‘The Persistence Of Memory’: Online Museum And Ode To Independent Watchmaking
The “great lockdown of 2020” gifted us with something unique and outstanding: from the depths of an anxiety-inducing existence arose an online exhibition called “The Persistence of Memory,” which can perhaps best be described as an online museum honoring some of the most influential and important independent watchmakers of the modern era.
There is a golden thread that runs through the exhibition, a line drawn from here to there. And it does take close observation to see.
“The Persistence of Memory” went live in March 2020 and not long thereafter I talked to its spiritual father and creator, The Hour Glass’s Tay, to understand why he went to the trouble of creating it and what visitors can expect it to be.
The “viewing rooms” comprise separate pages (“rooms”) and currently include on Dr. George Daniels, Derek Pratt, Thomas Engel and Richard Daners, François-Paul Journe, Philippe Dufour, Franck Muller, Daniel Roth, Gérald Genta, Halter & Barnes, Kari Voutilainen, Denis Flageollet (De Bethune), Roger Smith, Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei (Urwerk), Rexhep Rexhepi (Akrivia), Rémy Cools, Petermann & Bédat, and the inimitable Maximilian Büsser (MB&F).
What is “The Persistence of Memory”?
“The Persistence of Memory” is an exhibition that exists only in the online space.
“In a way I guess it can help new collectors and enthusiasts to try and figure out the myriad of independent artisanal watchmaking,” Tay explained. “There’s so much going on, there’s so much noise. How do you just focus on the key actors who shaped artisanal watchmaking over the last 50 years?”
His goal was to create a living online repository of some of the key members of this contemporary artisanal watchmaking movement, documenting its developmental timeline and photographing and archiving its most important watches.
I was first off curious as to whether Tay had wanted to originally make this a physical exhibition before COVID-19 struck.
“I think we’ve always wanted to do a show on artisanal watching, and the first time I actually launched a – I wouldn’t say survey but thematic exhibition – was part and parcel of our Tempus event [staged for the first time on August 25-29, 2004 in celebration of 25 years of the Hour Glass and modeled on the classic Swiss watch fairs] where we established the Museum of Contemporary Horological Art, which was supposed to be a temporal, popup museum that sort of looks at thematic exhibitions. We did the first one, which was really a survey of around 90 or 100 watches that were developed and introduced right at the turn of the millennium, including areas such as the new aesthetic of watch design, materiality, and the new type of complications that were popular in that era.
“That was the first installment of our temporal museum,” Tay continued. “Literally just an idea that popped up from time to time and from place to place. This was really an extrapolation of that idea, and about two years ago we sort of said there is going to be a growth and development in interest [in independent watchmaking].”
Tay also pointed out that one of his key benefits was that he grew up in this era knowing many of the watchmakers creating this niche of high watchmaking and developing friendships with them. “It really also it coincided with the birth of the watch internet,” he continued. “So I thought that it was important that we told the correct story: this is a document, this is a record, this is from the horse’s mouth from people who lived this experience. This is actually what happened.”
“Will this exhibition be taken offline at some point?” I asked.
“’The Persistence of Memory’ is a living online repository, so there’s no end date,” he answered. “We aspire to ensure that the content is up to date at all times. That means having to continue tracking the development of the young artisans that crop up. I think all the way up to Rexhep Rexhepi is straightforward. The challenge is going to be the generation that comes right after as I’m seeing a lot rising up.”
Modern artisanal watchmaking starts with George Daniels
The first edition of Tempus was nearly 20 years ago now, and the independent watchmaker scene and what these artisans produce has changed immensely over this amount of time. It’s an ever-changing, ever-evolving sort of style of watchmaking. How does Tay see the changes since, say, the death of George Daniels in 2011?
“Well, I think what is interesting, and the thread that we’ve drawn here is that when we were looking back (or when I was looking back) and trying to figure out who was the first real artisanal watchmaker of the modern era . . . it had to be George [1926-2011].
“In 1968 or ’69 was when the last observatory trial was held in Switzerland and Seiko came and kicked ass (even though they didn’t win). And it just so coincidentally happened that around that era was when George Daniels came into his own. So one could postulate that it signaled the end of an era for ‘regular watchmakers’ and the transition into something else.
“The birth of quartz, the decline of the Swiss watch industry, the end of an era of mechanical precision timekeeping: all of this gave rise to a new spirit and a new energy, and it was manifested in guys like George Daniels. Derek Pratt later carried on with chaps like Richard Daners and Thomas Engel.
