These Independent Watch Brands Are Changing Watchmaking Forever
Imagine a contemporary automaker that prided itself on the fact its cars are built the same way today as they were 100 years ago. They look virtually the same and work pretty much the same way. You even have to physically crank the motor to get them started.
Would you be seduced by the brand’s marketing materials trumpeting “time-honoured craftsmanship” and “traditional artisanal skills?” Would you be beguiled by the old-world charm of the product’s throwback design, its antiquated engineering and heavy-metal construction? Or would you instead choose a more efficient, safe, reliable automobile made with the latest technology and materials?
Precious few motorists—and they’d doubtless mostly be beardy, basement-dwelling eccentrics—would select a jalopy from the luddite carmaker described above. Yet its product proposition closely resembles that of countless successful watchmakers selling very respectable numbers today.
In the 21st century, when we can instead learn the time, and any other piece of information a traditional watch is capable of displaying, via myriad other means (including quartz or smartwatches, computers, mobile phones and tablets), mechanical watchmaking could easily be viewed as an anachronism, a relic of a bygone era.
But the undeniable fact is, we do still find “time-honoured craftsmanship” and “traditional artisanal skills” attractive and worthy of support (thank heavens for that). And even if chips, blips and batteries can enable a watch to perform its tasks more efficiently, we are still intrigued by the intricate workings of a mechanical movement. One needn’t be Amish about it, though, and insist things are done exactly as they were a century or more ago. It is possible to combine the best of now and then, as the forward-thinking watchmakers that are our focus here so ably demonstrate.
The Artistry of Time
Maximilian Büsser, whose initials supply the first two letters of MB&F (Max Büsser & Friends), describes timekeeping as an incidental function of his company’s watches and clocks. These are, he says, “objects which give time, yet which are not intended as objects that give time.” Instead, MB&F’s goal is to re-engineer traditional horology and craft machines that would more accurately be described as kinetic artworks.
This is not unlike Singer Reimagined, which is a concept executed by two friends who wanted to explore the world of high watchmaking. Its Track 1, for example, is a radical re-engineering of the chronograph made possible by the Agengraphe, which allows for a centralised indication of the timepiece’s chronograph functions.
Back to MB&F: instead of building a watch around the traditional shape of a movement, Büsser and his “friends” (a humble description for some of the most respected names in independent watchmaking, including Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, Peter Speake-Marin and Kari Voutilainen) first dream up an interesting case shape or concept and then figure out how to build a movement that will function within it.
Likening the process to mid-century car design at Maserati or Ferrari, Büsser says, “We create that clay shape and when we decide, ‘Wow, that’d be incredible,’ then we scratch our heads and think about how we make the engine, how we give it a drive train—all that.”
In another motoring parallel, an abundance of oil is an essential factor in the function of the watches produced by Ressence. This cutting-edge outfit is helmed by Antwerp-based industrial designer Benoît Mintiens, whose pre-horology career included work sculpting high-speed trains, aircraft cabins, medical devices and hunting rifles.
Ressence watches display time using not hands but a group of discs and rings that rotate around one another in an oil-filled dial—or what the company calls a “mechanical display module.” The continuous rotation of the sub-dials and the main disc into which they are set creates a constantly evolving countenance intended to reflect the ever-changing nature of time.
Also using liquids in an innovative fashion, HYT is a hydro-mechanical Swiss watchmaker specialising in displaying time using fluids. Integrating savoir faire inspired by fields as seemingly unrelated to horology as hydraulics, nuclear physics and modern cardiovascular medicine, its watches generally render the time via reservoirs that fill with coloured liquid or empty as pressure increases or drops, powered by pistons that pump as time progresses.
Though HYT’s watches have the futuristic appearance of something out of sci-fi cinema, the underlying concept is drawn from water clocks used millennia ago by ancient civilisations, including the Greeks, Babylonians and Egyptians.
With his eponymous maison, Richard Mille seeks to take the same approach to watchmaking as Formula 1 does to standard automobile manufacturing—elevate it to the state of the art. “In watchmaking, many use Formula 1 as an image,” a source of aesthetic or thematic inspiration, Mille says. “But that is not enough.”
Instead, Mille has set out to emulate techniques used in top-tier car racing, such as the use of ultra-light, ultra-strong carbon fibre and titanium, and the adoption of designs that suspend the movement on a series of high-strength micro-cables, providing shock resistance that allows the watch to be worn during F1 competition (or polo, tennis, golf and myriad other high impact sports). “Every element that has to be rigid is rigid,” says Mille.
“Every element that has to be suspended is suspended… It is like in real Formula 1; everything is tuned to performance—the Richard Mille is a no-gimmick, no compromise watch.” He asserts that his timepieces present excellent value despite their six- and seven-figure prices, because such immense research and development goes into creating small series of limited-run watches that will still seem innovative many decades from now. In authentically modern watchmaking, Mille says, “You need to think 50 years ahead.”
See also: Portrait Of An Artist With Stephnie Shek
This article was originally published in Hong Kong Tatler