Independent watchmakers


Kari Voutilainen at the pinnacle

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July 2021


Kari Voutilainen at the pinnacle

Finnish master watchmaker Kari Voutilainen has come a very long way from southern Lapland, where he was born and raised, to the vertiginous eyrie known as Le Chapeau de Napoléon (Napoleon’s Hat) where he has recently installed his new workshop. There, perched at the very top of a sheer mountain face, he has a panoramic view over the Val de Travers and Fleurier, with their assorted watch manufactures: L.U.C Chopard, Parmigiani, Vaucher Manufacture and, almost exactly opposite in the distance, the chateau above Môtiers where Bovet resides. It’s enough to give any fine watchmaker a Napoleon complex. But that’s not Kari Voutilainen’s style.

I

t certainly is a long way from the school benches where a bored young Kari Voutilainen dreamed of “being independent, and just doing something with my hands.” At the age of 22 he entered the Tapiola watchmaking school on the outskirts of Helsinki. It was a revelation. “For the first time in my life, I was happy to go to class.”

He let us in on his backstory back in 2006, when we visited him in his tiny workshop in Môtiers, just down the road from his new headquarters. The village is famous for welcoming the exiled philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, before the villagers hounded him out in a barrage of stones. Just a stone’s throw (!) from Rousseau’s erstwhile home, Kari Voutilainen welcomed us inside his one-man manufacture which, at the time, basically comprised a very large, very heavy table onto which were bolted all his machines and tools, and where he made virtually everything himself.

Back in 2006, Kari Voutilainen welcomed us inside his “one-man manufacture” which, at the time, basically comprised a very large, very heavy table onto which were bolted all his machines and tools.

Kari Voutilainen in the winter of 2021
Kari Voutilainen in the winter of 2021

Basel 2005: a sensation

The previous year, in 2005, the man who had struck out on his own in 2002 caused a sensation in Basel after introducing his first watch at the AHCI booth. It was a unique minute repeater that struck the hours and minutes and, rather than the usual quarters, the tenths of an hour. “It’s a lot easier on the ear,” he explained to us, “because we’re used to the decimal system.”

He achieved this feat by completely reengineering an old movement blank, redesigning the calibre, adding an exceptional manual finish and developing a rare purity and clarity of tone thanks to a case worked entirely by hand from a thin sheet of gold by his friend Gideon Levingston.

“The shape was created manually by gradually tensioning the metal, which turns the case into a genuine resonance chamber. The industrial method, starting out with a gold ingot, severs the nerves of the material,” he confirmed.

 Kari Voutilainen set up shop in the former “Chapeau de Napoléon” hotel-restaurant overlooking the Val-de-Travers on 1 June 2021.
Kari Voutilainen set up shop in the former “Chapeau de Napoléon” hotel-restaurant overlooking the Val-de-Travers on 1 June 2021.

The keys to the kingdom

But this “overnight success” was a long time in the making. It was the carefully orchestrated end point of a long journey that took Kari Voutilainen from school, via a restoration apprenticeship, to Wostep, the famous Swiss elite watchmaking college where he took additional courses on complications. He then returned to Finland, where he set himself up as an independent watchmaker, did a lot of restoration, and “learned to be organised”. But one meeting would change his destiny. Michel Parmigiani, who at that point spent most of his time restoring the very fine pieces in the Sandoz collection, asked Kari to come and work for him.

One meeting would change his destiny. Michel Parmigiani, who at that point spent most of his time restoring the very fine pieces in the Sandoz collection, asked Kari to come and work for him.

There, in Fleurier, the fairytale began. “Just think, I was able to restore eleven exceptional tourbillons that were designed as entries for the Concours d’Observatoire. What an incredible experience for a young watchmaker.”

 The new 28SC wristwatch perfectly encapsulates the philosophy of Kari Voutilainen. The two-tone dial is made from silver and engine-turned by hand. Hour numerals are made from gold and their finish can be personalised. Limited edition of 12 watches.
The new 28SC wristwatch perfectly encapsulates the philosophy of Kari Voutilainen. The two-tone dial is made from silver and engine-turned by hand. Hour numerals are made from gold and their finish can be personalised. Limited edition of 12 watches.

