Four years ago, which in today’s technical world means light years ago, the launch of the Hautlence brand inaugurated a new era in the development of the watch industry. After the spawning of many new and mechanically advanced brands in the arena of timekeeping—essentially headed up by independent master watchmakers—the creation of Hautlence in September 2004 by two young men, Renaud de Retz and Guillaume Tetu (both from the watch industry, but not watchmakers themselves), heralded the appearance of a new type of niche brand that belongs, we might say, to the second generation of watch brands. These new companies do not claim to revolutionize mechanical timekeeping as much as they want to offer new hybrid timepieces and propose new ways to read the time.
‘We are speaking first and foremost about the display’
Renaud de Retz and Guillaume Tetu have always affirmed it: all the work conducted by Hautlence is aimed primarily at finding new approaches to display the indications of time. ‘We did not start with the concept of a movement,’ they explain, ‘nor of design, but rather we are first and foremost concerned with the display. Everything begins there. It is only afterwards that we consider the mechanics necessary for making our often playful idea workable. We therefore look for ways to incorporate the most advanced mechanics and the most refined design possible into our display.’
This creative process thus understandably depends on the collaboration of a large circle of independent watchmakers and specialists, all brought together to work towards the same objective. In the case of Hautlence, more than 50 different participants have been involved.
This particular type of organizational network that Hautlence calls its ‘College’ is proudly promoted by the company. Unlike many other established brands, Hautlence does not try to give the impression that everything is made ‘in-house’. The brand’s emblematic approach, adopted by many others in the latest generation of watch enterprises—such as Max Büsser and his ‘galaxy’ of Max Büsser & Friends—incorporates this same idea of networking, collaboration, and transparency in terms of letting everyone know ‘who does what’.
Constructing its legitimacy
The idea of organizational networking is not merely anecdotal. It is, in fact, one of the basic conditions of a different and uncomplicated approach to the art of mechanical timekeeping. In the latter, where the master watchmaker desires above all to improve chronom-etry, to add more and more complications, and to multiply the number of tourbillons, the goal of a company such as Hautlence is to provide watches with innovative and original faces and dials.
This endeavour is also a way for the brand to build up true legitimacy in its own domain. Since the beginning, Hautlence’s requirements for its displays have necessitated that the company design and create its own calibre. We see this right away in the brand’s first realization, the HLS, that comprises a completely original combination of jumping hours on a disc combined with a retrograde minute display, both activated by the minute cannon pinion. This drives a snail that, by the intermediary of a feeler spindle, causes a large connecting rod to move linearly. Without going into too much detail of this original device, we can sum it up simply by saying that the end of the connecting rod arms a small spring with an inertia block that drives the rotation or jumping of the hour disc. As the hour changes, the connecting rod is pushed back and, by the intermediary of a second small connecting rod, the minute hand is returned to zero. The display evokes the appearance of a mechanical toy, reminiscent of an ancient locomotive.
|Renaud de Retz & Guillaume Tetu, HL|
The development of this totally innovative device thus required the creation of a totally innovative calibre. The willingness to strip away all the technical elements that make up this display directly guided the design and the case of the watch, thus offering a transparent, profound, and pure vision of the ‘entrails’ of the movement. The result is one of great technical and aesthetic consistency that was taken a step even further in the two following models: the HLS, whose design is more distinctive and provocative and which integrates a small seconds indication on a rotating disk at 5 o’clock; and the HLQ, equipped with a second round calibre, designed in-house, that features jumping hours and retrograde minutes plus a date disc.
The initial prototypes of a new and totally amazing model, which will certainly get a lot of attention (we cannot reveal anything about it for the time being) may possibly be presented at BaselWorld 2009. This is, of course, provided that the prototype is perfectly functioning since Hautlence has no intention of making an announcement simply for the sake of making an announcement. Rather, the brand prefers to be sure it is able to produce the model in due time. This timepiece will demonstrate that Hautlence’s unique approach to creating unusual and playful displays can still reserve many surprises.
