Recently I had the opportunity to meet he whom I refer to as ‘the first Felix Baumgartner’, as opposed to the other jumpy chap. The five year old jumpy Felix was dreaming of parachutes and skydiving, but at the same age, ‘the first Felix Baumgartner’ was already an apprentice watchmaker.
I hope you enjoy this insight into Felix and the world of URWERK.
Q: Even though URWERK has only been around since 1995, it managed to leave quite a mark in the watch industry in a short time, and is an established brand. There seem to be an unending list of new watch brands every year. Can you explain why you think that URWERK has managed to survive and succeed in such a relatively short time and in such a competitive industry?
URWERK is an artistic but very strong German name, and was very unusual 15 years ago when it was popular to name a brand for the man behind the name. On top of that, we chose a German name in Geneva, which is also very unusual. Being so unusual was considered a bit of a shock, and it almost killed us in the first seven years. We had five to ten watches per year maximum that were produced and delivered.
There is a very simple answer – you have to believe and love what you do. If you do that and you put in the time and you do it right, you will succeed. It’s as simple as that.
[RE: whether being ‘in this era’ (the age of the internet etc) has made it easier ]
Small brands can survive today, and not just watchmakers but also others, such as tailors. All these very little, crazy, niche people have now found an opportunity through the internet. They are also niche on the internet.
Q: I read an interview in which you mentioned that you felt that winning the Best Design award at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie in 2011 was especially sweet because it meant respect?
The Grand Prix de Geneve – there were quite a lot of changes in how it was judged and organised. A number of years ago it was always the same brands that were winning, but in the past few years, really small companies have been winning. Many more just those watches who have to win, win. Our work didn’t change so much, we are constant, but it’s probably more the Grand Prix de Geneve which has changed.
Q: Following on from this, URWERK watches are very bold and distinctive. In many ways it is interesting how quickly your designs went from being almost unfathomable to almost ‘normal’. Do you find that you still have to explain your underlying concepts or design inspiration?
Since our beginning we have had a vision, a passion, and we know what we want and what we do. We are not looking to the outside to see what they are telling us, we go our way. We just go on creating our vision, our universe, our own culture. We altered something in the industry – suddenly, start up companies can come up with ideas to bring into an industry where there is an existing little niche. When we came 15 years ago, it was ‘huh’?
We have to go on explaining and educating. There are always new people. I have started to get to know people in Singapore, London etc, and they start to understand what we do, but when we present a new watch we always have a new approach and a new puzzle, so we still have to explain and to communicate.
Q: How long does it typically take to develop an URWERK from concept to prototype reality? Which model took the longest?
It takes roughly three years from when I am sitting together with Martin and we get an idea. We have drawings and ideas. We then go to one of our two engineers, make our own constructions, which takes almost two years, and then we have the machining (we have our own machines).
The Zeit Device took the longest – our grand complication, I call it. We brought everything together from the 15 years of our existence to show what we can do. It took four years. You really have to believe in it. It is not about making a commercial piece, because people are not asking for pieces that you can’t wear on your wrist nowadays.
Q: At the moment, what is URWERK’s top market? Are there any plans for expansion?
We are balanced. If you always go to the limit of what you can produce and the market demands, you have to run after it. When you limit yourself, you can start to balance the market. So we are pretty balanced between Asia, Europe, America and Russia.
It is possible for all watch brands which are self limiting to achieve this balance. For e.g. Dufour limits himself to 25 watches, but he has a demand of maybe 50 or 60, so he can choose where he delivers, and he can balance. If the demand is 50 and you produce 50, you cannot choose. This then becomes a commercial approach of moving volume.
Q: Given the size of your watches in particular, do you know what proportion of URWERK owners are women?
25-30% of our sales in Asia. In Asia I would say one out of five of our watches goes to women, less so in Europe.
Q: How many watches does URWERK produce p.a.?
Q: How large is the URWERK team, and are there any plans to expand?
We only have 15 people (for the last five or six years), producing 150 watches. We have machinists, we produce our own springs. This is a very good volume for us, a good balance to still be able to make investments for development but to not have too heavy a structure. We are stabilising at around 150 pieces per year.
