vend Andersen was born in Denmark in 1942 to a family of smallholders. As a child, he was fascinated by mechanics and made his own bike (if he wanted a bike at all, he had no choice). Obligatory schooling behind him, he considered enrolling as an apprentice in a factory producing instruments for boats, bronze suspension lamps and dials.
But when the time came to sign the contract, he learned that the factory was on the point of bankruptcy. Dejectedly, he and his father returned home without signing.
A short time later, his father read a small ad in a newspaper: a watchmaker in Padborg, ten kilometres from the German border, was seeking an apprentice. Watchmaking, why not? After all, that was mechanics too. “I became a watchmaker by chance.” On completing his apprenticeship, he spent six months at the Royal Danish Academy to take his diploma.
“I became a watchmaker by chance.”
Another small ad
In 1963 he was 21 and had just completed his military service. He came across a small ad in the Journal Suisse d’Horlogerie: in the Haut-Valais region of Switzerland, a watchmaker speaking German and English was sought. His profile matched. And the salary was twice what he could hope for in Denmark. He went. It was a watch shop in Brig, the first stop after the Simplon Pass. In summer, coaches of American tourists from Italy made regular stops there. In the winter, he was loaned out to a shop in the ski resort of Saas Fee. But skiing was prohibited, for fear of him breaking a leg.
One evening, in a bar, he made the acquaintance of two watchmakers who worked for Gübelin, a large retailer in Lucerne. By a stroke of luck they were looking for someone who also spoke English. He was hired on the spot.
Gübelin also had a shop in Geneva and agreed to send him there. He stayed with the firm five years, always in after-sales. But he never left the city.
At Gübelin, he worked in the after-sales department. In the drawers were numerous small ladies’ movements waiting to be freshened up, recased and transformed. In Lucerne, he met the woman who would become his wife. She was a trilingual interpreter and wanted to go to French-speaking Switzerland to perfect her French. A second stroke of luck: Gübelin also had a shop in Geneva and agreed to send him there. He stayed with the firm five years, always in after-sales. But he never left the city.
Clocks in bottles
Late into an alcohol-fuelled New Year’s Eve 1968, while trying to read the time through an empty bottle, he had the idea that was to propel him to fame. An idea that he brought to fruition in five months and presented in 1969 at the Montres et Bijoux exhibition in Geneva: the bottle clock. The first had a hand-wound eight-day movement. It was set and rewound via the cork. All the mechanical pieces were inserted through the neck and assembling them required 17 specially made tools. “And great dexterity, of course,” smiles Svend.
Within a week, his spectacular achievement had been relayed all over the world by all the press agencies. His bottle clock made him a celebrity. His exploit introduced him into the circle of collectors, but not everyone was happy – including the then boss of Gübelin, who took umbrage at the sudden notoriety of his employee.
- The young Svend Andersen with his first clock in a bottle in 1969
Late into an alcohol-fuelled New Year’s Eve 1968, while trying to read the time through an empty bottle, he had the idea that was to propel him to fame: the bottle clock.
But Patek Philippe, who had got wind of the story, came looking for him and with respect, because when he arrived to sign his contract at the Patek offices, Henri Stern came to greet him and welcomed him in. Svend still hasn’t got over it even today. He was immediately assigned to the grand complications workshop. He stayed there nine years, working on perpetual calendars, minute repeaters and chronographs.
He turned his hand to everything and, he says, solved numerous problems. He was also asked to work on the restoration of antique watches for which had a special flair, treating them delicately, understanding that he should not touch the patina, working with a polisher with the same sensitivity as himself.
But most importantly, he got to know Louis Cottier’s World Time model. One day, his boss, the famous master watchmaker Max Berney, arrived with a box of movements and dials from the workshop of Louis Cottier, the inventor of the World Time mechanism. He asked him if he could do anything with them... A dozen or so timepieces resulted.
- Svend Andersen’s first Worldtime watch dates from 1989. Its additional module is 0.9 mm thick, compared to the 1.2 mm thick dial of the models by Louis Cottier, the inspiration. Since then, he has created many more.
New cases for old movements
In late 1972 while he was still working for Patek Philippe, an important collector from Lucerne privately brought him a superb grand complication movement by Louis Audemars, asking him to recreate a pocket case in gold to house it with dignity. Svend Andersen, who at that time knew little about cases, inquired everywhere, rooted through archives with the help of Fabienne-Xavière Sturm, then director of the Geneva Museum of Horology and Enamel.
Finally, he hunted down one of the last case-makers capable of producing a gold case for such a movement. The collector showed the piece off at a private meeting in Munich. Suddenly, it was all systems go. He received an “avalanche of requests”, although still employed by Patek Philippe. He left Patek in 1979 – on good terms, they were one of his first customers – recovered the machines from a case-maker’s workshop that was closing and set up on his own with the Perret case.
