t the age of 40, Olivier Mory is more in love with watchmaking than ever. As a teenager growing up in Colmar, Alsace, he didn’t have much idea about the career he wanted, until a school trip to a job fair brought him face to face with a restorer of steeple clocks. It was a lightbulb moment. “I was fascinated by what looked to me like a giant Lego set. I was rooted to the spot. My visit to the fair began and ended there. A couple of days later I went back with my parents. That was it, as far as I was concerned. That was what I wanted to do,” he says, from his workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
School in Morteau
Unlike many other young watchmakers, Olivier Mory is “the first in the family, although we do have four generations of amateur astronomers.” He mentions that his father, who designs and makes sundials, works at the Planetarium in Reims. And we all know that the measurement of time originated with observations of the planets and stars.
So it was that a fifteen-year-old Olivier, his mind made up, enrolled at the watchmaking college in Morteau. (The school, in eastern France, has become a breeding ground for the new generation of independent watchmakers. You can read more about it in this issue).
- Olivier Mory (Photo: Guillaume Perret)
He graduated six years later, following up his initial four years of training in watch repair and servicing with a further two years that would qualify him as an all-round watchmaker (an “horloger complet”). At the end of the curriculum, which covered subjects from production to design, students were required to produce a “masterpiece” – a modern form of the demonstration of skill that enabled a journeyman to rise to the status of master. This had to be a complication watch, which each student would design and build themselves from start to finish, including a presentation box.
Olivier decided his masterpiece would be a perpetual calendar. “First you consider the aesthetics and what this implies for the mechanisms. Then you move on to the actual construction and start making the plates on a lathe, without a jig borer. There are no CNC machines. It’s all hand-cranked. I can honestly say that this perpetual calendar consumed me. I wanted to capture its substance, to take it down to its very essence, to the utmost degree of simplification, avoiding tiny parts with zero clearance. I invented a circular control mechanism that fit around the dial, which gave me numerous options for the layout,” he recalls, still clearly enthused.
Olivier Mory went on to register the finished piece, which incorporated several ingenious solutions, with the French intellectual property office (INPI) as proof of priority.
Experience in fine mechanics
Now aged 20 and with his perpetual calendar under his belt, Olivier Mory headed straight to Renaud & Papi, across the border in Switzerland. At that time, the renowned design/R&D studio (owned by Audemars Piguet since 1992) was developing movements for the first Richard Mille watches. He had hoped to hone his skills in the design office. Instead, he spent half his time in production engineering. It was, he insists, the ideal position from which to learn the codes and methods of fine watchmaking. As well as being a wake-up call. “I couldn’t believe the prices! The prices and the time it took to produce certain components. CHF 300 for a basic rack, and the hours that went into it.”
The same question went round and round in his head: how to make a complete movement that would be simpler and cheaper? Perhaps the answer lay elsewhere, in high-volume production. He was determined to learn how to produce an inexpensive, robust, COSC-certified movement. Olivier Mory got a job at Sellita. He was 23.
Lessons from mass production
Just as he joined Sellita, the all-powerful ETA – which had been keeping the Swiss watch industry supplied with sturdy, reliable, affordable, accurate movements that any watchmaker could repair anywhere in the world – dropped a bombshell: it would be phasing out deliveries of its movement kits. As Nicolas Hayek crudely put it, the Swatch Group subsidiary had had enough of being “milked by the Swiss watch industry.” Chaos ensued but, paradoxically, thanks to the end of ETA deliveries, Sellita is now a thriving concern that assembles and sells very large quantities of its own movements. Back in 2006, however, it had to take some strategic decisions and “in the space of twelve months” develop a new movement that could be industrially manufactured and assembled by the hundreds of thousands a year.
Olivier Mory found himself at the heart of this adventure. He worked on development, liaised directly with machinery suppliers and prototype makers, and learned about the industrial dimension of watchmaking. “We had to work fast. There were problems with the SW 200. It had to look like an ETA 2824 but parts of it weren’t interchangeable, which raised problems for servicing in particular. You couldn’t see the difference, but I learned it can be harder to clone something than to start from scratch. Cloning limits your options. But no pain, no gain! Sellita was the best school possible.”
