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Urwerk: reflections on the nature of time

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January 2024


Urwerk: reflections on the nature of time

When the Urwerk brand was born back in 1997, it took a certain amount of idealism on the part of its founders to offer an alternative approach to watchmaking. And yet, more than 25 years later, Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei have won their wager, having paved the way for contemporary watchmaking while at the same time, through their creations, rethinking the very perception of time. We look back at this outstanding achievement in a long interview with the brand’s cofounders.

T

he first time we discovered this strangely named brand was in 1998, on the stand of the Académie horlogère des créateurs indépendants, AHCI, at the Basel fair. Three young unknowns of around 20 years of age presented a watch resembling a miniature flying saucer that told the time. They were watchmaker brothers Felix and Thomas Baumgartner and designer Martin Frei, the founders of the Urwerk brand . They were presenting their UR-101, which was unlike anything known at the time, apart from the Millennium Falcon – the Star Wars space vessel. The watch had something traditional about it while being anything but.

For the first ten years, Urwerk timepieces were variations on the wandering hours theme, in which satellites indicated the hours. Each satellite completes one full revolution of the dial in four hours and a 120-degree rotation on its own axis. But the advantage of being a young company is that it does not need to be faithful to its past. Over time, Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei, the current proprietors of Urwerk, sought to create an alternative watch brand in which they could inscribe all their cultural references and let their creations evolve.

The UR-100V Time & Culture II Sumer watch is a reference to the Mesopotamian city of Ur.
The UR-100V Time & Culture II Sumer watch is a reference to the Mesopotamian city of Ur.

To them we owe a number of sci-fi-inspired models, such as the UR-T8 Transformer, showcased in 2017, which metamorphoses: when you press a button, the case is released and flips over by pivoting on its axis, revealing a kind of titanium shell engraved with scales. Then there is the UR-105M Trinity T. rex in which you’ll find a fragment of the TRX-293 TRINITY, the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex auctioned in April 2023 by the Swiss auction house, Koller.

Urwerk: reflections on the nature of time

In 2022, the cofounders bought new business premises spread across three floors on Place du Bourg-de-Four in Geneva’s historic city centre, which serve as their office, workshop and showroom. We met Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei to talk about the symbolism of time, their watches and their story.

Europa Star: Symbolism plays a large role in the watches you’ve created ever since your beginnings. In 2022, you launched the UR-100V Time and Culture I, followed in 2023 by the UR-100V Time & Culture II Sumer. The first shows a representation of the motifs on the Sun Stone, an emblem of Aztec art, and the second refers to the Mesopotamian city of Ur. What prompted you to embark on this project?

Felix Baumgartner: We started exploring the history of transcribing time. How did the earliest civilisations show time? Our name, Urwerk, has a dual origin. “Ur” in German means the start, the source. So we immersed ourselves in the history of civilisations and try to pay homage to them through our creations. The name of Urwerk also has its origins in the Mesopotamian city of Ur, today Iraq. There, time was measured by the sun and fire powder. The UR-100V Time and Culture II takes its inspiration from that culture. As for the first timepiece, it is of Amerindian inspiration, based on a far-fetched belief about an interstellar voyage made by the Mayas. All that interested us.

Martin Frei: It was the Swiss author, Erich von Däniken, who interpreted these Maya images as an astronaut in a capsule, but without any scientific basis. The Mayas designed a very sophisticated cosmological calendar capable of calculating time up to 2012, in which year it ended. After the Mayas, the Aztecs engraved their calendar on a rock called the Sun Stone, which stands around 4.5 metres high and is exhibited in the museum of Mexico City. We took our inspiration from those motifs to create the watch.

The UR-100V Time & Culture I is inspired by a cosmological calendar engraved on a rock called the Sun Stone, displayed in the Mexico City museum.
The UR-100V Time & Culture I is inspired by a cosmological calendar engraved on a rock called the Sun Stone, displayed in the Mexico City museum.

Felix Baumgartner: We used a very accurate photo of the Sun Stone and reduced it to create the engraving on the case.

Martin Frei: As for the Sumerian timepiece, the Time and Culture II, it was inspired by a calendar engraved with motifs and symbols found on a clay tablet that showed the stars in the sky and how the Sumerians interpreted them. At the centre there’s the symbol for the sun, which is the god, Utu. On either side of him is Nanna, the god of the moon, and the goddess Innana (Venus), also called Ishtar. Nanna was the god of the city of Ur and therefore our Sumerian friend.

