Timepieces

Independents day: five creative watchmakers take on the industry with their no-nonsense approach

Rebellious brands are breaking rules and reinventing themselves in a craft steeped in tradition

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 12:43pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 2:15pm

Which are the five most creative indepen-dent brands to buy in 2016? We take a look at five brands that push the envelope, from a technical point of view and design sense.

The independent brands don’t adhere to the rules. They are rebels in a traditional industry. They keep reinventing themselves and horology at its core, and they are often the first to apply solutions picked up by mainstream brands years later. This rock ’n’ roll attitude applies to these brands, whether they are reinventing the inner sanctum of the mechanical heart or applying hitherto unseen design solutions for multipiece lugs providing ideal fit.

F.P. Journe

F.P. Journe, admired by collectors for its haute horlogerie precision chronometers including perpetual calendars and minute repeaters, makes 900 watches per year.

“Right now major brands are suffering from surplus production and are heavily discounting their watches, resulting in unhappy clients who have watches which have lost half of their value,” says founder and owner François-Paul Journe. “We are not doing this – we have an annual controlled production and no discounts are given in our boutiques, thus our watches keep their value.”

The boutique in the Landmark Prince’s Building on Chater Road in Hong Kong is typical of the brand’s approach. “As collectors usually have an expansive knowledge of horology, it is essential to provide them with perfect service from trained staff. Multibrand retailers cannot provide that, which is why we have invested in 10 monobrand boutiques worldwide.” The Sonnerie Souveraine is the pinnacle of the F.P. Journe collection for lovers of minute repeaters and sonneries.

De Bethune

De Bethune, which was founded 14 years ago, has crafted 1,900 pieces in that time with production of less than 100 pieces a year. Fluctuating economic times have forced it to consolidate – paring the collection from 50 references to 25, and culling retailers to 15. The brand shows that it is possible to be a true manufacture with all the classical watchmaking codes, while remaining one of the most progressive inventors, technically as well as on the design side. We can see a new balance wheel, and on the design side ingenious moving lugs and their own colours. “Every watch we sell has a minimum of six patents or innovations,” says CEO Estelle Tonelli. Over the years De Bethune has created 150 bespoke pieces. “This is what we push more and more: the opportunity to offer really unique pieces to our clients,” Tonelli says. DB28 Kind of Blue Tourbillon, which retails for 250,000 Swiss francs (HK$1.966 million), embodies all this, and most of the time the owners ask for their personalised starry sky on the De Bethune-blue dial.

Ochs und Junior

Ludwig Oechslin has added only nine parts to a normal date watch to make the Ochs und Junior Perpetual Calendar; more reduction is not possible. The same minimalist approach is applied to the two-piece sandwich construction case – a case would normally have at least four pieces. When Oechslin, who developed the first silicon hairspring, founded the brand with Beat Weinmann in 2008, the duo formulated three rules for the brand making 150 pieces per year: no decoration, no logo and no rebates. With a price of 22,000 Swiss francs, this watch is their most advanced piece – but it is incredibly simple. The dot system is as intuitive as it looks – with 31 days on the outer ring (the 31st and 1st are stacked, thus the 15th is at 6 o’clock). The top of the four huddled dots indicates the leap year, and you can wind the calendar backwards and forwards and set it whenever you want – forget everything you’ve heard about the perpetual calendar and its complexity or fragility.

MB&F

“This has been an extremely busy year for us with 10 product releases,” says excited founder Max Büsser. The world has recently seen a new 610-component robot clock, a rocket mechanical pen with a landing station and the wristwatch named Horological Machine No. 8. There will be two new versions of the Legacy Machine Perpetual Calendar in white gold with a limited-edition purple CVD (chemical vapour deposition). The second, non-limited version features black CVD. “Both cost 148,000 Swiss francs. Some retailers said, ‘Why not charge more for the limited? ’ I said no, because the production cost is the same. That would be marketing nonsense to start charging more for it only because it is limited.” With three-quarters of its revenue coming from new products every year, the brand is arguably the most stable independent brand around. “It is very risky, but it works, partly because we have been able to create an extremely loyal following of collectors after releasing 12 new watch calibres in 11 years,” Büsser says.

Sarpaneva

Helsinki watch maestro Stepan Sarpaneva, whose design claim is “not for everybody”, is doing surprisingly well. He says: “2015 was my best year so far, and 2016 has been even better. But I need to be careful, because everything can change in one week – retailers are full of nonsense. They can promise to order five and then order two. Even written contracts don’t matter any more.”

Sarpaneva is not fazed by this. “I am doing more and more sales online, because my orders are coming directly to me anyway. The collectors like it like that.” He enjoys freestyling with more unusual pieces, made by altering the core collection. Essentially he creates something, photographs it and lets it loose online to see the reaction. “These images of pieces also work as sketches for other clients, who may ask for some details from different watches to be built into a new watch, or perhaps something completely new added on,” he continues. Sarpaneva’s latest watch is a collaboration with another Finn, Kari Voutilainen, who has made the purple guilloché dials on a watch (pictured) which retails for 11,500 Swiss francs. The duo have been invited by a mobile phone company to create sim card protectors by means of a titanium watch bezel, dial and sapphire glass screwed into the back of the phone.