Ludwig Oechslin Retires As MIH (International Museum Of Horology) Curator And Director
“This is, of course, the most important watch museum in the world,” Ludwig Oechslin says unapologetically as I sit across from him with my steaming cup of espresso during a jovial chat in the museum’s conference room. If there is one thing Oechslin does, it is to tell it like he sees it.
Characteristically, Oechslin is not wrong in this assertion. And, yes, he is referring to the Musée d’Horlogerie (MIH) in La Chaux-de-Fonds, of which he has been the curator since 2002. And, no, he’s not saying that because he runs it. Or ran it, that is. He matter-of-factly states the truth.
This month was Oechslin’s last month as curator and director of the museum; he has retired. But, thankfully, only from the MIH.
A stellar career
Watchmaking is extremely fortunate to have a personality and thinker like Oechslin as part of the fabric of its existence; a man who today is called to join every conceivable committee, jury and panel in search of his expertise and sensible viewpoints.
But entering this industry back in the 1980s was not a given. Not by a long shot.
Oechslin, born in 1952 in Gabice Mare, Italy, burst on to the high watchmaking scene in the mid-1980s with Ulysse Nardin and the mechanical renaissance, which this brand and its visionary leader Rolf Schnyder helped usher in. Oechslin had already been studying the humanities since 1972, when he began earning degrees in archaeology, ancient history, Greek, Latin, art history, and philosophy at the University of Basel.
However, he discovered that he wanted to work with his hands, but not in the usual way; rather in a way that allowed him to combine the physical and the intellectual. His horological story began with Jörg Spöring’s workshop in Lucerne.
“Spöring was probably the only watchmaker who would have taken someone like me; having attended university and then going on to an apprenticeship at the age of 24 was completely unorthodox,” Oechslin recalls of these early days. “It was probably the thought of getting down to the seriousness of life itself that led me there, to something tangible, since with my other studies I couldn’t really earn much money.”
Partners in time
It was here that one day in 1983 someone came looking for a watchmaker able to make an astrolabe for the wrist. That someone was Schnyder, just after he and some of his friends had purchased Ulysse Nardin. The visionary and the thinker – “partners in time” as I have often called them in print – went on to change the course of horological history with their trilogy of ultra-complicated and intelligent astronomical masterpieces called the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, the Planetarium Copernicus, and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler.
GMT and Freak
And then there was also the groundbreaking GMT Dual Time +/- – which first displayed Oechlin’s particular brand of simplification in watchmaking – and, naturally, the game-changing Freak, which we will certainly re-address another day.
Trilogy of Time
He continued to develop new concepts for Ulysse Nardin for many years alongside his academic pursuits, which included studies in theoretical physics, postdoctoral lecturing, treatise and other public writing, research and professorial positions – and, of course, earning the right to call himself a master watchmaker.
This diploma arrived in 1993, close to a decade after Ulysse Nardin’s Astrolabium Galileo Galilei appeared on the scene in 1985 and one year after the third member of the famed Trilogy of Time was introduced in 1992.
Time has proven that the mechanical watch is here to stay, and the version of Ulysse Nardin that Schnyder and Oechslin created was certainly one of the driving forces of this gear-driven renaissance.
The simple answer to complex problems
Oechslin began showing the “simplification matters” side to himself publicly with 2005’s MIH Watch, a no-nonsense timepiece he created in conjunction with retail partner Embassy and watchmaker Paul Gerber, whose Zurich workshop produced it.
The reason for its creation? To raise funds for projects within the MIH, such as the restoration of the Daniel Vachey clock the museum purchased in 2002, a 3200-component masterpiece possessing every conceivable astronomical and mechanical function.
The contact with Embassy – and, in particular, Beat Weinmann, then an employee of this Swiss retain chain – brought about the creation of Ochs und Junior, a boutique brand driven by Oechslin’s idea of the simplified annual calendar, a highly functional and visually minimalistic timepiece.
Thankfully, Oechslin won’t be fully retiring from the industry – meaning he will still be creating beautiful mechanical concepts for Ochs und Junior and most likely Ulysse Nardin – but he will cease his functionary duties for the various committees and, naturally, the museum.
Will it be hard to find someone to fill his rather complex shoes? “Naturally, this post is extremely multifaceted,” he reveals. “It runs the gamut from technical/artisanal to academic as we must maintain our timepieces ourselves, but also perform scientific research of timekeeping. Intellectually, it’s a relatively large and wide spectrum as it goes into history, social history, ethnology and even psychology.”
Retiring from this task will mean has a little more time on his hands, to which he looks forward as it will allow him to begin certain aspects of research again that he had had to put on the back burner.
One of these is to dig deep into the real story of how the mechanical watch came to be. “So much unutterable nonsense is spread these days, and I feel it must be at least be reputed as such…if you only hear the nonsense and get on the wrong path because of it, how are you going to reach the right goal? Maybe we can gain a new perspective this way.”
Is he sad to leave the museum after 12 years? It’s actually hard to tell; as soon as I ask about his feelings, he naturally changes the subject. One thing he did express unequivocally is that it was definitely “time” for him to leave this position. “After a few years everything sort of runs by itself and you get into a bit of a rut. At that point I think you need to have the courage to say, okay, we need a fresh breeze. You need to go to another institution, develop other things, and allow someone new to come in [with fresh energy].”
Night at the museum
Personally, I have always thought working at a horologically related museum would be fascinating. But I did wonder how long it takes before you begin to just walk past things – exhibition pieces by past masters, say – without registering them anymore. I didn’t get the answer to this, but I did find out that it seems to be a universal phenomenon. “Recently I had to go get something from one of our field warehouses; I hadn’t been there for five or six years,” he revealed. “And I did rediscover things – which had certainly been there before – but I hadn’t remembered them. Fantastic things.”
I sure hope he doesn’t miss them too much!
For more great videos by TheWatchesTV, please visit http://www.thewatches.tv/en/.
For more information on the MIH, visit this museum’s website (French only): http://www.ville-de-la-chaux-de-fonds.ch/en/musees/mih/.
For more information on and original photography of Ludwig Oechslin, read 12 Faces of Time.