We are two families – one in Zurich, one in Geneve. We are comfortable with the size of the team. There are enough companies in this industry that are going with volume. The internet somehow gives us this freedom.
Q: The UR-210 Maltese Falcon features the world’s-first winding efficiency indicator. How did you come to think of this idea? Is this idea of an active ‘dialogue’, as you call it, between watch and wearer, something that URWERK is going to pursue further?
The idea came out of an evolution, because we already have that system on the back of the 202 : the turbine automatic system where you can regulate the winding efficiency. It’s like a different system but it’s something we liked, that interactivity that you can regulate something on the watch. On the 103 you can regulate the basic movement – on the backside we have the control board. So we started here with the interactive relationship. The 210 – you can still adapt your winding system but suddenly you are able to see your full power reserve and your activity of the last two hours. If I stay in red, it means that I am losing power reserve. As soon as it goes into green, I am gaining power reserve. It says something about you, and it makes sense. This creates a very special relationship between the 210 and the wearer.
Q: The C3H5N309 Nitroclycerine – as I understand it, this is not a new brand but a platform for experimentation outside of yours and Max Busser’s own brands. How will you manage to keep it from turning into a brand?
We are somehow two brands, two teams coming together for this experiment – the MB&F team and the URWERK team. So there are two brands in the background. It’s just a way we’ve found to collaborate together, we quite like the interactive exchange between the two teams. We did the movement and we did the case, and somehow it came together. The idea of the Wankel movement came from us, the marketing/ name comes from Max. It took almost three years to reach reality but we’ve been talking about it, the right project for longer.
What is a brand? People – they want to know about what is behind a brand. If they are spending so much they want to understand what it is. Today, with the internet, you have to be transparent. Ten or twenty years ago, it was less transparent. We are totally transparent – two teams working together with a third name, but it’s more like an experiment. We started delivering the first pieces two months ago, and are about to deliver a third piece.
Q: To what extent do you think that an independent watchmaker like yourself, given that you aren’t a large brand, is subject to any market/ demand lead restrictions about design/ brand continuity?
For us, it’s about following our line, in a natural evolutionary way. That is why with each new product you can see from where it comes. For all companies there is a challenge to have a consistent line and innovation. For us, innovation is also what we like to do. It’s a sensitive balance and it’s nice to deal with that.
Q: The “URWERK Rare Species” are discrete LE models developed and distributed in collaboration with specific retail partners such as The Hour Glass. Are there any ‘rare species’ being planned?
At the moment, there is nothing. It is quite unusual for us to do these.
Q: Your father was a watchmaker at IWC & Omega and loved antique clocks. To what extent do you think being the son (and grandson, is that correct?) of watchmakers influenced your decision to become a watchmaker? Have you ever wanted to be anything else?
My grandfather was with IWC. It influenced me very much, but it was important to find my own way of being a watchmaker. I found this way together with Martin Frei. It gave me the possibility of being a happy watchmaker, because I didn’t want to continue to do exactly the same sort of watchmaking. Each generation has to find their own way. My grandfather was at IWC and then opened his own retail watch store. My father took over this retail store but he sold it and started to restore clocks, and then I also restored clocks when I was a child, together with my father. I thought to myself that I didn’t want to do it all my life, because I had already done it for ten years as a child, so I decided to do my own type of watchmaking.
I wanted to be, as a child, the captain of a boat. Every year we went on holiday in Corsica. We would drive, go on the ferry, and I loved that ferry. I have a boat I share with a friend; a wooden sixties sailing boat, a quite cool boat. When I was a child it was more about the motor, the captain. Between two young children and the work, and travelling to Zurich, there’s not as much time for the boat nowadays.
Q: Apart from watchmaking and design, what other hobbies/ interests do you have?
Reading books. At the moment, Adrian McKinty – he lives and works in Melbourne. This is someone I discovered a year ago and I love his books. I like Russian authors – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky…when I discovered McKinty I found that he has a language which is free and open and direct. Now I’m reading his fourth or fifth book.
I also like jazz music. I play the trumpet. Miles Davis.
Many thanks to Felix for his time during his brief visit to Sydney. If you want to find out more about URWERK, just go to their website here.