He restored and re-cased in gold movements originating mainly from Germany and Switzerland – including those of numerous Jewish families who had hurriedly had their gold watch cases melted down. Requests flooded in. He saw every possible style and period pass before him and acquired a wealth of knowledge. And he also worked for the nascent Antiquorum.
Osvaldo Patrizzi and Svend Andersen complemented one another. Andersen had an extensive library of watchmaking books, a gold mine for Patrizzi. One of his collaborators, the great expert Nathan Schmoulovitch, introduced him to a young watchmaker who had just graduated brilliantly from the Geneva School of Watchmaking, who did not wish to enter a factory but was determined to become an independent watchmaker – a certain Franck Muller.
He recruited him part-time, leaving him the run of the workshop for the remaining 50 percent of the time. This was a formula Andersen was to repeat several times with others, thus making a noteworthy contribution to the transmission of knowledge to a generation of new watchmakers.
At the same time, Alan Banbery, who was in charge of the Patek Philippe collection, was planning with Martin Huber to publish the first deluxe book on Patek watches. But most of the movements in the collection were oxidised, the cases scratched... Banbery asked Andersen to restore them. The latter entrusted one by way of a trial to Franck Muller. The trial was conclusive. Over three years, they restored 60 pieces.
- Mundus, the world’s thinnest worldtime watch
Con uno cuore
1984. The golden age of Italian collectors, avid for wristwatches con uno cuore – with a heart. They rushed to Andersen with beautiful movements for which they wanted cases made. His associate, Perret, threw in the towel. He did not want to make wristwatches.
So for his cases he called on Jean-Pierre Hagmann, a watch case wizard, who had just set up his own business. Andersen was his first customer, and today, aged 82, Hagmann can be found alongside none other than Rexhep Rexhepi!
With Hagmann, Andersen perfected the water-resistant sliding bolt for the small minute repeater movements that he inserted into wristwatches. At the same time, he began creating his first watches, signed “Andersen Genève”. These were one-off items only, mainly retrograde perpetual calendars.
And it was not until 1989 that he issued his first collector’s item, a world time model, 24 pieces by subscription. Inspired by Cottier, its additional mechanism was just 0.9mm thick including the dial, compared with 1.2mm plus the dial in the case of the Cottier model. Of the 24 proposed subscription watches, 18 were snapped up immediately, which gave him ample funds to buy the gold for the cases.
There followed numerous models which attracted attention, including the Christophorus Colombus of 1992 – 500 pieces produced, a remarkable figure; one-off minute repeaters and retrograde perpetual calendars.
Then in 1996, yet another stroke of luck: an Italian – decidedly, Italy played a major role in the revival of mechanical watchmaking – showed him a pocket watch with erotic automatons and asked if he could produce a wristwatch model. Bingo. To date, some 170 pieces have been produced, with miniature painting, engraving and between nine and eleven moving parts, which is quite an achievement.
- In 1996, an Italian collector asked Svend Andersen if he could make an erotic wristwatch with automata. Since then, Svend Andersen has made more than 170 of them, with between 9 and 11 moving parts.
Not only an endlessly inventive master watchmaker, Svend Andersen is also a man who unites people and keeps no secrets. Not content with being the man behind the AHCI (an academy created in reaction to and defence against the groups that began buying or relaunching forgotten historical brands), Svend Andersen was also one of the driving forces behind the addition of the art of watchmaking to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
“Transmitting your knowledge forces the other person to think for themselves,” the maverick Andersen is fond of saying. His way of transmitting knowledge is the exact opposite of someone like Philippe Dufour, for example, who has difficulty accepting that people do not exactly reproduce his way of doing things. Svend cares little about whether the young watchmakers he helps do things this way or that. The beauty of the result is all that counts.
His way of transmitting knowledge is the exact opposite of someone like Philippe Dufour. Svend cares little about whether the young watchmakers he helps do things this way or that. The beauty of the result is all that counts.
- In 2015 the 5th edition of World Time watch – the “Tempus Terrae”- commemorated the first World Time wrist watch with two crowns developed by Louis Cottier in the 1950s.
And transmission works both ways. It is all about give and take. In return, Svend also benefits from the different skills of his young protégés. Transmission is not reproduction. One transmits one’s knowledge to be surpassed, to enable watchmaking culture to evolve.
- The Worldtime 1884 model
That, precisely, was the message Pierre-Alexandre Aeschlimann intended to convey when he took over the brand back in 2015, in perfect accord with the maestro. Two young, passionate watchmakers have already been hired; two others are still being sought. The Andersen story is set to continue and to endure in the spirit of universal curiosity, knowledgeability, dexterity, vivacity and sharing of the man who inspired it.
- Jumping Hours 40th Anniversary in Platinum. An exceptional dial in hand-guilloché 21K blue gold with the “losanges magiques” rhomboid motif that reflects the light differently depending on the direction. Extremely difficult to achieve, it requires the use of no fewer than three different engine- turning machines. Frédéric Piguet 11.50 double-barrel automatic movement with the Jumping Hours module developed and manufactured at Andersen Genève. Limited edition of 40 pieces.