Visiting the Independents in Switzerland (with Live Photos): It’s All About the People (and Watches)
If there’s anything I enjoy even more than hanging out with my watch buddies, it’s doing it while visiting the people who make the watches we love!
So far this year I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Switzerland twice: once for the Watches and Wonders week, during which our “gang” majored in seeing our friends at the big host brands but minored pretty vigorously with the indies, and again in June for a very special event involving a legendary watchmaker and his family.
All of that is enough to fill several articles, but for now I’ll focus on the independents, starting with a sequential journey through our first trip.
First stop: dinner with Kari Voutilainen.
One of the great things about visiting with Voutilainen is that he always has something interesting to show, and often something unique that he has been cooking up behind the scenes for a client commission. On this occasion, it was the beauty you see above: a unique world timer with a mind-blowing guilloche dial, and under the hood a variant of Voutilainen’s new base movement – thinner than the workhorse Vingt-8 that preceded it, but still with dual escape wheels and the stunning finishing we’ve come to expect.
As has now been announced publicly, Voutilainen is expanding his production capacity once again, taking over the former watchmaking school in Fleurier and devoting a significant portion of it to the crafting of unique pieces and limited-run watches. Another independent we met during the week jokingly referred to Voutilainen’s ever-growing empire as “KVMH,” which is perhaps just a tiny stretch but hilarious, nonetheless.
The atmosphere in the room was quite different from past years, with a healthy representation of WatchBox folks creating a more boisterous environment; it will be interesting to see how the brand and its offerings – and commercial strategies – evolve over the next few years.
Dinner brought us from “more corporate” right back to “tiny atelier” as we enjoyed a lovely evening with Gaël Petermann and Florian Bédat and their Ref. 2941 rattrapante chronograph.
The cutaway dial, large jewel near 10 o’clock, and exposed keyless works immediately identify this watch as an offering from the Renens pair; and the choice to place the rattrapante works on the dial side, partially visible to the wearer, is both daring and admirable in my opinion.
The back side of the watch is nothing to scoff at, either, with the flawless black polish, subtle frosting, and scads of perfect interior angles we’ve already come to expect from these two makers.
After a full Monday at Palexpo, it was time for dinner with another leading young gun, Rexhep Rexhepi, and my first in-person look at a completed example of his latest, the RRCC 02. As you’ve likely already noticed with some of the other photos in this tale, restaurant lighting did no favors to my attempts to capture decent images; but I can assure you that this watch is everything it is cracked up to be – and Rexhep and partner Annabelle were as always both engaging and insightful in discussing Akrivia’s work, plans, and their views on the world of horology.
Light was much better late the following afternoon in the airy space of MB&F’s MAD House, where we were treated to a tour of the watchmaking facility and a preview of some watches that have now appeared on the market.
I didn’t sneak any photos of the plastic fantastic HM8 Mark 2, but I was more than happy to sit there wearing the LM Perpetual with its new salmon dial while Büsser and his team took us through fascinating tales of the design evolution of some of their most notable references. The changes from initial rough sketches to polished final watches were quite dramatic; and in every case we were shown I can say that the final versions appealed to me more than any of the intermediate attempts.
When the history of watch “good guys” is written, a great many of the indies will appear on the list; one that I had not met before this trip but who immediately established himself on the good list with his charm, humor, knowledge, and modesty was Sylvain Pinaud.
Pinaud was kind enough to bring along several examples of his beautifully made Origine, and the only thing that kept me from ordering one on the spot was my inability to decide which combination of case, dial, and hand colors I liked the most.
If you haven’t seen one in person, I strongly recommend it: while it’s a cliché to say that photos can’t fully capture a watch, this is one instance in which I found it to be true.
Later, we made our traditional pilgrimage to the F.P. Journe atelier in downtown Geneva. Of course, we saw the star of Journe’s recent offerings, the FCC “Hand” watch, in its production form. It’s not a watch that I have any interest in, but I do have to admire its sheer audacity.
Much more to my liking were the new incarnations of the Divine, especially the pink gold one with blue dial, and a subdued but highly effective version of the Elegante in black and anthracite tones – although with the latter, I was a bit concerned that the upper left corner of the bezel was already showing some signs of wear.
