Working within certain parameters of creating wristwatches—size and weight, for example (no one wants to wear a dinner plate or carry a dumbbell on their wrist)—forces watch brands to be creative and bold in setting themselves apart. Sometimes these risks pay off. Audemars Piguet nearly made a laughing stock of itself when it came out with the extremely huge (for its time, back in the 70s) Royal Oak. Not only was it oversized, it was made of steel and the screws on the bezel were exposed! Such things were unheard of in the luxury watch business. But now, 40 years later, the Royal Oak continues to enjoy popularity and has started the trend of oversized watches.
In the recent years, however, small independent watchmakers, chafing at these parameters, have come up with pieces that don’t even quite look like watches. Or, in the case of Romain Jérôme’s Day & Night watch, doesn’t even tell the time. Fabienne Reybaud, author of Watches: The Ultimate Guide, refers to the products of these new indie watch houses as “genetically modified watches.” For most of these GMWs, telling time doesn’t seem to be the priority. Rather, showcasing technical skills, innovative concepts, and futuristic designs takes center stage.
It’s usually a love it or hate it reaction to these GMWs. Or viewers walk away befuddled, wondering why anyone in their right minds would buy that. And more often than not starting at six figures, that doesn’t come cheap. Only a select group of connoisseurs truly admire these pieces that are more artwork than watch, and even fewer can own them. As Yvan Arpa, CEO of Romain Jérôme, said of the USD 300,000 Day & Night watch, which shows no time, only whether it is day or night, “Anyone can buy a watch that shows time but only a discerning customer can buy one that doesn’t show time.”
Popular among this new breed of watch houses is Maximilian Büsser & Friends. Founded by Büsser in 2005, the company’s name aptly captures the concept of the brand: a man working together with like-minded, talented horological artisans and professionals to craft masterpieces that are “not simply pushing the limits of horology [but are] creating a totally different dimension.” In fact, they call their creations horological machines “which tell the time rather than machines to tell the time.” The goal is to nurture the team’s creative synergy to come up with one radical and original horological machine every year.
Büsser’s affiliation with haute horology got its start at Jaeger-LeCoultre, where he worked for seven years, but it was when he was appointed as the managing director of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces that he truly started creative collaboration. With the Opus Project, über-talented independent watchmakers (as one enthusiast quipped, the stars before they were stars) partnered with Harry Winston to create unique, groundbreaking timepieces. One model, in limited quantities, was released in a year. In 2005, Büsser resigned from Harry Winston to start MB&F.
Each horological machine has a dedicated team—MB&F calls it a collective, or that project’s “Friends”—from different horological fields, from case makers to dial designers, from project managers to micro-engineers, photographers and communication experts. MB&F has three different lines so far: Horological Machines, which have a firm foundation in traditional horology, but with designs decidedly avant-garde and futuristic; Legacy Machines, which are almost steam punk-inspired, their concepts and designs a tribute to the traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries; and Performance Art pieces, which are further collaborations with other artists, using MB&F Machines as the medium for the artwork. There are currently five different Horological Machine models, one Legacy Machine, and five Performance Art pieces. All MB&F creations are sold in limited quantities at selected retail shops around the world.
Similar in strategy, appeal, and design philosophy is Urwerk, a company founded by brothers Felix and Thomas Baumgartner and their friend, Martin Frei. The brothers are third-generation watchmakers and Frei, an artist and designer. They were kindred spirits, dreaming up new ways to perceive and represent time. In 1997, they co-founded Urwerk, a portmanteau of Ur, the ancient city which laid the foundation for today’s timekeeping system; and werk, the German word for work or create. Thomas eventually left the company, leaving Felix and Martin to run the show.
It’s Urwerk’s patented Satellite Complication that made them popular. And when MB&F’s Max Büsser discovered their creative genius and brought them in for Harry Winston’s Opus Project, it was this complication that they brought with them. The result of that collaboration is the iconic Opus 5, which featured the three-dimensional rotating- satellite hour display, covering all 120 degrees of the minute scale, a power reserve indicator, day/night indicator, and a service indicator at the back.
In 2012, this fiercely independent watch house came out with the UR-CC1 Black Cobra, which has a rotating retrograde minute cylinder and a jumping hour cylinder. The seconds indication is both in linear and digital display, a first in the world.
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 7 2012.