Origins of Artisanal Watchmaking Part III: The Horological Avant-Garde

Avant-garde independent watchmaking – in both design and mechanics – started to take root in the village of Sainte-Croix, a village in the Swiss Jura mountains in the mid-90s. After a stint at both automaton producer Francois Junod and watchmaker Vianney Halter’s ateliers in 1994, a 19 year-old Felix Baumgartner joined his elder brother Thomas and long-time friend Martin Frei in establishing Urwerk. Founded in 1997, the trio took inspiration from the past as watchmakers are wont to do, the trio nonetheless looked to the future.

The result was the UR-101 and UR-102, both variations on a theme that indicated the time via a wandering hours. Made up of an hour numeral that traverses a minute scale, the display was invented in Germany in the 17th century, but URWERK installed it inside an sleek watch case both retro and futuristic, bringing to mind a 1950s vision of space travel.

Despite its radical reimagining of a centuries-old complication, URWERK got off to a slow start, as often suffered by many a concept that arrived ahead of its time. It would be 2003 before the brand launched its second wristwatch – the UR-103 – but that would be the watch that firmly established URWERK as a formative brand in contemporary independent watchmaking.

Featuring a wandering hours like its earliest creations, the UR-103 went even further in design. Fabricated by Christian Gros, a case maker instrumental to URWERK's rise and whom they had initially shared a workshop with in Geneva, the UR-103 case resembled an Art Deco spacecraft and featured a “control panel” on its reverse that contained the power reserve indicator and constant seconds.

But it was in 2005 that URWERK debuted the truly novel satellite-cube display with the Opus V, built for American jeweller Harry Winston. The satellite-cube display was evolved from the wandering hours, but unlike the 17th century complication that functioned only a single plane, the satellite-cube display indicated the time on two dimensions via a trio of rotating cubes.

Over the following decade, the brand would go on debut other intriguing watches with unusual time displays, including the UR-CC1 that told the time on twin linear indicators, as well as the EMC, a mechanical movement with an integrated electronic timekeeping-monitoring device.

The Halter-Barnes Affair

As URWERK was in its infancy, Vianney Halter was on the cusp of creating the watch that would come to define his brand of watchmaking. An alumnus of the THA complications workshop, Halter was approached by Jeffrey Barnes in the mid-90s with an idea to create a series of watches. Barnes, an American graphic designer whose lifelong interest in watches led him to pen his own timepieces.

Introduced to Halter by Joseph Penola, an American associate of Barnes who originally hailed from Sainte-Croix and where Halter resides, Barnes’ inaugural 1994 design was a wristwatch with four sub-dials, each within its own porthole in a steampunk-style case. It was a round watch yet deconstructed and utterly unlike anything that had come before. In fact, it was so far from convention that few watchmakers would take on the task of turning the design into reality. Barnes has acknowledged that whilst he had dreamt up the aesthetics of the watch and commissioned a fellow Chicagoan Chris Sheban to illustrate it, the idea of incorporating a perpetual calendar complication into it was conceived by Halter. Barnes’ daughter – Maranda Barnes, who during the developmental phase of the project was interning at Halter’s manufacture attest to that; recalling having to translate, over the telephone, the conversation between the two men. Whilst both stood initially in opposition to each other’s ideas, the duo managed to find a meeting of minds and together, created the Time Machine Perpetual Antiqua debuting at the Basel Fair in 1998.

According to Halter, the first three examples of the Time Machine Perpetual Antiqua were badged “Halter Barnes”, but after a dispute between designer and watchmaker meant that Barnes role in its creation has largely been glossed over since. Made worse by the fact that out of the three original Halter Barnes Time Machine Perpetual Antiquas, only one example had survived.

Soon after the lauded premiere of the Antiqua, Halter put several other of Barnes’ designs into production, namely the Classic and the Trio, before moving on to other projects, including the quirky Goldpfeil wristwatch created for the now defunct German leather goods maker that was inspired by a leather-wrapped rangefinder camera.

