Six of the best: our celebration of independent watchmaking

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

Much has been discussed about independent watchmaking. Many of these brands and names have arisen in the most recent 2+ decades of watchmaking. And many have disappeared. We celebrate six of the best.

Six of the best: celebrating the best of independent watchmaking

In the beginning was Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI). They were the arbiter of the independents in the early formative years. Created in 1985 by Vincent Calabrese and Sven Andersen, the academy has seen many luminaries of the industry. These include honorific members like George Daniels and Christiaan van der Klaauw. We remember seeing Franck Muller among the name list in the late 1990s, but the current AHCI website makes no mention of him either as an existing member, or a former member. We have sensed, and so we speculate that there is some internal political strive amongst members in the last few years. This has led to some members leaving the group. In the meantime, some fresh members have joined. Win some, lose some. Fair dinkum.

But what is perhaps alarming to us as passionate observers is that while the influence of the academy was very strong in the early years, it diminishing in recent years. Many of the new breed of independent watchmakers, and including those who have been exalted by the industry and collectors, have never applied to join.

Vincent Calabrese is still active as an independent watchmaker. He recently proposed an alternative to the hairspring – a system which he calls Calasys. We are in discussion with him, and trying to understand the technicalities so that we can bring you the details in an article soon. Sven Andersen is also still in active commercially. The brand is now under a new owner, but we were told that Sven continues to be involved in the design and production of watches. The brand recently had an entry in the 2021 GPHG, but did not win.

In the early years, the independents were not only just trying to make a name for themselves, but establishing independent watchmaking as a valid alternative to the watches from the big maisons. Instead of grand booths at Baselworld, they plied their innovation behind what was basically cabinets, exhibiting often as a one man show. In these cupboards, they showcase perhaps one new watch every year. But this was the center of the universe where the hard core collectors gravitated towards. Those were exciting times.

Recently, many of these independents have had profiles raised to stratopheric levels. In this list, we include Philippe Dufour, F.P Journe, the Gronefeld brothers, Kari Voutilainen, among others. Even the young ones, like Rexhep Rexhepi, Petermann-Bédat have gained a notoriety equal to that of dieties.

Dufour Simplicity

He made his name with the world’s first Grande Sonnerie in a wrist watch, then forged it with the Duality, but fortune finally smiled on him when he decided to go against the grain of complication, and introduced the Simplicity (link to our comparative review). At first, the steps were tentative. The going was tough. But soon, the watch collecting world realized that the watch he proposed was so mesmerizing. When he completed delivery of some 200 watches, he decided to stop. Prices went through the roof, sealing his place in the history books.

From his short list of watches ever made, our pick is the Simplicity. Much has been said about the finesse of the craftsmanship and finnisage of the movement, but also on Philippe’s philosophy and keen interest to pass on his knowledge and skills to the next generation. So perhaps we just leave it at that. This link will take you to our full review of the Simplicity for more thoughts on this iconic wristwatch.

Before publication, the Simplicity achieved a record CHF 756,000 including buyers premium at the Phillips Auction XIV.

François-Paul Journe Chronomètre Optimum

Another is François-Paul Journe. Also started out small with two references – the Tourbillon Souverain Remontoir d’Egalité  and the Chronomètre à Résonance. Both technical marvels. Both took some time to gain traction. François-Paul introduced many innovations to his watches, including the first remontoire in a wristwatch, crafting the entire movement in 18k rose gold, and promoting stainless steel cases as the ultimate material of choice for striking watches. He met with good success. But it was not until as recent as perhaps 2018/19 that we begin to see the rise of prices for F.P. Journe watches in the secondary market. Production is small, no doubt, but demand currently outstrip delivery capability by multiples of magnitudes.

The Chronomètre Optimum gets our pick as it represents the blood, sweat and tears of François-Paul for 11 years, and was his own dream watch. Our full review, linked above, has the whole story. The watch construction and finishing is very refined, and the design is very elegant and accomplished. This is a far cry from the initial watches by Journe: the two iconic timepieces.