“Ur” in German means the start, the source. So we immersed ourselves the history of civilisations and try to pay homage to them through our creations.

Do you feel that you get a better sense of the magic of the art of watchmaking and the complexity of the notion of time when wearing one of these watches?

Felix Baumgartner: Of course! But these watches also tell of the complexity of realising them. The starting point is Martin’s curiosity about ancient civilisations. We wanted to place that at the heart of the watches. Then we had to find a way of reproducing these motifs and after that find the techniques for engraving them. We investigated two ways. For the Mesopotamian watch, we made use of a very recent laser technology that renders drawings with incredible finesse. As for the Maya-inspired piece, we made it using extremely fine mechanical engraving executed by exceptional artisans. You can’t ignore the human touch when you look at these timepieces. They’re the stuff dreams are made of. These watches sweep us away through time and space.

Martin Frei: Ever since they appeared on Earth, human beings have always been fascinated by the notion of time. They were probably always aware of the existence of repetitions, recurrences, rules, which they observed in the heavens. This collection lets us observe the way every civilisation defined time and organised it according to its needs.

“This collection lets us observe the way every civilisation defined time and organised it according to its needs.”

The UR-105M Trinity T. rex contains a piece of fossilised T-Rex bone.
The UR-105M Trinity T. rex contains a piece of fossilised T-Rex bone.

In early 2023, you integrated a piece of fossilised T-Rex bone in the UR-105M Trinity T. rex model. Why?

Felix Baumgartner: It’s a long story. In April, Koller was auctioning a skeleton (ed. note: an assembly of bones from three different T-Rexes found in the north-west of the United States). When the skeleton was put back together for the sale, one tiny piece fell out. Since it was impossible to stick it back in, it was offered to us.

Martin Frei: At Koller, Christian Link (ed. note: the head of the Out of This World department) remembered that we’d created a T-Rex watch, and that the engraving on the case was inspired by the tyrannosaurus. So Koller suggested that we place this real piece of T-Rex in our watch.

Felix Baumgartner: We were very touched. We set this piece of fossil in the place of the indicator that calculates the oil change every five years. It’s like another indicator, of a very long time period. It’s as if the owner was wearing the origin of the world on their wrist.

“We set this piece of fossil in the place of the indicator that calculates the oil change every five years. It’s like another indicator, of a very long time period.”

Martin Frei: Yes, it’s a one-off piece that was sold to a customer in Hong Kong.

You’ve never ceased to surprise since the creation of your brand in 1997. In your view, if we were to cite just one model which sums up your philosophy and is the concentrate of what Urwerk is, which would you choose?

Felix Baumgartner: Urwerk is a jigsaw puzzle the main piece of which is difficult to define. On the other hand, that jigsaw puzzle began to reveal a certain image the moment we launched the Ur-103. I loved the simplicity and purity of the Ur-101 and Ur-102 of our early days. And that was the message we wanted to put across: the fact that there was an alternative to grand complications. The 103 still displayed a certain simplicity, but it had a three-dimensional aspect to it which is one of the signatures of our watchmaking style. It was the 103 that made us.

Martin Frei: JI agree about the 103, but I’d add that our most recent creation is always THE watch. Urwerk is a project in progress and the latest in the lineage encapsulates all the others. Maybe the most “Urwerk” of our watches is the one that doesn’t exist yet, the one that’s starting to take shape in our minds…

The latest creation from Urwerk is the UR-230 inspired by the Opus 5 made for Harry Winston in 2005. It nickname is Eagle, because it “hunts” time with its huge retrograde hand.
The latest creation from Urwerk is the UR-230 inspired by the Opus 5 made for Harry Winston in 2005. It nickname is Eagle, because it “hunts” time with its huge retrograde hand.

On the subject of your most recent watch, what can you tell us about the UR-230?

Felix Baumgartner: Its origins lie in a model we created nearly twenty years ago: the Opus 5 that we created for Harry Winston in 2005 when Max Büsser was the CEO, with satellites that turned by 95 degrees. Its nickname is Eagle: it’s a watch that “hunts” time with its huge retrograde hand.

The décor on the case is a motif resembling a topographical map. Is that deliberate?

Felix Baumgartner: Its case is in forged carbon made up of 383 extremely fine layers that form these motifs. It’s very light and robust at the same time.

Martin Frei: A bit like an eagle. It’s a very powerful, impressive bird of prey, but very light at the same time. We had the idea of making of half-hunter watch (which covers part of the dial).

Felix Baumgartner: It’s a rather brutalist object.

