You Are There: Visiting Watchmakers With Heart At Jean-Marc Wiederrecht’s Agenhor
Whenever our group of watch buddies is going to be in Switzerland, we always make a point of trying to arrange one or more visits with manufacturers, designers, or watchmakers to learn more about the behind-the-scenes world of timekeeping.
In January of 2017, three of us had the particular pleasure of visiting Agenhor, the horological design and assembly shop led by Jean-Marc Wiederrecht that has been behind some of the most innovative watches of recent years. These are timepieces like the Van Cleef & Arpels Heure d’Ici & Heure d’Ailleurs, the award-winning Fabergé Lady Compliquée, Visionnaire DTZ, and Lady Levity, the award-winning Hermès Slim d’Hermès QP and Temps Suspendu, and most recently the Hermès L’Heure Impatiente and Fabergé Visionnaire Chronograph powered by the AgenGraphe movement.
After a warm greeting and a delicious espresso, we had the opportunity to talk at length with Jean-Marc and his son Laurent to learn about some of the many innovations Agenhor has developed over the years, including the AgenPIT regulation system for balance timing as well as Agenhor’s patented play-free engagement gearing, which takes up the slack in gear trains to enable precise setting and eliminate wobbling hands.
We also heard the stories behind the development of watches such as the Van Cleef & Arpels Faerie, Hermès Temps Suspendu, and Fabergé’s Lady Compliquée and Visionnaire DTZ, and how each drew on core Agenhor innovations in the areas of retrograde indications and open-centered movements.
As we talked, it became very clear that the Wiederrechts have tremendous skill at meshing the possibilities created by technological innovation with the desires of consumers and demands of their brand clients.
Once you can make an open-centered movement (no small feat) you can “fill the hole” with many things, as Agenhor has already done for Fabergé: a second time indication as on the Visionnaire DTZ, a carved depiction of the moon on the Lady Levity, or a full chronograph indication as done with the AgenGraphe.
It was great to have the physical watches, and in some cases prototypes, to handle as their mechanics were explained. In the movie below of the prototype movement for Van Cleef & Arpels’s Pont des Amoreux, for instance, you can see in ultra-slow-motion how the two lovers (the hands) pause to “kiss” just before midnight before they return to the far sides of the Bridge of Sighs.
Problems and solutions
I always find it fascinating to learn about the challenges that movement designers and watchmakers face when creating new movements as well as the tradeoffs and clever inspirations involved in solving them.
The original design for the Fabergé Lady Compliquée Peacock, for instance, was based on the idea that the leading “feather” would be driven by a gear from zero to 60 minutes and the remaining feathers would follow loosely.
But the Wiederrechts found that both imprecise and possibly damaging to the feathers, so Laurent devised a solution in which each feather is driven by different gears of a bicycle-like cog set, and the outer tip of each feather tracks in its own horizontal groove to prevent collisions.
The Hermès Temps Suspendu presented its own challenge: when time is “suspended” the hands go to a “parking spot” near midnight. When time is “resumed” they snap back to the now-current time (again, no mean feat).
But how to resolve the problem of getting the minute hand past the “suspension” point during its normal tours around the dial? Check out the slow-motion video below to discover the answer: a fascinating application of retrograde technology.
Throughout our discussion, I was impressed with the graciousness and good humor of the two Messrs. Wiederrecht. When a prototype watch slipped from the grasp of one of our group members and hit the table with a thud, Jean-Marc thanked him for assisting in the durability testing of the watch, picked it up, and gave it several more good whacks to reinforce his point!
The fun continues
Over a delicious light lunch, we learned more about Agenhor and its environmentally friendly building and met two other key members of the Agenhor team: business chief Catherine Wiederrecht and finance and logistics manager Nicolas Wiederrecht.
We learned that, among many other critical contributions to Agenhor’s success, Catherine selected the firm’s name.
“Agenhor” stands for Atelier Genevois d’Horlogerie and is also a tribute to King Agenor/Aghnor, whose famously fragrant gardens must have inspired the plantings that surround the Agenhor building. Most importantly at the time of founding, Agenhor is a name begining with the letter A and therefore gave every possible edge to the then-fledgling design firm when potential clients were scanning alphabetical lists of potential vendors.
With lunch behind us, we toured the research and development and watchmaking areas of the facility, continuing to learn along the way. There were many more examples of applied engineering and business inventiveness; for example, when a Van Cleef & Arpels retrograde movement called for the smallest possible “engine” to drive its complications, Agenhor sourced a tiny Reverso ébauche from Jaeger-LeCoultre and surrounded it with the additional mechanical elements, both optimizing space utilization and keeping within the watch’s cost targets.
We also continued to hear examples of the spirit of fun that pervades the Agenhor operation. At the bottom left of the photo below, you should be able to pick out the figure of a peacock, a classic Fabergé design element, in the movement of the Fabergé Visionnaire DTZ.
What you can’t see is that the “beak” of the peacock rests on a cam whose interior is cut out to represent stalks of wheat because, in Jean-Marc’s words, “The poor peacock has to eat something, after all!”
Including thematic imagery within the movements themselves is a hallmark of Agenhor’s style, whether it’s the peacock, the figures of lovers within the Pont des Amoreux movement, or the curvaceous fairy deep within the movement of Van Cleef & Arpels’s Faerie piece.
And the visual fun isn’t limited to the watches: check out the logo shown below from the door of Agenhor’s ladies’ lavatory, on which the “curls” in the lady’s hair look suspiciously like the teeth of Agenhor’s play-free gears.
Our visit concluded with an overview of the since-revealed AgenGraphe movement and its central chronograph: yet another great example of Agenhor’s ability to leverage core innovations in movement architecture to deliver on a client’s design brief.
What’s so special about Agenhor?
There are lots of design, engineering, and assembly shops out there, but for me Agenhor is special for several reasons:
- It has a clear capability to evoke the design briefs and brand personalities of its clients through mechanical design. Agenhor’s designs for Van Cleef & Arpels clearly communicate the “poetic” Van Cleef brand just as its work for Fabergé is in perfect alignment with Fabergé watch director Aurélie Picard’s mandate to make the brand’s watches “traditional but surprising.”
- There’s technology involved, but it’s clearly used to deliver not only functional benefits but emotional engagement.
- They’re having fun: as Jean-Marc said to us at one point, “If you’re not having fun, why bother?”
- It’s all about the people: I can’t say enough about the warmth of the Wiederrecht family and how super they were to us throughout our visit; it also seems clear that they place a high priority on creating a family atmosphere for all of the employees as well as with an extended family of collaborators and contributors.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this opportunity to tag along on our visit. Many thanks to everyone at Agenhor for the kind hospitality!
For more information, please visit www.agenhor.ch.
Also published on Medium.