A major contribution to the evolution of the young brand has also been the creation, in 2007, of an integrated atelier employing two design-constructors and three accredited watchmakers, as well as the purchase of CNC technology, which allows Hautlence to master its design, development, prototype creation, assembly, and quality control. What is the company’s ultimate goal? To make its own basic calibre, from A to Z (today some gears, notably, are based on the Peseux 7001), as well as to ‘make ourselves truly happy, since mastering our operations provides immense satisfaction, without forgetting that we want to achieve the greatest possible constancy in our products,’ explains Renaud de Retz.
The capital importance of service
We ask the two young men: how does a niche brand handle the current economic crisis? ‘Obviously, we are a little worried, and so we are being especially prudent,’ they answer. ‘Up to now, we have expanded our business very gradually (15 watches produced in 2004-05, 160 in 2005-06, 232 in 2006-07, and 291 in 2007-08), all in accordance with our expectations. We are patiently building up our unique offer, the excellence of our products, the high quality of our finishing, and the transparency of our service, including after-sales servicing to which we have attached extreme importance since the very beginning. For example, our first 35 watches had a small problem of reliability. We immediately recalled them, like in the car industry, and replaced the movement. As a little aside, one of our clients in Singapore, which had the Number One model, did not want to part with it, even with its defect, so he ordered a new one.’
The two men then go on to add, ‘To speak quite honestly, however, we often ask ourselves this question: Why should we insist on making absolutely everything in Switzerland when so many others are quietly producing many parts in China? Are we stupid or are we masochistic? Frankly, no, we are neither. Why? Because our watches are made to last. Our timekeepers are not comparable to the concept watches being made by some of the grand brands, which are nothing more than marketing gimmicks. We are taking advantage of our originality. We are working for the long-term.’
It is true that the most advanced research into displays is at the avant-garde of timekeeping and thus only concerns a very small and exclusive clientele. Yet, the close, privileged, and personal relationship—which has been patiently built up with those rare individuals who appreciate exceptional pieces and incredible mechanisms—is what drives the actions and success of the young brands that are changing the ‘face’ of watchmaking.
Nomad rock band
A good example of this type of young brand is Max Büsser & Friends or MB&F as it is also called. This nomad manufacturer with a rock band-sounding name bases its activities on cooptation. Max Büsser has been able to profit greatly from the current trend of networking because of his very intimate understanding and knowledge of the terrain. Clearly, it is a terrain occupied by a rare and exclusive clientele who often see the watch market as a cousin to the art market.
Creator of Harry Winston’s Swiss watch branch and initiator of the Opus family of timepieces (a pioneering collection in terms of display, see chapter on Baumgartner and Urwerk), Max Büsser launched MB&F in 2005 with his own Horological Machine No 1. In the vein of total transparency, we find the names of Laurent Besse and Peter Speake-Marin engraved on the movement of the HM1. This unidentified watch object features an elevated central tourbillon that dominates a double ellipse in the form of an elongated figure eight, which displays, in a sort of disjointed manner, the hours, minutes, and seven-day power reserve. From a visual standpoint, this veritable three-dimensional watch aesthetically incorporates the oper-ation of its four barrels mounted in parallel and in series, which drive the regulating organs from two simultaneous sources.
|HM3 STARCRUISER, HM3 MOVEMENT DOUBLE|
Splitting the display
With its HM2, MB&F takes the double display a step further and explores retrograde indications, this time in collaboration with Jean-Marc Widerrecht, a talented specialist in this domain who was awarded the title of best constructor of the year at the Grand Prix de l’Horlogerie in Geneva in 2007.
On the left dial are a retrograde date and a bi-hemispheric lunar phase indicator. On the right dial are the instantaneous jumping hour and concentric retrograde minutes. All are displayed in two windows placed side by side on a rectangular plate. This split display is taken to a new dimension with the end user in mind: with half the watch under a shirt’s cuff, only the half with the hour and minutes are seen, leaving no one to guess that the Horological Machine indicates much more than that.
The third machine is the HM3, which was recently unveiled, much like we would say for the unveiling of a sculpture. And, while the three-dimensionality is quite obvious in the first two machines, the HM3 takes this notion to even greater heights. Again, it is Jean-Marc Widerrecht who is at the helm of the little Girard-Perregaux motorized device. In this case, it features two cones in the shape of a volcano. One indicates the day or night on its summit while the hour is shown on its transparent sides. The other cone displays the minutes.
