Watches & Jewellery

Helping hands

A new spirit of brotherhood in the world of high watchmaking is producing dazzling results, says Nick Foulkes.

November 05 2009
Nick Foulkes

One of the most memorable lines about Switzerland is delivered by Orson Welles in The Third Man: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Notwithstanding the fact that the cuckoo clock originated in the Black Forest, I mention it because there has been a recent outbreak of brotherly love in the very industry that Welles was poking fun at. I wonder what he would have made of the following announcement, issued by a newcomer to the horological scene: “Confrérie Horlogère is not a product but an instrument promoting such values as labour, creativity, craftsmanship, membership in a community, respect and, foremost, the freedom of men and women of good will.” It sounds as though the Geneva office of the United Nations has got competition on its hands.

The Confrérie Horlogère is the creation of Mathias Buttet, founder and CEO of BNB Concept SA, less of an instrument promoting the brotherhood of man than a specialist maker of complicated movements for the watch trade. In five years BNB has grown from a handful of watchmakers into a company with around 100 employees, many of them in their 20s and 30s. And as the companion of youth is ambition, Buttet decided to invite his most promising watchmakers to become companions of the Confrérie Horlogère and make pieces that would bear their names.

So as well as the feelgood element there is a motivational side to the Confrérie in that it allows talented young watchmakers to put their names to pieces rather than toil anonymously on projects for bigger brands. Each companion is expected to make a limited run of up to 10 signed pieces. An example is Ranieri Illicher’s Bel Canto Minute Repeater Tourbillon (price on request), which has bridges decorated to resemble a map of Italy and the Mediterranean. In coming years the companions are expected to reverse the customary industry approach of diluting the complicated headline piece and releasing progressively less complex and more affordable versions of it, in favour of making more elaborate and commensurately pricier timepieces. In this, the Confrérie will have to look for the goodwill of final customers as well as fellow companions.

They will, in short, need friends, and one man who is getting by with some help from his friends is Max Büsser, eponymous proprietor of Maximilian Büsser and Friends (MB&F). Sporting Converse All Stars and jeans, Büsser is the stylishly casual face of contemporary watchmaking. He is disarmingly candid about the motivation behind his co-operative venture. “MB&F allows me to create pieces that 99 per cent of the planet don’t like and wouldn’t wear.” And, he might have added, couldn’t afford. As expensive as they are outlandish, ranging from SFr66,000 (about £39,270) to almost SFr200,000 (about £119,000), Büsser’s watches flaunt their wheels, cogs, pinions and inner workings, meriting the appellation “horological machines”.

“Mega-brands have wanted us to believe that horology is about luxury, prestige, great sportsmen and celebrities, but for me horology is about the incredible craftsmen and women who create the piece. Each year I assemble my crew to create the piece I have in mind,” he says. Often the craftsmen with whom he collaborates are famous within the industry, but unknown outside. “MB&F is about crediting every single person who has worked on the product,” Büsser says. He is as good as his word, mentioning everyone right down to the suppliers of the humblest components. One such is Salvatore Ferrarotto, the cog-maker for Horological Machine No3 (£50,700), an hours, minutes and date watch, which, says Büsser, looks like “18th-century watchmaking meets Star Wars”. However, Büsser is being a little disingenuous when he says, “I am nobody. I needed somebody to make these ideas come true, so it is only fair that I credited them all.” Büsser has played a key role in shaping this trend for promoting individual craftsmen, having launched the idea of the Opus series of watches for Harry Winston, which cele­brates its 10th anniversary next year.

The announcement of a new Opus (Opus 9, £124,200) has become an eagerly anticipated annual horological event, with the American jeweller inviting interesting contemporary independent watchmakers to create limited runs of watches. The list includes FP Journe, Christophe Claret, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, and Felix Baumgartner. Opus has enabled Winston to position itself as a patron of exciting independent watchmaking.

David Gouten has been with Harry Winston since 2001 and has seen the Opus saga unfold: “It’s not about putting somebody in the forefront; it is about trying to do something together that is different. Once we meet with a watchmaker who is a reliable partner, it is really teamwork,” he says.

Meanwhile, over at Montblanc another Harry Winston alumnus, Hamdi Chatti, is about to launch the latest of haute horlogerie’s philanthropic programmes, the Institut Minerva, named after the old Minerva factory owned by Montblanc. “It is a non-profit foundation and the aim is to find gifted watchmakers who have a genuine idea,” he says. “We also want them to build up their own company; these are the two admission conditions to this programme.” In a system that sounds like a version of the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, aspiring independent watchmakers are interviewed and then, if selected, get the resources, skills and back-up to complete their project.

The watches made under the Institut Minerva umbrella will be at the top end of high watchmaking, demonstrating technical virtuosity and presenting new ways of showing the time. The first watch will be launched at the SIHH trade fair in Geneva in January, made by Johnny Girardin and Frank Orny. Girardin worked at Greubel & Forsey, while Orny is an engineer whose CV includes time at Nivarox. Together, they have created what sounds like a remarkable watch.

“Called Metamorphosis [£160,000], it is a double-function watch with double faces,” says Chatti, a trifle gnomically. “One face is the classical hours, minutes and date. Then you activate a sliding pushpiece at the side of the case; the dial opens and a small cylinder comes out from the dial which is the chronograph minute counter and the centre second hand goes back to zero. Then you can use it as a chronograph.”

If young watchmakers making timepieces like this want a glimpse of what the future might look like, they should take a look at an outfit that goes by the unassuming name of Maîtres du Temps. Maîtres du Temps is a supergroup with an evolving line-up; so far, the watchmakers who have come together under this banner include Roger Dubuis, Daniel Roth, Christophe Claret and Peter Speake-Marin. The impresario is Steven Holtzman, a US-based watch distributor whose goal is to bring watch wearers into closer contact with the watchmakers.

Instead of making watches, Maîtres du Temps issues “Chapters”. Chapter One (£260,000) was a tourbillon with an intriguing system of rolling barrels above and below the dial to give the moonphase and day of the week. This has been used to great effect on Chapter Two (£46,500), a simpler version that uses the barrels to show day and month, which Holtzman has billed as “The World’s Most Legible Calendar Wristwatch”.

This slight touch of showbiz hyperbole chimes perfectly with the fact that, like a rock band, Les Maîtres du Temps goes on tour. “So far we have hit about 15 countries,” says Holtzman, sounding like a latter-day Colonel Parker. “We have pretty much travelled around the world, market by market, to introduce the watchmakers to the consumer… What better ambassador than to have the men themselves?”

I think even the cynical Orson Welles might have been intrigued.

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