Horological folklore is littered with tales of ‘barn finds’...
A Rolex MilSub found in grandad’s nightstand drawer, a cache of new-old-stock Patek Philippes lurking in the back of a long defunct jeweller’s strongbox, or a Jaeger-LeCoultre prototype diving watch going for a song at the local Oxfam. Sadly, however, the heft of digital information available at the touch of a button, plus endless repeats of Antiques Roadshow’s greatest discoveries have educated today’s armchair experts to the point that bargains are now as rare as steak tartare.
The watch world is witnessing unprecedented and stratospheric auction and pre-owned prices for Rolex Submariners and Daytonas, Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks and almost anything from Patek Philippe, as well as rising premiums for certain vintage models of Breitling, Longines and Heuer. This, coupled with crazy long waiting lists – reportedly up to a decade – for some new pieces, has facilitated the rising interest in so-called ‘independent’ watchmakers. Collectors are looking for something impressive, accessible and, most importantly, different.
While the definition of ‘independent’ is at best woolly, for the purposes of this article we will take it as watchmakers who work alone or with a small team and produce in limited numbers because much of their output is created by hand. As, in the main, they are not restrained by the commercial demands of the big luxury groups, these timepieces are often some of the most innovative in the industry, combining the best of traditional horological techniques with the creative thinking that only independence will allow. Although companies such as Maurice Lacroix and Oris through to Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe are independently run, they do not qualify here.
The roots of independent watchmaking
The roots of independent watchmaking
While one-man-band watchmaking is an occupation as old as the Swiss Jura mountains, the roots of contemporary independents lie in the AHCI (Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants). Established in Geneva in 1984 by Vincent Calabrese and Svend Andersen, the aim of the academy was to bring together and support small-scale, elite watch- and clock-makers.
AHCI alumni include some of the industry’s most celebrated names from George Daniels, Philippe Dufour, Antoine Preziuso and Vianney Halter to François-Paul Journe, Kari Voutilainen, Konstantin Chaykin and Ludovic Ballouard. Independent bad boy Franck Muller was expelled from the AHCI in 2006, but this does not detract from him being one of the most successful independent watchmakers of all time; interest in his early pieces is on the rise.
Far from a one-size-fits-all scenario, the number of alternatives to the mainstream brands these days is impressive, with two main categories dominating: the traditionalists and the mavericks.
In the first camp are those working to keep the spirit of traditional watchmaking alive. The undisputed kings of the traditionalists are the late George Daniels who made just 94 timekeepers in his lifetime and Philippe Dufour whose waiting list for commissions is now closed to new additions. Daniels’ fabled Space Traveller pocket watch sold in 2019 for £3.6m, while a Dufour limited-edition Simplicity watch sold last year for CHF1.36m.
Despite a commitment to craftsmanship Daniels, like most independents, was also determined to make improvements to timekeeping, inventing a new escapement – the co-axial – that is now used by Omega. Thankfully, Daniels’ knowledge is kept alive today by his sole apprentice, Roger W Smith, who saw one of his own watches sell at auction earlier this year for close to £500,000.
Although part-owned by Chanel – a move said to be an attempt to preserve and protect the company’s future – F.P. Journe also has to be included as a guardian of the traditional. The current sweetheart of the auction world, thanks to an array of technical achievements that have catapulted him to fame, Journe’s watches are garnering unprecedented attention for an independent. In 2020, a single sale saw a Chronomètre À Résonance hammer for CHF1,040,000 and a Tourbillon Souverain sell at CHF1,400,000.
Other traditionalists set to continue growing in popularity include Patek Philippe-trained Laurent Ferrier, Finnish watchmaker Kari Voutilainen, whose reputation for hand craftsmanship is second to none, ultra-refined Czapek and Greubel Forsey, with its aim of using multiple tourbillons and inclined balance wheels to perfect precision.
While timekeeping is always at the fore, over on the maverick side of the fence are the experimental makers determined to revolutionise the conservative watch industry. Urwerk, the brainchild of designer Martin Frei and watchmaker Felix Baumgartner has completely turned the traditional on its head, using familiar mechanics to create an unfamiliar dial arrangement, usually consisting of digital satellite indications within cases inspired by outer-space. In 2019, the unique Urwerk AMC titanium wristwatch, with a master atomic clock that automatically winds, sets, and regulates the watch, sold at Phillips New York for $2.9m.
Swiss businessman Maximilian Büsser has the brain of a businessman, the heart of a child and the generosity of spirit to share the glory lavished on his incredible MB&F creations with all of the craftspeople that have worked on them. Cutting his teeth in the world of weird and wonderful at Harry Winston, Büsser created the innovative Opus series of ultra-complicated mechanical watches made in collaboration with independent watchmakers. With MB&F, he has gone on to indulge his love of toys, by creating limited-edition, collectable watches and clocks that have taken the form of bulldogs, frogs, owls, robots, spiders and numerous spacecrafts.
With master watchmaker Jean-François Mojon on board, Cyrus watches have been turning heads since the company’s launch in 2010. In line with its own technical output, Cyrus announced a partnership with F1 team Uralkali Haas earlier this year, drivers Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin now sporting the Klepcys Vertical Tourbillon, a 44mm black stealth cushion case housing an impressive central tourbillon flanked by retrograde minutes and hours. With its new moment in the sporting spotlight, the brand with the signature double crown, is sure to gain in global recognition.
Finding the independent for you
Finding the independent for you
Without doubt, it is the firestarter brands like De Bethune, the company founded in 2002 by David Zanetta and Denis Flageollet, that are fuelling the desire for collectors to buy into the independent market and for new watchmakers to choose this route. And, while the prices (and waiting lists) for certain independent makers may already have reached the heights of the bigger mainstream brands, there are still plenty more to be discovered from entry level, upwards (Scottish microbrand anOrdain is one quickly gaining recognition).
Whether interests lie in beautiful, unique and limited masterpieces, or in the brands that are pushing high-tech boundaries, there is an independent that will appeal to everyone. Discover Lymited’s collection, here.