Interview: Stepan Sarpaneva
You grew up in Finland right?
What was it like growing up over there?
Well, my family moved around a lot so I was constantly changing schools, finding new friends and things to do. I was into Lego and what’s that other thing, like when you make planes and tanks and things like that?
Yes, exactly, those were the ‘must-do’ things when I was younger.
So you were quite mechanically-minded from a young age?
Yeah. I remember when I was 11 or 12, we were moving again, and my Stepfather said, “Ok, you can’t have a moped, but you can have a motocross bike.” So, I started riding that around on a track, going off tiny jumps, thinking I was flying - nothing like the X-Games today.
[Laughs] Wow… so a couple of inches off the ground?
[Laughs] Yes, just in the air for a very short moment, but the feeling is there. I had to learn how to keep it running, because if I didn’t, I didn’t get to have any fun. That damn thing would break down twice a day, so I would make repairs constantly. I was learning by doing, which really grew my interest in mechanical things.
Did you end up modifying the bike or making it better?
Yeah, by the time I grew up a little and got mopeds and motorbikes for the street, that became all about modification. It was the same for cars, every car I had when I was younger was modified to have a bigger engine and things like that. I did quite a bit of restoration also, because at that time, we were importing old English and American cars, so I got to work on these.
Your family were importing cars?
Yes, this was one of the businesses that my family were involved in. We had a lot of businesses over the years actually.
[Laughs] Ok, this is all beginning to make sense. So, when was your first introduction to watches?
That was during school, actually. I had been given a mechanical watch from my grandfather, but I wasn’t ‘interested’ in watches in that way. It was completely by accident that I ended up attending watchmaking school.
How was it that you came to do that, it seems unusual for Finland?
Yeah, so I was in college and it didn’t go very well. I wasn’t interested in it at all, so my mother told me to follow in my father’s footsteps, which was in fine jewellery. That didn’t end up happening though, as I didn’t get accepted on that course. I had also done a watchmaking course that same spring, so I thought I would give that a go for a year, then re-apply to the jewellery course.
"I wasn’t particularly interested in either course to be honest [laughs]”
I wasn’t particularly interested in either course to be honest [laughs], but during that year of studying, I realised that my ideas were closer to watchmaking than jewellery, so I pursued that.
And what did that course teach you to do?
You learn how to repair watches over three years, basically. You don’t have any concept of how to design and build new ones, just repair the old shit ones [laughs].
[Laughs] So, how did your studies develop from there?
Well, it was a particularly rough time for Finland then, because there was an economical crisis which meant that there was just no work at all. I ended up going to Switzerland in 1994 to study more, and it was there that I really discovered the world of designing watches and making them.
What did you do when you got to Switzerland?
I did a refresher course and then applied to thirty different companies to try and get some work. I found three, Rolex and Garrard in London and then one company in Switzerland called Piaget. Piaget was offering to try and get me a work permit, and this was during a time that it wasn’t so straightforward to get a work permit because of the economic situation, so that was the only way to go in my mind.
What were you doing for them?
I did after-sales servicing for two and a half years, but then I went back to the WOSTEP school to study the complicated course. Following that, I worked at Parmigiani with Kari Voutilainen on restoration, then Vianney Halter and finally Christophe Claret.
The restoration work with Parmigiani is quite a step-up complication wise, isn’t it?
Oh, it was, you know I had to really learn the history of watchmaking with Kari, because we were working on things like minute-repeaters and perpetual-calendars, making parts for them. You had to understand how they function mechanically because they aren’t all the same. Things changed dramatically when I went to work with Vianney, because with him, you can throw the rule book out the window and just see what you can do. You have to know the history and how things are done traditionally, but there was a lot more creative freedom there.
Had you grown tired of the restoration work?
Well, we weren’t just doing restoration actually. A lot of what we were doing was unique-pieces and private label series for people. Kari was the boss, I was his right-hand-man and there were two other Finnish guys in the department.
Was there any point when you were going to work with Kari on his eponymous brand?
"We are all watchmakers in that room, and we don’t like when someone else touches our babies”
It wasn’t something you were interested in?
We are all watchmakers in that room, and we don’t like when someone else touches our babies [laughs].
[Laughs] Got it. So, tell us about the early years with Vianney?
So, I left Parmigiani because Kari had left and we were assigned a new boss. I just couldn’t work for this guy, I couldn’t even be in the same room as him, so it didn’t work. He knew it, I knew it, so I decided to leave. I contacted Vianney Halter, because I had known him for some years by this time and he had a lot of work to give, because he had numerous projects going at any given time. Vianney is a genius watchmaker, but he isn’t a businessman, so you never knew if there would be electricity or heating, or a salary which becomes tricky.
How long did you manage to work in those circumstances for?
I was there for a year, and I had to leave because it just didn’t work for me. I had loans and things to pay, so not knowing what will happen tomorrow was just too unstable for me. That’s when I went to work for Christophe Claret because he was very strong back then and was building complicated movements, so needed watchmakers that could work on them.
When did you get the motivation to start your own brand?
