Discovering Bernhard Zwinz
By Russell Sheldrake
Bernhard Zwinz may be the best-kept secret in Swiss watchmaking today. However, the Austrian-born watchmaker is starting to make waves in the industry under the name of his countryman from the 19th century, J. T. Winnerl. Having run his own atelier for the best part of two decades, Zwinz has worked alongside some of the most well-known names in the independent space: Philippe Dufour, Greubel & Forsey, Roger Dubuis, Andreas Strehler, Max Busser and Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, just to name a few.
His pedigree cannot be disputed; he has designed, constructed, assembled and finished watches to the highest level that the industry has seen. Zwinz is starting to step out from behind the curtain that he has fastidiously been working behind as he lines up the relaunch of the historic J.T. Winnerl name with a handful of timepieces that pay true homage to the work and philosophies of the old master of marine chronometers.
Having grown up in Austria, outside of the bubble of Swiss watchmaking, Zwinz was not influenced by the influx of industrialisation that crept into the industry in the wake of the Quartz Crisis. Instead, he honed a far purer philosophy of horology based on the old techniques that he discovered restoring old pocket watches, which he perfected in his time as the first watchmaker hired by Philippe Dufour.
We met up with Zwinz in his atelier, in a frosty Vallée de Joux, that is filled with all of the traditional tools that you would expect of a watchmaker that follows the traditional methods. The watches he makes in his workshop display the highest level of hand finishing possible, with Zwinz even devising his own processes for various techniques that elevate them well beyond the industry standards. The true extent to which Zwinz finishes his watches will never truly be appreciated by their future owner: every unseen surface, even such parts as the underside of the dial, have seen the same level of attention as those on display through the sapphire caseback.
To learn more about how this Austrian watchmaker has quietly worked alongside some of the most highly respected brands and independents over the last 30 years, we asked Zwinz about his journey so far and how that has impacted his methodologies and philosophies in watchmaking today. Here, we unpick what makes him so special in an ever-crowded independent market – and how making tea relates to making watches.
His start in watchmaking
It was almost by accident that I studied watchmaking, as I had originally been signed up by my parents when I was 14 years old, for the micro-mechanics course, but on the first day there were too many people and so they said some would have to move over to the watchmaking school. In the first year you study pretty much the same thing across both courses. They offered us the chance to switch back after a year, but I enjoyed watchmaking so much that I decided to stay and followed the full four-year course, from 1987 to 1991.
In that first year you are really just doing the basic stuff – sawing, filing, milling, and cutting different parts for the wall clock that we had to make by the end of the year. Only in the second year did we start doing any kind of finishing. We also started to work on smaller parts for pocket watches, and in the third and fourth year we began to really focus on the restoration of pocket and wristwatches. After this I worked for a couple of different people here in Austria and got my Masters diploma, but I discovered the possibilities in Austria were quite limited, so in 1994, I found myself a job in Schaffhausen, in the German speaking part of northern Switzerland, restoring pocket and wristwatches for a shop.
His move to Geneva
When I was working in Schaffhausen, I met a self-made watchmaker from Germany who had some contacts in Switzerland. He was in need of some parts from Vacheron Constantin and made the deal to take me there in a trade for these parts. He said to them, “If I bring you a very good watchmaker, maybe you can deliver to me some of your spare parts.”
Once I arrived there, I was working in the service department, restoring the finest pocket and wristwatches. I really enjoyed working on the ultra-flat calibres, including their perpetual calendars.
After just over a year there, in 1998, I made the step to Roger Dubuis as it was not far away from the old Vacheron Constantin headquarters in Geneva. It was a really special time at Roger Dubuis because the brand was still quite new [and there were] only about 10 of us in the workshop. Carlos Dias was handling the company in quite a special way and it was a great experience for me to be working in the same atelier as Roger Dubuis. I was assembling the chronographs and perpetual calendars and whenever I had a question, Roger always had a good answer.
After staying there for 13 months, I had already completed a bench test for Patek Philippe and Breguet, and even signed the contract for Breguet, but my French was still not great. My English was OK, but I was still not great with my French. I got a phone call from Gerd-Rüdiger Lang from Chronoswiss, as we knew each other from my time in Schaffhausen, and he asked if I wanted to come and work for him in Munich as head of production and R&D [research and development]. After I moved, I also received a letter from Patek saying that I could start there, but it was too late as I had already settled in Munich.
Moving from Chronoswiss to Dufour
While I was at Chronoswiss I was coordinating some of the production and assembly of their watches. I also built up a lot of contacts with the suppliers in Switzerland for things like the cases, dials, movements – all these different parts – and so I was learning a bit more French to deal with them. Alongside that I was, of course, working on the R&D for new watches and models. One of my biggest projects during my time there was the Chronoscope. Andreas Strehler did the construction and production of this movement and we got very friendly at this time. He told me that Philippe Dufour was looking for his very first watchmaker, so I sent my papers off. Dufour invited me for a weeklong bench test at his atelier, [where] he had me working on a number of different things, but I remember him asking me to make my very first Breguet overcoil hairspring. He was happy with my skills and always told me how it was not possible to find a skilled watchmaker in the area.
“It was a great honour for me to be the first apprentice working alongside Philippe Dufour in his atelier.”
His time at Dufour’s workshop
When I arrived at Dufour’s workshop in 2001, we were starting to make the first production of the Simplicity and I didn’t even ask how much I would earn when I got there. Money wasn’t the most important thing to me; I was simply searching for the best possible watchmaking experience that would increase my knowledge and ability. Instinctively, it felt that working at his atelier was the right choice for me at that moment. I was learning special finishing techniques that I had never used before, so there was a lot that was quite new to me. My French still wasn’t great at the time, but I was less worried about communicating and chatting and far more focused on my work. It was great to learn so much about proportions and making something beautiful from scratch.