Voutilainen 28 Ti

Kari Voutilainen is not only a well respected watchmaker whose technical skills surpass most in the industry, he is also a kingmaker. His Comblémine dial manufacture is the star of many other independent watches. The dials can be selected as an option from makers as diverse as Armin Strom to Grönefeld. Kari cut his teeth by establishing himself as a restoration watchmaker in the ateliers of Parmigiani. And his early ventures were innovative. For example, the GPHG winning Decimal Repeater is probably one of the first to feature this intuitive striking pattern in place of the traditional, clock driven quarter centered one.

Our pick from the vast catalog from Voutilainen is the 28 Ti, a.k.a. Inverse. This is a watch, with the movement turned inside out, so that what is normally the case back view, is now on the dial side. Not just a simple matter of reversing the straps. Voutilainen does this the right way – the basic principle is to open up the movement front and back. The base movement is the one he used in his very successful Vingt-8, but he had not only to relocate the hour and minute hands to the other side, but to execute a complete redesign. The inverse movement comprise of 268 parts compared to 140+ in the standard version, of which 40 are new.

As this article was going to publication, the Voutilainen 28 Ti achieved a record CHF 382,800 in the Phillips XIV Auction.

Akrivia Chronomètre Contemporain

Another young superstar shooting his way to the skies. Rexhep Rexhepi, has been the darling of the haute horlogerie collector inner circle for a while. Once a secret, only shared among the insiders, the tiny manufacture has grown purely from the strength of the owner and founder. But now Akrivia is famous, and frequently uttered in the same reverent breath as any of the Grande Maisons. We have been in close contact with Rexhep for a few years now, and have always been impressed by his passion for watchmaking. And his astute sense of tradition, aesthetics and the resolve to make beautiful watches.

Among his rather extensive catalog, we have chosen the Akrivia Chronomètre Contemporain as our standout piece. This is the heart and soul of Rexhep poured out in a watch. Our views on this watch is expressed in the linked review, as well as our In Conversation article.

Petermann Bédat 1967

A fresh face in the industry. We first encountered Gaël Petermann and Florian Bédat in 2019, and visited their atelier in Renes in the same year. Their watch, then unmamed featured a jumping second complication, and was finished in a magnificent refinement which is beyond their young age suggests. To date, they still only have one watch in their catalog, but now in Series 2, the first 20 watches in their Series 1 being sold out.

Our pick is of course the 1967 Series 2 in Blue No.17. In our review (link here), we wrote that the watch was a “breath of fresh air. The brilliant blue of the dial is a conversation starter, and of course may not be the best choice for someone looking for the ultimate understatement. It screams, but perhaps quietly, as the construction and design oozes class, and is never crude. The entire watch, with its newfound light weight titanium case is a joy to strap on the wrist.”

The fallen: Tulloch T-01 First Edition

And finally, we come to one of our favourites. Yet a relatively unknown brand, but alas, has fallen in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Shane Tulloch, the founder and mastermind behind the brand wrote to us in December 2020, that he has decided to call it a day, as he is finding business conditions increasingly difficult and it became impossible for him to continue. A pity. Because the Tulloch T-01 is a masterpiece.

We found the aesthetics to be almost perfect. The tilted regulator layout makes it instantly recognizable, even from across the room. And no doubt, the level of attention lavished on the dial side, with the different frosting finish on the main and sub-dials, the magnificent mirror polished arabic numerals of the hour markers, and the svelte hands all go to make a gorgeous face. The movement side does not disappoint either. Every stop is pulled. And it seems that no expense is spared. The finishing is exquisite. Endears the T-01 to us even more. We quietly shed a tear at its demise.

Concluding thoughts

There you have it. Our meandering thoughts on the state of the industry for independent watchmakers. And our pick of six of our favourites. None of these watches are readily available. Certainly none which you can walk up to an authorized dealer, lay down your cash and buy. They are either sold out and never to be produced again, or the wait list is long and treacherous. You know what that means in terms of what you need to do to get on one, and have it expedited so that the watch arrives in time for you to enjoy it on your wrist, rather than for your next generation. Comments on what your picks will be are entertained. Pray tell.