A watchmaker will have hundreds of movements pass over their bench in a lifetime. While some will build or maintain movements for a brand, others are lucky enough to design and create for themselves. These lucky few have to draw inspiration from somewhere. As any creative will tell you, the hardest thing in the world is starting with a blank page.
We asked a few of the top independent watchmakers about their favourite movements, that they didn't create. We spoke to Roger Smith OBE, Kari Voutilainen, Rexhep Rexhepi, Bart Grönefeld and Stephen Forsey.
Whether it was one they remember from their days at watchmaking school or an old master’s showpiece. While they often say you can learn a lot about a man by the shoes he wears, we think you can learn a lot about a watchmaker by the movements he obsesses over.
Roger Smith OBE
Ramsey, Isle of Man
The only man to work as an apprentice to, and alongside, the great George Daniels. Roger has been producing watches on the Isle of Man for nearly two decades now and in that time he has been fine-tuning and perfecting the escapement that Daniels first dreamt of, the co-axial.
Roger Smith has become the flag bearer for English watchmaking, building on the work of his mentor, but also on that of those who have come centuries before him, such as Tompion, Graham and Arnold. Here, Roger remembers one of the first times Daniels managed to fit the co-axial in a wristwatch and proved that it was commercially viable and worked exactly as he had planned.
Rolex calibre 3035 fitted with a Daniels co-axial prototype
"As mechanical art, I think watches and their movements are a cross-roads between the subjective and the objective. Subjectively, we can appreciate a watch and a movement for the passion and soul of the maker, or the significance of that watch being on a historic wrist. Objectivity is all about the mechanical virtues of the watch or its movement.
I think, for British watchmakers, our history has always been in innovation and leans towards the objective perspective and that is certainly what has influenced my own outlook. Fundamentally…Does it work better?!
The movement of my choice has to be the co-axial escapement that Dr George Daniels fitted to a standard Rolex watch around 1989. This had two imperatives; firstly, to prove, once and for all, the Co-axial’s advancement over the traditional Lever escapement and secondly, to show that it was possible to scale the escapement down to fit into a production wristwatch and could be industrialised. That, for me, has always distinguished a serious movement from an artistic whimsy.
It looks prototypically crude - but it works and triumphantly so. Above all, it overcame the lengthy industry scepticism George had been battling for years."
A sketch of showing George Daniels' co-axial escapment, you can learn more about it here.
"The watch case (ref. 16030) houses a cal. 3035 movement and is fitted with an Oyster bracelet (ref. 78360) with (ref. 593 - non-standard) bracelet ends. In order to achieve this feat, George dropped the train count from 28,800 to 21,600 VPH by making a new centre seconds wheel and subsequent gears.
Indeed, this demonstrated a third but, at that time unheralded, advantage that is only really being discussed today - a significant evolution away from the old fast-beat, higher impulse movements that our industry remains oddly wedded to.
Examining the watch photographs, you soon come to appreciate that this is an utterly unique piece and one that I am delighted to offer as my favourite movement."
Since launching his eponymous brand in 2002, Voutilainen has proven time and again why the independent watchmaker will always be the true innovator of our industry. Introducing the world’s first decimal repeater back in 2005, here, he talks about his love of the movements crafts by the Grandfather of watchmaking, Abraham-Louis Breguet.
Abraham-Louis Breguet Tourbillon with natural escapement
“When you see the period of time these were made in, the execution is really well done and aesthetically it’s beautiful. But also it’s really, really well done, and after 200 or more years they’re still like new so that is really remarkable.
It gives ideas that perhaps it is better to do something that is more robust than extra thin that will wear out after a few years. I would rather do something that was more strong and that’s what he was doing. He didn’t have the best steel, in was quite poor steel but they were treating things differently, and they were thinking things over twice before doing something. In the industry money talks and everything is done by thinking if it’s as efficient as possible and the quality is not always the first thing that big groups or brands are thinking.
The tourbillon that Breguet did was something completely that was new at that time and it works and he was also using his natural escapement. And then if you look at something like his repeaters, he had his own way to do the mechanism which was only made by him and not used after him at all. He was very clever."
Admired by none other than Philippe Dufour and Kari Voutilainen, Rexhep is a watchmaker who has manifested precocious talent from an early age. Having started his horological career at the tender age of fourteen, with an apprenticeship at Patek Philippe, specialising in tourbillons, Rexhep Rexhepi soon ventured out on his own.
Today, he is considered one of the most promising talents in watchmaking. Only recently, his Chronomètre Contemporain, with its paired-back aesthetics and masterfully executed symmetrical movement, has captivated the attention of collectors and enthusiasts alike. Here, he goes back to the very beginning.
Patek Philippe calibre 17''' LEP PS
"The one which really stands out in my memory is the pocket watch movement I worked on during my apprenticeship at Patek Philippe. It was the Patek Philippe calibre 17''' LEP PS. A really classic, traditional movement.
I started my horological training at Patek Philippe at the age of fourteen and this movement was the one I worked on towards the end of my apprenticeship, as a way to put into practice everything I had learnt. With this movement, we had to attain a certain quality and follow the standards which had been set and taught. It was the first movement that properly felt mine, as I got to spend a lot of time working on it and getting to know it."