I started right from the beginning with a series of 12 Simplicity wristwatches per year. During this time I learned everything about decoration, finishing and assembling, including creating the Breguet hairsprings and timing them. In the final result I was responsible for almost half of the first 100 Simplicity wristwatches that were produced. But it was always Simplicities. When I was coming to the end of my time there, it didn’t feel it was possible for me to go back to a big brand; my goal was the to open my own atelier.
Stepping out on his own
Luckily, I already knew Andreas Strehler and at this time he was making the very first prototypes and movements for Moser. I also met Stephen Forsey of Greubel & Forsey and at the time they were searching for someone able to assemble their very first GF02 tourbillon Double Tourbillon 30° movement. I remember in one of my first meetings I had with them, I asked if I should come to their atelier for this work or if I should do it independently. They said it would be better for them if I did it independently, so this was a clear sign that I needed to open my own atelier.
During this period I was assembling and decorating many different calibres for Greubel & Forsey. At the beginning I was the first watchmaker responsible for assembling the very first calibre GF 02 Double Tourbillon 30°. Over the next ten years, I assembled many different calibres, including the very special GF 03, the Greubel & Forsey Quadruple Tourbillon, and a unique personal timepiece with special decoration made for Robert Greubel.
Discovering J. T. Winnerl
I first discovered Winnerl when I was working in Schaffhausen. The self-made watchmaker that introduced me to Vacheron Constantin gave me a folder of images that included shots of one of [Winnerl’s] marine chronometers and he told me that Winnerl was the most important watchmaker to come from Austria. After this I started doing my own research, but it would be another 15 years before I would get to physically see one of his creations.
At the end of 2010 a friend of mine told me he had found a marine chronometer in Amsterdam; luckily I was visiting there for work and was able to take a look at it. It was Number 80 and was fitted with the special bowl-shaped balance and after several months I was able to buy it.
The more I learned about Winnerl the more I liked his philosophy. I was even able to register the Winnerl name in October 2010. He started learning watchmaking in Austria but travelled [around] Europe, working for Urban Jürgensen in Copenhagen and then going on to Paris to work in Breguet’s atelier before creating his own in the French capital. He really tried to take marine chronometers to the next level as well as doing all he could to find the best suppliers. I have some letters between Winnerl and Adolph Lange, who worked in Winnerl’s atelier before starting his own atelier in Glashütte, where the two talk about how hard it is to find qualified watchmakers to do the work correctly and suppliers to reach the correct quality. It’s quite funny to see how these kinds of problems have carried over from the past.
“Money wasn’t the most important thing to me; I was simply searching for the best possible watchmaking experience.”
The rebirth of Winnerl
I went on holiday to my parent’s house in Austria back in 2010 and I took my computer and started on the first sketches and construction of the Winnerl wristwatch movement. I knew I wanted the dial design to be similar to the marine chronometers because the proportions were absolutely perfect. Once that was decided, I had to work on the movement as having the small seconds at 12 o’clock was essential and then I knew I had to also incorporate the bowl-shaped balance wheel. Having the outer ring at a 45-degree angle means that it takes up a lot of space, but gives great levels of accuracy and it is also possible to adjust without taking it out of the movement.
The importance of finishing
For me, finishing is not only an aesthetic exercise – it is functional, and acts as a form of protection for the different parts of the movement. The beauty comes from these technical aspects that are key to all finishing, which is why I use the same techniques on the visible parts as well as those you will never see once the movement has been cased. While I was at Dufour’s atelier I learned a lot of these techniques and even managed to improve on a few. Take my perlage technique, for example. The idea of finely executed perlage is to avoid having two perlage surfaces scrape too much over each other – as it changes the structure of the perlage effect. Normal perlage is done by creating 360-degree circles which you then have to overlap. I improved this technique by making use of boxwood. I only grind the 120 degrees which is visible once it is complete, so I am never covering part of the surface that I have already had to grind. I remember when I showed one of the first watches to a client, the first thing he did was say, “Wow, the perlage is so fantastic!”
On making tea
Making tea is almost as complicated as making watches. You need to make sure the water reaches the right temperature, and you need to take into consideration that here in the Vallée de Joux we are 1,004 metres above sea level, so water is going to boil at a different temperature. You can never use the first brew, you need to always go with the second. So you could say there is a real technique to it and in my work I am very focused on the different steps which I need to take for each part. So whenever I am starting a new component, I need to plan out, step-by-step, what I need to do to make it usable for that movement. This means that when I am picking a component up after working on it months ago I am not starting from zero, as I already know exactly what I’ve done.
Working to music
Working alone in the atelier is not always easy and it is often helpful for me to listen to music while I work. My favourite music is electronic – stuff like house, techno, progressive. I used to listen to a lot of CDs, but the problem with CDs is that you always had to change them after an hour and every time I would do that, I would be able to see that the work I wanted to do in that hour was not finished yet. Today it’s a little bit easier because I can stream the music and I don’t have that reminder of time passing when I have to change the CD.
Since its revival in 2018, Winnerl has released the Founder’s Series and Tremblage Series, inspired by the historical marine chronometers made by J.T. Winnerl. The watches are connected to their heritage through their numbering, a quirk established by Zwinz, and which begin just below 60, continuing on Winnerl’s legacy.
We would like to thank Bernhard Zwinz for opening up his atelier and sharing his story so far and what it takes to make his intricate timepieces. To find out more about Zwinz and the Winnerl brand, click here.