In an age of CNC machines, programming simulations and 3D-printed prototypes, is there still room for a mechanical watch that is 100% hand-made? Yes! Except very few watchmakers have the expertise to do so. What would have been routine skills barely fifty years ago are becoming obsolete in an industry which has more need for the competencies of machine operators than the traditional techniques learned at the workbench. This erosion runs all the way along the value creation chain, right back to the skills being taught in watchmaking colleges. For Time Aeon, a foundation that was set up to safeguard the knowledge and expertise that are the bedrock of watchmaking excellence, something had to be done.
New project, new players
Spearheading this resistance movement is a group of watchmakers whose names carry weight: Felix Baumgartner, Philippe Dufour, Stephen Forsey, Robert Greubel and Vianney Halter, recently joined by David Bernard and Dominique Renaud. And to prove that Time Aeon meant business, a vast project codenamed Naissance d’une Montre (birth of a watch) was launched, for which Philippe Dufour and Greubel Forsey trained Michel Boulanger in the skills required to produce a watch using only hand tools and manually-operated machines. The result exceeded all expectations – the prototype sold at auction in Hong Kong for almost US$1.5 million and a limited series of 11 pieces was quickly spoken for – and bolstered the foundation’s belief that its mission was a valid and necessary one. Building on this success, a second project was launched, Naissance d’une Montre 2, pursuing the same objective to highlight watchmaking’s ancestral skills but with new players: enter Urwerk and Oscillon alongside Greubel Forsey.
“In 1997, when Urwerk was starting out, we had a certain idea of watchmaking, a lot of time and precious little means,” says Felix Baumgartner, co-founder of Urwerk with designer Martin Frei. “That meant we made our first prototypes by hand on traditional machines. My father was an antique clock restorer and only ever worked that way, so I grew up in an environment where hand-made meant something. Even though today’s Urwerk watches incorporate the latest technologies and make use of innovative materials, we have never really abandoned the way we did things back in the early days, thanks in particular to Urwerk’s constructors, Dominique Buser and Cyrano Devanthey. I’ve worked with them for the past fifteen years or so, since the Opus 5 for Harry Winston. Both of them collect and restore traditional watchmaking machines and lathes which they use to create watches exactly as they would have been made a hundred years ago, under the Oscillon name. When I found out about the first Naissance d’une Montre project from Robert Greubel, I immediately knew we were on the same wavelength. Hence the idea to add a second chapter to the story.”
Now with added innovation
Naissance d’une Montre 2 thus became a three-handed project with Greubel Forsey for the movement architecture, based on a design by Dominique Buser, Urwerk for the case and project management, and Oscillon building the watch. “As newly graduated watchmakers, we were already thinking about hand-made,” says Dominique Buser. “Cyrano Devanthey and I couldn’t agree on whether it was feasible to make a watch using only old techniques, so we decided to set ourselves a challenge and see who was right. A bit of a mad challenge as it turned out, considering we spent five years on the first series of our L’Instant de Vérité [the moment of truth] watch. We’d clearly underestimated the amount of time necessary. By way of example, we’re currently finishing four watches for an Asian customer that will have taken us three years. When we first heard about the Naissance d’une Montre project, we’d almost completed our first pieces. We got in touch with Greubel Forsey through Félix Baumgartner and it was obvious we shared the same passion and the same fascination for traditional watchmaking skills.”
The Naissance d’une Montre 2 watch reprises the fundamental of an Oscillon watch, namely a constant-force mainspring wound around two drums that are connected by a planetary differential – a first in watchmaking. “It’s the same system,” notes Buser, “but given that the movement has been reversed, with a large power-reserve indication on the back and the balance wheel on the front, which means inverting the gears, it’s essentially a new construction for which we produced four successive versions.” For Felix Baumgartner, this is “proof that working by hand isn’t an obstacle to invention. The objectives in terms of quality and passing on skills are the same as for the first project, but with added innovation.” After two years spent working on two watches – one a school watch that Time Aeon will keep and the other a Naissance d’une Montre 2 watch that will be sold – the production stage has almost reached completion, with only the last finishing and final adjustments still to be done. Covid-19 permitting, there will be a global presentation tour culminating in an auction sale in Hong Kong on April 21, 2021. Students at the watchmaking school in Granges, Switzerland, where Buser and Devanthey teach, haven’t heard the last of this “birth of a watch”!