But perhaps most importantly, he would meet the man who would become his mentor: Charles Meylan, who had completed watchmaking school in the 30s and who, on his retirement, became the first watchmaker to work in Michel Parmigiani’s workshop. “He opened all the doors for me, entrusted me with all his secrets and passed on a vast amount of knowledge, so that eventually I felt completely comfortable with the most complicated watches, and was able to easily make all the parts, the wheels and springs, working with the most traditional tools.”

For around ten years he continued to work for Michel Parmigiani, who was beginning to create his own watches and launch his own brand. In 1999 the Wostep asked its alumnus to return to school – this time to teach students about watch complications. That’s what he did up to 2002, when he decided he was finally ready to create his own brand. At last, his long-held dream was a reality: he was an independent watchmaker.

Kari Voutilainen

A totally independent manufacture

Standing on the vertiginous balcony of the many-windowed Chapeau de Napoléon – a light and airy former hotel-restaurant – looking out over the vast, bucolic landscape, Kari Voutilainen, a shy, affable and unfailingly kind man, wears the gentle smile that comes so readily to him. He’d be forgiven for flexing, but that’s not his style at all. The reason he set himself up in this lofty eyrie is not to crassly ram home his exalted status, but to grow closer to his own watchmaking ethos and to change the dynamic, by bringing all his main activities together in one magical place.

Now, after almost twenty years as an independent, Kari Voutilainen has become one of the most revered names in contemporary fine watchmaking. He’s no longer a one-man manufacture, and hasn’t been for some time. He now has 26 employees, and for seven years has been joint owner of Comblémine SA which, with its 13 staff, creates and produces all his dials. He and his team made 64 watches last year.

 The 28SC's elegant and strong movement is designed, built, fabricated, finished and assembled entirely in the Voutilainen workshops.
The 28SC’s elegant and strong movement is designed, built, fabricated, finished and assembled entirely in the Voutilainen workshops.

Kari Voutilainen produces virtually everything in-house (everything except for the jewels, barrel springs, Moser spirals and sapphire components). The firm designs, builds and manufactures all the movement parts, escapements, baseplates, bridges, wheels, pinions and pins (16,000 components were machined last year). They meticulously decorate the parts, assemble, regulate and check the movements, issue communications and conclude sales. It is a totally independent, complete manufacture.

Standing on the vertiginous balcony of the many-windowed Chapeau de Napoléon looking out over the vast, bucolic landscape, Kari Voutilainen, a shy, affable and unfailingly kind man, wears the gentle smile that comes so readily to him.

 Kari Voutilainen set up shop in the former “Chapeau de Napoléon” hotel-restaurant overlooking the Val-de-Travers on 1 June 2021.

“A lot of effort, but you can’t put a price on freedom”

“When you do everything yourself, it’s a lot of effort,” Kari points out. “We also take on the labour risk, which other companies outsource to their suppliers. But it offers huge advantages: in terms of quality and consistency, the eternal issue of supply lead times, and steady production output. We work locally, in direct and continuous communication with everyone involved. That’s how we maintain our freedom. And you can’t put a price on that.”

He gives an example: “When we make a component, the technicians immediately go and talk to everyone who’s involved. Can it be decorated appropriately, is it easy to mount, how will it be cleaned, catalogued, stored?”

In the end, thanks to this internal coherence and easy communication, the 360° control, the freedom of initiative granted to everyone – and the fact that Voutilainen produces its own escapements – “thanks to this way of working with a team of deeply motivated people, we very rarely have any after-sales service problems,” Kari confirms.

One of Japan's greatest lacquer artists, Tatsuo Kitamura creates lacquer art works at the pinnacle of this Japanese tradition. The dial of the new Green Garden one-off watch shown here, made with the saiei makie and somata zaiku lacquering techniques, takes several months of work to complete.
One of Japan’s greatest lacquer artists, Tatsuo Kitamura creates lacquer art works at the pinnacle of this Japanese tradition. The dial of the new Green Garden one-off watch shown here, made with the saiei makie and somata zaiku lacquering techniques, takes several months of work to complete.

