With the dust of the biggest watch fair settled, the biggest trends covered and the biggest surprises explained, it’s time to talk about the brands that don’t aspire to change the global landscape, yet manage to constantly push the watchmaking art further and further towards the absolute perfection – the independents.
With some of the bigger names departing Baselworld and the whole exhibition space shrinking, the independents have finally landed closer to the front row. Entering the door opposite the main hall right from the City Lounge – the central square of the exhibition – you instantly found yourself surrounded by the unusual flamboyant mechanical marvels as well as some museum-level dressy pieces. Crazy ladies’ piece by MB&F, magnificent desktop clocks in the form of cars, balloons and robots by L’Epée, futuristic watches by Urwerk with all their spinning hour discs, an hourglass by Czapek, some aggressively artful dials and cases by Artya and quite a number of master watchmakers presenting their work personally. A kind of horological heaven for those who are interested in a kind of watchmaking going beyond or against the regular industry.
In the watch industry the word ‘independent’ can mean two completely different things. The first is not being a part of a larger conglomerate: think Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe or even Rolex… The second – being a relatively small, sometimes even one-man enterprise, engineering and producing watches on their own. Of course, each case is different and there’s plenty of brands falling somewhere in between those two poles. However most artisans creating, manufacturing, finishing and assembling hi-end watches all by themselves or with the help of a small team share pretty much the same strategy in day-to-day operations. And despite the drastic aesthetic differences their work has at least one basic thing in common – intolerance to compromises. In most cases the DNA of such one-man brands is based on either unique approach, – and that’s not your usual ‘unique’ from any watch-related press release ever – or likely best technique (finishing/dial-making/enameling/etc.) in the business.
They are present at watch fairs along with the leading brands, they win the industry prizes, revive ages-old techniques, and occasionally design or engineer for big watch companies. However, to understand the crazy difference between their average production volume and their creative contribution you have to use numbers. With some 10-50 pieces a year per brand, it’s a drop in a bucket against the regular industry. But at the end of their day, it’s the watchmaking art that matters. And the amount of artistry here is astonishing. In addition, a hefty part of work in this segment of the market is done by hand, sometimes even the routine processes like blueing hands or polishing facets are performed by the master watchmaker whose name will appear on the dial. And this is the main reason for such small volumes. It’s simply impossible to make a serious growth without lowering the quality bar, and nobody really wants that.
The lack of retailer network or traditional advertising doesn’t really hurt anyone. These watches are not bought while strolling through the mall or on the way to a luxury spa. The client of such independent artisans is a seasoned collector who has already satisfied their urge for the usual suspects of haute horlogerie, and now strive for something extremely special. Needless to say, a hefty part of total production in this segment is bespoke. A client may ask for a special dial, decorative elements, sometimes even a special movement architecture. The price tag will surely be sky-high, but as long as their regular pieces are close to six-figure territory, it doesn’t make that much of a difference for those who really love watchmaking and have the means.
Talking of the master watchmakers presenting their work in person, the booth shared by Voutilainen, Grönefeld and Sarpaneva has captivated our attention right from the start. And the visit indeed turned out to be quite a joy! With the new 28ti watch Kari Voutilainen literary fulfills the half-joking collectors dream of wearing his exquisite pieces upside down. Ironically, this time the brand known for producing one of the most stunning dials in Switzerland went for a watch that has no dial at all – the hands are rotating right on the movement side.
Needless to say, every tiniest detail of the in-house caliber is finished to the extreme level and literary screams for a loupe. And some more dial-related news: collectors can now purchase a trademark keychain made by Kari’s dial factory. The price is around 3000 Euro but than again, comparing to his watches, it seems more or less reasonable.
Exhibiting in the same booth was Helsinki-based Stepan Sarpaneva. The grim face of the moon, extremely masculine if not plain aggressive shapes, crazy amount of lume, – all his watches are full of character. The new Lunations presented at Basel feature his first in-house caliber with a very clever moonphase and the age of the moon driven by two rotating discs at the backside and a half-transparent window at 6.
Housed in 42 mm steel or rose gold case of a trademark shape and rocking a skeletonized dial as well as a multi-coloured lume (with hands covered on the rear side, so we see their reflections against the dial) the watch really goes against the stream. And even if it ain't exactly your cup of tea, it’s hard not to admire persistence and originality of Stepan’s work.
Standing next to Sarpaneva were Bart and Tim Grönefeld, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the brand in the coolest way imaginable. Yes, almost any watch company marks the milestones by releasing a new watch, however in the case of Decennium Tourbillon we’re talking a caliber developed specially for a 10-piece limited edition. You’ve got it right; a new tourbillon movement will be produced in ten exemplars and wouldn’t be used ever again.
A nice and dressy 39,5-mm platinum case, a flying tourbillon, very interesting architecture of ‘rounded’ bridges and a stunning slate-grey dial, – this is a true collectors watch.
The same horological fiesta was going on at the AHCI booth located this time in rather strange surroundings of big and not very expensive brands from all over the world. It was buzzing with people and unconventional watches. Antoine Preziuso was showcasing his crazy Trillion Tourbillon of Tourbillons unique piece – no joking, the famous watch with three tourbillons mounted on a carousel is now fully covered in baguette-cut diamonds. Konstantin Chaykin, now probably best known for Joker series, presented the Dracula – Joker’s cousin with a very clever and interesting night indication. The ‘mouth’ now has vampire teeth appearing at 10 P.M. and disappearing at 8 A.M. Svend Andersen, Miki Eleta, Hajime Asaoka, Aaron Becsei – everyone here has a very personal and instantly recognizable approach to creating a watch or a clock.
While talking to Becsei, we’ve learned about his first worldtimer watch currently in the pipeline. It was commissioned by a serious collector of this complication and designed from the ground up specially for him. And this brings us again to the conversation about watch collectors who actually fuel the independent market. Last year Andreas Strehler, another renowned independent watchmaker, told us in an interview, that he had a one-off worldtimer piece made for a special collector of worldtimers. Making no claims, we surely wouldn’t be surprised if in both cases it was one person. Maybe this is why all those ultra hi-end brands with rather small production volumes can operate without the traditional marketing. We’re not saying it’s always the same clientele, but the circle is rather narrow. And obviously everyone interested is pretty much educated about the names and the current offerings of the market.
By the way, despite not being exhibiting this time, Andreas Strehler was attending the fair. More so, he was one of the key figures at the traditional – as we now know – event The Night Before, to which we were kindly invited. As the name suggests, it was held on the evening before the official Baselworld opening in one of the bars in the Basel city center. Not having a clue and expecting some kind of a scaled-down watch presentation, we’ve rushed in only to be petrified by the scene: quite a number of horological greats including Strehler, Voutilainen, Grönefeld brothers, and Sarpaneva were just chilling around, having some drinks with friends (one could easily recognize a collector, GPHG jury member and part-time brilliant watch journalist Gary G) and chatting about watches, inviting us to join in. We’ve already mentioned passion as the main fuel behind this segment of the industry, but there’s something more to it. These masters of an old-fashioned craft are friends, knowing each other for decades. They have a similar background, a lot of stories to tell, and guess what, they appear to be surprisingly open about horology. And when you buy one of their pieces, you get the fine watch with this personal connection that no big industry can ever provide.