I had been working on pieces of my own since 1999, while working at Parmigiani…
These were special one-off pieces for myself and then someone saw it on my wrist and wanted one. That was a Japanese retailer actually, so he was asking if it was possible to buy some and I thought why not. I made something for him and then a few pieces here and there for my friends; it grew very organically like that. By 2003 I started showing retailers my work to get some orders, you know, just ten pieces one year, then twenty five the next.
How did you find the 'salesperson' part?
It can be tough for independent watchmakers, because they’re great at doing the work, but not necessarily great at explaining it.
Watchmaking is a particularly solitary craft…
Yeah, it’s not for everyone [laughs].
[Laughs] What was the initial inspiration behind your own work?
I wanted to make something simple. Even though I was capable with minute-repeaters and extremely complicated movements, it had to be simple. The first watches were just hours and minutes, nothing technical, because I didn’t feel like I had customers for that kind of thing.
When did the brand evolve into what it is today, because it’s a very visually distinct brand…
That would be around 2006 or 2007, maybe 2008 with the first moonphase watch; that was the first hint of something more complicated happening.
The moonphase complication has become synonymous with your brand, Sarpaneva, where does this obsession come from?
It’s a very romantic complication, because on a mechanical watch, everything is moving very fast and I think that complication contrasts that and slows it down a little. There is something nice about having a function on a watch that is moving imperceptibly, just edging along, week by week. The times that you do notice it, you can look at it in reference to the moon and know that it’s correct, showing a full moon or crescent moon or whatever.
So, as a complication it’s very nice, but visually it’s also really nice. It’s one of the most visually strong complications for me and it’s so easy to understand, it’s completely intuitive. It’s stupid to me to try and sell a watch to someone that doesn’t understand it, I mean, why would anyone buy something like that. It’s always better to have something that is universally understood, but done well, I think.
Do you feel that there’s a philosophical connection between your brand and the moon?
Yeah, totally. Here in Finland when the darkness comes… It’s coming… It’s coming! [laughs]
The moon and the stars become more prominent. There is barely any available sunlight, so the moon becomes our main source of light.
Historically speaking the moon and stars were used practically…
Exactly, for a lot of things. 200 years ago, the position or phase of the moon was very important and dictated certain things like when to plant seeds in a field. This is a large reason as to why it appears on old clocks, because it was much more frequently used in day to day life. We’ve forgotten all this old knowledge, and now we just do things like plant seeds and don’t understand why they don’t grow, but it’s because the moon was in the wrong position.
Your calculation for the phases of the moon is one of the most complicated out there right?
Yeah, the one that will be in my own movement, which we are launching soon, has one of the most complicated moon based function, but simultaneously, it’s one of the most clear and easily used versions, with an accuracy of one day, out in 14,000 years. That equals one lunar cycle and one half of a second.
Incredible. Speaking more generally about independent brands, how much do you think Philippe Dufour has carved a path for independent watchmakers?
The old guy? [laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, the old fella…
Philippe Dufour is the industry’s grandfather, because he showed us that it’s possible to make a living by doing something that isn’t necessarily ‘in fashion’. Philippe is important and will continue to be important to the industry because he was a role model for a lot of people. He might do things differently to myself, but he has certainly made a huge influence. I’m striving to make things that are different and have their own identity, which is very difficult to do. It’s much more difficult to sell something ‘different.’
"SUF is something I’ve been doing on the side, which was created for the Finnish market”
You’re currently running two brands, tell us a bit about SUF…
SUF is something I’ve been doing on the side, which was created for the Finnish market, for Finnish gents. Back in 2003 when I first started that, there wasn’t really much of a culture for watches, so it was kind of a fun project for me. The name stands for Sarpaneva Uhren Fabrik, which was just too long to put on a page or dial [laughs].
[Laughs] Very true…
It’s developed a lot over the years and I now have clients that buy both brands of watches. It gives me a lot of freedom to have two brands like this, because certain ideas don’t fit the philosophy of one, but they might suit the other. Sarpaneva is more difficult and closer to my heart and SUF is a totally different story. It can be anywhere and everywhere. A lot of watchmakers told me over the years that I never should have started a second brand, and now those same watchmakers are starting their own second brands [laughs].
[Laughs] Are the challenges different to those of Sarpaneva?
It’s different, but it’s also just something that seems to work. As I mentioned before, I’m someone who learns by doing and the process has been very interesting. I really like when an idea goes down from Sarpaneva to SUF or vice versa.
Didn’t you mention before that you made a watch for the Finnish military?
Yeah, I made one for the Air Force, just a small series for them.
How did that come about?
A pilot had gotten in touch, because it was the hundred year anniversary, so it’s a celebration of that. It’s just a simple design that isn’t too aviation-centric functionally, so it can be easily worn both casually and at work.
Finally, what can we expect from you over the coming year or two?
SUF will continue to produce on three different levels of complication. We’re introducing a chronograph which is something that I haven’t done before, so that will be fun. From Sarpaneva it’s a last push to get our new in-house movement finished. We have a lot of orders to fill, so we are very busy for the next six months.
So, you’ll see what happens when it comes further down the line?
Yeah, for now we need to focus on that. Sarpaneva is a unique beast which consists of many one by one custom pieces and special bespoke pieces, so who knows.
For more information, please visit Sarpaneva's website by clicking here.