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20 Years of Watchmaking - Independents The Golden Age: Part 1

20 Years of Watchmaking Independents The Golden Age: Part 1

Standing in the tradition of the Geneva cabinotiers, independent brands are probably the single most distinctive phenomenon in 21st century watchmaking. The creativity and scope of their achievements are boundless, forming a varied and colourful landscape that was especially prolific between 2000 and 2009, and flourished once again from 2016 onwards*

Independents may be outliers, but they have made themselves indispensable. They may be small, yet they can certainly get themselves seen and heard. Their output is in a class of its own, because they push the envelope in all directions at once. And over the past 20 years, they’ve come to occupy a central role in watchmaking. From the outermost edges of artistic creation, they’ve had a profound influence on the art of contemporary watches. They’ve learned the form, then digested – and sometimes triggered – the major trends of the day, creating timepieces that you might not necessarily want to wear on your wrist, but that you can’t help gazing at with a mixture of admiration, amazement, and (in some cases) bewilderment. They just keep on pulling off one daring feat after another.

L’Âge d’Or Des Indépendants : Partie 1

Manufacture © Romain Gauthier

Freedom

Independent watchmakers’ commanding influence is thus clear; but just what constitutes an independent watchmaker? Strictly speaking, while they are in different categories and vary wildly in size, Rolex, Chopard, and Richard Mille are all independent brands. But independence is not just about legal status or shareholder structures. After all, one can be free from any ownership ties and still be institutional, conventional even. Independence is above all a state of mind. What the independents under consideration here have in common is that they all have a deep desire to do things their own way: independently of the ethos that governs a brand bound by the weight of its own history; independently of any business, marketing, or retail considerations; independently of the all-pervasive pressure to follow prevailing trends; independently of convention, custom, and routine.

L’Âge d’Or Des Indépendants : Partie 1

Micro-Rotor © Romain Gauthier

Indeed, all of these many different players are driven by an inner vision that determines their choices. They are demanding, innovative, as well as discerning when it comes to quality of workmanship, artistic creation, and design. As things turned out, these factors were to become more important than ever in the years between 2000 and 2020. It comes as no surprise that a large proportion of the 40 or so independent brands were set up between 2002 and 2006, or that they were to be found together in dedicated spaces at major exhibitions, such as the Carré des Horlogers at the Salon de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva and the Ateliers at Baselworld.

L’Âge d’Or Des Indépendants : Partie 1

Galet Micro Rotor “Montre École © Laurent Ferrier

The Forerunners

Watchmaking in general had already experienced considerable disruption at the turn of the century. Broad trends such as tourbillons, advanced complications, large diameters, and baroque displays were well-established, signalling that mechanical watches were back in favour. The time was ripe for the sector to make room for an additional dose of quirkiness, daring, creativity, and difference – and there was already a fertile crop of independents, then in their thirties and forties. They carved out a space for themselves and were already acquiring something of a reputation – often in their own names – for making their own watches. Names like François-Paul Journe, Antoine Preziuso, Vincent Calabrese, Philippe Dufour, Gérald Genta, and Svend Andersen. They stood out from the crowd, adopting approaches that hinted at the breed of independent that was to emerge. Their output was tiny – a few hundred timepieces at the most each year, sometimes far fewer. Their teams were small – some of them even worked alone, or with just one apprentice, perhaps with a spouse looking after the bookkeeping (as well as providing moral support). Sometimes, the people creating these brands (or in the case of brands like Bovet and Urban Jürgensen, resurrecting them) were not even watchmakers: Rebellion, ArtyA, Cabestan and Cyrus were all underpinned by an entrepreneurial spirit, although of course there was definitely a watchmaking ethos at work there, too.

