There are rock stars in every industry. Yes, even one as discriminating and historic as high horology. Just that these mavericks aren’t associated with drugs, broken hotel windows or projectile telephones but, instead, with double-escapement tourbillons, decimal repeaters and minute-repeating grande and petite sonneries. They create these world innovations not under the orders of a higher management, but by their own motivation – and largely with their own hands. These are the independent watchmakers.
At Super Machines And Horological Heroes – a pop-up store set up by luxury retailer The Hour Glass in celebration of these solo artists and their work – we speak to four of the biggest names in the watch industry known for their fiercely independent spirit: Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen, Roger Smith and Laurent Ferrier.
The passion it takes to become a renowned watchmaker is as difficult to snuff out as it is to fathom. Which explains why Laurent Ferrier, at 67, still doesn’t know when to quit. After a successful career at Patek Philippe, he went on to create his eponymous brand, working on beautiful, classic timepieces like Galet Classic Tourbillon Double Balance Spring, or more unusual complications such as the Galet Secret watches.
- You have to look at a watch as a whole, and not have it linked to marketing or design.
- There is constant pressure to come up with new things. There are the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie and Baselworld every year, and that’s too fast. Take Vianney (Halter) for example– his Deep Space Tourbillon took six years to create. He is proof that you can’t always come up with new things every six months. You need quiet time to think, test, improve.
- I want to be humble. I managed to succeed with my first watch, but it is the result of many people’s work and a lot of time. The brand is only three years old, so we have to see and be sure, because it’s too soon to say if it is my biggest achievement.
- Launching a brand is not a big challenge, if you know what you want to do. For us, watchmaking is all about pleasure, both in the making of timepieces, and in what the consumer feels when he has our watch.
- Once you’re passionate about something, it becomes all you think about. Even when you’re doing something else, it will be on your mind.
Like his watches, Kari Voutilainen is anything but showy, his unassuming stance almost begs you not to take a second look at him. But horological enthusiasts would kill to pick that brain, for the 51-year-old watchmaker can turn a fundamental concept into a completely fresh idea. His Decimal Repeater watches are perfect examples. Before him, no one had thought to create a ticker that would chime at 10-minute intervals – much harder in execution than it sounds.
- There are people out there who make watch cases but don’t wear a watch. It’s as ridiculous as a car mechanic who has never owned a car. I don’t understand this.
- Not be a watchmaker? I don’t think so. It’s hard to imagine but, if I had no choice, I would do something else that involves my hands, like repair cars or motorbikes.
- We lend spice to the industry. We may be small, but we make big waves. Customers have seen hundreds of thousands of the same kinds of things, and we can offer something different. Even other watchmakers from the major brands are interested in what we are doing. We stimulate them.
- Japanese cars were considered a joke when they were released,but are respected today. Twenty years ago, people laughed at China-made watches but, now, the Chinese are making triple-axis tourbillons. The watches don’t have good finishing because they don’t need it to sell, but once the Chinese master that…
- The best thing about being independent? I don’t have to listen to other people.
Few living watchmakers can garner the kind of admiration and awe, from both the watch-buying community and big luxury groups, the same way Philippe Dufour has. Whether it’s his uncompromising quality of hand finishing, or the cult-like demand for his discontinued Simplicity series, Dufour, now in his sixties, has skills well known among connoisseurs of the ticking arts. And that’s saying a lot for a man who’s happiest quietly making 25 watches a year in his native Vallee de Joux.
- We do need the big brands. Ten to 15 years ago, it was a big deal when someone released a tourbillon but, now, at Baselworld, you see basketfuls of tourbillons, all working perfectly and accurately.It’s the same with all the other complications. They keep us on our toes.
- I’d like to think I make watches for selfish people, those who buy a watch for themselves. These are the ones who are happy with just waking up in the morning to wind the watch and put it on their wrist.
- I will be lost without watchmaking.Us watchmakers are crazy, we’re always working on something in our heads. But, if I could take a sabbatical, I would go to the Alps for five to six months and take care of cattle.
- I could spend the whole morning working on a delicate component and have it break before lunch. When that happens, it’s best to run away. I have a forest behind my atelier, where I have a part-time job as a gamekeeper. When I’m fed up, I go there to eat some blueberries and search for wild mushrooms.
- What scares me is that we are losing the culture of watchmaking a little every day. Brands used to have people who knew how to do everything by hand, but they’re dead now and never passed on their knowledge. Instead, we have machines in factories but you can find them in Shenzhen, too. The Chinese are clever and fast, so we must be careful and try to improve every day!
As the protege of the late George Daniels, who was widely known to be one of the greatest watchmakers of our time, Roger Smith, 43, has a lot to live up to. But what makes this English watchmaker’s products special is that he, like his teacher, is one of the rare few who can put together a watch by himself (not counting straps and balance springs). That’s right, he even makes his own dials and cases. Who needs training at a big brand when your teacher was the one who gave the world – and Omega in particular – the Co-Axial escapement?
- I made my first (pocket) watch when I was 19 and presented it to George. He said it was terrible and told me to start again. I kind of knew that it was, but I just needed to hear it. It was the best bit of advice I got.
- The watchmaking industry is becoming like the fashion industry.If you don’t come up with the trendiest look, you’re finished.Everyone’s always trying to reinvent the wheel, but I guess it allows independents like us to relax a little and make what we want to make.
- As the years went by, the trade got divided into 34 disciplines. Which is why vintage pieces impress me.They were created by people who spent every waking hour making everything from the dials to the hands, and you can see the skill in every component. It’s a wonderful reminder of what we’re capable of.
- We create conversations. We make so few watches – a drop in the ocean– but people want to listen to what we’re about and what we’re doing.
- My greatest achievement would be the second watch I made. It took five-and-a-half years but, when I showed it to George, he said: “Congratulations. You’re a watchmaker.”