Founded by Belgian industrial designer Benoît Mintiens and with HQs in Antwerp and Geneva, Ressence’s timepieces are, as the company blurb says, “built on the expertise of yesterday, crafted with today’s technology, designed for tomorrow”.
This watch Ressence Type 3N
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Jean-Marc Pontroué is no car salesman. He’s the CEO of Swiss mechanical watch brand Roger Dubuis. But his latest product, the Excalibur Aventador – a super-charged, high-tech, boldly blue-and-red model with g-force anti-ejection reinforcement and autonomous stability programme among its five patents – was created in collaboration with Lamborghini. It’s yours for $205,000. “And we’ve already sold a few Lamborghinis to our customers, too,” he says. “They see the car and buy one to go with their watch.”
That the very wealthy might shop big on a whim is perhaps less surprising than their choosing Roger Dubuis in the first place, given that the brand is little known outside horological circles. It’s small fry, making just 500 watches a year, against Rolex’s estimated 800,000. But that, Pontroué suggests, is the point. “There are plenty of brands making fantastic watches, from a watchmaker’s perspective, and which have so much more history. That’s something they have to cultivate,” he says. “But at just 23 years old, we’re young and free to experiment. We can be disruptive.”
Nor is Roger Dubuis alone. The last two decades have seen the status quo of the Swiss watch industry, and its famous, long-established names, challenged by a new breed of independent maker – independent in that they operate outside the likes of Richemont or the Swatch Group, the giant conglomerates that own most of the major Swiss makers, but independent too in spirit. Among them are the likes of Hautlence and HYT, MB&F, Romain Jerome and Urwerk, all of which operate out of Geneva, where they have rather fancy showrooms, or from workshops in the surrounding countryside. Together they are re-defining what the high-end watch can be, aesthetically and mechanically.
This is not to say that the historic manufacturers don’t continue to refine mechanical watchmaking towards ever greater feats of accuracy and reliability. This spring has seen, for example, Audemars Piguet (established 1875) launch the thinnest-ever self-winding perpetual calendar. Vacheron Constantin (established 1755) has expertly used relief and plique-à-jour – enamel so thin it’s transparent – to create a series of pictographic watches that celebrate the earliest balloon flights.
More kinetic artefacts than mere watches, Maximilian Büsser’s timepieces have pushed the boundaries of contemporary watchmaking since launching from a Geneva lab in 2005.
This watch Horological Machine No. 8 Can-Am
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But, it might be argued, such feats tend to be pulled off within the bounds of a traditional watchmaking mindset. The independent makers, in contrast, find credibility not just in expressing an interest in more avant-garde styling but also in the exploratory use of new materials and manufacturing methodologies – from tiny winches, bellows and pistons, to mechanical/electronic hybrids – and in new ways of expressing the time.
Ressence (established 2010) is a case in point. Founded by Benoît Mintiens – tellingly, an industrial designer with no great passion for watches in particular – its releases have completely re-thought the functionality of the mechanical watch. Among other innovations, they display the time via a series of orbiting discs. More intuitively understood than the classic analogue dial, the dials sit in a chamber filled with an oil that gives maximum legibility from any angle, even underwater. Also, many of the watches’ super-light parts are milled from aluminium – and they have no crown, with winding and setting done via a rotating case back. “To my mind the crown is symbolic of how stuck in the past watch design has become,” says Mintiens. “It’s like still having a starting handle on a car.”
Or consider Richard Mille, another young, progressive maker. Its latest model, tested in the field by polo player Pablo Mac Donough, has a case made from milled carbon fibre, so it has a barely-there weight; suspends its skeletonised tourbillon movement on miniature steel cables, so it’s shock resistant to an awesome 5,000g; and has a triple layer sapphire crystal and polyvinyl glass, making it, like a car windscreen, shatter-proof. Suffice it to say that it looks like it fell off the back of a spaceship, rather than out of the 19th century.
But what has made this more progressive approach feasible of late? Edouard Meylan, the young owner of the radical watchmaker Hautlence, argues that, as with many industries, the internet and social media have allowed these new watch brands to reach potential customers without entering the arms race of mega-bucks advertising and expensive Hollywood ambassadors that inflects the more historic makers. Technological advances have also allowed the manufacture of high-end mechanical watches to become much more efficient and cost-effective, affording small makers the chance to enter the market. “Without that change, the rise of the independents just wouldn’t have happened,” he stresses.
In 2015, to mark its 260th anniversary, Vacheron Constantin unveiled the world’s most complicated mechanical watch, Reference 57260. It is an old master in every sense of the word.
This watch Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Moon Phase and Power Reserve Small Model
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But it’s also about a shift in attitudes. And sometimes about being stuck with them. Mintiens – a little cynically, he concedes – argues that while it’s often just too expensive for the watchmaking giants to change their approach to production, they also see little economic incentive to change. Not yet at least. “If you’re deciding whether to spend millions developing a new alloy or put it into advertising, then it typically goes to the ad campaign, because the alloy is unlikely to sell many more watches,” he says.
