As independent watchmakers go, Kari Voutilainen is one of those whose work is highly respected. The Deployant team caught up with him in BaselWorld 2014 and again in Singapore.
As we had known each other for years, we dived straight into discussion. Here is a brief of our discussion, with photographs of the magnificent Tourbillon-6 which he unveiled in BaselWorld 2014. Limited to only 6 pieces worldwide, the watches are available with different dial combinations, as is typical of Voutilainen watches.
We began with where Kari gets his inspiration for his watches, and if he had a chance to meet any watchmaker, living or past, who would it be?
Without hesitation, but in characteristic Kari style, he smiled with his eyes, and took his time to pick his words carefully, but Abraham Louis Breguet was the man who he would most like to meet. With little prodding, Kari added that he admired Breguet not only for his exceptional skills and innovative mind on watchmaking, but also the way he led his team and marketed his watches. Remembering that Breguet lived and prospered during the French Revolution…when France was literally in civil war, and how he managed to sell his watches during those times.
What would he say to Breguet? What would he ask? Well, Kari says he would not only question Breguet on technical aspects like how was the cylindrical ruby on the Ruby Cylinder watch made, how was it fixed to the watch? He would also ask Breguet how he trained his watchmakers? Who made his tools? How he arranged his business to be profitable.
We also asked Kari what he felt was the golden age of watchmaking, and if it had past, yet to come, or happening right now.
He agreed with most historians that the golden age was from the mid 19th century to about 1920. Many innovations, industrialization occured within the watchmaking world, as it did elsewhere. But he also felt, we are right now in another golden period. The use of new material like silisium, and the use of industrialized manufacturing methods like CNC, 3D printing and the like are advances he quoted.
However, he maintained that like the watches made in the days of Breguet, innovation must support that watches made should be able to be completely disassembled, and rebuilt. As such he cast doubt on having silisium parts in his watches. As a silisium balance spring cannot be fixed like a watchmaker can re-bend a Nivarox or metallic balance spring.
Another example he brought up was the use of components originally intended for big industry, and adapted for watches. Electronic components are cases in point. Even for companies as large as Omega, it is now clear that components used in the manufacture of the Megaquartz watches, popular in the 1970s and now very collectable, are now defunct and unavailable. So a broken Megaquartz would not be repairable. Another example is the case of the Bulova Accutron.
He feels that classical watchmaking must strive for the opposite. At any time, the entire timepiece must be able to be disassembled and rebuilt to new specifications, and the watchmaker can fabricate any part to complete the rebuild using the traditional crafts for the watchmaker: turning, drilling and milling.
The discussion turned for a moment to the Tourbillon 6, which features an interesting escapement, a dual escape wheel escapement, a first for a watch with a tourbillon regulator. The tourbillon cage is also rather large, as is the balance wheel, with the former almost half the diameter of the movement measuring.
We briefly talked about the chronometer escapement he developed for Urban Jurgensen and how it compares to the Vingt-8. Of course they were different, the Vingt-8 offered a dual escape wheel solution, and the Jurgensen project was a more classical chronometer escapement. The biggest negative of the chronometer escapement is that for a smaller movement with limited torque from the mainspring, if the watch stopped with the escapement in locked position, it was difficult to re-start the watch. This solution in the Jurgensen watch was to rock the balance slightly by making a twisting action with the wrist, causing it to move and unlock the escapement.
We then turned our discussion to the Decimal Repeaters. He revealed that he is has some in the production line right now. He had always used ebauches for the repeating mechanisms, and this current batch is no different. These latest watches are built using ebauches from Louis Elysse Piguet, having used JLC ebauches in the past. He noted that LU Piguet made the ebauches in the 1940-50s in untreated German Silver, and were supplied to Patek Philippe till the 1989 and used for Patek’s repeaters until recently.
Modern German silver, like the one he uses in the Tourbillon-6 has been heat treated. The alloy is heated to a high temperature for several hours, and allowed to cool naturally. The result is a softer alloy, as the grains within has had a chance to relax. Modern German Silver is treated in this manner so that the the softer alloy is easier to work with on a CNC machine. The alloy also becomes physically more stable, which is a very desirable characteristic for watch plates and bridges. Interestingly, annealing German Silver is completely different to annealing steel, which becomes harder with heat treatment. Kari remarked that the old German Silver which is not annealed is tougher, harder, and more difficult to drill, but being so, transmits sonic tones better, and becomes very desirable for repeaters.
He then makes the wheel train, escapement, regulator inhouse, as these are not part of the ebauche supplied. And though the racks are supplied with the ebauche, as the Voutilainen repeaters (bar one) are decimal, he has to create those himself and install it on the ebauche. He also makes the gongs inhouse, often in steel, but sometimes in German Silver as well. He remarked that German Silver gongs have a beautiful, melodic sound, but is rather softer in volume than the steel ones.
Kari added that the secret to a good sounding repeater is not only the material of the case, but also of the movement and how the movement is fixed to the case. Needless to say, the material and tuning of the gongs and how they are mounted are also paramount.
We concluded the discussion on his production numbers and markets. He made a total of approximately 60 watches in 2013, and will probably stay at that volume as it is one he is comfortable with his team in Môtiers. Europe remains a strong market, and surprisingly Switzerland and England are where his largest customers live. A market he would like to penetrate is the Middle East market and of course China.
It was always a great pleasure to catch up with Kari Voutilainen, and this was a great afternoon with a great man, with his magnificent watches.