In an industry known for its deep-rooted tradition and craftsmanship, watchmakers are breaking all the rules—and they’re only getting started
Is the march of technological advancements harmful to traditional watchmaking, or does it open up a world of possibilities?
This is a question that’s gone unanswered since the beginning of time, or of timepieces anyway. The Germans are generally regarded as having first made clocks small enough to be portable in the early 16th century. Around the same time, Protestant Huguenots fleeing persecution from French Catholics brought their artistic savoir-faire to neighbouring Switzerland, where they gradually transformed Geneva into the epicentre of haute horlogerie.
They collaborated with local farmers from the surrounding mountains, who spent harsh winters penniless and stuck indoors for months on end. The farmers patiently hand-polished the tiny metal components that would become the inner workings of the Swiss watchmakers’ designs, subsequently developing an industry based on the expertise of individual craftsmen. By and large, the story of fine watchmaking has stayed that way, at least until the 1970s when centuries of tradition were thrown out in favour of quartz technology.
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A quartz battery sends electricity to a vibrating quartz crystal, which powers the motor that turns the watch’s hands—many artisans regard such gizmos and doohickeys as beneath them. But a quartz watch is more accurate and houses only a few dozen components, compared with hundreds in a mechanical one. And so, a debate between the past and the present was born, but there’s a big difference today as watchmakers are taking advantage of modern technology to enhance their capabilities, rather than render themselves all but obsolete.
Old Techniques, New Technologies
Pierre Jaquet-Droz began creating objets d’art in the 18th century and started experimenting with watches not long afterwards. When you think of the brand Jaquet Droz, your mind probably goes towards the ultra-traditional—intricate enamel paintings, for example, as well as gilded pocket watches and finicky metalwork. The maison’s latest release, the Loving Butterfly Automaton, features a dial that is handcrafted using petrified wood from 140 to 180 million years ago.
CEO Christian Lattmann says he is comfortable combining new technology with age-old horology. “We are now able to create new decorations with specific finishes,” he says, referencing the brand’s Petite Heure Minute “Smalta Clara Hummingbird”, which uses plique-à-jour enamel, one of the hardest arts to master in decorative watchmaking. Teeny-tiny shapes are carefully combined to create an effect similar to that of a stained-glass window.
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“This art form is almost 600 years old, and nobody has used it like we have,” says Lattmann. “We created a completely transparent design, and this was made possible thanks to modern design tools and simulators.” While machines might be used to develop Jaquet Droz watches, all of the company’s timepieces are still made entirely by hand. “We shouldn’t be looking to technology to replace craftsmanship,” he says. “The goal should be to enhance watchmaking’s beauty or introduce new functions, without losing the traditions of haute horlogerie.”
Skirting The Edge
While Jaquet Droz tends to keep things traditional, on the other side of the divide is uber-technical MB&F, which offers outrageous styles that push watchmaking to its very limit. From the get-go, CEO Maximilian Büsser had no intention of rehashing industry standards, as shown by his Horological Machines, which are about the furthest things from conventional watches that you can imagine. Over the years, they have come in a variety of shapes and have had numerous inspirations, from flying saucers and racecars to ribbiting frogs.
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“Tech has provided us with new materials and different types of finishing,” says the brand’s director of communications, Charris Yadigaroglou, adding that new machinery has helped create smaller components, which allow designers to be more creative with their cases. This is something Bulgari’s chief watch designer Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani knows as well, having developed the world’s thinnest automatic movement for the brand’s Octo Finissimo in 2018.
He more recently unveiled the world’s smallest tourbillon for women during this year’s LVMH Watch Week. Rhodium-plated and hand-decorated, a unique movement was designed to fit inside the sleek dimensions of its snake head-inspired case. “The Serpenti Seduttori was really tough,” Buonamassa Stigliani tells me. “We had to create an entirely new movement that also had to be small, which is challenging because when you have small movements, they tend to be thick to somehow fit in all the necessary components.”
Hublot is another watchmaker that has always strived to create novelties that go against the expected. “When I first started my career in the 1980s, engineers had to use a drawing board to imagine different mechanisms,” says Mathias Buttet, the brand’s research and development director. “While this didn’t stop me from designing tourbillons or minute repeaters, I couldn’t easily check how they would work in three-dimensional form.”
Driven by its own in-house philosophy, dubbed the Art of Fusion, Hublot prides itself on modernism and, over the years, some superb examples of haute joaillerie wristwatches have come to fruition in the process. Valued at US$1 million, the one-of-a-kind Hublot Black Caviar Bang in white gold, complete with 544 black baguette-cut diamonds, won the Jewellery Watch Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
It would seem that watchmakers no longer consider technology a threat and instead appreciate how it’s transforming the way timepieces are designed. “Innovation is the energy that fuels our creativity as watchmakers,” says Lattmann. This can only be beneficial because, let’s face it, nowadays nobody needs a watch to tell the time. “High-end watchmaking is no longer about giving the time with high precision, because electronics can do it much cheaper and far more precisely,” says Buttet.
“The main purpose of a wristwatch today is not performance; it’s to be a mechanical, kinetic artform for your wrist,” agrees Yadigaroglou, cautiously adding: “Tech can be damaging to watchmaking if it gets in the way. It should always serve creativity—it shouldn’t become the hero.” He attributes MB&F’s appeal to experienced collectors looking beyond mainstream brands for more cutting-edge timepieces. “Even though traditional craftsmanship is essential, innovation and tech are what allow us to stay fresh and up to date.”
Therein lies the secret of the modern timepiece. Technologies have been adapted to enhance traditional practices that can only be put in place with good old-fashioned watchmaking knowledge. After all, you can’t set the feathers of a Dior Grand Bal Plume if they risk spoiling the watch’s movement. And yet the most remarkable takeaway is not the emergence of these advancements, which were always somewhat inevitable; it’s how powerful and resilient the traditional wristwatch has proven to be alongside them.
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