21st Century Watchmaking

By the turn of the century, the Baumgartners and Halter were already far along the paths that would make them significant independent watchmakers. Their former colleague, Denis Flageollet, however, was still at THA, where he would remain until 2001.

That year, he departed the infamous horological workshop to establish De Bethune in La Choux, a five-minute drive from Sainte-Croix. De Bethune’s other guiding light as David Zanetta, an Italian who was one of the world’s most important vintage watch dealers in the final decades of the 20th century.

With Flageollet as the technical genius, Zanetta provided the inimitable aesthetic sensibility that seamlessly melded the classical and avant-garde, a style that would come to define De Bethune.

The brand’s earliest watches were distinctly old school, a heavy dose of Breguet style with clous-de-paris guilloche dials, Breguet  numerals and, powered by “new old stock” movements. But De Bethune swiftly evolved, driven by Flageollet’s imaginative mind and Zanetta’s well-honed taste, resulting in watches that are space age yet accented with classical details – think Roman numerals, Breguet hands, and an expanse of heat-blued titanium.

But De Bethune watches are avant-garde beyond just style, with Flageollet having invented a variety of movement innovations – ranging from silicon and platinum balance wheels to a jewel-lined mainspring barrel – that have been progressively improved over time.

Flageollet’s versatile creativity stands out, even amongst his talented peers, for encompassing more than just watch movements. One of his creations is De Bethune’s signature wristwatch, the DB28 that is defined by its sprung, pivoted lugs that allow the large case to sit lightly and snugly on the wrist. And no doubt encouraged by Zanetta’s eye for the extravagant and elegant, Flageollet also built lavish table clocks and even a smartphone case fitted with a mechanical pocket watch.

An Age of Collaboration

While most of the key figures in the early days of independent watchmaking were necessarily watchmakers, Maximilian Büsser stands out for being a marketer and entrepreneur. Tapped to run the watch division of Harry Winston in 1998 – still in his first job at Jaeger-LeCoultre and barely out of his twenties – Büsser’s genius was realising the talent of independent watchmakers required a big-name brand as a catalyst for wider recognition.

That led to the Opus, a series of watches that the New York jeweller created in collaboration with notable independent watchmakers. Announced in 2001, the very first edition was the work of Francois-Paul Journe, who installed his signature movements – Tourbillon, Resonance and Octa – in the recognisable Harry Winston watch case. 

The series would progress with one watch a year – Halter’s turn was in 2003, and then Urwerk in 2005 – but Büsser would depart Harry Winston not long after the Opus V of Urwerk. He set up shop on his own to pursue the very same idea of collaborating with independent watchmakers, naming his company Maximilian Büsser & Friends (MB&F) as a result.

Two years later, MB&F would unveil its debut watch, the Horological Machine No. 1, a watch shaped like a figure-of-eight that would herald the brand’s rise as a lead practitioner of the avant-garde movement in watchmaking.

Büsser would go on to collaborate with respected watchmakers little known outside the industry – most of whom work as specialist subcontractors - bringing a degree of recognition to individuals who would otherwise remain anonymous. The HM1, for instance, was the work of Peter Speake-Marin, known for his eponymous watch brand, but also Laurent Besse, who builds movements. Subsequently “machines” would rely on well-known names like Kari Voutilainen, but also Jean-Francois Mojon and Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, who like Mr Besse are movement constructors.

The Picasso of Watches

An exhibition surveying the major influences of the late 20th century watch industry cannot be complete without the mention of Gerald Genta (1931-2011). Despite being neither a watchmaker nor an entrepreneur strictly speaking (though he did have a highly competent business partner in his wife Evelyn Genta), Genta, till today remains the most important and prolific watch designer in history. Responsible for some 100,000 watch designs by Madam Genta’s account, Genta long considered himself first and foremost an artist who designed watches.

