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Are Non-Purist Brands Beginning to Express Purist Watchmaking Approaches? Pt 1.

by Jonathan Ho on February 20, 2017

In a recent 2016 BBC news story, it was reported that Chimpanzees had entered the stone age for some 700 years now: Excavated ancient stone tools used by monkeys had given scientists a glimpse into the evolutionary process of simian technology. Analogously, there has been some grumblings amongst industry insiders that Swiss watchmaking has grown lethargic of late (understandable given market conditions) and so we decided to look at the watchmaking “evolutionary process” beyond purist (we deign to use “legitimate” for reasons which will become apparent later in the article) watchmaking brands and made a startling discovery – non-purist brands beginning to express purist watchmaking approaches.

According to market research firm Strategy Analytics and uncovered by our own investigative journalism, the combination of smart devices proliferation, younger consumers with changing tastes, and to an extent, re-defined perceptions of the costs of making a luxury watch thanks to Kickstarter, are just some of the few threats which are stewing into a potent stew of industry turmoil not unlike the quartz crisis.

In May 2016, Richemont CEO Richard Lepeu was quoted by BBC that “Swiss watchmakers should never be arrogant as technology is progressing fast,” however, it appears according to trade mag Revolution that the group “allowed its brands to create passionless, unexciting and largely irrelevant products or in blunt terms, 60-year-old guys in boardrooms making watches for other 60-year-old guys in boardrooms”. In that perspective, it’s understandable why independent watchmakers like MB&F, Urwerk and F.P. Journe have occupied contemporary watchmaking consciousness. That said, the nascent rise of non-purist brands beginning to express purist watchmaking approaches have begun to capture our attention. Why? Because it’s like watching dawning of a new era of watchmaking. More importantly, if these guys are making watches which can compete with the “legitimate brands”, does it not make a statement about the potential pitfalls of resting on laurels?

Non-Purist Brands Beginning to Express Purist Watchmaking Approaches

The rise of non-purist brands beginning to express purist watchmaking approaches can be traced back to that pivotal moment in 2011 when Hermes released their own expression of watchmaking in the form of a Jean-Marc Wiederrecht concept – the Hermes Le Temps Suspendu. Jean-Marc Wiederrecht is father to many cool movements and watches, famously (as far as the niche of watchmaking is concerned), he’s counted amongst the friends of Max Busser’s “friends”. The Hermes Le Temps Suspendu isn’t some new fangled super equation of time solving astronomic calculating mechanical watch, instead it expresses something purist watchmakers are supposed to demonstrate – a love  and deft mastery for time-keeping through interesting displays of time. In this case, Hermes does so in an impressive fashion because they did it completely in line with brand DNA: in other words, they didn’t buy a stake in a watch manufacture and just produce watches willy nilly, they did so with the philosophy and traditions of the Hermes brand; hence, the romanticism of being able to “pause time” by pressing the pusher on the left of the case, freeze the rabbit ear hands for the given period while underneath, Wiederrecht’s brain child continues to keep time unseen on the dial side. Another button press returns time to as it should be. The most important aspect of this complication isn’t high mechanics- it’s something simpler – fidelity to that philosophy that time is personal and much like how a watch collector might manually wind his watch in the morning and feel the crisp ticking engagement of winding gears, the Hermes Le Temps Suspendu is an opportunity to interact with your watch in a very deeply personal (and sometimes repetitive yet playful way) – it’s highly conceivable that the owner of a Le Temps Suspendu plays with his/her watch very much the same way one might activate chronograph pushers just to see the chronograph counters in action.

The Hermes Arceau style 43mm watch is available in steel and as a limited edition of 174 pieces in 18k rose gold.

Naturally, a critic can dismiss the Le Temps Suspendu, but 5 years later in 2016, the French high fashion and luxury goods manufacturer introduced the Slim D’Hermès Quantième Perpétuel. At this point, it becomes a little harder to ignore Hermes from the technical perspective (even if the consumer perspective is still challenged from the psychological standpoint – but we will get to that later) because once more, in authentic Hermes fashion, from the Philippe Apeloig font to the dial layout and dressy aesthetic, the Slim D’Hermès Quantième Perpétuel wore the Hermes flag proudly without the usual cynical reception of: “Hey look, another [Fashion Brand] Flying Tourbillon.”

The 2017 version of the Slim d’Hermes Quantime Perpetuel is available in platinum. It’s high horology wholly consistent with Hermes DNA.