“The issue is also cultural,” he adds. “For many brands tradition is precisely what they’re about. Can you imagine Lange & Söhne [established 1845] suddenly saying they’re going to work in some high-tech material? It’s not going to happen. Even the technical advances that are made sometimes seem to be more for marketing purposes. A friend once told me that if the car industry had developed with the same thinking as the watch industry, we’d have carbon-fibre wheels but we’d still be in carriages.”
And yet now not only are ideas of what luxury is being challenged but so is the role of the watch. If attaining a quality timepiece once marked a step into adulthood, now younger generations, with smartphones always to hand, profess little interest in wearing one at all; and, if they do, are typically looking for a watch that does more than tell the time, or at least does so in a more interesting, sassy, technologically minded way.
“Young customers,” summarises Peter Harrison, CEO of Richard Mille, “are less bound by established ideas as to what a watch should be. Traditional watches tend to be heavyweight, for example, because that connotes luxury. Modern customers equate weight with inefficiency, with environmental unfriendliness.”
Not only does this attitude suggest how, in the long term, even the overwhelmingly dominant traditional sector of the industry might have to change, but that they might have to change sooner rather than later. Thanks to Silicon Valley, the dot.com boom and other entrepreneurial big moneyspinners, the wealthy and the young also increasingly overlap.
“The fact is that the watch customer is less and less sold on history,” suggests Roger Dubuis’ Pontroué. “They’re less interested in the fact that a company has been around for 150 years. They don’t want to wear the kind of watch their grandfather wore, any more than they want to wear the clothes he did. OK, so the kind of products we make are not going to appeal to everyone. But they are different. They appeal to customers who are bored by most watches. Sure, the share of the watch industry cake is still massively in favour of the historic brands, but our share is growing and we have a bigger share of the buzz.”
Certainly this is something a few of the historic brands are waking up to. Hermès, the French luxury goods house, though relatively new to mechanical watches, is just such a brand. Its latest star model, the Carré H, is a minimalistic square dial set within an atypical square case. While not radical, it’s a long way from traditional, but, suggests Hermès’ head of watch design, Philippe Delhotal, it’s possible for the company to launch such a product because it feels less hidebound by heritage.
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“The fact is that you can go around a watch fair and you don’t feel that you’ve really found brand-new products,” he says. “And yet customers are looking for watches that are distinctive. The problem is that a lot of watch companies feel the identity of their products is closely linked to the brand, and that the brand has certain codes that have to be kept to. Others are still just scared that something new won’t work. And perhaps in taking a risk you do have to accept fewer sales. But our aim with this watch was to recruit a new clientele altogether – people who would look at the watch and exclaim ‘Hermès is doing that?!’.”
It is telling perhaps that some of the most iconic watches from the big makers are the result of moments when they did decide to break with the traditional forms of the time: Audemars Piguet with its Royal Oak, for example, Cartier with its Tank, Tag Heuer with its Monaco or Rolex with its Oyster; in many instances the results have become the staple of their businesses for the decades following. Yet the idea of fewer sales is not a comfortable one for any maker. And Harrison is cautious when it comes to the future of the small independent watch companies, having experienced the struggles of building arguably the most successful of them to date.
The Swiss family-owned business has been pushing horological boundaries since it was formed in 1875, and continues today at the forefront of traditional watchmaking.
This watch Self-winding chronograph
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“It was just very hard for us to survive in the beginning, especially in what is still termed a ‘niche’ sector,” he explains. “You’re too small to launch your own manufacture, which means you’re reliant on third parties to supply your parts, or you’re a long way down someone’s list. Then there are few independent retailers around the world who’ll invest in your watches, and then they don’t show the entire range, so you really need your own shops.
“You have to invest from the very beginning,” he adds. “You need your own service centres, especially if you’re doing the kind of technical things with your products that aren’t widely understood. Customers need to be convinced you’ll be around in five years’ time when their watch needs servicing. This is all the unsexy side of the business. And these are all hard things to do as a small company. I’m optimistic, but it is a long, hard road.”
Certainly few would look at a Richard Mille watch, another marvel of micro-engineering, and think that the company behind it has had to invest almost $30m a pop for a kilo – that’s one kilo – of tiny titanium screws in order to ensure its spare parts inventory is up to scratch. But then the devil is in such detail.
“You have to hope the independents continue to grow, because, right now, it’s them who are taking the risks, providing the novelty and the innovation to the industry,” says Delhotal. “I look to them and see that there’s a real freedom in their creativity – a freedom which is good for the industry because finally they’re changing things up. They’re shaking the coconut tree.”