance in Hall 5. Besides a few small watches in 1920s/30s style from its previous incarnation, Hebe has come out with a few modern skeletons at a good price. The brand, which was already dealing with China in the 30s and in the 80s, was recently purchased by Anouk van de Velde from Belgium, who seems intent on giving the watches in Alle space to develop naturally, while at the same time making them better known. Perhaps a more visible booth?

Another Belgian to mention is Benoît Mintiens, who launched Ressence, apparently as a compact version of “renaissance of essentials.” That seems to summarize the whole show really well. As an industrial designer, Mintiens seemed out of place in the GrandPalace along with some of the wizards of the watchmaking craft. His idea of a revolving dial, with moving subdials, however, did create some chatter. And it’s not a one-time shot. He is, so he says, already working on the next design, and the next, and the next.

Extramural intervention: Ressence reconstructs modernity

Mechanics, retroistas, and the artists ….Baselworld 2011 continues here.

Man of the People – Nicolas Hayek

Nicolas Hayek died the way he probably wanted to, enjoying his daily leisure time at his desk in Biel. He was a grand entrepreneur in a class of his own. If anything came close to the art of business, it was what he did, and like all great artists, whatever he did seemed easy. Of course he could toot his publicity horn as much as anyone – did I say horn? I meant a five-manual organ –  but that is the business of truly loving your business. Furthermore, his grandson, Mark Hayek, once told me in an interview that his grandpa relaxed on Sundays by doing the books. His concern for his industries and the people working for him was genuine, and that is what made him one of Switzerland’s most trusted public figures. When he said “sustainability,” it was not just fig leaf stuff, it meant something, because he believed in it. Swatch Group managed to navigate the massive recession of 2008-2009 without shedding many jobs. That must have given Nicolas Hayek a feeling of success, if not elation. 

As a journalist, one who keeps a very low profile, I was thrilled to be able to write about Nicolas Hayek following an interview he granted me at the Baselworld 2008 watch fair. I wanted to discuss his project for a solar-powered fuel-cell car. I was given a 20-minute slot and stayed 45. Within that short time span we covered all sorts of subjects, from his Marie-Antoinette watch, to green technology, passing by the Middle East. There are several statements he made that I have never forgotten, in particular his attributing success in business to a CEO’s ability to motivate workers. Ironically, at around the same time, I – who knows Pittsfield, MA, and the social and environmental disaster area left behind by GE in what was their company town – was asked to go to a press conference given by Jack Welch and write about Neutron Jack (the article appeared under the title Jurassic Jack). It was like listening to a Mahler’s 8th Symphony and following it up by chopsticks played at supersonic speed.

So without further ado ….  Nicolas Hayek as I humbly saw him.

Hayek1

If an adult male would walk around saying he believes in Santa Claus, he would probably end up spending some time under observation at the nearest booby hatch. Or receiving medication, as befits our zeitgeist. But when Nicolas Hayek said so, ears pricked up, eyes lost their glaze, brains fine-tuned their reception mode. Not because anyone thinks that he really believes in some fellow with a beard and dressed in a red cloak distributing presents from a sled pulled by reindeers. Rather, Hayek, founder of Hayek Engineering, co-founder of Swatch Group and the impulse behind Smartcars, is revealing one of the secrets of his success as an entrepreneur. Continue reading “Man of the People – Nicolas Hayek”

Baselworld 2010 Part 1: Return of the watch

 

A special diving watch: the Italian brand U-boat thinks big

Watch yourself!

Baselworld 2010: a review

Part 1

 If we are to believe the chroniclers of the wealthy like Steve Forbes, what affects the world’s haves, will also have an impact on the havenots. It’s a bizarre thought based on some strange algorithm only Forbes might understand – it assumes that X not being able to afford another luxury car is equivalent to Y and his family being expelled from their home. But when it comes to watches, the algorithm might just work. Because luxury is the projection and realization of some personal fairytale, and it touches everyone at all levels. For some, purchasing a muscle car is the lonely cherry atop an otherwise gloomy cake, and for others gazing at a tourbillon and a pumping hairspring may be the only way to remember one’s own beating heart in a life of soporific board meetings and business-class plane travel. You don’t really buy a watch, especially a mechanical one, to tell the time, but rather to have a little bit of the galaxy on

Blast from the past, Baselworld in 2008

or on the wrist of a loved one.  It makes no difference whether it’s a €210,000 Chanel limited edition, or an entry-level Eterna …  It’s one of the messages that became quite obvious at Baselworld, the annual watch and jewelry orgy held in Basel, Switzerland.

This great trade fair just closed its doors on a happy note, with attendance up by 7% over last year, according to the fair’s daily herald, and the industry generally upbeat about the future. But optimism among the watch brands is not new. Even in the depths of the recession, CEOs and the brands’ majordomos of communication were grabbing at any number that suggested black and not red, and smiling through the drizzle of bad news. As a last resort, they would point to the overheated market until 2008 and suggest that the ensuing crash was merely a natural correction.  Quite true, of course, but since the Lehmann vaporization, the Madoff hanky-panky, even the now forgotten scandal at the Société Générale, the luxury industry has been faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, liquidity problems and continuing insecurity in the markets — see Greece – means that the recovery has the energy of the prisoners staggering into the light at the beginning of act II of Beethoven’s Fidelio. On the other hand, the very raison d’être of luxury, exhibitionism, is now considered to be in even worse taste than it ever was. Money is a little tight for everyone thanks to the pathological greed of the past few years, but for those who have it, broadcasting the fact seems to suggest a “let them eat cake” attitude. And we know where that ended.