Up close with Rexhep Rexhepi's own school watch
The movement architecture really speaks to me. It’s laid out in an open, breathable way, which highlights the mechanics within and is rather aesthetically appealing. However, it was also designed to be as practical as possible for a watchmaker during the assembly and regulation process. There’s this wonderful combination of aesthetic and technical considerations.
There’s this simplicity to it, which is so well balanced. It influenced me in my later work in the way I think about constructing and decorating movements. If you look at pocket watch movements, there’s often a lot of space to express yourself. You have more space to create deeper, more pronounced finishing on the plates, as well as these satisfyingly large wheels. There’s a depth to it too. You can really travel in your watch."
Oldenzaal, The Netherlands
Bart Grönefeld is one half of the watchmaking duo behind Grönefeld. The Grönefeld brothers’ upbringing in a small town in the Eastern part of the Netherlands was steeped in horology. In the evenings and on the weekends, as children, they used to play in their grandfather Johan's workshop, surrounded by instruments and by the sound of their ceaseless ticking.
Watchmaking having made a strong imprint on them in their respective youths, Bart and Tim Grönefeld both trained in horology, cutting their teeth at famed complications specialist Renaud et Papi, alongside notable contemporaries such as Stephen Forsey and Stepan Sarpaneva. Producing no more than 70 watches a year, the Grönefeld brothers create extremely high-quality pieces, having commanded the admiration and respect of none other than M. Philippe Dufour, amongst others. On this occasion, Bart's choice harks back to his early days working for none other than Renaud et Papi.
RMA (Répetition Minutes Audemars) Movement designed at Renaud et Papi
"At Renaud et Papi, they had nicknames for me and my brother Tim. I was called Ding Dong and Tim was called Tic Tack. They called me Ding Dong for a reason, because when I started there I started working on the minute repeater and became responsible for the whole project there. I was raised doing high-end watchmaking working on this minute repeater. And the minute repeater is such a complex watch. Before then, I was used to servicing them but building one from scratch is completely different.
The one I worked on was the jumping hour that was made with a star wheel. We made it for Cartier, Franck Müller and even Hublot for some prototypes. In the base, it was 10.5 lignes, so it was a small minute repeater. We even made some ladies watches with it, so it was really a tiny movement.
Previously, while studying at WOSTEP, I had done the course on complicated watches, so I was supposed to know everything about the minute repeater. Every part when it comes from the machine is bigger, so every part needs to be adjusted."
An early picture from 1991 of Bart Grönefeld working on the minute repeater at Renaud et Papi
"One of the features that I liked most about this movement, which is found in many Swiss-made watches, was that every wheel has its own bridge. This is something that I’ve brought over to my own designs now. We wanted to keep this Swiss approach in our Dutch style by incorporating the bell gables of Dutch houses into the design.
The most challenging part of working on this super precise movement was that I was a young guy, and this is obviously a very, very high-end movement. I didn’t really have a teacher to teach me this and I kept making it to measurements that were much too precise. This meant that the watch was working perfectly on my bench, but once cased up everything would jam. If you case up a watch that is too precise, the tension from the watch case can bend the movement slightly and that can cause this jamming and block the movement. What I learnt there was make it good and then make some clearance everywhere."
La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
One half of Greubel Forsey and master of the tourbillon, Stephen Forsey worked at complications manufacturer Renaud et Papi, before founding Greubel Forsey in 2004. Alongside Robert Greubel, their common goal has been to push the limits of creativity, technology and craftsmanship. Going against the tide, they have always been convinced that there was still much to invent in the world of fine watchmaking.
Producing no more than 100 timepieces a year, Greubel Forsey has pushed the boundaries of watchmaking ever since its inception, combining the extreme pursuit of timekeeping accuracy, constant innovation and hand finishing of the highest standard. For his choice, Forsey takes us all the way back to his days in watchmaking school, learning the intricate ins and outs of column-wheel chronograph movements.
Valjoux Calibre 5
"It’s a pocket watch chronograph movement which was one of the first with a column wheel function. It’s a classic column-wheel chronograph construction, which was the backbone for later wristwatch calibres which were used by many brands including Rolex. It was the movement that we were given at watchmaking school, in order to learn about chronographs.
The ones we had then were already a bit tired. They’d been beaten up and the holes were a bit massacred. But I love the architecture of a classic chronograph like this. Our teachers would come and destroy the functions and we would have to go right through the movement and really learn every different retouch and adjustment to make a chronograph work well. It has a special place in my heart.
An early design sketch of a Valjoux 5
"Over the years, I've accumulated a few. I don’t have tonnes of them but, I find one or two here and there. So, if I see one, I am rather drawn to it. I’ve got one that was made in a school here, as it’s got some nice finishing to it and another which is rather quite simple. But even if a pocket watch is such a wonderful thing, they’re just not very practical today, are they?
The concept of the calibre 5 was the same as the Valjoux 23, the 72, the 22. There’s a whole family of them with a similar kind of concept, where it could go from pocket watch to wristwatch."
We'd like to thank Roger Smith OBE, Kari Voutilainen, Rexhep Rexhepi, Bart Grönefeld and Stephen Forsey for sharing their favourite movements with us.