Forget Ploughs To Ploughshares: Fonderie 47 Transforms AK-47s Into Haute Horlogerie
It was all over the news in early 2014: Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47, had died at the age of 94. The weapon originating in post-World War II Soviet Union is one of the most widely used assault rifles in the world thanks to its low production costs, relatively simple design, durability, easy use, and – let’s face it – availability.
According to a number of sources freely accessible on the Internet, prices for the AK-47 are low and opportunity for acquisition is rather high.
For humanitarian entrepreneur Peter Thum, the AK-47 was the perfect symbol for what he was trying to achieve when he established a company called Fonderie 47. Thum, in addition to having founded this company for socially conscious watches, jewelry and accessories, is also the founder of non-profit organization Giving Water, the socially conscious jewelry brand Liberty United, and, of course, Ethos Water, which he eventually sold to Starbucks and afterward guided as a director of the Starbucks Foundation.
Though Thum is no stranger to hard work or new ventures, making exquisite, rare, luxury wristwatches containing symbolic plates of metal from destroyed AK-47s led him down somewhat of a harder road than some of his other ventures, which included raising an excess of $7 million in humanitarian water grants to help about half a million people.
Speaking with Thum is a lot like looking into the mirror of the do-good side of your own soul, even if you are not nearly as capable of just getting it done as he is. For me personally, the idea of an exquisite timepiece such as this created for a selfless purpose resonates deeply. Surely, it will also resonate with collectors who have the means to actually support the idea by purchasing a watch.
Thum explains his motives thus, “The assault rifle problem in Africa is complex and thorny. To most people this is an ‘impossible’ problem, to me, the answer is that you first have to believe that the problem is not impossible. Then you have to imagine the radical idea that is necessary to win people over to join you in this belief, and finally you have to make that idea real.”
Clarifying the choice of the AK-47 as his symbol, Thum expounds, “The AK47 is a mass-produced, industrial object. This weapon has spread around the world as a tool for state strategy, political ideology, and because of an accident of history (it was created by a communist country with no patent protections) as an open-source platform that allows anyone to produce their own version of the gun – and over twenty countries have. Since 1947, some 100 million AK-47-type weapons and variants have been produced. Swiss watches and watchmaking seemed like a clear, opposite object and process respectively to the AK-47 and to the desperate conflicts that they fuel.”
“I’d had experience with this with Ethos Water,” he continues. “Many people had told me back then that I was ‘crazy’ and ‘your idea will never work.’ But it did work. That said, I knew that this would be a much higher hurdle. As a point of comparison, Ethos went from idea to company acquisition by Starbucks in less time than it has taken Fonderie 47 to complete the production of its first watch, Inversion Principle.”
An inverted principle
As insiders, we know how truly hard it is for outsiders to gain a foothold in the Swiss watch industry. It is here that fate played a small part in leading Thum to the right people, guiding him to the right places to go within the Helvetian horological landscape to create what he had envisioned.
“A mechanical Swiss watch was the first thing on the drawing board for Fonderie 47,” says Thum. “Work on this project had begun even before I filed the papers to set up the company; I knew that it would take us a long time to do this and it would be pivotal for us to make this watch.”
Through his new connections, Thum was introduced to quite a few Swiss watchmakers, small brands and constructors. “We made many trips there and met with both watchmakers and companies that could make a watch for us if we had a design,” he recalls.
“But none of these were fruitful. In most cases, the idea for a watch made using AK-47 steel was too ‘far out’ for them, or their financial needs were too great and their delivery timelines too long for us, or some combination of these factors. This was the status quo for nearly two years. In that time Fonderie 47 moved forward by creating some remarkable objects with great designers and artisans, but the watch project remained stalled. However, quitting was not an option.”
That last sentiment seems to be a recurring theme in Thum’s life, for soon thereafter he connected with designer Eric Giroud, a watch industry personality and perhaps the most prolific and high-profile designer working in haute horlogerie today. “We explained what we were hoping to achieve and after a time, Eric made the connection to [watchmaker] David Candaux and [designer] Adrian Glessing, suggesting that David should make the Fonderie 47 watch and that Adrian should design it.”
Candaux – previously a leading watchmaker at Jaeger-LeCoultre and largely responsible for the first Hybris Mechanica model from 2009, the Duomètre à Grande Sonnerie – is able to make entire movements in his picturesque farmhouse-cum-workshop located in the Vallée de Joux.
This fact reduced most of the supplier problems for Fonderie 47 while it ensured exclusivity and extreme creativity. Candaux really shows off his technical prowess within the 42 mm case available in white or red gold. While the jumping hour and retrograde minutes provide the time, the eye is immediately drawn to the three-minute tourbillon, which also boasts a second hand on its cage. A six-day power reserve is displayed twice on the watch: once in a lateral window embedded in the side of the case and once on the back. Though this hardly matters, as the observer’s attention is too busy with the base plate’s beautiful sunray guilloché surrounding the steel plate made from a transformed AK-47.
The main objective of this watch was to inspire some of the most influential people in the world to be interested in an issue in which they currently had no involvement and probably knew little about; in short, transforming the iconic AK-47 into something beautiful and wondrous.
To achieve an inversion.
“This thing could be art, but to have meaning it would need to be tangible and have purpose that was connected to human activity in a real way,” Thum explains.
“The retail price of Inversion Principle is $350,000, and the purchase of each watch will fund the destruction of 1,000 assault rifles in Africa,” Thum goes on. “The purchaser receives a list of the serial numbers of the guns that the purchase has destroyed. Altogether this makes 20,000 assault rifles for the twenty Inversion Principle watches that we are making.”
Hard to do good
Peter Thum showed me this watch about a year ago in the prototype phase. Much later in the year, I enjoyed the pleasure of having a finished piece in my hands as a member of the jury of the 2013 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. At that time, I could not help but admire the graceful dial with its lovely jump hours (a personal favorite complication) and the handcrafted German silver movement that so lovingly wears its origin on its sleeve. I recently asked Thum to tell me if he had it to do all over again, would he still practice his particular brand of philanthropy in this way?
“It is difficult,” he replied, not surprisingly. “And there are other paths that would have been much easier for me, but which I think have far less potential to impact the problem of small arms in Africa than the audacious idea of making things like those that we make; like Inversion Principle. You see, I’ve had some success in the past in ‘doing good,’ and so it would be much easier for me to raise money directly and only from donations from my circles in the world of philanthropy.”
“We do raise support for our not-for-profit foundation that way, but that is not our focus. And that is because charitable giving in the U.S.A. is the highest as a percent of GDP in the world at around 2.2 percent, and this number really doesn’t grow with the addition of another organization raising money. I believe that the other 97.8 percent of the economy is a place where change and growth in solving problems for humanity can and should happen, so that’s what Fonderie 47 does in its mission to reduce gun violence and the number and impact of small arms in Africa.”
But would he do it again? Knowing what he now knows about making such a highly complicated, mechanically beautiful object that can really only stem from an industry that is more closed than open in terms of accepting outsiders?
“I would do it again,” he answers resolutely. “Particularly if I could begin the journey armed with all that I’ve learned over the past four years.”
Now that’s an answer. And one that we can all be thankful for.
For more information, please visit www.fonderie47.com.
Case: 42 x 14.6 mm, white or red gold
Movement: manually wound Caliber F47-001 with central three-minute flying tourbillon
Functions: instantaneous jump hours (set/adjusted with pusher), retrograde minutes; power reserve indications on back and side
Limitation: 20 pieces