The two cones are placed in an opening shaped like a large half-moon that provides an in-depth view of the movement and its mysterious rotor placed on the face of the watch, while all around it can be seen the date engraved on a circle that moves. The wearer has not been forgotten, quite the opposite, since he can easily read the time by glancing at the sides of his watch. This truly three dimensions timepiece is available in two versions. The original horizontal model is named Starcruiser, while the Sidewinder is a vertical version suggested by a client.
Measuring the markets
A diligent assessor of the marketplace, Max Büsser was successful in pre-selling nearly all the first round of production of the HM1 thanks to his personal network of clients. But the first steps towards independence have not always been easy especially since the suppliers have not always kept their promises. As a result, delivery of the first 35 HM1 timekeepers was unable to be carried out until May 2007, nearly two years after the announcement of their upcoming launch.
Since then, however, MB&F has consolidated its own network. The HM2 was first delivered in January 2008 and will be continued regularly at the pace of 100 pieces per year until 2010. The HM3 will be publicly presented in March 2009. The MB&F adventure is thus growing, both literally and figuratively.
Another ‘maverick’ watchmaker, Jean-François Ruchonnet, who is very interested in the potential of mechanical displays and, from what he says, has always been so. A very talented individual who likes to dabble in nearly everything, Ruchonnet started in the technical division and R & D at Chopard until he left in 1999. He then pioneered a number of the most beautiful 3D animations in timekeeping, then went on to invent, among others, the V4 for TAG Heuer, a watch driven by belts that the firm’s engineers have not yet been able to fully master (dare we ask if this watch is truly feasible?), as well as the Double Tourbillon Tournant for Breguet.
Now, Ruchonnet is launching his own timekeeper through his mini-manufacture called CréaLuxe, which he founded with Andréas Stricker. The first model to finally come out of this recent collaboration is the Cabestan. We use the word ‘finally’ because it seems that everything Ruchonnet touches becomes an ordeal and the Cabestan—which he envisioned already a few years ago, in 2003—was no exception. The piece very nearly did not see the light of day. Entrusted at first to Vianney Halter, then, following various episodes that we will not even try to untangle here, returned to Ruchonnet. The piece was finally realized thanks to the efforts of a gifted watchmaker recruit named Eric Coudray.
Coudray was the inventor, among others, of the Gyrotourbillon for Jaeger-LeCoultre. At the beginning of 2008, he decided to leave the important brand and its more than 1000 employees located in Le Sentier, and travel across the Vallée de Joux to the other side. There, he joined a handful of other watchmakers at CréaLuxe.
Shortly thereafter, the young inventor took the plans for the Cabestan and started from scratch with this veritable ‘labyrinth of ideas’. His aim was to simplify and rationalize the piece’s operation and assure its perfect reliability. Working ‘in the ancient manner’ but with modern tools, Eric Coudray—who admits ‘his responsibility in this venture’—and his seven companions took the movement apart and rationalized its various elements. Most notably, they reworked the many energy-hungry pivots of the piece that was constructed of chain and rollers (23 cm of chain composed of nearly 450 hand-riveted stainless steel links). In a few months, they succeeded in assuring the Cabestan’s reliability, its precision, and its feasibility.
|Jean-François Ruchonnet, Andréas Stricker|
The second timepiece of this perfect Trilogy (the V4 being the Earth, the Cabestan evoking Water, and the future creation representing Air), the Cabestan Winch Tourbillon Vertical suggests certain marine motifs: the chain resembles a boat’s chain holding the anchor and the small winch provides for winding the movement.
Taking the concept of three-dimensionality to an extreme, the Cabestan displays, on one side, the hour, minute, and seconds on three separate barrels driven by a vertical tourbillon constructed of tempered steel and protected by a glass made of thermally moulded Pyrex with glass on three sides. On the other side, under a similar glass, are both the mechanism belonging to the chain of the fusee and the power reserve indicator (72 hours) also on a rotating barrel made of engraved aluminium and mounted on ball bearings. All perception of a dial has thus disappeared in this timepiece for the benefit of a retro-futuristic type of machine whose various elements constitute its very particular face.
