They’re usually described as the “rebels” of the watch business for one main reason: While big brands have the advantage of seven-figure marketing budgets and massive stores in prime locations, independent watchmakers don’t.
But there’s still room in the watch world for the independent watchmaker, the craftsman toiling away in a workshop – which probably doubles as his home – creating incredible mechanical marvels.
The prominence of the most successful independents today – notable examples are MB&F, Urwerk and F.P. Journe – has given the niche an air of rarefied glamour and an impression of prosperity gained from a clientele of avid collectors.
There is even talk that some day, one glorious day far away, these independents will challenge the watchmaking establishment. The reality, however, is more nuanced.
Historically, watchmaking was a cottage industry, with mass production arriving only in the early 20th century. And it was only late in the 20th century that independent watchmakers as we know them today began their climb to prominence.
British watchmaker George Daniels was one of the first. He made his first pocket watch – practically from scratch ¬– in the late 1960s. Daniels died in 2011, and by then, his timepieces were prized by collectors. The top lot in his estate sale in November 2012 was a pocket watch that sold for £1.3 million (S$3.2 million).
His greatest contribution to watchmaking is arguably the lubrication-free Co-Axial escapement he invented and subsequently sold to Omega, but only after decades of trying to sell it to other companies, including Rolex and Patek Philippe. He did well enough that, in his later years, he could indulge in his passion for vintage Bentleys.
Daniels’ success contrasts with the quieter career of Derek Pratt, a fellow Englishman and contemporary of Daniels. Like Daniels, Pratt – a talented watchmaker with an emphasis on “maker” – could literally make nearly an entire watch from scratch.
Pratt is best known for his work with the independent Swiss brand Urban Jurgensen, for which he made unusually complicated and sophisticated timepieces, most notably several pocket watches with tourbillons and remontoir, a constant force escapement that ensures consistent torque to the tourbillon. Pratt passed away in 2009, little known outside horological circles.
Likewise, the membership roll of the Academy of Independent Horological Creators, known as the AHCI, ranges from the well-known – like fellow Swiss Philippe Dufour and Vianney Halter – to the less so – like Nicolas Delaloye and Marc Jenni, both also Swiss.
Then, there are the names who were once prominent but are now merely familiar, including AHCI Swiss co-founders Svend Andersen and Vincent Calabrese. Also worthy of mention is the eccentric perfectionist German Volker Vyskocil, who presented his prototype timepiece in 2004 to much acclaim but has yet to fulfil even one of the orders placed all those years ago.
One name conspicuous by its absence in the AHCI ranks is Franck Muller. A brilliant watchmaker in his prime, Muller was one of the earliest members of the AHCI, but is no longer an “independent watchmaker”.
Reason: His eponymous company has made him wealthy enough to land a spot on the Swiss rich list published by business magazine Bilanz. Muller’s success is something no other independent watchmaker has managed to replicate. But fame and fortune in independent watchmaking can be fleeting.
Two of the most well-known names in independent watchmaking were Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth. The late Genta was a superstar watch designer – Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus were his most famous creations.
His own brand was a great success in the ’90s, making the most complicated and most expensive timepieces in the world. Roth, on the other hand, was an old-school watchmaker, respected for the technical finesse of his distinctively-shaped timepieces.
In the intervening years, both men lost control of their companies, which passed through several owners. Bulgari is the latest owner of both, and it has turned each name into a sub-line of the Bulgari brand. Neither enjoys the standing it once had.
The fact is, many of today’s independent watchmakers will not endure. While the watch business is, well, business, independent watchmaking is closer to art.
For that reason, for every Monet or Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, there are hundreds of others whose work will never catch on. Yet, the watch world looks to such independents for breakthroughs the main brands would rarely, if ever, attempt.