Urwerk: reflections on the nature of time

When you look at all the watches you’ve created, a futuristic aesthetic emerges. Have the science fiction films you watched when you were children influenced the face of your watches, or is it the result of a personal aesthetic?

Martin Frei: Both. Our watches are the result of our vison of the future, through science fiction, and our retrospective view, back to the history of watchmaking.

And yet until your brand existed, nothing resembled your watches?

Martin Frei: From a purely conceptual point of view, we’re inspired by the indication of time as we’ve known it since the 1650s. We also take inspiration from the inventions of Breguet and the great masters of the past to write our futuristic horology.

Felix Baumgartner: For decades, before the invention of quartz, the aim of having a watch on your wrist was to have a precision instrument that told the time. We’ve added an extra deposit of emotion, interest, culture, history, to watchmaking. I come from a family of watchmakers and Urwerk is a part of this tradition, but it’s a base on top of which we’ve added dreams, fantasies, everything that we are, our childhood experiences, the films we watched, the music we listened to, everything we’re interested in…

“Our watches are the result of our vison of the future, through science fiction, and our retrospective view, back to the history of watchmaking.”

The first watch created by Urwerk, the UR-101
The first watch created by Urwerk, the UR-101

Talking of that, when you were teenagers, the squat culture was having a heyday in Switzerland. Ultimately, what you’ve created is an alternative kind of watchmaking, in the way we talk of “alternative culture”. Do you think that if you hadn’t been immersed in that kind of culture you wouldn’t have created these kinds of watches?

Martin Frei: No one’s ever put that question to us, but I think you’re right. Unlike most other living watchmakers, we come from a different place and that’s had an influence.

Felix Baumgartner: The style of music we’ve liked ever since we were young, my mother who loved punk, jazz, rock, all that had an influence. I grew up immersed in alternative vibes. The existence of squats in Geneva or Zurich, Wohlgroth, all that prompted us to create a different style of watchmaking, it’s true.

Martin Frei: We don’t come from privileged backgrounds, we started from nothing and had to build our company like you construct a building, step by step, floor by floor. When you start from nothing, you see things differently from when you inherit money or a company from your family.

Did you meet in a squat?

Martin Frei: NNo, we got to know one another in Lucerne, in an artists’ residence. That kind of community existed in the 1960s and even earlier: it was a way of living and creating together.

“I come from a family of watchmakers and Urwerk is a part of this tradition, but it’s a base on top of which we’ve added dreams, fantasies, everything that we are, our childhood experiences, the films we watched, the music we listened to, everything we’re interested in…”

Both of you have taken quite different paths from those of your parents.

Felix Baumgartner: True. My father was a traditional watchmaker who repaired clocks. As for Martin, he left Zurich in the late 1990s to live as an artist in New York.

Martin Frei: My father was a basic research engineer. He developed instruments for institutions that used proton accelerators. Parallel to that, he was very good at painting and drawing, but when he was young it was more “cool” to become an engineer than an artist. My parents have always supported my choices. They were so pleased when I found something to do that I liked! I’ve taken a path that certainly might seem different from theirs at first glance, but when you look at the world of science and that of art, they’re not that different. Art is research too, it’s construction, it’s understanding the world.

How did Urwerk start?

Martin Frei: I remember Felix and his brother Thomas who had their workshop near La Placette above the Age d’Or pizzeria. At the time, I was living in New York. We met up from time to time.

Felix Baumgartner: They were crazy times! It was the start of a movement of independent watchmakers which is firmly established today.

The monumental Space-Time Blade clock
The monumental Space-Time Blade clock

In early 2023, you unveiled the monumental Space-Time Blade clock. It was supposed to be sold in November at the Only Watch auction, which was cancelled in the end. What are you going to do with it?

Felix Baumgartner: We’d planned to make a series of these clocks. We presented the prototype at Watches and Wonders, and we’re going to continue producing them. For the moment, we’re keeping it here.

The UR-102 Reloaded was designed as a tribute to the brand's earliest models.
The UR-102 Reloaded was designed as a tribute to the brand’s earliest models.

In 2023, you also launched the UR-102 Reloaded, a tribute to your earliest models. What was the intention behind the launch: to set a milestone on what you’ve accomplished so far, to pay tribute to your origins?

Felix Baumgartner: I’m not a nostalgic person at all. I try not to be and I don’t always manage it (laughter). You always get a bit nostalgic about your past when you remake a piece. This one was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Yacine (ed. note: Yacine Sar, their communications director) had the good idea of calling it Reloaded. Finally, we were able to make the 102 exactly as we imagined it at the time, with the possibilities that exist today, while recalling the simplicity and purity of Urwerk’s beginnings. You know that, because you witnessed our beginnings, but not everybody did.

