Don’t expect to hear Grönefeld complain that business is bad. If anything, it’s too good. Victim of its own success, the Netherlands-based brand — founded in 2008 by watchmakers and brothers Bart and Tim Grönefeld — issued a statement in September saying it was no longer able to keep pace with demand and, consequently, would be taking no new orders “until further notice”. The brand insists it will never compromise on the quality of the 70-some watches that come out of its workshop each year, leaving customers with no alternative than to wait. For the past year, the brand had only been accepting orders for its 1941 Principia… with a lead time in excess of three years.
In their statement, the brothers acknowledge that “the confidence shown by our customers and retailers has been wonderful, albeit a tad overwhelming. Aware of the increasing demand for our products, we recently moved to new, larger premises and recruited five new watchmakers.” Until expanded operations kick in, the brand is encouraging customers who are interested in one of its watches to look at pieces by other independents and “discover a world where creativity and craftsmanship often coexist.”
While this is an admirable show of solidarity on Grönefeld’s part, the recent “mega weekend” in Geneva suggests that enthusiasts already have their eye squarely on independent brands, which outperformed many of the established houses. For example? At Phillips, the set of four watches by Philippe Dufour totalled CHF 11.5 million while five “souscription” watches by F.P.Journe came within a whisker of the CHF 10 million mark.
The same F.P.Journe was one of the stars of the Only Watch sale, with the FFC Blue. This automaton watch is based on an original idea by film director Francis Ford Coppola and executed by the master watchmaker using the principle of the mechanical prosthetic hand that was designed by Ambroise Paré (1509-1590), the father of modern surgery. The hours are shown by the fingers and thumb of a gloved hand. Minutes are given on a peripheral rotating disk. It fetched CHF 4.5 million, preceded by the Patek Philippe desk clock (CHF 9.5 million) and followed by the watches from Audemars Piguet (CHF 3.1 million), Richard Mille (CHF 2.1 million) and De Bethune (CHF 1.3 million).
Leaving the millionaire’s club, Akrivia, H. Moser & Cie., MB&F, Krayon, Konstantin Chaykin, Urwerk, Czapek and Bell & Ross all garnered winning bids in excess of CHF 200,000, joining the considerably more established names of Breguet, Bulgari, Hublot, Tudor and Zenith. Should we be surprised by these results? The watches in question, in particular those which established records at the Philipps sale, are exceptional as much for their complexity as their rarity. As for the timepieces crossing the block at Only Watch, they are one-offs intended to illustrate the philosophy and aesthetic of their makers. Something that is particularly true when the makers in question are independents.
After this extraordinary weekend, during which a thousand watches changed hands for a total CHF 119 million, plus the CHF 30 million raised by Only Watch, there can be little doubt that watchmaking’s “new wave” is here to stay. The inexorable rise of online luxury watch reseller A Collected Man is proof enough. In August this year, the site sold Philippe Dufour’s Grande et Petite Sonnerie N°3 for $7.63 million, which is more than the N°1 achieved at Phillips. Founder Silas Walton explains how, six months into the business and having sold mostly mid-market Rolexes and Omegas, a customer consigned a piece by an independent watchmaker that generated profit seven times greater than any previous sale. For Walton, this was an epiphany at a time when the idea of reselling watches by independents was still virgin territory.
“Six years ago, if you bought independent watches, you were expected to lose money. I had done my research and understood the risk, but because I wasn’t influenced by the industry’s outlook, I could also see a clear investment opportunity with large profit margins. So we moved forward with this model, gaining trust within the independent watchmaking industry and selling these pieces on consignment, either from collectors or directly from the watchmakers themselves.” Established in 2014, A Collected Man now turns over $21 million.
When the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI) came into being back in 1985, news of its creation produced barely a ripple. The AHCI stand, a Baselworld stalwart as of 1987, always attracted interest but more out of curiosity than an unerring belief in the future of these unknown idealists. Independent watchmaking started to register with the launch, in 2006, of Time Aeon, an initiative spearheaded by Philippe Dufour, Vianney Halter, Kari Voutilainen, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey with the objective of safeguarding and transmitting the skills required to handcraft a watch. Philippe Dufour was vociferous in his defence of this expertise: “A company doesn’t derive its value from its CNC machines. The Chinese have the same grasp of technology that we have. If we don’t take the trouble to perpetuate artisanal skills and creativity, soon Switzerland will have no more to offer than the Asians.”
Is there a watch enthusiast today who hasn’t heard of the AHCI and its 30-some members? Who isn’t familiar with the success of Time Aeon’s “Naissance d’une Montre” projects? The arrival of independent brands at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in 2016 brought them further into the spotlight. Five years later they are centre-stage. Leon Adams is the owner of Cellini, a prominent watch retailer in New York. He has noted how “we are seeing tremendous interest in a few independent brands who make between 25 and 200 watches per year. They are desirable because they offer unique designs, small production numbers and the craftsmanship of some of the world’s best artisans.”
With talent, skill and daring, the independents have demonstrated that it is possible to approach watchmaking through an artisanal lens and employ centuries-old techniques to hugely original effect. Raising the necessary capital will always be a consideration, although not necessarily the stumbling block it once was, when only the wealthiest (or those with wealthy backers) could take the plunge. “Buying from an independent watchmaker today is like buying a painting from an artist who is still alive,” offers Rémi Guillemin, who heads the watch department at Christie’s Geneva. “You can follow their work and interact with them. There is a human touch, which collectors really want.”
It is this concept of watchmaking as an art, and watchmakers as artists, that is sending auction prices sky-high. In the words of Aurel Bacs and Alexandre Ghotbi, the two lynchpins of watch auctions at Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo, “Philippe Dufour is the horological equivalent of Michelangelo. He is a living icon and his creations are as coveted as oeuvres by the greatest artists of our time.” What is true for Philippe Dufour is certainly true for a growing number of independent watchmakers. As Grönefeld can confirm.