During the lunch break the following day we caught up with another rising star, Parisian Theo Auffret, who shared with us his Tourbillon Grand Sport. I’ll admit that I’d had my reservations about this piece last year when it was shortlisted at the GPHG, but those quickly dissolved once I had the watch on my wrist.
I quite liked his choice of a torque indicator (rather than a power reserve) as a small complication, and the incorporation of a tourbillon into an architecture that draws on the Peseux 260 is in my view quite coherently done.
My only remaining peeve: an absence of anti-reflective coating on the crystal that made the watch a terror to shoot in the direct overhead light of our meeting space!
Since the news has since been revealed, I can also say that Theo mentioned that he would be collaborating with our (and his) friends Gaël Petermann and Florian Bédat on a piece for OnlyWatch. It sounded intriguing then, and at this point I can hardly wait to see and handle the piece this coming November.
There were several independent makers exhibiting at Palexpo, foremost in our hearts the Horological Brothers, Bart and Tim Grönefeld. At their booth, I had the opportunity for the first time to see in the metal a watch that I have on order, their Deltaworks sport watch. Mine will be like the one pictured here, with the exception of steel case band inserts being used rather than rubber-coated titanium.
At one point, Bart Grönefeld wanted to take a closer look at a watch and called out to brother Tim: “Hey, pass me a loupe!” The result gave all of us a good laugh and was very much in character for this duo.
While Ferdinand Berthoud is owned by larger enterprise Chopard, to me it still operates very much in an independent mode and visiting with their team at Watches and Wonders is always a highlight for us.
This time around, I was particularly drawn to the Chronomètre FB 2T Final Edition, the last application of the brand’s FB-T.FC caliber and the first time it has been presented in a round case. Only 38 examples will be made, and they are fully customizable by the buyer including the case material, color and finishing of the dial, and even the color of the strap.
After a quick jaunt to the countryside to visit a distinguished watchmaker at an undisclosed (at least so far) location, Friday night was spent at the AHCI display where we met with many of the members and saw too many watches to show here. I will make an exception, though, to feature the extremely tasty new tourbillon from Hajime Asaoka.
The Tourbillon Noir is an evolution of Asaoka’s earlier Project T, but more compact and refined, yet still presented in Asaoka’s hallmark Deco style. Another interviewer was able to ascertain that through 2018 Asaoka made only 18 watches in total under his own name, and I’d be surprised if that number has grown a great deal in the intervening years. As the owner of an Asaoka Tsunami, I’m a big fan of his work overall and found the Noir another step up in his artistry.
Jumping ahead: June and an unparalleled experience
It wasn’t long after the completion of Watches and Wonders that the members of our Northern California “gang” received a true honor: invitations to the 75th birthday celebration for The Man Himself, Philippe Dufour.
There is only one correct response to such an invitation! On the appointed date, four of our group, all Dufour watch owners, and my wife arrived in Le Sentier for an evening of joy and deep emotion.
Having spent time with Mr. Dufour and his daughter Daniela we already knew the strong bond and easy rapport between them; but on this night the open expressions of love among them and Mme. Dufour, their extended families, and the friends and luminaries gathered to pay tribute were overwhelming.
The big news of the evening: the establishment of the Philippe and Elisabeth Dufour Foundation, whose primary goal is to help the disadvantaged and those in emergency situations, but whose mission also extends to educational, environmental, and artisanal endeavors. In the words of the Foundation, “We have our loyal customers…in mind, who could provide valuable aid in this endeavor.” This point was not lost on those of us in attendance who have had good fortune in our lives; I expect that all of us will be looking to support the Foundation in its efforts.
To kickstart funding, the Dufours are donating a unique Simplicity with aventurine dial to be auctioned later this year. It’s just stunning in person, and with its sparkling dial and simple two-hand presentation I am confident it will draw great interest from bidders when it is sold.
When talking about independent watchmakers I’ve often said: “meet the maker, want the watch!” But watches or no watches, encounters like the ones we’ve had so far this year with these artisans remind us that we are fortunate to know the people we’ve met in our wonderful hobby.
Let me hear about your favorite encounters with independent watchmakers in the comments below. In the meantime, happy wearing!
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