While it wasn’t an integrated perpetual calendar calibre, the H1950 base movement within developed by Vaucher and made possible by an Agenhor module, was an honest to God representation of what watchmaking meant to Hermes. Furthermore, La Montre Hermès S.A., the company’s Bienne-based watchmaking subsidiary not only had a financial stake in movement-maker Vaucher but was also in the process of acquiring its own case and dial makers. While I have grown agnostic on the whole concept of becoming an integrated manufacture and what it means in modern terms, Hermes represents a growing number of outsider brands which bring to the table, a different approach to watchmaking – one of whimsy and theatricality. And they’re no longer alone. Enter Chanel.

How a non-purist brand does a men’s watch: A Chanel case study

Now, Chanel is no lightweight when it comes to high fashion and luxury but prior to 2016’s superlative Monsieur de Chanel, they had actually launched, to quiet reception and little fanfare, the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon Watch.

Launched in 2012, a period of high exuberance for the watch industry, the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon or Chanel J12 RMT, was the sort of thing which watch idiot savants missed because we were too full of it to notice that a non-purist brand might actually be experimenting in new watch expressions which might inject some much needed inspiration into an industry which was operating at the time within a comfort zone.

The dial side crown of the Chanel J12 Retrograde Mysterious Tourbillon made this ceramic J12 not only the world’s first perfectly round watch before Ressence but was also the first whose main plate was full ceramic.

Interestingly, it debuted around the same time as the Ressence Watch ZeroSeries and SeriesOne and the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was the first perfectly round watch BEFORE Ressence did away with the crown completely in 2014 but nevertheless, this significant milestone to watchmaking and one exclusively made by Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi (APRP) for Chanel no less, was ignored and forgotten.

Without a side crown, the extraordinary watch was innovative in terms of movement architecture and functionality yet 100% in keeping with Chanel’s brand sensibilities. Most female owners and some gents of side-crown watches can attest to varying amounts of difficulty when it comes to manipulating the crown on a watch, sure, it’s easier to wind and adjust when it’s unworn but sometimes, you’re already on the move when you notice that an adjustment needs to be made. The J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon carried all the style and chic swagger of Chanel’s brand ethos with the technical revolution of a flawlessly and stylishly integrated front dial crown.

Exclusively designed for Chanel by Renaud & Papi manufacture (APRP SA), the J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was a manual winding calibre with 10 days power reserve in a svelte, slim case and carrying a main plate made of high tech ceramic – a first for the industry, edging out even the pioneer of watchmaking ceramics, Rado. Yet, it went unnoticed and uncelebrated. It goes beyond travesty and speaks to the real danger of complacency and snobbishness when non-purist brands express purist watchmaking approaches (albeit at varying levels of input) and are yet ignored because they didn’t carry the right badge or the right name.

Impressively, Chanel didn’t give up, they persisted and Baselworld 2016’s Monsieur de Chanel. Created exclusively for men, the Monsieur de Chanel watch defies the codes of Fine Watchmaking. With an equally impressive case back and face, and fitted with the first movement specially designed and produced by the Chanel Manufacture, this timepiece reconciles technical complexity with a pure aesthetic. In short, Chanel is a Parisian swimming in very Swiss waters.

Romain Gaulthier had a hand in conceiving the Monsieur de Chanel.

The movement itself is novel, produced in-house in La Chaux-de-Fonds and made with a percentage of parts from local Swiss component suppliers, that in itself is a respectful nod to not just the importance of Swiss-ness but the inherent traditions that come from working with Swiss suppliers with a calibre made in the heart of Swiss watchmaking. Nevertheless, it is pricey. An 18K gold watch for $35,000 for an 18k gold watch without a serious high complication is a risky endeavour but the Monsieur de Chanel isn’t a “me too” watch so it does force one to consider its uniqueness and novelty, and coupled with the fact that the Calibre 1 with instantaneous jumping hours and 240° retrograde minutes will only be used in a few limited edition models and never used again – it’s a statement of not just rarity but how willing Chanel is to go the distance when it comes from working from scratch for the next model – this isn’t a premium watch with a built in “prestige cost”, it’s a high horology timepiece which asks you to consider how long before the rarity of such a specimen attracts a higher premium on the auction market than what the brand currently charges.

Stay tuned to Part 2 of Are Non-Purist Brands Beginning to Express Purist Watchmaking Approaches? Where we explore the psychological reasons of why watch collectors like what they like and what it means for the few luxury brands who have successfully transitioned into purist watchmaking brands.

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