The World Of Independent Watch Makers

The World Of Independent Watch Makers

The World Of Independent Watch Makers   feature articles

After I (Meehna) posted an article on Roger Smith, I got several requests for an article on “independents.” By popular demand, here it is:

An independent watchmaker brand is not an easy concept to define because there are so many shades of gray when trying to define it. There are lots of brands that are considered independent, but for the purposes of this article, I am referring to brands that have been established by actual watchmakers, who themselves more or less make the watches.

Moreover, the watchmakers under discussion have the skills to not only work on the most complicated of movements, such as tourbillons and minute repeaters, they are the creative force behind their companies. They have the ability to design and build a watch from the ground up, in most cases manufacturing their own movements or the majority of the parts contained therein.

The World Of Independent Watch Makers   feature articles

All watch brands that make their own timepieces have watchmakers, but are often not run by watchmakers, and are much of the time part of larger groups. So any brands part of the Richemont Group, Swatch Group, Sowind Group, LVMH, etc… would be disqualified from being considered an independent. Again, this regards independent brands that are watchmakers.

Independents are an important part of the horologic landscape. They represent an alternative to the big brands and reflect the personality and goals of a person or a small group. In most cases, these independents cut their teeth at the big brands, getting their experience and honing their skills. After some time, they may feel constrained and want to pursue their own ideas. As Roger Smith once told me, you can tell the concerns and focus of a watchmaker by looking at his movement.

The World Of Independent Watch Makers   feature articles

You should know, I entered seriously into the world of haute horlogerie through the independents. When purchasing my first “real” watch, I wanted something that was a bit off the beaten path and different from what others wore on their wrists.

The primary difference between an independent brand and one that isn’t is autonomy in making financial and creative decisions. There are three large luxury groups that represent the majority of watch brands on the market. Those are Swatch Group, Richemont and LVMH. Under the auspices of the luxury groups, companies such as Breguet, Panerai and Zenith get the benefit of the generous budgets, suppliers, R&D and manufacturing capabilities controlled by the parent company.

While these perquisites can be hugely beneficial for a brand, they can also be limiting. Decisions must trickle down a long line of executives before implementation. This can make for progress even a snail could outpace, leaving talented watchmakers frustrated and often stymied if their ideas are vetoed. Think of the chilling effect that a “design by committee” can result in. In fact, at most large brands, a marketing department person has a lot of input into designs, proposing ideas and directions to pursue.

Another difference between independents and brands owned by a group is one of identity. When a watchmaker works at a brand, he or she must adhere to the established codes of that brand. If he comes up with a design or complication that doesn’t fit within the structure of the company’s historical roots or future direction–however good or exciting it may be–the idea just can’t move forward.

The World Of Independent Watch Makers   feature articles

Now you can see why the majority of independent watchmakers constructing their own movements are refugees from the big companies. A couple exceptions come to mind, such as Felix Baumgartner of URWERK and Roger Smith of his self named brand. Straight out of watchmaking school, Baumgartner went to work for himself while Roger Smith apprenticed with George Daniels. You can read more about Felix here and Roger here.

The independents don’t consider the brands the evil empire by any means (at least not usually), and some even take on projects with them, for example in such things as movement development or complicated assemblies like tourbillons and minute repeaters. Most independents I’ve spoken with respect the brands immensely for the wealth of knowledge they possess as well as the experience they provided in their careers. The brands gave them the opportunity to learn from the best, grow and ultimately mature to a place where they could go out and create on their own.

The World Of Independent Watch Makers   feature articles

When you buy a watch from an independent, you are getting the vision of an individual or small group of people. In a sense, you are buying the personality of a specific watchmaker as much as you are a watch. You also receive a very personal experience, oftentimes working with the watchmaker to co-create your watch. You can’t just call up Patek Philippe and tell them you’d like to buy the Calatrava; however, you want the original hands swapped out for those on the Nautilus. The independents are willing to entertain your ideas and personalize the watch to your specifications. It’s part of the charm of purchasing a watch this way.

The below list is by no means comprehensive. It is a sampling of top-level watchmakers who went out on their own to establish their marque. Links will lead you to other articles written about them. Another good source for information is Curtis Thomson’s site: www.tempered-online.com. Comment below if you have brands you’d like to include in the list.

