FREE TO DREAM
Individual experiences, both real and imagined, are crystallised in the horological masterpieces of independent watchmakers.
Max Büsser’s imagination explodes with rockets, robots and intergalactic rivalry. “My ideas mostly come from my childhood when I was a consummate daydreamer,” says the Geneva-based head of MB&F (Maximilian Büsser & Friends), often described by devotees as a maverick watchmaking genius.
“I spent many of my days saving the world, be it in a spaceship or a fighter plane, or as a transformer robot! When one of my designs is finished, it often hits me that my inspiration must have come from there. Creating my machines is like having psychotherapy.”
For co-founder and technical director of de Bethune, Denis Flageollet, ideas rest in more earthly spaces. “Inspiration is not found in dreams, it comes from experience, culture and a quiet atmosphere. When researching, the most important thing is daily support from a very good, spirited and constructive team.”
The pair forms part of an exclusive, respected gang: independent watchmakers with sometimes miniscule annual production runs, and a passion – and a passionate following – that brings creativity and charisma to the watch world.
Defining ‘independent’ though is a slippery exercise. Ask 10 watch aficionados and you’ll get 10, potentially wildly, different answers.
Technically, Patek Philippe, Parmigiani Fleurier, Rolex and Audemars Piguet all fit the bill: they fall outside the walls of the ‘big three’ conglomerates, LVMH, Richemont and the Swatch Group.
For luxury timepiece consultant, stylist, writer and speaker, Meehna Goldsmith, the best definition of independent is brands established by watchmakers who themselves make the watches.
“They have the skills to work on the most complicated of movements, such as tourbillons and minute repeaters, and they are the creative force behind their companies,” she explains. “They have the ability to design and build a watch from the ground up and, in most cases, manufacture their own movements.”
It’s a skill set that doesn’t spring from nowhere. Before flying solo many watchmakers cut their teeth in the technical departments or managerial wings of bigger players. Bart and Tim Grönefeld, founders of Grönefeld timepieces, worked under Audemars Piguet subsidiary Renaud & Papi.
Büsser was the former managing director of Harry Winston. His brand is a clear rebellion against the mainstream. “MB&F was born as much from my passion for beautiful watchmaking as it was from my rage against the fact that everyone keeps copying each other in this industry,” he says.
Michel Parmigiani, founder of Swiss-based Parmigiani Fleurier – partly funded through a creative partnership with the charitable Sandoz Family Foundation – shares this stance. As he told Goldsmith: “There are quite a few companies that produce watches and they aren’t watchmakers. It’s not their core business and they are taking advantage of watchmaking tradition. For me, it’s not legitimate. At Parmigiani we don’t produce jewellery and pens. It’s like it is in the garden: everyone has to stay in his or her plot.”
Exceptions to this major-label-to-solo-trader trajectory include watchmaking pioneer George Daniels’ apprentice Roger Smith, whose brand carries his own name; and famously, Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk, who set up shop out of watchmaking school when a family friend issued him a $20,000 commission.
Baumgartner reportedly doesn’t like to conform to societal structures and his freewheeling philosophy extends to the conditions afforded to Urwerk’s staff, all of whom start and finish work when they please – as long as the job gets done.
Intellectual output from the independents reflects this same spirit of freedom and their watches represent their individual creative vision. On the business side, however, independence carries all the risks, as well as the benefits, of freedom, explains Baumgartner.
“At Urwerk, we are two people making all the decisions regarding creation and production. so everything moves quite fast. We have no board of directors to convince,” he says. “But it also means we don’t have any financial partners to back us in case of problems. We’re on our own.”
The independent path covers difficult terrain and without this backing, many young brands drop from existence. Of the 30 independent labels born in 2004, Baumgartner says that today, only three remain active.
“You have to do your best with limited resources,” says Flageollet. Components can be frustratingly hard to source, while research and development regularly rack up hefty bills. Some of MB&F’s movements required up to four years’ development investment and as many as 400 parts, demanding large budgets and painstaking logistical coordination, says Büsser.
Then there’s distribution. “With our microscopic production, we are barely of any economic interest to the best retailers in the world,” he says. “So we need to find retailers who love what we do and support our creative crusades more by passion than by financial reward.
“The Hour Glass was one of the first six retail partners who funded the beginning of our adventure by paying in advance for the first piece, based just on our designs, two years before we delivered the first HM1. MB&F would probably not exist without The Hour Glass.”
Challenges aside, when independent watchmakers reflect on their exclusive craft, two words dominate their collective sentiment: joy and freedom. As a native American saying goes, the soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.
“The greatest joy of being an independent is freedom,” says Baumgartner, who draws equal satisfaction from his partnership with designer Martin Frei. “He uses his entire artistic luggage to imagine and sketch Urwerk watches. He is a sculptor. He thinks that a watch has to be a beautiful object that gives you pleasure when looked at all day long on your wrist.
"A few years ago, we unveiled the Ur-CC1 ‘King Cobra’, a crazy watch developed as a tribute to Louis Cottier [an avant-garde watchmaker]. This piece required more than three years’ development and in 2009 we unveiled only 25 pieces in white gold. This was not a commercial operation but more of an emotional adventure and a technical challenge for us. These are exactly the reasons why, in a larger group, this project would never have seen the light of day. It was too risky, too small a return on investment.”
Away from pressing commercial pressures, such as aligning with a brand’s history and its aesthetic legacy, independent watchmaking can bring fulfilment fireworks – never more so than in the moments when an idea becomes an object.
“The joy is immense,” says Büsser. “First and foremost it’s the joy of being free. Free to create what we believe in without even having to give a thought to what the market would want. Free to not have to follow the growth/profit diktat that corporations live by. Free to work only with people with whom we share the same passion, enthusiasm and values. Free to say no whenever we need to.
“By achieving total creative freedom, we can not only constantly reinvent ourselves, but also be proud, at all times, of what we’ve achieved and what we are trying to achieve. Above money or any other motivator, ultimately pride is infinitely more important.”
THE HOURGLASS MAGAZINE, 2012 Annual