After the trial balloon of six Cabestan pieces specially produced for Romain Jérôme (which ‘was promotionally a good thing, even at the risk of creating some confusion,’ admits Jean-François Ruchonnet), a limited series of 135 pieces is now in production, and the first five in the series are now coming out. The team expects to reach cruising speed with seven to ten pieces seeing the light of day each month, of which the company has already received firm orders for the initial 44 pieces as of the end of November 2008. It is noteworthy to mention that each Cabestan takes about 1000 hours of work to be completed.
With prices of his timepieces varying between 325,000 and 405,000 Swiss francs as a function of the materials, does Ruchonnet worry about the current economic crisis? ‘We are so far away from the norm that, frankly, I do not think that the demand for our pieces will weaken since the exceptional is the rule for our collectors.’
Yet, we ask another question: Will the Cabestan 2, currently in the planning stage, be a simplified timekeeper and thus less expensive, or, on the contrary, will it be much more amazing and thus have an even higher price tag? There is no answer at the present time, since the plans have not yet been finalized. While waiting for the continuation of events, however, and another line to appear, there is the famous Air, which we have already mentioned, but which, for the moment, we do not have the right to talk about. . .
A new trend: the digital display
Among the new trends in displays, we have recently seen the arrival of a new generation of watches with mechanical-digital displays. Coming to mind are the Meccanico DG by de Grisogono and the Opus 8 by Harry Winston, credited to Frédéric Garinaud. (See our Display Gallery)
These two extraordinary objects are concept watches—talking pieces created in-house by two brands whose primary business is found elsewhere. This certainly explains why many long months—even years—pass between the announcement of their creation and their final production and industrialization.
Let’s look at a different example, however, that of the young brand MCT (Manufacture Contemporaine du Temps), which launched into the very specific and complex niche of mechanical digital displays. In the case of MCT, the actual commercialization of its product followed rapidly on the heels of its announcement.
Rotational engraved prisms
MCT was founded in 2007 by Denis Giguet, a 40-year old engineer who worked at Gay Frères and Rolex, followed by a stint at Harry Winston where he was in charge of development and production of the brand’s watches, including the Opus. The stated objective of MCT is to ‘look at time in other ways’ by proposing ‘an original way to read the time.’
And, this the company has most assuredly done with its first realization, the Sequential One. The basic development of this definitely unusual watch centred on the digital display. The hour numbers appear engraved on four large surfaces, each composed of five blades, which are in fact triangular prisms. These ‘indicators’ are placed at 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and 9 o’clock. Their alternating reading occurs thanks to the movement of a mobile minute circle that is interrupted on a 90 degree sector, thus permitting the reading of the number indicating the hour but hiding the other three hour surfaces whose prisms, during this time, rotate slowly on themselves to modify the display of the following hour. At the current hour, the minute circle rotates counter-clockwise, and thus hides the past hour and reveals the following hour.
This combination of rotating elements at different speeds—prisms and minute circle—require 471 component parts and a specific system of energy storage necessary for the rotation of the minute circle over 270 degrees per hour. The ensemble is driven by a manual-winding movement specially developed by a group of watchmakers and specialists (a total of some 20 experts participated in this project). In addition to extremely well-appointed finishing, the design—entrusted to Eric Giroud (also a designer for MB&F)—is elegant, classic, sensual, and tactile, while also offering a clear view of the mechanisms.
Perhaps we could make a small reproach in passing. Because the minute circle changes position at each hour, the intuitive reading of the time seems quite tricky, unless one can visually memorize the respective placement of the minute at each distinct hour. An arduous task.
|Denis Giguet, MCT|
The future of watchmaking
With this innovation, MCT has become on actor in the landscape of ‘new watchmakers’, but the openly declared goal of Denis Giguet is to ‘rapidly begin a process of verticalization’, and over time to unite in one location the ensemble of key watchmaking metiers—design, construction, fabrication of principal component parts, assembly, and quality control—like a complete mini-manufacture.
The anticipated near-term economic upheavals will most likely complicate the road ahead for these new watch enterprises, companies that are seeking, above all, to capitalize on the enormous and fascinating potential of mechanical displays. But if they succeed in flexing their muscles and continuing their research, these newcomers will find themselves with some of the most interesting propositions in the service of watchmaking’s future.