L’Âge d’Or Des Indépendants : Partie 1

Skeleton Central Tourbillon Calibre © Hysek

Independents play the whole gamut of styles, from the most classical, painstakingly-crafted watches to the most off-the-wall pieces, as illustrated by Philippe Dufour at one extreme and Vianney Halter at the other. A few years later, the same dialectic was embodied by Laurent Ferrier, champion of traditional finishes, and MB&F, never afraid to try another outlandish shape. Then there was Romain Gauthier, chamfering and polishing to fanatical perfection, and Hysek, inventing crazily complex movements and skeleton designs that had you wondering how they stayed in one piece. Meanwhile Kari Voutilainen began tirelessly exploring all the subtleties of lines and complications; Urwerk produced condensed versions of science-fiction metaphor for the wrist. Themes tend to be related to civilisation, spanning everything from popular culture (Romain Jerome’s superheroes) to the expert implementation of classical watchmaking theory. Worthy of mention in this respect are the free escapements envisaged by Breguet and Berthoud and realised by Voutilainen and Laurent Ferrier, as well as Antide Janvier’s work on resonance, applied in practice by Beat Haldimann and F.P. Journe.

Practitioners

The prominence of the founders of independent brands, in charge of sales and promotion for their very small-scale operations, means that creator and brand are by definition inextricably linked. This proved an important asset in the years between 2000 and 2020, characterised by more meaningful contact between clients and their watches. Customers became more than just customers. Sometimes they provided input into the watch being made for them; independent watchmakers often specialise in custom-built timepieces. As sophisticated connoisseurs and knowledgeable watch-lovers, they often know as much or more than industry specialists, making them keen to connect with the source, i.e. the inventor. And as it happens, the smaller stands at watchmaking exhibitions in various cities are manned by the inventor, allowing the creator himself to share his vision, tell his stories, and listen to other people’s stories, without any go-betweens or filters.

L’Âge d’Or Des Indépendants : Partie 1

TB88 © Arnold & Son

By doing so (and not having managers or a network of stores), independents can get out of their workshops and engage in a form of cross-pollination. Indeed, their defining characteristic is that they are in fact flesh-and-blood watchmakers, busy every day at the workbench themselves, often in parallel to the role of manufacturer. They actually know how to design a movement, decorate it, assemble it, and adjust it – which helps explain just why finely-crafted watches with small and medium complications play such an important role in this little world. Seldom do independents consider integrated manufacturing. The very idea of an autonomous Manufacture could not be further from their concerns, primarily because of cost and network considerations. Indeed, they are – and most will remain – small outfits, unable to invest in the kind of faciliaties that autonomy would require. The few items of equipment they possess are for machining components too specific to be successfully delegated elsewhere. As a result, they have weaved a web of subcontracting and collaboration that is much more closely-knit than that of any other type of brand – because their survival depends on it.

Fertilisation

How are independent watchmakers made? Some of them started off as watch restorers: Kari Voutilainen learned his trade at Parmigiani, where he maintained watches from the Sandoz collection. Others come from some of the best watchmaking brands: Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey met at Renaud & Papi, the outfit responsible for grandes complications for Audemars Piguet (and later, Richard Mille). Each went on to develop an entrepreneurial spirit, often without any start-up capital but armed with a subcontracting agreement, a design mandate, or the production of a limited edition that they bagged thanks to their freedom from groupthink and their ability to operate in networks.

L’Âge d’Or Des Indépendants : Partie 1

A Chronological Succession © Urwerk

As with any network structure, there are nodes, hubs, and clusters that also act as incubators: hot beds of talent whose contribution to the industry extends far beyond the watches they make. Other independents learned the ropes at Patek Philippe, virtually the only brand to have made watches with complications between 1975 and 1990, or with Christophe Claret, who made his first minute repeater calibres in 1987, initiating scores of young watchmakers into this almost forgotten art.

*On the occasion of GMT Magazine and WorldTempus' 20th anniversary, we have embarked on the ambitious project of summarising the last 20 years in watchmaking in The Millennium Watch Book, a big, beautifully laid out coffee table book. This article is an extract. The Millennium Watch Book is available on www.the-watch-book.com, in French and English, with a 10% discount if you use the following code: WT2021.

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