“And then watchmakers – the likes of Philippe Dufour still stuck to his core – but others wanted to semi-industrialize. And this is what’s interesting because then you had artisanal independent watchmakers taking their own paths, working solo and then deciding, hang on a second, you know what, we want to build a brand. We want to leave a legacy that can extend beyond us and not just in name or credibility but also in an organization. And that sort of happened throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
“And what I’m seeing today is young watchmakers – Rexhep Rexhepi (Akrivia), Rémy Cools – going back, having read Watchmaking by George Daniels, being inspired, and in turn having worked in places like F.P. Journe, sort of saying, hang on, Journe is a good direction, but we want to go back to the roots again. We want to go back to something that requires us to be more hands on, to fabricate something with our hands.
“The other thread we were trying to draw was this idea that George presented and fetishized: this idea that if you’re a watchmaker you have to be at the bench because that’s where the magic happens. And that’s why somebody like George spent his whole life at his bench, and that’s even why François-Paul Journe today spends all his time at his bench.”
So why include Thomas Engel and Richard Daners?
I was astonished that Thomas Engel and Richard Daners had been included in this exhibition. They were not very well known outside of Germany, especially not in this modern era of watchmaking. Daners was a watchmaker who primarily spent his career at Gübelin, and Engel was a collector turned watchmaker under his tutelage.
It always surprises me when anyone knows their names or even remembers them. They weren’t foreground figures, and they didn’t create in the same way the other independents did. So I asked Tay why he thought to include them.
“Thinking about this thread of artisanal/independent watchmaking, where did it come from?” Tay countered. “If you look at this generation – whether it’s Daners, Pratt, Engel, Daniels, Journe, or Roth – there’s only one watchmaker that binds all of these guys together, having influenced these two generations of watchmakers, and it’s [Abraham-Louis] Breguet.
“When you look at all of the works that have come in what I call the first generation of guys like Daniels, Daners, Pratt, and Engel – and then the second generation being sort of your Journe, Dufour, Roth – if you look at the first generation they’re all inspired by Breguet. In the second generation they’re inspired by Breguet, but then they also getting influenced by Pratt and Daniels, right?
“And then the third generation, it sort of dissipates a little bit more. But when you look at the watchmakers of that era, you know, they all had a very similar style. And one of the first few who was interested in a specific type of watchmaking was Engel, who started out as a collector until the point where he actually wrote a whole book on Breguet [A.L. Breguet: Watchmaker to Kings, 1994]. It’s a great book: he spends a lot of time talking about himself, a little time talking about Breguet, and then basically showing off his collection . . . and Engel took it to the next degree where he wanted to make his own watches.
“Engel and Daners were I think quite important components of that community,” said Tay.
How did you choose exactly who you chose and how often will you be adding to the list?
“Because it’s a living repository, we will always be adding to it,” Tay answered simply. “And by adding to it, there is a possibility that things could be subtracted from it as well. Because with young watchmakers it’s a risk: you don’t know whether they are going to stand the test of time.
“It’s a bit of risk to take such emerging talent on board. We are taking a position on this, and I think the difficult part of it now is that there are so many,” he continued. “Our challenge is to be discerning and to project out into the future which of these artisans are going to make it.”
The relatively young Petermann Bédat duo and Rémy Cools are two such risks – with only one watch each to their credit thus far – as is perhaps Rexhep Rexhepi, who is currently touted as the next great hope for leadership in independent watchmaking. These artisans have come out of the gate gangbusters . . . but who can really predict where they’re going?
“You know what is interesting with these guys – and this is where I think I make a distinction – I think some of the most important watchmakers we know today all had one common thread apart from being influenced by Breguet,” Tay answered. “Most of them started in restoration. Daniels, Pratt, Daners, Muller, Dufour, Voutilainen, and Journe all started in restoration. And being in restoration is important because you know when you’re able to open up old watches, you discover a lot of techniques and tricks that perhaps may have not been passed down through the ages.”
One might also argue whether these young guns have brought anything really new to the industry in their as-yet short careers, whether it’s a new aesthetic or a new innovation – like Cools as an example, who as yet has only introduced one solitary watch.
Incidentally, it was Cools who Tay and I as members of the jury of the F.P. Journe-FHH Young Talent Competition (as it was known then), along with Dufour, Giulio Papi (of Renaud & Papi), independent watchmakers Andreas Strehler and Marc Jenni, and, of course, François-Paul Journe himself, voted as one of the three finalists of the 2018 competition – along with Theo Auffret (it was a stellar crop of young watchmakers that year).
“I think as an artisanal independent what’s interesting about Rémy is his fundamental approach to making a watch because he pretty much made most of the watch himself and that’s why he only makes two watches a year. So he’s gone back to sort of hand working again. And this is where I say, also looking at guys like Rexhep, he’s also gone that way; he’s not using computer-produced CNC base plates, he cuts base plates himself with his own [hand-driven] machine.”
