his year, 20 years since Kari Voutilainen created his own independent watch brand, the founder is on top of the world – both literally and figuratively.
Literally, because his manufacture is now settled in its new quarters at the top of the Chapeau de Napoléon (Napoleon’s Hat), an eyrie perched on a cliff at an altitude of 960 metres, with an eagle-eye view over the Val de Travers in the Swiss Jura mountains. And figuratively, because his watchmaking is at the pinnacle of aesthetic refinement and mechanical perfection.
Over the course of this steady twenty-year ascent, which he has accomplished with unassuming humility and remarkable consistency, Finnish watchmaker Kari Voutilainen “came in from the cold” to be recognised as one of the most outstanding purveyors of independent haute horlogerie. Such is his prestige that his order book is currently full until 2026!
It should be noted that his output is extremely limited – around 80 watches per year, in series of no more than 12 at a time – and that his genuinely integrated manufacture machines all its own components with the exception of balance springs, barrel springs and gemstones (although he does occasionally do some stone-cutting).
The manufacture also treats and tempers its own steel, and performs exquisite decoration and finishing on each of the 16,000 components produced annually (1,200 references). Then there’s the pre-assembly (a particularly time-consuming step), assembly (every watchmaker is responsible for assembling one watch from A to Z) and casing-up – which he usually does himself. He also guards the privilege of making all the watch hands himself – it’s like putting his signature to his work.
Kari Voutilainen guards the privilege of making all the watch hands himself – it’s like putting his signature to his work.
Ode to independence
With a record eight Grand Prix de l’Horlogerie de Genève awards to his name (the first in 2007 and the most recent in 2020), Kari Voutilainen explains in his shy and self-effacing manner, “A watch today is not something you go and fetch from a shop. Its story, its true story, is increasingly important. A watch isn’t an anonymous object, not any more. And what could be more rewarding, for a watchmaker wishing to escape anonymity, than to be able to act with complete independence. If you want to learn, and continue to learn, you must be deeply motivated. You have to collect knowledge and connect it. The fragmented work that takes place in the industry leads to amnesia. Here, the watchmaker has to do everything: adjust the balance spring, regulate the terminal, fine-tune the curves, make adjustments... The person who buys the watch is absolutely aware of the manual work that has gone into it, the care taken in its manufacture. And that’s what motivates them. Craftsmanship, not marketing.”
“A watch isn’t an anonymous object, not any more. And what could be more rewarding, for a watchmaker wishing to escape anonymity, than to be able to act with complete independence.”
A meeting of two cultures
“Craftsmanship, not marketing.” In Japan, Kari Voutilainen encountered a soulmate – Tatsuo Kitamura. The collaboration between master watchmaker Kari Voutilainen and “living treasure” Tatsuo Kitamura began in 2013. Tatsuo Kitamura is head of the Unryuan workshop that excels in the urushi technique, as well as the breathtakingly delicate work of combining lacquerwork with marquetry of shells and gold.
As connoisseur Masahito Hayashi explains, “The work involves assembling delicate and fragile wafers of shell, with their abundant colourful, dancing reflections, with pieces of metal – gold or platinum. The contrast between light and shade creates an incredibly rich three-dimensional visual effect that alters depending on the angle of view, replicating the traditional techniques of saei-maki or somada-zeiku, named after the Kyoto craftsmen who invented them in the 17th century.”
The contrast between light and shade creates an incredibly rich three-dimensional visual effect that alters depending on the angle of view.
By closely studying and restoring extremely valuable antique objects (writing sets, tobacco boxes, chopsticks, even a small table and an armoire), Tatsuo Kitamura succeeded in replicating these profoundly traditional arts that had been lost to posterity, infusing them with new life and incorporating a contemporary sensibility. The result is an astonishing mastery of ancestral tradition, paired with the freedom of expression of a creator.
A master of his art
Kari Voutilainen explains all the operations that go into creating a dial from natural mother-of-pearl marquetry, with slender rectangular wafers of 24-karat gold. A recess 3/10 of a millimetre deep is created in a plate of white gold, and a thin layer of natural lacquer is deposited inside. This natural lacquer is then decorated and hardened in a wood-fired kiln. After that, the marquetry and all the decorative elements are assembled. The piece is polished and lacquered once again. And then more elements are added to complete the piece.
Each fragment of shell in the natural colours of the Yakou-gai (great green turban shell) or Awabi-gai (New Zealand abalone) is shaped and filed by hand. Given the spiral shape of the shells, they are impossible to machine, and only one piece in ten is usable. The close collaboration – or co-creation – between Kari Voutilainen and Tatsuo Kitamura has already resulted in three exceptional watches.
To celebrate his 20th anniversary as an independent creator, Kari Voutilainen’s thoughts naturally turned to his intense collaboration with this other master craftsman, born of a culture so far removed, and yet with such a similar approach. The watchmaker from the Val de Travers gave the Japanese master artisan carte blanche to create the inner dial of the Universal Hour.
The result is a watch that goes by the name of Ji-Ku, made of gold dust, gold leaf and precious shell. The meticulously assembled elements create a geometrical explosion of gold and colours that you really have to see in motion, when it lights up with a thousand different delicate shades. Unfortunately, in-person viewings will be rare, given that the Universal Hour Ji-Ku is a unique one-of-a-kind piece.
To celebrate his 20th anniversary as an independent creator, Kari Voutilainen’s thoughts naturally turned to his intense collaboration with this other master craftsman, born of a culture so far removed, and yet with such a similar approach.
But the beauty of the dial would be irrelevant without its context. It’s as if time itself, with all its frenzied energy, were surging out of the central origin of the hands, animating the circular motion of the world time display. It’s as exquisite to look at as it is poetic to contemplate. It’s truly a work of art.
Kari Voutilainen is so captivated by the dial that he almost forgets to mention the movement he created to drive the watch. The 216TMZ Ji-Ku is, nevertheless, a new and exclusive calibre. Inspired by the Calibre 28 from 2008, it has a new escapement, with two direct drive escape wheels supplying energy to the 13.50 mm balance wheel with its Philips/ Grossmann hairspring, beating at 18,000 vibrations per hour.
The result is a 30% improvement in performance and shock resistance. What’s more, this new configuration makes the movement more suitable for rotational movements, while retaining the same slim profile (30 mm x 6.00 mm). Hours and minutes are adjusted via the crown, which also governs the display of the second time zone cities and peripheral 24- hour scale.
The power reserve is 60 hours and the white gold hands are, of course, handcrafted by Kari Voutilainen himself. The mainplate and bridges are machined from maillechort (an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc with a distinctive silvery sheen) and the wheels are made of rose gold. It’s almost superfluous to mention the high quality of finish and decoration, given that Kari Voutilainen is universally associated with superlative workmanship.
The Ji-Ku: born from the meeting of two minds, two men, two craftsmen and two cultures, who came together to design and create a unique timepiece.
Kari Voutilainen is so captivated by the dial that he almost forgets to mention the movement he created to drive the watch. The 216TMZ Ji-Ku is, nevertheless, a new and exclusive calibre.