Sketch of the UR-102
Sketch of the UR-102

Martin, how do you always succeed in surprising us with a different design, while creating watches so distinctive that you can always recognise an Urwerk from ten yards away?

Martin Frei: I’d say it’s the result of step-by-step development. If you build something on top of something you’ve already created, you can change certain features while keeping others. So the novelty comes within a lineage of distinctive signs. It’s a kind of maintenance. But sometimes it happens that this process gives rise to something completely new, opening up a new path to go down. It’s a natural creation process. The artist Roman Signer, who was my teacher, asked us to limit the number of tools we played with to create “an expression”. With Urwerk, that’s what we’ve done. We’ve written our own rules, which we follow, and our work has become more sophisticated over time. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of all that in the future.

Felix Baumgartner: Together, we tell a story which is evolving, but everything comes from us, from what inspires us. Our prime motivation isn’t to increase our turnover. Of course, we have to pay our bills, but we’ve found a comfortable balance. That wasn’t the case at the start: for the first ten years, what drove us was pure passion! Both us of us have additional activities that enable us to fund the brand and our creations. We have to love every product we make: we only start to make it when we want to wear it on our wrist. We’re not looking to target any particular customer base, to make a watch for the under-30s or for Asian customers. Our motivation is quite pure, and that’s no doubt what you see in our watches.

Martin Frei: When you look at the history of watchmaking, what drove watchmakers was inventing new mechanisms. Form didn’t have the same importance as it does today. The aesthetic aspect is a preoccupation of our time.

“The artist Roman Signer, who was my teacher, asked us to limit the number of tools we played with to create “an expression”. With Urwerk, that’s what we’ve done. We’ve written our own rules, which we follow, and our work has become more sophisticated over time.”

The UR-T8 Transformer, a watch with multiple faces
The UR-T8 Transformer, a watch with multiple faces

How many watches do you make per year?

Felix Baumgartner: For many years we remained stable, producing 120 to 150 watches. Then we felt that we needed to develop and for the past three or four years we’ve been growing a little: now, we make around 250 watches a year. Producing the same volume is a form of stagnation. Change is necessary.

Tell us about how you bought this building in the historic city centre where we are now, and where you’ve based the company. Was it important for you to have a home base which is both a boutique and a workshop at the heart of Geneva’s historic quarter?

Felix Baumgartner: When I bought my house in Hermance 15 years ago, the contract of sale was signed in this very place! It was an estate agent’s, called Bucher & Moret. What’s more, we were sitting in this room. I fell in love with this place right away, it was like travelling back in time, with these 700-year-old walls. It has a little something of Jules Verne about it. Place du Bourg-de-Four is the most beautiful square in Geneva, it has a soul, it’s romantic, it’s alive from 5am to 2am. It’s a stage. When I found out that the agency had gone bankrupt, I began making moves for Urwerk to acquire the premises. It took five years. We bought three floors, the others are privately owned apartments.

Martin Frei: This place lets us express the whole spirit of Urwerk both through our watches and the architecture. We worked with one of my friends, the Zurich architect Philippe Stuebi.

Felix Baumgartner: On the first floor, we have a Green Room, where we receive customers. It’s an extraordinary place, and a way for watchmakers to retake possession of the historic city centre: people live and work here, like in the watchmaking boutiques of yore.

“When you look at the history of watchmaking, what drove watchmakers was inventing new mechanisms. Form didn’t have the same importance as it does today. The aesthetic aspect is a preoccupation of our time.”

What’s the Holy Grail you’re questing after?

Martin Frei: When Max Büsser approached us to create the Harry Winston Opus 5, we had the idea of creating a watch that would be called Time Bandit.

Felix Baumgartner: It would work a bit like a one-armed bandit, except that instead of cherries, it would display the time.

Martin Frei: The concept behind it was that you’d pull a lever and barrels would turn and then stop, indicating exactly the right time. Technically, it was very difficult to achieve.

Felix Baumgartner: In fact, that was what the Opus 5 should have been: it had been approved! But we didn’t manage to make it in time.

Martin Frei: The name came from the film called Time Bandits (ed. note: a fantasy adventure film produced by Terry Gilliam in 1981). Every now and again I ask Felix if we aren’t going to revive the project… But maybe we’ll never make it.

Urwerk: reflections on the nature of time

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