His style, and successes, were truly diverse. His early works were exemplified by the Universal Geneve Polerouter and Omega Constellation, both typical gentleman’s watches of the 1950s, but with distinctively detailed chapter rings and hour markers. But the watches that have come to define the Genta name were created during the quartz crisis, starting with the Royal Oak, which he famously designed overnight in response to a request from the then-chief executive of Audemars Piguet, Georges Golay. With a one-piece case inspired by a diving helmet, the Royal Oak design was completed in 1970, and then launched in 1972. Four years later, Genta penned the Nautilus for Patek Philippe – reputedly on a napkin while in a restaurant – this time taking inspiration from a ship’s porthole with its hinge and locking mechanism on each side. In the subsequent decades, Genta would design one hit after another, including the Bulgari Bulgari with its wide, flat bezel, and the Cartier Pasha that had a cap over the crown linked to the case with a small chain.

In 1969, Genta had already established his own company to produce custom timekeepers, but his eponymous brand only took off in the early 1980s. Amongst Genta’s most faithful clients were the monarchs of Brunei, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Spain. Genta had begun innovating with new materials for watchmaking purposes as early as 1984 when he unveiled the Gefica, a watch designed for big game hunters that had a matte, non-reflective bronze case as well as a compass integrated into its clasp. The decade also saw the launch of the Fantasy collection created under license from the Walt Disney Company. Bearing the American studio’s most famous characters, Mickey Mouse, Minne and Donald Duck, the Fantasy collection were whimsical in design but priced as serious timepieces, many powered by complicated, mechanical movements. Developed in-house at his 3 workshops in Le Brassus and Geneva – his company employed some 70 people by the 1990s – the brand’s movements were startingly diverse and complex in a period when high-end watchmaking was only just making its comeback after the quartz crisis.

The pinnacle of Genta’s watchmaking arrived in 1994, when the brand debuted the Grande Sonnerie, then the world’s most complicated – and most expensive – complicated wristwatch. The top-of-the-line versions of the model were powered by an automatic movement made up of over 1,000 parts, incorporating a grande et petite sonnerie carillon with Westminster chime on four hammers and gongs, tourbillon, perpetual calendar, and dual power reserve indicators. That same year, Genta himself set up Gerald Charles, a new brand dedicated to realising some of his later designs, though Gerald Charles never enjoyed the success of Genta’s original brand in its heyday. Although Bulgari all but shuttered the Genta brand in the years after taking it over, it has since used several Genta designs as the foundations for its own watches, most notably the ultra-thin Octo Finissimo. And in 2019, Bulgari revealed the Gerald Genta 50th Anniversary Arena Bi-Retro in a tribute to the designer.

The Persistence of Memory

Up until the Quartz Crisis and the reactionary efforts of a handful of talented watchmakers, the concept of solely devoting one’s professional career to artisanal watchmaking was a foreign one. George Daniels proposed an alternative to the dominance of Quartz-powered watches at the time, and in doing so inspired future generations to follow his path.

Aside from George Daniels’ commanding influence over the future direction of modern artisanal watchmaking, we ought not forget the other monumental shift which took place in the last quarter of the 20th century. The watch design revolution. Without Gerald Genta’s artistic flair, the avant-garde watchmaking movement, and its ensuing collaborations: Halter & Barnes, Flageollet & Zanetta, Baumgartner & Frei and Büsser & Friends, may never had materialised. In marrying artisanal watchmaking techniques with avant-garde design, artisanal watchmaking has essentially gone back to its artistic roots.

Chronometric perfection is no longer the sole motive driving today’s artisanal watchmakers. Rather, there is a renewed interest in pursuing the dual goal of technical excellence and artistic expression. The early works of Rexhep Rexhepi, Gaël Pétermann & Florian Bédat and Rémy Cools can attest to this. Despite their relatively young age, they’ve focused considerable efforts in establishing an identifiable style that is unique to them; a brand ‘DNA’. François-Paul Journe is a prime example of achieving (and sustaining) this lofty balancing act – indeed, the above mentioned make no secret of hiding the degree to which Journe has influenced their own artisanal watchmaking careers.

In running this exhibition, we offer the viewer a window into how horological artisans engage and perceive the passage of time, because embedded into each of the horological creations featured is the very soul of the respective maker. Long after the artisan passes on, their self-sustaining mechanical creations live on to inspire. This is the Persistence of Memory.

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