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Pioneers of Contemporary Independent Watchmaking

by Helbert Tsang 16 Jun 2022

(Photo Credit: Hodinkee)

With the current craze for independent watches, it is difficult to fathom that there was a time when independent watchmaking hardly received much attention from watch collectors. The collectors who bought them did so for passion. They expected to take a sizeable hit in the value of the watch once they have bought it, but despite that they end up taking the leap to support these watchmakers for their efforts in pushing the boundaries of watchmaking.

Let's travel back to the mid- to late-90s, this is a world when traditional and complicated dress watches were king. We have just seen the historical release of the Datograph from A. Lange & Sohne. The Patek Philippe 3940 Perpetual Calendar was highly regarded and was credited with saving the company during the quartz crisis. In such a conservative landscape, a watch that is shaped like a bulldog or a frog was just unfathomable. How did we get from such a conservative world to the current day where a watch that is shaped like a spaceship would sell out in minutes? Here are some notable pieces on this journey that I would like to highlight.

Vianney Halter Antiqua

(Photo Credit: A Collected Man)

Back in 1998, Vianney Halter introduced his Jules Verne-inspired steampunk-themed automatic perpetual calendar to the world at Baselworld. Considered to be the creation of a mad man when it was first released, the Antiqua is often considered to be Vianney Halter's magnum opus these days.

The watch is split up into three sub-dials and a date window. Each one of them surrounded by bolts with rivets that are made out of gold. While the watch may look quite large in pictures, the sizing of it is actually aligned with the norm of the 90s and wears quite comfortably. These days many consider the Antiqua to be the genesis of contemporary independent watchmaking. It has inspired many to think outside the box when it comes to watch design.

F.P. Journe Tourbillon Souverain

(Photo Credit: A Collected Man)

After years of creating movements for big watch companies, Francois-Paul Journe was fed up with the lack of creative freedom and recognition. With the ambition of launching his own brand, he needed to raise funds in order to create his company and he did so through a series of twenty souscription Tourbillon Souverain following in the footsteps of Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1999. These days most haute horology brand have at least one tourbillon offering, but back in 1999 tourbillon watches were still relatively uncommon.

(Photo Credit: A Collected Man)

With less than half of the dial real-estate used to tell the time, the other half displays a 60-second tourbillon proudly. The dial is secured by exposed screws which was unthinkable in those days, but is widely accepted in the design language of current times. The watch was considered a ground-breaking release and one that has made F.P. Journe a household name among watch collectors now.

Urwerk UR-103

(Photo Credit: A Collected Man)

Unlike the other watches being mentioned, the UR-103 was not Urwerk's first or even second creation. The UR-101 and UR-102 took those titles. When the first iteration of UR-103 was released in 2003, it look markedly different from what one would think of when thinking about the model nowadays. While the UR-103 was the first watch that added the third dimension to Urwerk's time display system, the first iteration UR-103.01 had a closed top and looks relatively conservative. It wasn't until 2005 that Urwerk opened up the top of the watch to reveal the wonders of the satellite time display system and injected a heavy dose of futurism into the design, which combined with the Art Deco-inspired case makes this watch an absolute legend in the world of contemporary watchmaking.

(Photo Credit: A Collected Man)

The UR-103 was highly successful and is often credited as the watch that saved Urwerk from the brink of demise. Compared with Urwerk's current offering, the UR-103 looks relatively classic and unadventurous. However, it is easy to forget that this is the watch that made people realise that time display does not have to be two dimensional and that watches can look like spaceships too. It has been mentioned that Max Busser was a big fan of the watch and the watch has motivated him to collaborate with Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei on the Harry Winston Opus V piece.

Bonus - Harry Winston Opus Series

(Photo Credit: Phillips)

Before Max Busser started the now famous MB&F, he was the CEO of the Harry Winston Rare Timepieces. When he first joined Harry Winston from Jaeger-LeCoultre, he unknowingly inherited the sinking ship that is the Harry Winston watchmaking division. To revive the company, he knew he needed to make some changes and he set out to work with independent watchmakers and give them credit for their creations in this collaborative process.

This all started when Max Busser ran into Francois-Paul Journe at Baselworld and proposed that they work together on a series of watches. Francois-Paul will provide the movements for the Opus I pieces and the first three F.P. Journe creations (i.e. Tourbillon Souverain, Chronometre A Resonance, Octa Reserve de Marche) would be released in a Harry Winston guise. These watches were produced in very limited numbers, and this kickstarted a series of five Opus creations before Max Busser would leave Harry Winston to start MB&F.

(Photo Credit: Phillips)

Apart from Francois-Paul Journe, Max Busser also collaborated with Antoine Preziuso, Vianney Halter, Christophe Claret, and Felix Baumgartner on the Opus Series. Notably, the Opus V is clearly the inspiration for Urwerk's later UR-210/UR-220 pieces, and the Opus 3 is legendary for how long it took from announcement to delivery due to how complex the mechanism is. The Harry Winston Opus series has set a great example for the modern independent watchmaking scene where these watchmakers are recognised and celebrated for their savoir faire and creativity. Even after Max Busser's departure, Harry Winston continued to collaborate with independent watchmakers for another nine pieces up to the Opus 14 released in 2015.

Concluding Thoughts

The above pieces could be considered as foundational to the contemporary independent watchmaking movement. These days, all of these pieces are close to or even over 20 years old and nearly fit into the neo-vintage definition. They are considered as modern classics and it is hard to overlook their importance in pushing the boundaries for independent watchmakers of today. I would be honoured to have any of these pieces in my collection and would hope to one day be able to add all of them to my watchbox.

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