Underpinned by centuries of tradition and faced with an increasing pressure on bottom lines, fine watchmaking can seem pretty serious and — if we are being honest — sometimes downright dull. It is hardly a surprise, then, that when something truly original and, dare we say, fun comes along, collectors and other aficionados go gaga over it.
Such was the case with the Joker watch, which was launched by Russian watchmaker Konstantin Chaykin in 2017. The 42mm steel timepiece interpreted the idea of a watch face rather literally, with the pupils of two googly eyes indicating the hours and minutes respectively, and a grinning mouth holding a moon-phase display. Unlike anything on the market, the watch was an instant hit, selling out in no time and making several “best of Baselworld 2017” lists. Its follow-up, the Clown, won the Audacity Prize at the Grand Prix Horlogerie de Geneve the following year.
The distinctive design has become the cornerstone of Chaykin’s Wristmons (a portmanteau of “wrist monsters”) collection, which now includes several variations inspired by figures ranging from Santa Claus and DC villainess Harley Quinn to characters from Russian fairy tales. True to form, Chaykin’s two recent collaborations with the brand Louis Erard saw the former combine Louis Erard’s regulator dial layout with his own Wristmon design DNA and a character from Slavic folklore, the one-eyed monster Likho.
In town recently for the launch of the Time-Eater II — his second collaboration with Louis Erard — Chaykin smiles when asked if he expected the Joker and subsequent Wristmons to be this popular. Speaking in halting English, the lanky watchmaker highlights how the anthropomorphic design of these watches has an emotional appeal to people because the human brain is wired to pick out faces. It also makes people smile: “If you look at the mouth, the smile, of course this positive emotion comes back to you.”
And as always with the most successful designs, these timepieces just look simple. While it is not as technically complex as making, say, a perpetual calendar, notes Chaykin, he explains that creating a truly new watch requires a lot of thought about its design, proportions, finishing, and details (such as the guilloche nose of the Joker). Unique components, such as the dials, and the eyes and mouths of the Wristmons, have to be produced in-house. He says, “It’s a lot more complicated than making a classical two- or three-hand watch.”
Not that traditional complications pose much of a challenge to the self-taught watchmaker, who is a radio engineer by training. Rather than classical mechanisms, Chaykin’s catalogue instead includes unusual and complex timepieces such as the Cinema (which houses its own miniature film projector), the Genius Temporis (a single-hand watch that can show the minutes on demand), and the Mars Conqueror watches (which synchronises time on Earth and Mars using a single movement).
While these creations may not have enjoyed the popularity of the Wristmons, which are also more accessibly priced, Chaykin’s talents did not go unrecognised by his peers: In 2010, he joined the prestigious Academy of Independent Watchmakers (AHCI), a Swiss organisation of top independent watchmakers, and remains its only Russian member.
Indeed, Chaykin’s first timepiece, which he unveiled two years after setting up his own brand in 2003, was a tourbillon clock. He was inspired to build his own tourbillon timepiece after seeing an exhibition of historical Breguet watches in 2003. Instead of deterring him, the fact that no Russian watchmaker had created a tourbillon in Russia since 1917 galvanised Chaykin, who went about building his first creation with the help of some downloaded blueprints and manuals.
He still regards that first step as the most important milestone of his 20-year career. He reflects, “It took a lot of strength to sit at my bench and start on my first creation, before YouTube, without a guide or a school — nothing.”
Today, the independent watchmaker has 50 employees and his own manufacture in Moscow. Being a watchmaker in Russia is not always easy; one major issue is finding talent, a task amplified by the fact that it takes at least five years to train a watchmaker to assemble one of his watches.
Nonetheless, Chaykin would not have it any other way, citing the unique freedom he has not just as a watchmaker and designer but as an inventor (to date, he has 94 patents to his name). He muses, “If I had learnt the classical way of Swiss watchmaking, gone to watchmaking school, and worked for the big brands, maybe I would have been a good watchmaker. But an inventor? I’m not sure.”