Lange & Heyne

F.P. Journe

Laurent Ferrier

Peter Speake-Marin

David Walter Clocks

John Taylor

Roger Smith

Jean Daniel Nicolas (Daniel Roth)

Romain Gauthier

Vianney Halter

Philippe Dufour

Andreas Strehler

McGonigle Bros.

Jean-Baptiste Viot

Ludovic Ballouard

Thomas Prescher

Gronefeld

Armin Strom

16 comments
MKRoma
MKRoma

Enjoyable article. Would you include Bernhard Lederer Universe?

Meehna Goldsmith
Meehna Goldsmith

Hi D,
Ah yes, Aaron Becsei. I forgot about him. I am aware of his work though I haven't seen it in person. From the pictures and info I've gotten online, it looks very interesting.

Best,
m

Vékony Dániel
Vékony Dániel

Hi Meehna,

Great article congrats. :) But I think you've just forget to mention Becsei Áron the Hungarian watchmaker phenomen. His Brand, the Bexei. You may check it. I know but just because I'm Hungarian also.
Best,
D.

Meehna Goldsmith
Meehna Goldsmith

Hi Ivan Y,
I specifically didn't put Sarpaneva because although he does have the ability to make his own parts and movements he doesn't yet at this point. That's not to say his watches aren't creative and fill a definite niche. In fact I'm over the moon about them ;)

Best,
m

Ivan Y
Ivan Y

As one of those asking for an overview of independents, thank you for the article, Meehna!

How come Stepan Sarpaneva didn't make the cut? Even though he doesn't build his movements from scratch (modifies Soprod A10 calibre), I think, there's enough originality and hard work that goes into producing a watch to merit inclusion on this list. Show some love to the Finns! :)

Meehna Goldsmith
Meehna Goldsmith

SGK, you are right DeBethune should be on the list. To be honest, they slipped my mind. I know they are technologically very advanced, I hope you'll forgive me :) I know they do a lot of technologically advanced mechanics. Thanks for bringing up the oversight.

Best,
m

SGK
SGK

What about De Bethune? Is there a reason they don't make the list? I think David Zanetta and Denis Flageollet make some of the most beautiful and unique watches I've ever seen. The DB15, for instance, is an absolute work of art.

Meehna Goldsmith
Meehna Goldsmith

@Duo, I didn't include MIH because they started with the 7750 ebauche. The watch wasn't made completely by the watchmakers and therefore fell outside the definitions of the article. I do, however, agree that it's a very interesting watch and great value for the money: a unique annual calendar with chrono and only 9 parts for about 5K! No doubt Ludwig Oechslin and Paul Gerber are mechanical geniuses. If it wasn't so darn big for my wrists, I'd snap one up.

@Amoeba, yes Philippe Dufour should be on the list, good call! :) I didn't include Kari Voutilainen because he was using and restoring (transforming) movements--with superb finish and adding his own style. The Observatory watches are particularly stunning. I believe he is going to present his own movement this year. I know it's been in the works. Once that hits, he will qualify for the article. He's a very talented man indeed.

amoeba
amoeba

I think Kari Voutilainen and Philippe Dufour should be added

Duo
Duo

A brand I'd like to propose that's very much an independent in spirit despite using the ubiquitous ETA 7750 is MIH. It is the horological equivalent of organic, locally-grown produce because of the transparency of the project and the lack of over-hyped marketing. Designed and built by master watchmakers Ludwig Oechslin and Paul Gerber, respectively, this has to be one of the most affordable independent watches currently available.

Meehna Goldsmith
Meehna Goldsmith

Hi Big Chrono,
Glad you enjoyed. I love writing for Ariel. I also do my own blog @ www.watchmatchmaker.com. I'd love to get your feedback on how I'm doing over there :)

Best,
Meehna

BIGCHRONO
BIGCHRONO

Meehna,

Thank you for posting terrific pictures with your article.

Jack Freedman
Jack Freedman

Excellent post from Meehna. Thanks for this informative read.

Best regards,
Jack Freedman

admin
admin

That's right.

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