He stayed at Sellita for seven years, until 2011, becoming head of development. Then, having decided he’d “done the rounds”, he moved to ValFleurier, to work alongside Eric Klein who was at head of the Richemont-owned movement manufacturer.
ValFleurier ran the gamut of production, from a minute repeater for Piaget to high-volume parts for Cartier. It was exactly what Olivier Mory needed. He began to look more closely at the potential crossovers between fine watchmaking and industry, convinced “there was a lot to be gained from applying the rules of industrial production to fine watchmaking.”
Even so, there was something missing. “In a group, you lose all latitude, you lose your adaptability!” And one thing Olivier Mory had shown throughout his career was adaptability. In 2016 he decided it was time to strike out on his own.
The Holy Trinity
By now Olivier Mory was 34, independent at last, and had accumulated sufficient experience, to take on what he calls the “Holy Trinity” – perpetual calendar, minute repeater and tourbillon – applying industrial principles “as though I had to make 10,000 watches a month!”
Whereas colleagues such as Sylvain Pinaud begin with the watch’s design, Olivier’s starting point was to simplify routings. Only then could he think about the product concept or construction. The entire process is turned around, with the actual design for the watch coming last. As he explains, “Routing choices will to a large extent influence the design. The machines determine dimensions and thicknesses. The aim is to optimise the entire manufacturing and assembly process.”
He set to work building the most efficient tourbillon possible. Rationalisation and design took nine months, and the first prototypes were ready in 2017. Except for the balance spring, he built every part himself, including the case. “The good thing about having learned on 1930s machines, like the ones we had in Morteau, is that everything is so much easier when you start using CNC.”
That same year, his company, BCP, launched production of several hundred tourbillon movements, setting them aside for assembly and decoration. His idea was to provide a high level of customisation options and a wide range of finishes that would totally transform a watch’s appearance. Customers came knocking (one authorised example is BA111OD, a start-up founded by Thomas Baillod whose tourbillons sell for between CHF 4,920 and CHF 5,300).
The next product in the Trinity, a minute repeater, is already in the pipeline. Olivier Mory intends to apply the same methods, working with Shona Tain, a specialist in repeaters, who shares his workshop.
Time and SKILL
It was while working on his tourbillon that Olivier Mory came up with the idea for SKILL: his own brand, run in parallel with BCP, that would sell 100% Swiss watches at accessible prices. The first SKILL watch came out in 2017.
“I wanted it to have the smallest possible environmental footprint. Suppliers within less than an hour’s drive. A bronze case. Old ETA 2450 movements that have been stripped down and given a serious upgrade in terms of decoration. Straps made from old Swiss army leathers. And that’s not all. The Sampo case, for example, can house different movements from an upcycled three-hander to a tourbillon. Any time they like, the customer can upgrade their watch. Just switch movements and your three-hander becomes a tourbillon.”
- The Skill Maelstrom Tourbillon
Methodical and meticulous, he’s already drafted the launch schedule for SKILL watches for the coming years.
There will be a maximum of 50 of each model over a period of two years, alternating between an entry-level product (such as a Sampo at CHF 1,500) every even year and, every odd year, a high-end product (such as a Maelstrom Tourbillon at CHF 7,500).
For this price, Olivier Mory guarantees “real service”. For example, to encourage customers to send their watches for regular maintenance, he arranges for a courier to collect them at the owner’s convenience, in pre-printed packaging which he supplies. Even so, he is adamant he “doesn’t want the brand to grow any more than it needs to.” Having seen the industry from within, he also knows the value and freedom of being independent.
Design-wise, inspiration comes from his first loves for watchmaking: heavy machinery, Jules Verne and his fantastical ships, Camille Flammarion and discoveries in astronomy. “Watchmakers back in the day were all scientists. I want to pay tribute to them. Watchmaking condenses centuries of knowledge into 40mm of technique.”
These pioneers of mechanics and science provide the “Victorian” steampunk inspiration for SKILL watches.
Clearly, watchmakers never completely let go of their childhood dreams.