That seems insane in this day and age, particularly when you consider that even Philippe Dufour uses CNC-cut base plates.
“That’s exactly right,” Tay laughed. “This is where I say so many of these younger guys really want to go back to feel what it’s like, and who knows how long this will last for . . . maybe after a while they say, ‘Wow this takes too much effort, that’s why we have machines.’ Or because they start realizing that in order to be a watchmaker, it’s not just about fabricating things by hand entirely, it’s also about invention. And I think this is also where we’ve drawn a couple of forks in the road where you have guys like Journe, who find invention more important. Dufour’s view is that it’s more important you know finish is the be all, end all. Whereas guys like Rexhep are what you get if Journe and Dufour had a child. They would give birth to a Rexhep.”
“The Persistence Of Memory”: Vianney Halter and Jeff Barnes
Another interesting addition to this online museum is the Halter & Barnes viewing room. When most people think of Vianney Halter – possibly one of the most important independent watchmakers of the modern age as seen through the lens of hindsight – the name Jeff Barnes is no longer attached and hasn’t been for a very long time. I’d venture to say most enthusiasts may not have even heard the name before.
Tay has a long memory, and he has lived through much of the modern watchmaking era – and likely influenced it in many ways.
“What’s interesting about the artisanal/independent scene is that because [these watchmakers] are still the creators behind these businesses and brands and products, it does become a personal friendship that you also develop. And that’s the only way you can sort of last for a length of time,” he remarked. “It’s like taking on an interesting contemporary artist: by the same token you’re required to nurture; they’re not always going to produce the best works immediately and you’ve just got to hold their hand all the way through and eventually you’ll get to a point where they finally find their own and there’s a specific style and there’s recognition and then everybody wants it.”
So, yes, Tay has developed something akin to deep personal relationships with most of these watchmakers. And I shouldn’t be so surprised to learn that he thought the Halter-Barnes story was an important one to tell, even in an abbreviated form.
You can read Tay’s story here, but in a nutshell here it is: the idea for the visuals of the seminal Antiqua came from American designer Jeff Barnes, while the crazy mechanics came from the mind of Halter, a French watchmaker in Switzerland. The result is alluring and magnetic, and for a lot of people (including both Tay and myself) it was the timepiece to draw us into the world of independent watchmaking.
But only three examples of the Halter-Barnes Antiqua were made touting Barnes’ name on a plate on the dial. And of those three, only one example remains in existence today.
“I thought it was a very important story because the Halter-Barnes watch [we photographed for “The Persistence of Memory”] is mine,” Tay revealed. “It’s the last remaining example of their collaboration. So I thought it was absolutely important that we told the story.”
Visiting “The Persistence of Memory”
I asked Tay whether the creation of this online museum really stemmed from pure interest or whether it was a marketing action.
“Most of the watches in there you can’t buy,” he answered unperturbedly in his impeccably cultured English accent. “I would say a good 90 percent of the watches in there you can’t go to a retailer and get. I mean, it was a real effort sourcing these watches, finding the collectors who had them, assembling them, then putting them all together at the same time. That was a real feat in itself.”
“Putting them all together at the same time” does not mean that there was a physical exhibition at any time: Tay explained that they brought all the watches in because the one thing that he did stipulate was if they couldn’t shoot the watches in Singapore, they wouldn’t be included in the exhibition. This means that all the photography in the online exhibition is original. “And it’s consistent: one photographer did the whole thing,” he added.
And, I might add, the photography is outstanding.
As an educated viewer of the online exhibition, you might also ask whether things might or might not be missing from it – I personally flagged up Greubel Forsey and Grönefeld in my talk with Tay. He remarked that things would be reviewed and possibly added as time passes . . .
“One had to make choices and decisions because otherwise it becomes too wide with too many narratives in there, and I think the narrative we really want to just hone in on was drawing these lines and connections all the way back to Daniels. There has to be a starting point. You have to be selective; in every generation there’s probably only going to be about two, three, or four that are really important,” he stressed.
“Watchmaking, like art, is a continuum. One generation is influenced by the previous generation, either to do things similarly or to advance the way things have been done. Or to go back to how things were done before.
“It’s this continuum, this golden thread, that I think is really important [for our exhibition].”
I cannot stress enough that Tay’s intent was not to commercialize this in the usual way by attaching a shop to it or the like. Of course it is part of The Hour Glass’ corporate website, but the online museum is not set up to lead people out the exit through a virtual gift shop – even though it is possible to buy bits of exhibition merchandise if desired.
“It was just so fun, I wanted to do it for myself more than anything else,” Tay summarizes.
For more information, please visit ovr.thehourglass.com.