How do you go about bringing new ideas into the physical realm?
FB: While the company is 26 years old, we have a relationship that’s been going for longer than 30 years. I also have a vision and while Martin is the vision [behind the brand], he also has knowledge of time or watchmaking. So … we share [the vision] between the two of us. I pop up with new indications and new technical ideas and then [Martin] brings it into a concept. I come with the bones, and he packs the meat around it.
We call it ping-pong; [playing] with ideas. I often start with an idea and bring it over to Martin and then he comes back with an additional idea. He’s Martin Frei, which in German means Martin “Free”. I have some limits from the past, from the culture and also from … working with watchmakers and engineers, so I have physical limits [to contend with]. So, the first, second and third ping-pongs are very free because we have to imagine everything is possible. That is Martin’s value – everything is possible, we have just to go [as] far as we can, somehow.
Then you have to start working on the priorities – it has to be comfortable on the wrist, for example, and the time has to be readable. Then [there] is another round of ping-pong of ideas as the idea becomes more and more concrete begins to become a physical reality. Not all ideas are feasible] – sometimes we [lose] interest because we had to size it down or whatever we had to do [to make it work], so we push the idea back and it becomes research. Later on, maybe, we’ll come and pick the idea [up again]. But if we decide that an idea is really cool and we have to get it on our own wrists, then we go to our engineers.
MF: When Felix says Martin “Free”, he means that he doesn’t have to think about all the costs that he creates with a single idea. As the artist you have to test the limits and sometimes Felix has to be the limit, which [on one hand] is something that annoys him, [but on the other hand], maybe he’s a bit envious of my creative role in our equation.
However, it’s not always like this. Often, it’s Felix who suggests something or comes up with the visionary idea, and it goes back and forth. However, sometimes [such a dynamic] also creates tension. [For instance] in the UR-112 project, the case is screwed together in the centre, where there is a flange. It is based on an idea that Dominique [Buser, our designer,] presented to me, inspired by the Bugatti [Type 57] Atlantic. So, [this flange] had to have a door on top that you open to view the power reserve and the seconds. I dreamt [of] this technical solution [in which] the door is mounted on the flange in the centre of the case. You slide the door back and because of two pins that are incorporated into the flange, the door opens by itself.
However, that solution became much too expensive. Felix said, as he always does, “Do it in the next version.” This is a bit of a running joke with us because he doesn't want to say, “You can’t do it.” [But] there usually is no next version. However, I can't get too angry about it and I try sometimes to do it in the next project if possible.
What do you think are some of the reasons your relationship is still a productive one?
FB: The relationship works probably because we are working and living some distance away from each other – I am based in Geneva, and Martin is based in Zurich. We have a 300km buffer between us. However, we phone and [email] a lot and we see each other quite often, even if it’s not every day … We [complement each other], which is why the relationship that is decades old is still working very well. We just came back from an inspiring U.S. trip where we spent a week together, going to New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, LA – exactly like rock stars. The only missing part was the guitars to smash up our hotel rooms when we left them. To smash your hotel room with a watch is a bit difficult.
MF: We call each other often; we meet in Geneva or halfway in between in Bern, which is the language border. We have a special coffee place – they know us well there. We pull out our computers, talk with our engineers and get working.
FB: We are really an old couple who are in perfect harmony. For sure we [have disagreements] from time to time, but it’s working surprisingly well.