Eterna Soleure, traditional values are in style

Turning back the clocks

So it’s no surprise to hear just about every brand speak of “classic” values mixed in with the usual fusion of traditional crafts with innovative ideas. The era of bling has passed, and serious watch aficionados are not entirely unhappy with that state of affairs. Just as censorship in the former USSR led Russian writers and composers to weave a great deal of dissident subtlety into their creations, so, in the year 1 after the Great Recession, sleek lines are back, thin, elegant watches with plain bar indices are in, so are the comfortable rectangular shapes of the 1950s,  1960s and 1970s. Symmetry, or at least harmony and balance, has returned to the dials, but without the slightest sense of stodginess. And steel casings are suddenly quite fashionable — whereby red and yellow gold are beginning to return.

Many of the older brands seemed to have had a great time rummaging around their archives and digging up older designs that hark back to simpler days. Eterna, for instance, is pushing its delicate Soleure, with Arabic numerals or bar indices, a day and night watch for all occasions. Longines has a re-issue of the Lindbergh chronograph, a manly piece but hardly Hummer-like; Tutima has resumed its 1941 Flieger Chronograph line, also recalling the brave flyers of yore, while its Classic line is a genuine chameleon, with sharper contours suggesting this millennium.

A fast-beating heart gets a front-row showing in the Striking 10th

No brand epitomizes more the changes of the past three years than Zenith, perhaps. The flamboyant Thierry Nataf of Moet fame had tried to reinvent the traditional brand to meet the exhibitionist tastes of a class of nouveaux riches that partly crashed along with the rest of the economy all the while burying the company’s very DNA. It was like spray-painting flames on the side of a Steinway concert grand for a Grigory Sokolov  recital of Brahms’s late works…. To Nataf’s credit, it might have worked had the world economy simply continued to exist on the hallucinogenic expectations of derivatives. Suffice to say,  Mr. Nataf – who once told me in an interview, he was “born in a boardroom” – was kicked sideways and replaced by the stolid Jean-Frédéric Dufour, a Geneva resident with a real horological pedigree that includes stints at Ulysse Nardin and Chopard. Gone are the über-cool male models with their brummagem scholar-cum-samurai appeal and the glam femmes objets.  Gone are the aphoristic quotes that may be interesting while waiting for the subway, but signified nothing in terms of watches. Gone, too – but not sideways – are about 25% of the old staff. Zenith has turned the clock back and is producing strong, basic, watches, with the good and friendly looks of high-attitude Jura farmers and affordable prices. The big news is the El Primero Striking 10th, which shows each of the ten beats per second of the exceptional caliber (which beats at 36,000 vph), thanks to the jumping seconds hand. Back to the roots, indeed… All that’s left of the flashy pre-Dufour days, apparently, is the company gift candle sputtering away on the receptionist’s pulpit and producing a penetrating, musky-spicy odor that mixed somewhat irritatingly with the garlic used by Zenith’s own booth cooks.

Coming up for air: Doxa divers

 If it ain’t broke …

Eberhardt’s Chrono4 Temerario

Some brands did not need to turn down the volume too much, simply because they never really lost their dignity in the first place. Chronoswiss, Doxa and Tutima, for example, are classics by nature, and like  Breitling, Fortis, TAGHeuer, have all maintained their genetic association with big engines, diving, flying, regattas, while offering the occasional bit of craziness. It might be a surprisingly gaudy strap,  or a limited edition, like Fortis’s Mattern, which was designed by artist Michael Mattern, a specialist in transcending the inner workings of our industrial age.  Another manufacturer worth mentioning here is Eberhardt, whose watches seldom venture beyond the straight and narrow but manage to achieve recognizability without going to extremes: The standard Chrono4 series, with its four small dials, would not raise your granddad’s eyebrows, though the Temerario sub-line, in a tonneau case with the four subdials arranged vertically does generate some additional excitement. And then there is the crown buried like a gas cap behind a metal flap between the two 12-0’clock lugs.

Beauty and the beast, biker chains, head fins, jewels on the DeWitt Tourbillon

Higher up on the scale is DeWitt, where a class and luxury do a little slumming with the steam-punk crowd. That tiny chain used to connect the power reserve in the Academia line is not just a visual delight, but rather part of an innovative system to ensure that the driving force of the tourbillon is constant. Chopard is another brand that has parked itself in the grand old days of leather helmets and mud-speckled goggles. For the company’s 150th anniversary, it has developed several new timepieces, notably a pocket watch that functions as a wristwatch as well as a tribute to founder Louis-Ulysse Chopard. The movement driving this serene piece was produced by a collaboration between the company and the Geneva Watchmaking School, which needed some components for the apprentices’ master works.

The Esplendido, more après-race than racy

Another brand which has defined itself by sticking to its retro birthright is Cuervo Y Sobrinos. Like Chopard and the Mille Migli, CyS also embraces the world’s great car races, like the Grand Prix, as a sort of public identity. Whereby the dignity of the elongated case of the Esplendidos line suggests more the sensuality of a slow rumba, wafts of sweet and spicy cigar smoke, lazy afternoons, the sexiness of taking time rather than racing through it. The Pirata line offers the same identity, with a little more sportiveness, a whiff of tang coming through the porthole shaped case and the crown and push-buttons recalling blunderbusses and a cannonball, a humorous watch for walking the plank with.

The Cuervo Y Sobrinos Pirata – goes well with an eyepatch.

It’s not over yet: Check out Part 2 .

Continue reading “Baselworld 2010 Part 1: Return of the watch”