In Memoriam: People And Brands Who Left Us In 2020
The Latin phrase “in memoriam” is often used in place of “in memory of.” And to my mind, people also use it to signify departed who may be gone but shouldn’t be forgotten.
Every year people working in the watch industry pass away, and brands come and go.
This year I’d like to highlight a special few of those we lost in 2020.
RIP: Kiu Tai Yu, AHCI watchmaker
In February of 2020, the AHCI informed us that Kiu Tai Yu had sadly passed away at the age of 74.
Born in 1946 in Suzhou, Kiu made his first mechanical watch in 1970.
After having moved to Hong Kong in 1980, where he opened a shop for antique watches called Kew & Cie. and repaired watches, he went to his first Basel Fair in 1990. It was there that he saw a tourbillon wristwatch.
Returning home, he became the first watchmaker in China to make a wristwatch with tourbillon (1991). “The first tourbillon wristwatch I made was successful, but there were some imperfections. However, the mobilus balance and the tourbillon, which revolve on different axes, need 50 seconds to complete the cycle. This means the watch can’t have a second hand. In my next tourbillon wristwatch, the mobilus balance and the tourbillon revolved on the same axis, completing a cycle in 60 seconds. This is great! Why? Because it means that I can have a second hand on the watch,” he told journalist Carol Wan in 1992 for a story printed in Hong Kong’s Watch Review.
By January 1992, the autodidact had become the first Asian member of the AHCI, and in 1993 he created the free-floating Mystery Tourbillon, which seemed to have neither a cage nor a bridge stabilizing it (a sapphire crystal bridge was the answer).
Kiu only produced very small amounts of timepieces; outside of the few times I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Basel Fair I have never seen any of his watches. His tourbillon models were generally unique pieces.
Kiu suffered a stroke in 2007 and was not heard from in the west again after that. His 1992 self-published book Time in Pocket, which catalogues 96 of the rare Chinese-market watches in his own collection plus five tourbillons he made, remains a seminal tangible item of his existence – certainly gone but not forgotten!
“At the age of twelve, I came across six broken watches in a drawer at home,” Kiu wrote in the preface of his book.
“I took one of the watches out of the drawer to play with. Seeing that it wasn’t working, I pried the back cover off the case, hoping to be able to make the watch tick again. I managed to take the watch apart and then reassemble [sic] it, but as I had no idea why it did not work, still less how to fix it, the watch showed no sign of being repaired. However, I did not give up. I cleaned away the dirt and grime with kerosene, rubbed the rust off the corroded parts with fine sandpaper, and with the help of a pair of tweezers and a hammer, I flattened the warped pieces and straightened the bent ones . . . it took me nearly one whole month until, one day, the watch began to tick again. That gave me mixed feelings of awe and joy: I was amazed because the lifeless object was alive and ticking and happy because I had succeeded in repairing the watch. After that, I repaired the other five watches in the drawer. And since then, watches and clocks have been my passion.”
Upon learning of his death, AHCI co-founder Vincent Calabrese wrote on the group’s Facebook page, “I have just learned the sad news of the death of our colleague Kiu Tai Yu. He was an excellent watchmaker, great collector, and a sincere and generous friend who made a huge contribution to the reputation of AHCI in Asia and around the world.”
RIP: Jean-Claude Gueit
Jean-Claude Gueit, born in 1937, passed away on May 22, 2020 at the age of 83. Though less well known than his contemporary Gérald Genta, Gueit – whose son Emmanuel has followed in his footsteps to become well known as an independent watch designer, in particular through his work on the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore – worked as a watch designer (or stylist as he liked to say) for a variety of companies. One of his most famous creations includes the Piaget Polo, which makes sense because he was the brand’s main designer from the 1970s until his retirement in 2013.
Gueit filed 16 patents in the names of Baume & Mercier and Piaget, one of which was the rotating ring system of the Possession.
He also crafted works for Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Concord, Corum, Vacheron Constantin, Omega, Harry Winston, and very likely many more.
Luckily for us, The Watches TV presented a short report on him five years ago, otherwise he might have been entirely forgotten by the digital watch world after his retirement.
“My father, together with Gérald Genta and Gilbert Albert, were the fathers of the watch design industry,” Emmanuel Gueit aptly told The Naked Watchmaker.
RIP: Emmanuel Vuille
Emmanuel Vuille, previous CEO of Greubel Forsey, passed away in May 2020 at the age of 61. He had also previously led Parmigiani Fleurier. From 2017 he maintained an independent consulting and strategy company.
“Emmanuel had been working in the watch industry for something like 30 years,” said Stephen Forsey during a personal conversation back in the summer of 2020. Forsey had known him for more than 20 years.
“We collaborated together for quite a few years and even recently we had been doing a few small projects together. He was very straight down the line, very honest, and clear. And he brought a lot to a lot of people. He was really an enthusiastic guy and appreciated independence very much. He spent a lot of years with the Parmigiani manufacture, really helping the Sandoz Foundation bring together a fantastic bowl of competence of different skills. This was a great loss, and we’ll miss him a lot.”
“Emmanuel was one of the first to take a chance on me when I first moved to Switzerland by hiring me as a marketing and communications coordinator at Greubel Forsey despite the fact that I had little experience in the watch industry and spoke little French at the time,” says Boon Soon Chong, now global sales and marketing director for Corum.
“He always pushed me to go further and take on more than what I thought was possible. Even when I left the company, he took the time to write me a personal letter and called on me after a few months to see if I was doing okay, which really showed the human side of him. Now that he has left us, I feel sadness that I was never able to repay him for all that he taught me. It is really a loss that he left us all too soon . . .”
RIP: Erwin Sattler
Erwin Sattler established his clock manufactory in Munich, Germany in 1958 and the family-owned and -run business took off from there, now making what are surely the world’s finest clocks. The founder passed away on July 29, 2020 at the age of 90.
RIP: De Grisogono
In January and February of 2020, BBC and others reported that jewelry and watchmaker De Grisogono had filed for bankruptcy amid a severe Angolan scandal.
Founded in 1993 by Fawaz Gruosi, who later married and divorced from Caroline Scheufele, co-president of Chopard, Gruosi was famous for the red-carpet appearances of his jewelry and himself.
RIP: RJ Romain Jérôme
RJ Romain Jérôme declared bankruptcy on February 27, 2020 with immediate effect.
Romain Jérôme was founded in 2004 using the first names of founder Alain Bajulaz’s two sons. The brand underwent two ownership changes and had three further CEOs during the course of its 16-year life.
See a brief history of RJ Romain Jérôme in RIP RJ Romain Jérôme: First Horological Casualty Of The Coronavirus Fallout?
RIP: Dominique Renaud’s own brand
Dominique Renaud is considered one of the grandmasters of modern watchmaking. After 15 years away from the world of watches, Renaud came back in 2013 and, together with former Solar Impulse project director Luiggino Torrigiani, founded Dominique Renaud SA. Their idea was to create a Swiss watch innovation lab to develop original and highly complex movements.
Renaud and Torrigiani dreamed up a limited-edition watch called the DR01 Twelve First, which contained a ton of Renaud’s mechanical ingenuity. Unfortunately, however, Dominique Renaud SA registered for bankruptcy in March 2020.
I hope this setback does not stop the inventive watchmaker from participating in further projects.