Is Independent Creative Horology Dead?
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Please insert a waiver, disclaimer, or any other legal wording here, but do also please keep in mind that this is my article and these are my views.
Oh, and if you were just looking for the short answer to the question I pose in the title – “is independent creative horology dead?” – then my answer is yes. But please do bear with me for a few more lines to understand what led me to pose this question and my answer.
In the early 1990s, I was facing the same dilemma as today: should I buy modern or vintage? The problem was that the modern watches actually all looked vintage, right down to the sizes. There was something lacking, and watch shopping at times almost felt like perusing the yogurt section in a Soviet supermarket.
I’m obviously exaggerating here, but there was very little true creativity at the time. Brands were remaking watches heavily inspired by their own golden ages, and there were a few pieces that stood out. Perhaps with the exception of the whimsical and colorful designs of Alain Silberstein (see My First Auction Purchase: Alain Silberstein Pendant Watch), the Corum/Vincent Calabrese Golden Bridge watches, the surprising case shapes of Gerald Génta, and the original time display of the Vacheron Constantin Mercator.
But in general it seemed to me that creativity was more or less an afterthought.
Enter Vianney Halter in 1998 with the Antiqua Perpetual: a steampunk UFO straight out of the whirlwinding imagination of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. A perpetual calendar with portholes dedicated to each specific indication. Creativity was no longer defined by just a case shape, a different dial, or an alternative way of telling time, but represented a philosophy and a vision.
A new genre was born, one that I like to call “independent creative horology” (ICH).
But things didn’t really take off until 2003, which to me seemed to be a pivotal year.
First, the Urwerk team comprising Felix Baumgartner, Thomas Baumgartner (who left in 2004), and Martin Frei presented the UR-103 with its completely futuristic three-dimensional case, rotating discs for telling time, and a control panel placed at the back of the watch.
Urwerk brought to watchmaking a pop culture of its own with obvious inspirations from space travel, UFOs, and Star Trek – watches with no hands but only discs and, later, satellites. Urwerk was speaking a language I, and many from my generation, could understand.
But it was Harry Winston’s Opus 3 (see The Harry Winston Opus Series: A Complete Overview From Opus 1 Through Opus 13) made with none other than Vianney Halter that pressed the takeoff button. Halter’s aesthetics and technical use of what could be termed display portholes merged with then-CEO Maximilian Büsser’s vision made the Opus 3 the talk of Baselworld 2003.
The Opus 3 was not a watch, it was art, it was a Rothko brushstroke.
It was brutally powerful. It was magic!
The watch world would never be the same.
Overlap to mainstream
Surprisingly, two brands who were – and remain – known for rather traditional designs came out in 2004 with watches directly inspired by the automobile engine, both technically and aesthetically.
Parmigiani, founded by the fantastic watchmaker Michel Parmigiani, and now a brand known for its rather conservative look, presented the Bugatti Type 370 with a vertically layered, horizontal movement, and TAG Heuer brought out the belt-driven Monaco V4.
A year later, in 2005, Harry Winston came back for round two, indisputably winning by knockout: the Opus 5 with Urwerk remains the ultimate Opus model. For me, it was like seeing Eraserhead or listening to OK Computer for the first time: all my senses were alert, I was totally outside of my comfort zone, this was no longer a pure time-telling device, but rather an experience.
And I loved it!
This period was pure bliss; the timepieces on offer were mindboggling. However, they not only unleashed the creative juices of many young watchmakers, designers, and entrepreneurs wishing to launch their own brands, but they also heralded a downside: they inspired newcomers with no vision or horological content and larger brands trying to get a piece of the cake by turning their backs on their own genetic codes and going for pure gimmick instead.
These soon got a smack in the face.
But let’s return to the inspired set. De Bethune, founded only three years prior in 2002 and garnering a reputation for rather conservative watches in those years, made a decided U-turn in 2005 with the surprising DBS and its visually intense and innovative movement visible on the dial side with silicon and titanium components in the escapement and a signature three-dimensional moon phase.
It was maybe not as “out there” in terms of design when compared to Urwerk, and later MB&F, but De Bethune’s philosophy was and still remains unique: what would Ferdinand Berthoud or Abraham Louis Breguet be doing were they alive in the twenty-first century? Certainly not continually repeating the past.
In 2006, Max Büsser, who by then had left Harry Winston and founded MB&F, presented Horological Machine No. 1. And the crowd went wild. He took his Opus idea and pushed it a step further: three-dimensional kinetic sculptures reflecting Büsser’s manga/Star Wars/pop culture inspiration merged with true horological content.
These were exciting years, and small independent makers such as Stepan Sarpaneva and Ressence were coming up with extremely creative pieces. Hautlence formed, launching its first watch in 2005 (see Hautlence, Branding, Eric Cantona, And The 10-Year Anniversary).
