URWERK’s unique approach to high horology has established it as one of the most creative and desirable brands in the industry. URWERK’s watches are like nothing else on the market, reinventing the design of a timepiece to put function and artistry above conventional wisdom; and, despite their modernity, taking inspiration from the Huguenot tradition of clock making that once changed the world. LUX Editor in Chief Darius Sanai speaks with Felix Baumgartner about innovations and collaborative design
LUX: You grew up around English clockmaking rather than watches. Can you tell us a bit about your early education in the industry?
Felix Baumgartner: Absolutely, my grandfather worked at IWC, but my father didn’t really like the big company structures; he was more into history, antique clocks. So after working at IWC for a brief period, my father opened up his own atelier at home, where he still restores clocks. That was my school, it was where I learned about clocks, and also about watchmaking because it is similar. There’s a difference in proportion between clocks and watches, and watches are only 120 years old, before that you only had clocks.
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When I grew up in the beginning of the 90s I saw a watch industry which was very much focussed on watches with very traditional tourbillon, but all the time there were the same complications and the same approaches, which, for me, was not at all contemporary. From my mother, I learnt a contemporary open-mindedness (my mother loved, and still loves, contemporary art, architecture and music) and from my father I learnt the history, knowledge and mechanical passion. However, it was difficult to bring these two things together so I started working with Martin Frei (co-founder of URWERK). Martin isn’t actually a designer, he was working in film and painting at the time we met, but it was so interesting for me to work with someone from the artistic world to create a new concept for a watch, and to think about what a watch can be today.
LUX: Had anyone else taken this approach in high end horology?
Felix Baumgartner: I think in high end watchmaking we were the first. You have Audemars Piguet; in the 70s, they made the Royal Oak, and the Royal Oak as a case is very contemporary. It is a very, very nice watch but they concentrated on the case, and didn’t look at the movement. In traditional watchmaking, you always have a case and then you have the movement inside, it is very separate and what is unique about our approach is that we create one piece, in which the movement and case speak together. What we do is very pure, very minimalist.
LUX: Did you know that people would want something like this at the high end or did you just hope? How did you create the market for your watches?
Felix Baumgartner: We were very naive! I was 22 years old, Martin was a bit older, but we were both very young, we are still young… You have to understand everybody had these polished wooden cases with a nice golden watch and we wanted to disturb the old values. When you look at architecture, or cars for example, the design process moves on but the watchmakers in Switzerland still continue with the same methods.
A lot of other watch brands try to copy what was done 100 years ago, but it is changing. 20 years ago we were absolutely alone, apart from at the entrance level where you always had contemporary watches such as Swatch; Swatch was absolutely up to date. In the middle range you had Tag Heuer and Omega. But we’re not businessmen, I’m a watchmaker and Martin is an artist, we love what we do, it’s 100% passion. We showed up at 22 years old and some people hated it, others were astonished, they didn’t know what was going on.
LUX: The mechanical movement in your watches is very advanced and sophisticated…
Felix Baumgartner: Yes, we are working with the latest materials and because most of our mechanisms didn’t exist in the past, we have to invent them, which is challenging.
The UR-210 is our most complicated watch today, but it still feels simple. It is a very nice way to tell the time, because you can read the time actually without having to turn the wrist. We only make 150 watches per year, it’s a very limited production. The parts are made in Zurich by a very specific professional team, and then in the town of Aarau there’s a team doing the research, the technical dossier, the engineers and prototyping and in Geneva you have final assembling and then the communication side.
LUX: The people who buy Urwerk what do they have in common? It seems that buying watches like yours is like collecting art or cars…
Felix Baumgartner: Yes, to me, the watchmaking of today is an expression of mechanical artisanal art. It’s a little machine that you have on your wrist, which you can understand, you can hear it, you can feel it and at the same time it tells you the time. But it also is kind of a jewellery, a “bijou” for men, also for women.
LUX: How does your collaborative design process work?
Felix Baumgartner: I’ve known Martin for 25 years, and we’ve worked together on URWERK for 20 years. We call our design process: ‘ping-pong’. We meet, but also speak on the phone almost everyday. Martin lives and works in Zurich, whilst I’m in Geneva most of the time so we play with ideas then he sends it over and I send it back, it’s a ping pong. Largely though, I’m still the mechanic and he’s the aesthete.
LUX: Unlike many luxury brands, you don’t do any kind of celebrity marketing. You say that the product speaks for itself, what do you mean by that?
Felix Baumgartner: We are lucky because we do not have to go the ambassadors, to the actors or to the important people in the industry, they are coming to us. For example, Ralph Lauren is a collector of several works, Jackie Chan wore the UR-202 in a film and basketball player, Michael Jordan. Robert Downey Jr has worn our watches in movies too. Usually companies like Sony Pictures ask a lot of money for product placement, but it was Robert Downey Jr who asked us, not the other way round!
LUX: What’s next for URWERK? Any big plans?
Felix Baumgartner: Let’s say it’s already happening, we are working on a new invention which we will present in a few months…
To view URWERK’s collections visit: urwerk.com