Urwerk, Precursor and King of the Satellites
In the realm of watch displays, we should pay special homage to the original and unique work carried out by watchmaker Félix Baumgartner and designer Martin Frei at Urwerk, founded in 1997.
Contrary to most of the talented young watchmakers of his era, Félix Baumgartner did not choose to work in the world of traditional complications but rather decided to concentrate his research primarily on different ways to display the time. His objective? ‘To transform the indication of time into an art’ as he likes to say. In his research, Baumgartner developed a system of satellites that can be modified in different ways depending upon his various models. The UR-103 Hexagone, presented in September 2008, is the latest example of this work. Available in a limited series called ‘Black’, it is crafted in black platinum, which particularly emphasizes the revolutionary design of the watch, whose satellites appear to be carved right from the material.
|UR-103 HEXAGONE, UR-202|
Urwerk’s research on satellites led the company to propose a number of models designed around this basic principle. What comes to mind immediately is the extraordinary UR-202, presented in 2007, which takes the satellite concept to an extreme. At the centre of the watch rotates a diamond-set carrousel with a satin finish treated with a PE-CVD ‘blacktop.’ The veritable nerve centre of the watch, machined to tolerances of a micron or less, it commands the rotation of the hour blocks or satellites that are placed at the ends of three arms as well as the three telescopic hands. Inside the arms are found the ‘transporters’, mechanical elements that control the extension or retraction of the hands. When a block reaches the beginning of the minute scale, the hand traverses it completely to point at the minute. It then retracts gradually as the block reaches the end of the 60-minute scale, and continues on its course (to be replaced at the beginning of the scale by the following block that indicates the next hour.) This principle of using blocks, but without the retractable hands, had already been developed by Félix Baumgartner in 2005 for the Opus 5 designed for Harry Winston Rare Timepieces. It is without a doubt one of the most amazing wristwatches ever created. Carried by a cube, on whose face the hour is engraved, a large hand travels along the minute scale. When it reaches 60 minutes, it detaches instantaneously from the cube and returns immediately to zero where it ‘attaches’ to the following cube that displays the next hour, before starting on its course again. During this time, the first cube continues along its rotational path and then turns upon itself to reveal a new face and thus a new hour. The three cubes (the ‘satellites’) each carry an hour number on four of their faces. Therefore, a total of 12 hours can thus be indicated. An additional Day/Night indicator lets the wearer know if the time is AM or PM. A power reserve of five days completes the watch, which is as amazing as it is easy to read. At a recent Antiquorum auction in Geneva, a platinum Opus V has been sold for a very sound CHF 226’200!
OPUS 8 by Harry Winston With a dial reminiscent of a television screen, the Opus 8 displays the time as if by magic via digitally expressed numbers (e.g. 20.00 is expressed as 08 PM). Upon request the hour is displayed in three-dimensional relief on a plate that a few seconds earlier seem perfectly flat. The minutes appear on the right side of the case in a vertical scale graduated in five-minute intervals with a marker that moves from one interval to the next.
MECCANICO DG by De Grisogono A 651 component timepiece equipped with a manual-winding Calibre powering two time zones, one a traditional analogue display and the second a digital display of 23 mobile micro segments with 4 faces that indicate the time by an instantaneous and simultaneous rotation of 90 degrees by a dozen segments.
AUTOMATIC MYSTERIOUS AND REVERSED WATCH by Angelo Lo Giudice Automatic Soprod Calibre A10 movement is assembled upside down with the rotation of the hands reversed crating a notion of reading an hourglass.
SHABAKA by Jean Dunand Perpetual calendar and minute repeater on cathedral gongs. Display of day, date (two digits on separate cylinders), moon phase and leap-year cycle on four cylinders rotated by four different 90-degree transmission systems. The minute repeater strikes on gongs that go twice around the movement to give a deeper and more resonant chime.
ROLLER, GUARDIAN, TIME (RGT) by Ladoire Automatic Manufacture ‘Calvet/01/RGT’ movement with indication of hours, minutes and seconds by discs mounted on rolling ceramic balls.
Source: Europa Star December - January 2009 Magazine Issue