“I’d rather slow down than speed up”

The idea of physically relocating to the top of a mountain was not taken in order to increase output, or to speed up production. Quite the opposite: the point was to be able to breathe more deeply. As Kari points out, at this stage it’s better to “slow down rather than speed up.” Acceleration might seem to be a tempting option, given that demand, perhaps spurred on by the pandemic, has increased. But that demand also has a different complexion.

“Retailers are buying far less, individuals are buying far more,” the watchmaker explains, noting that 2020 was his “best year as an independent,” with an output of 64 watches. Requests are multiplying, websites are springing up or consolidating around the search for fine – and exclusive – watches. “I just had to turn everyone down, for the simple reason that I had no more watches.” Voutilainen’s order book is completely full for 2021 and 2022, and 2023 is rapidly filling up.

“It’s better for us to slow down, because we’ve made some new calibres, and we need to see how they perform over time. And we must be very careful not to do too much. We also create many one-off pieces and extremely limited series. Furthermore, and this is important, we don’t have a sales department. I’m my own salesman. I deal with clients directly, right up to delivery. I even prepare the invoices!” he laughs.

“We don’t have a sales department. I’m my own salesman. I deal with clients directly, right up to delivery. I even prepare the invoices!”

Kari Voutilainen

What David can teach Goliath

Despite his reserved exterior, Kari Voutilainen likes to sell his watches in person because he loves meeting people, “people who come from so many different horizons. What’s my secret? I never push people to buy. At exhibitions I’m often on my own. People are sometimes surprised that I meet them in person. Who are my clients? Extremely cultivated and highly discreet people for the most part, who don’t need a watch to show off. My watches are for connoisseurs.”

Around five years ago, well before the pandemic, “everything changed. Astonishingly, more and more young people started developing an interest in real watchmaking. I receive many requests and inquiries from people under 30. That’s very good news. Thanks to the internet, and the direct communication it fosters, our clients follow us every step of the way as we create their watches, and that increases their trust.”

In his eyes, because of the increasingly targeted watchmaking education being dispensed by publications, websites, forums, blogs and other channels, the public now “understand the fundamental difference between industrial and artisanal. People who ‘get it’ seek out the independents.”

“Retailers are buying far less, individuals are buying far more. Astonishingly, more and more young people started developing an interest in real watchmaking. I receive many requests and inquiries from people under 30. That’s very good news.”

A view of the Green Garden one-off watch's movement
A view of the Green Garden one-off watch’s movement

“Everything begins with training”

This is no coincidence, because for Kari Voutilainen, and independent watchmakers more broadly, “everything begins with training. Without training and knowledge transfer we’d have nothing,” notes the man who trained many young watchmakers in the art of complications when he taught at Wostep. “But the big firms no longer need exceptional people. You just have to be qualified and certified. Nevertheless, in order to pass on true expertise, those little secrets that are the essence of this profession, we need schools. And they have been neglected.”

Kari Voutilainen offers the example of the Le Locle watchmaking school. “The school produced a film about its training programmes, but the government wouldn’t allow it to be shown. Why not? Because, on the one hand, the government is pushing apprenticeships in order to save money, and on the other, the industry is in a race to the bottom. They no longer need fully-trained watchmakers; they need operators. And while that’s enough to ensure the machines continue to run, it’s not enough to ensure that the high standards of watchmaking endure. As things stand today, the watch industry could produce the same kinds of watches anywhere in the world.”

Kari Voutilainen at the pinnacle

The steel of the future

His words might seem harsh, but Kari Voutilainen practises what he preaches. The transmission of traditional knowledge and practices developed over centuries is vital – not to reproduce the past, but to nourish the present. Before the invention of ‘R&D departments’ that were separate from the workshop, practical and intuitive research had always been at the heart of every development in watchmaking. That was what the future of the industry was built on.