MCT presented a surprising way of telling time with its incredible Sequential 1 in 2008, which also happened to become the year the big brands stepped in: the latter had no legitimacy in doing so, but also no real strategy other than buying movements from creative behind-the-scenes movement makers like BNB.
BNB in fact fueled several such high-end pieces with little legitimacy in extreme watchmaking: Jacob & Co. presented the Quentin, a piece quite inspired by the Cabestan that Vianney Halter had worked on; Concord, a maker of entry-level, department-store watches, suddenly came out with the Quantum Gravity, a watch with a tourbillon separated from rest of the movement and a liquid power reserve indicator; Bell & Ross, known for its vintage-look aviator watches, introduced the Minuteur Tourbillon, blatantly “inspired by” the case of the MB&F Horological Machine 2. And so on.
The watch world was having a momentary lapse of reason, and an unprecedented financial crisis (thankfully) put an end to this. The big brands went back to their own “DNA,” and the independent creators kept doing what they knew best: surprising us and making us dream.
The big players’ hasty retreat has created a vacuum for newcomers; every year at Baselworld we see a handful of new brands with offerings on the verge of the ridiculous – in terms of design, horological content . . . and price.
Brands that are openly trying to surf on the success of the original creators without offering anything new.
The big issue here is that most of these new creations are the result of an ego; they are just gimmicks with no long-term vision or strategy, and many from brands who won’t be able to service the watches they have produced . . . if they remain at business at all, that is.
Unfortunately, it’s the collector who will be left holding the hot potato, resulting in a negative impact on independent creative horology, even those doing a great job.
But that’s not the only thing killing ICH
Every year I waited with baited breath for the new launches from MB&F, Urwerk, De Bethune, and the Opus series. However, the latter never gave me the same rush I felt with the Opus 3 and 5 models. The other independents still kept surprising, but little by little the “wow factor” seemed to be gone.
I think I belong to a generation that grew up, horologically speaking, with independent creative horology. Traditionally, there were the so-called Big Three in haute horlogerie (in order of appearance: Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet), and from the start ICH had its Big Three (in order of appearance): Urwerk, De Bethune, and MB&F. (I’ve put aside Vianney Halter, who remains a niche artisan never quite making the jump to “brand.”)
This new Big Three modeled the market and forged a new trail. It’s not that the others were/are not worthy, but rather because this trio had elements vital to becoming the trailblazers.
Except in the case of MB&F, fantastic watchmakers were behind these brands: Felix Baumgartner for Urwerk and Denis Flageollet for De Bethune. These men had a perfectly traditional watchmaking background, they had worked on or restored some of horology’s greatest pieces, and they could rely on their solid foundations to recreate a new horological world.
Max Büsser, on the other hand, may not be a watchmaker, but rarely have I seen someone with his fingers so perfectly on the pulse of an era. And, having worked with some of the greatest watchmakers alive, he knew exactly where he could go.
To quote Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
This is what they did.
These guys had a philosophy and vision; they wanted to do something different, they wanted to experiment, they wanted to excite. They wanted to bring horology into the twenty-first century and they had complete artistic liberty.
Their creativity didn’t come from the desire to get noticed, like a vast majority of what we see today in terms of so-called creative horology, but from not giving a flying hoot about the market. They wanted to express themselves, and in doing so they attracted a following of collectors who admired this non-conventional nomenclature and who were also looking for something more than a watch designed by a marketing team of people who do not even buy watches!
So what’s next?
There are others who have come and gone, but rarely did they give me the same tingling feeling as with the ICH Big Three.
But even these three have now become somewhat mainstream . . . they have grown: Urwerk has made a watch with hands (EMC, see Heartbeat: EMC By Urwerk); MB&F has a whole collection of round watches with Roman numerals (Legacy Machine, see Heartbeat: Legacy Machine No. 2 By MB&F); and De Bethune is creating watches with engraved dials.
Why have they done this? Just because they remain true to their founding philosophy of expressing themselves through their watches and not giving two hoots about the market. Thus, they’ve remained honest and rebellious.
So, is independent creative horology dead?
Urwerk, De Bethune, and MB&F, each in its own way, set the foundations for a genre. And today they have become so strong that they are recognizable just by their creations without the need to categorize what they do. They have indeed outgrown the artistic genre they created.
So, what about the others?
In my opinion, it is very difficult to come out with something as edgy as these brands have in terms of aesthetics and design without falling into the gimmick category, and such offerings will always be compared to those of the ICH Big Three. But, as the latter had to make a break from what our fathers were wearing, the new generation will need to make a break from what we are wearing. And this is the good news.
The big classic brands are well rooted, and the ICH brands are well rooted. This will call for a period of invention, of creation, of boldness, and of thinking outside of the box. And those entering the market will have to create something new with a different vision.
Yes, independent creative horology is dead. But what’s coming next can be just as exciting or even more exciting!