Tribute To Peter Baumberger (1939-2010): RIP You Complete And Utter Bastard!
by Ian Skellern
This year, 2020, marks the tenth anniversary of the death of one of the greats of the modern watch industry, Peter Baumberger. Dr. Helmut Crott, his longtime friend and founder of the Dr. Crott auction house in Germany, recently sent me a tribute he had written for the occasion and I asked him for permission to publish it here, which he graciously granted.
Crott’s tribute is below, but I’d like to first take the opportunity to share an anecdote of my own regarding “Peter, the utter bastard,” as I will always (fondly) think of him.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Baumberger at his Urban Jürgensen workshop in Biel, Switzerland back in 2003 for what was supposed to be a one-hour interview. It ended up filling the whole day, including one of the memorable lunches of my life, in which the excellent food and wine was surpassed by one riveting watch story after another, punctuated by so much laughter that I worried that we might be thrown out of the restaurant.
While many may remember Baumberger for his unparalleled knowledge of fine watchmaking and great watchmakers, his standout characteristic to me was his boundless sense of humor.
I’ll never forget Baselworld 2010, when I was photographing watches in the independent section where Kari Voutilainen, Philippe Dufour, Vianney Halter, the Grönefelds, and Stepan Sarpaneva shared a small booth beside the AHCI stand. I’d set up my little light box in the center of their booth and, after shooting their watches, went around the AHCI stand looking for any other interesting watches I could borrow and shoot, saving me the bother of packing up my gear and setting up elsewhere.
While I was known by many independents then, the AHCI watchmakers couldn’t leave their stands. I appreciated that I was asking for a lot of trust in asking them to hand me their expensive and often irreplaceable masterpieces while I walked off out of sight to another booth to shoot them.
So I thought myself very fortunate when an apprehensive Thomas Prescher reluctantly agreed to lend me his triple-axis tourbillon. “Please be extremely careful with it,” he implored. “It’s the only one I have and it took me years to make.”
“Trust me, Thomas,” I nonchalantly replied, while fighting the urge to kick my heels in happiness at the chance of shooting such a treasure.
Back in the booth, my light tent was on a shelf around chest height, and I placed the priceless (or may as well have been) Triple-Axis Tourbillon safely inside, then turned around to get my flash out of my camera bag on the floor behind me. I mounted the flash on my camera and looked inside my light tent to focus on the watch; but there was nothing there. I looked to the left and right, still unconcerned, thinking that I must have misremembered where I placed it.
There were a few other people in the room all in intent discussions, but nobody close by and nobody paying any attention to me. I was by now getting worried, checked my pockets and my camera bag. Nothing. I asked around the room if anyone might have picked up the watch to have a look at it, and the answer was no.
I’m not somebody that panics easily: I’ve had two parachutes fail to open and calmly thought of a possible solution (that worked) in the seven seconds I had before hitting the ground. And I didn’t feel that boosted my heart rate.
But now I paled as the blood drained from my face and my stomach started churning. I’ve just lost one of the most expensive and rarest watches in the world. It wasn’t a bad dream; it was a horrible nightmare!
Then I heard Peter Baumberger, who had been talking to Kari Voutilainen on the other side of the room, laugh. He was desperately trying not to laugh but couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“You bastard!” I cried, more with relief than anger. “You complete and utter bastard!” He had seen me turn around, quickly got up, slipped the watch into his pocket and then sat down and continued his conversation with Voutilainen with a blank face.
He then pulled the watch out of his pocket and I could have kissed the bastard.
I don’t think I ever told Prescher what had happened. So, shhhh . . .
Baumberger died a few weeks later but left me with memories I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Tribute to Peter Baumberger (Koppingen, 1939 – Biel, 2010), friend and watchmaker, by Dr. Helmut Crott
Ten years ago, Peter Baumberger died in Biel. On the occasion of this anniversary, I would like to pay a brief tribute to a dear friend and an extraordinary character, whose ideas and personality marked the Swiss watch industry after the “quartz crisis.”
I first met Peter in November 1975 during the Peter Ineichen auction in Zürich. He was with the famous Derek Pratt. At that time, Peter was one of the world’s leading dealers in antique watches. His charming and authentic nature immediately fascinated me and we began a friendship that lasted until the end of his life.
Peter Baumberger will remain forever in Swiss watchmaking history thanks to his rescue and his revival of the historic brand, then based in Le Locle, Urban Jürgensen, which he acquired in the late 1970s. Peter played an undeniably pioneering role in the renaissance of high-quality Swiss mechanical watches, long before others. As a trained watchmaker, Peter combined cutting-edge technical skills with a very distinct aesthetic sensitivity, and he had an intimate knowledge of the works of the famous old master watchmakers. The remarkable confluence of these aspects formed the foundation of his creativity.
Peter Baumberger put all his strength and spirit at the disposal of Urban Jürgensen, providing a powerful new spark to the brand. The horological masterpieces produced under his direction bear witness to his quest and love for uncompromising perfection. The Urban Jürgensen Reference 2 and Reference 3 perpetual calendars bear testament to his philosophy, while the oval pocket watch Reference No. 1 “Hommage” is considered a contemporary icon of traditional mechanical watchmaking, both aesthetically and technically.
As a final point, Peter’s research into the development of an Urban Jürgensen in-house caliber with traditional detent escapement – a first for a production wristwatch – is the apotheosis of his visionary spirit.
The Urban Jürgensen detent escapement movement was developed with Derek Pratt. Peter’s many projects and extremely high standards of quality standards would not have been possible without the genius and the know-how of the English watchmaker with whom Peter maintained professional and friendly ties since the early 1970s. Before that, Pratt restored a few rare historic watches for Peter, including a Vacheron Constantin pocket watch offered to King Faoud I in 1929.
As a peerless recognizer of talent, Peter Baumberger also helped many other great watchmakers in their early careers, including Kari Voutilainen and Jean-François Mojon. Peter had particular gift for discovering and promoting exceptional talents, which he then often put at the service of his brand.
Peter Baumberger looked in vain for a worthy successor to lead his beloved brand, and his family eventually sold Urban Jürgensen after his passing. He died in his workshop in Biel on May 18, 2010 at the age of 71, with a peaceful expression on his face and a watch magazine in his hands. Peter left a legacy of his eternal passion for watchmaking.