One of the main innovations of the new the Voutilainen 28SC-SB lies in the material used for the case: AISI 316L grade 4441 steel. This solar-forged steel is 100% recycled and recyclable, which reduces its carbon footprint considerably. It is sustainable, ethical, clean and ecological. The highly uniform steel is of superlative quality, and gains a remarkable appearance after polishing.
One of the main innovations of the new the Voutilainen 28SC-SB lies in the material used for the case: AISI 316L grade 4441 steel. This solar-forged steel is 100% recycled and recyclable, which reduces its carbon footprint considerably. It is sustainable, ethical, clean and ecological. The highly uniform steel is of superlative quality, and gains a remarkable appearance after polishing.

Kari Voutilainen’s latest limited series, the Voutilainen 28SC-SB, provides a perfect illustration. The steel of its case is 100% recycled and recyclable, produced in a solar-powered forge. This steel not only has a considerably reduced carbon footprint, it’s also extremely uniform, very high quality, capable of taking a “remarkable” polished finish, sustainable and ethical. In the view of Kari Voutilainen and Raphaël Broye, the entrepreneur behind Panatere, a company that specialises in recycling and in solar-powered forges (read our interview), “this steel represents a revolution in the raw materials market. It’s quite simply the steel of the future.”

To kick things off, the very first bar produced was reserved for the manufacture of the first twelve AISI 316L grade 4441 steel cases for the Voutilainen 28SC-SB series. It’s a fitting way to celebrate 20 years of independence. In the future, small series and one-off pieces will be made from this revolutionary steel.

 Kari Voutilainen set up shop in the former “Chapeau de Napoléon” hotel-restaurant overlooking the Val-de-Travers on 1 June 2021.

Elegance in word and deed

In everything he does, Kari Voutilainen quietly steers a course towards what is the most honest, the most precise, the most meticulous and the most elegant. That goes double for watchmaking. The Vingt-8 movement that drives this series is equipped with a two-wheel escapement with an external Phillips overcoil and an internal Grossmann curve, which supply a direct impulse to the balance, offering benefits in terms of efficiency, energy, longevity and stability.

This technical efficiency is complemented by high-end finishes that the experts will delight in examining, loupe screwed firmly into eye socket: perfectly level pinion and wheel surfaces polished to extremely strict tolerances, hand-finished baseplate and bridges, and all steel surfaces and screws finished and polished by hand.

The raw materials used for the dial of the Green Garden watch are: kinpun (gold powder), jyunkin-itakane (gold leaf), yakou-gai (green sea snail shell) and awabi-gai (abalone shell from New Zealand).
The raw materials used for the dial of the Green Garden watch are: kinpun (gold powder), jyunkin-itakane (gold leaf), yakou-gai (green sea snail shell) and awabi-gai (abalone shell from New Zealand).

However, Kari Voutilainen has also been recognised for many years now for the beauty and elegance of his dials with their subtle guilloché motifs and harmonious colours. A picture is worth a thousand words – just marvel at the exemplary poetic subtlety of the unique dial of the Green Garden, which has the simple elegance of a haiku. A haiku from Finland.

Kari Voutilainen at the pinnacle

THE EIGHT GRAND PRIX D’HORLOGERIE DE GENÈVE (GPHG) AWARDS WON BY KARI VOUTILAINEN

Observatoire - 2007 Men's Watch Prize
Observatoire - 2007 Men’s Watch Prize
V-8R power reserve - 2013 Men's Watch Prize
V-8R power reserve - 2013 Men’s Watch Prize
Hisui - 2014 Artistic Crafts Watch Prize
Hisui - 2014 Artistic Crafts Watch Prize
GMR - 2015 Men's Watch Prize
GMR - 2015 Men’s Watch Prize
Aki No Kure - 2017 Artistic Crafts Watch Prize
Aki No Kure - 2017 Artistic Crafts Watch Prize
28ti - 2019 Men's Watch Prize
28ti - 2019 Men’s Watch Prize
Starry Night Vine - 2019 Artistic Crafts Watch Prize
Starry Night Vine - 2019 Artistic Crafts Watch Prize
 28SC - 2020 Men's Watch Prize
28SC - 2020 Men’s Watch Prize
Kari Voutilainen at the pinnacle

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