Huddled in a circle, shoulder to shoulder and engrossed in cryptic banter, they almost look like a group of schoolkids exchanging baseball cards. But instead of preserved pieces of paper, these grown men are exchanging ideas, updating each other on industry advancements and proudly parading their newest creation: a fully handmade mechanical timepiece.
I’m in the company of giants. Philippe Dufour (consummate perfectionist), Kari Voutilainen (passionate educator), Laurent Ferrier (elegant creator) and Roger Smith (English traditionalist) are all internationally respected masters in the independent watchmaking space. Only the avant-garde Vianney Halter is absent due to illness (“If I wasn’t banned from flying, I’d be there!” he tells me later via email). But to Halter’s credit, he supplements his representative’s answers to my questions via post-interview correspondence.
As we take a seat to discuss the industry, the conversation continues freely; each with their own story, but intimately bonded by a shared passion for the craft.
Norman Tan: What do people buy when they purchase a watch from an independent watchmaker?
Kari Voutilainen: In essence, they buy a handcrafted piece of art. They also buy an experience. The customer gets to know who made the watch, where it came from and how it was made. Customers can visit my workshop and see how my Voutilainen V-8R is constructed.
Philippe Dufour: I agree. The customer knows where the watch comes from and who made it. In France we call it ‘traceability’. But, more than that, they are buying a watch that has been painstakingly crafted by hand; a watch with a soul and a heartbeat. You can feel the emotion invested into the timepiece when you wear it. In essence, you are really buying a part of the watchmaker.
What are your thoughts, Laurent and Roger?
Laurent Ferrier: To add to what has already been said, they also buy exclusivity and different designs. It’s for watch connoisseurs who want to differentiate themselves from mass-production brands. Customers can even make special orders or requests, but always in keeping with the DNA of the founder of course.
Roger Smith: When you consider a business such as mine where six watchmakers make just 10 pieces per year, simply put, our clients are buying the time it takes to build them their watch. They are also buying my highly specialised approach to watchmaking that has been developed over 25 years since my first meeting with my mentor, the late George Daniels.
George Daniels famously invented the co-axial escapement. What else did he teach you?
Smith: Besides the 32 individual skills that were traditionally required to make a complete pocket watch in Great Britain, Daniels taught me that it is the duty of every watchmaker to put something back into watchmaking.
For George, he gave back with the invention of his co-axial escapement that improved the performance of the mechanical timekeeper. After extensive research and development, I introduced my single wheel co-axial escapement that has noted benefits to the overall performance of the mechanical watch mechanism.
For the rest, what do you think is your personal strength as an independent watchmaker? What separates you from the competition?
Dufour: I can only speak for myself, but I believe my watches are covetable because it is a true product without any compromises. For example, it took me 12 years to finish making 200 pieces of my Simplicity watch entirely by hand. Every day I try to improve my quality and refine my skills.
Ferrier: Generally speaking, my strength lies in classic and contemporary designs matched with precision, quality and hand-finished bevelling. I think my Galet Classic Tourbillon Double Spiral timepiece encapsulates these values.
Voutilainen: Creativity and passion. We take time to take care of the details. I make the movements completely myself and, being financially independent, I have the liberty to make decisions and act in the best interest of my company without managerial interference.
Is being financially independent crucial to maintaining creative control?
Vianney Halter: Being independent does do away with financial expectations influencing production and creation but, in my opinion, independence is a state of mind. I feel I share with my colleagues one common characteristic: we make watches first and foremost for ourselves. We make the watches that we want, the way we want. For sure, we find people that love our pieces and therefore purchase them, but our creation is not market-oriented. Rather, it’s an egoistic process.
Kari, your Observatoire wristwatch won the 2007 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) award for Favourite Men’s Watch. Is winning an award imperative to making headway in this cluttered industry?
Voutilainen: It is not necessary to win a competition such as GPHG. It helps, for sure, but if one does good work, creates good designs, then his or her work will sell. To win a competition might be also dangerous. You might receive too many orders and this might lead you to growing too fast or being too commercial in your creations.
Roger, what role has the internet played in the development of your brand?
Smith: Without the internet I would be nowhere. On completion of my Series 1 wristwatch prototype in 2001, I took some photographs of the watch and posted it on an internet watch forum. Within 24 hours I received interest and orders from around the world. The alternative would have been to retail the watches through a London retailer, which would have been expensive for me at the time. Also, my work would not have reached the collectors on a worldwide stage. That was particularly important, especially in my earlier days.
Vianney, there was a long gap between your latest creation, the Deep Space Tourbillon, and your previous watch. What have you been up to?
Halter: It’s been six years between the presentation of the Classic Janvier at Baselworld 2007 and the unveiling of Deep Space Tourbillon in Singapore in June 2013. I spent a lot of time catching up on orders for my first watch, Antiqua, which was launched in 1998. I also felt that I had thoroughly explored the field of Futur Antérieur (Past Future) that inspired the Antiqua, the Trio and the Classic timepieces (ground-breaking for their ‘steam punk’ aesthetics). So, I wanted to explore a new path, starting from a blank page. I didn’t know that it would be so difficult and take so long.
What are your thoughts on the current watch market? Is it conducive for independent watchmakers?
Ferrier: The challenges facing independents is securing key components from suppliers on time and in line with the required quality and ensuring a worldwide sales spread that’s not too dependent on few point of sales.
Halter: It’s far more difficult nowadays for independent watchmakers compared to 15 years ago when I first started. Each year, there are about 80 to 100 new brands launched by watchmakers or entrepreneurs. Some are really motivated by watchmaking; but most are motivated by fame or making money, or both.
Most of these new brands don’t survive more than two years because it requires a lot of money and energy to emerge among the other brands, both in terms of communication and in terms of retailing. The mainstream brands don’t leave much space for the independent watchmakers.
How important is transmitting the watchmaking savoir-faire to the next generation?
Dufour: Extremely important. I started learning the art of watchmaking at 15 and have been taught by many different masters. I’m realising that the know-how is slowly slipping away year after year. They don’t even teach some of the basics in schools anymore.
Halter: This is the real difference: we are not in the watch business, we are into watch making. Mass watch brands can never match the time, passion and handmade details we put into our creations. We must teach the next generation what we know in order to preserve this craft.
Voutilainen: Basically, passing on the know-how is our moral duty.