November 2023 8 Min Read

The philosophies of Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei

By Raj Aditya Chaudhuri

It is perhaps entirely appropriate that the idea that germinated Urwerk was born out of a philosophical conversation about vintage-clock restoration and the magical ability of film reels to allow one to go back and forth in time. It took place at a house party thrown by art students in Lucerne in the early 1990s where a young, budding conceptual artist, Martin Frei, would meet the Baumgartner brothers Thomas and Felix – third-generation watchmakers, steeped in clock restoration, who were well on their way to following in the tradition of their forefathers.

That conversation, and the many that followed it, yielded a genuinely individual vision of watchmaking, influenced by the past and visions of a future, yet beholden to neither. While Thomas would leave early in the story to pursue other goals, Urwerk is still guided by Felix and Martin. We sat down with both recently in a conversation that ranged from inspiration to artistic limits and the state of watchmaking today.

A Collected Man: What brought you two together?

Felix Baumgartner: So 1995 was … when I finished my apprenticeship in the watchmaking school in Solothurn. I am a third-generation watchmaker [so] the question for me was, “What should I do now?” My father said, “OK, now you have to join me in my restoration atelier; I have a friend in Paris [from whom] you can learn serious restoration and get trained in French and English clockmaking.” This is how I grew up, with a father very passionate about restoring old clocks. That would have been the normal path for me to follow.

My father would also say that today you cannot make a watch or a clock and do it as well as they did back in the day, because 200 years ago they had much more time to invest into mechanical clock- or watchmaking. Technically, everything that falls within the realm of traditional watchmaking is already done to an extremely [high standard]. So that depressed me [and] when I finished my watchmaking school … [I thought,] “Fuck, everything is already done.”

But I also have a mother and she’s more into architecture, art and contemporary music, so that side of my education somehow pushed me to ask, “What is watchmaking today?” and “What is the reason for a watchmaker today?”

I was exchanging [these kinds of questions] with Martin, a friend who had just finished at the contemporary art school in Lucerne. He was in the beginning [stages] of becoming an artist as I was becoming a watchmaker. He loved watches since the very beginning – he had at the time a [Omega] Speedmaster. So, we came together at parties as friends, talking about watches and how annoying it is to be a watchmaker today. This is because, at the time, watchmaking was very traditional; very limited [by] boundaries. So we thought, “OK, let’s do it differently.”

Martin Frei: I was very much interested in movies, in film, in video art – that was something new on the horizon [at the time], as cameras [had begun] becoming smaller. I was working on these editing machines that … were still analogue, with a spool of tape running through them. With this kind of film, [you have] a time machine – you can spool forward and back, playing with time. Film is a medium that is super closely related to time in the sense that it is splitting the flow of events into separate moments with pictures.

I remember my friend, the artist Christoph Draeger, had invited his cousins to the party. They were these young watchmakers, very quiet and shy, standing out from the crowd of artists at the party. It interested me that they dealt with the measurement of time – and so an interesting conversation began.

While the conversation initially was between Thomas and Martin, soon after Felix started attending these parties. While Martin started to establish himself as an artist, exhibiting his work, Thomas would move to Saint Croix, working with Jaquet Droz, and Felix found work with Svend Andersen in Geneva, also doing some work on the side for brands such as Vacheron Constantin. For a while, it was just philosophical conversation over drinks while listening to records of 1960s funk that tied the three together.

What was the initial prompt to create a watch and then a brand?

MF: Thomas had fabricated for me in his workshop a beautiful version of a mechanical device that I used to measure distances between places, taking into account topography. I said to him, “If you ever want to create … a watch that is different or unusual, I would like to design it.” They showed me this table clock by the Campani brothers around the 1650s with a strange time indication. The first time you look at it, you’re puzzled. As a child you learn how to read the time by the hands, and that image of time becomes ingrained in your mind. However, with a little bit of analysis and explanation, you quickly realise [the wandering hours] is a very logical layout. I saw a chance for us to do something different.

FB: Martin quickly came up with an idea that allowed us to redesign the case since you only have the hours [visible] in a very limited way, going around [in a] half circle or 120°. So, it allows you to create new designs … [From there] we started to collaborate on a very artistical, conceptual, new haute horlogerie piece. In parallel, I accepted work with Svend Andersen in Geneva … He saw us working on this prototype and said, “Felix, [it’s] beautiful what you do here – join the Académie [Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants]”. So, I joined in 1997 to exhibit the prototypes. That’s how it started.

How crucial was it to you to come up with a name that reflected the ethos you wanted this new brand to have?

FB: [I have a fascination with the] culture of the city of Ur in Mesopotamia where, 6,000 years ago, they started to try to measure time. Mesopotamia, or Babylon, located between Asia and Europe, was a centre of commerce between these two regions. That required traders to coordinate to meet at a certain time [and in] a certain place. So, the easiest way to do it was to meet when the sun goes down or when the sun goes up. From that basic attempt at timekeeping, they started to make devices such as sundials, sand clocks and measuring time by burning fires.

That very interesting period inspired us also to question, redesign and reinvent the haute horlogerie of today. It also made for a powerful name in German, because Ur comes from “the source” [or] “the beginning” … The German term for the Big Bang, which is the start of all time, is “Urknall”.

The brand exhibited their first production piece, the UR-102, at Baselworld in 1997, famously displaying the watch on a hotplate, but the reception was far from overwhelming. Neither the Baumgartners nor Frei knew what would come of their experiment. Even as the latter would move to the United States to pursue his education in art, the three continued working together.

Suddenly after the launch of the UR-102, it wasn’t just prototyping a new product anymore – it was managing production and the early years of a brand. What was this period like?

MF: I continued as an artist because I was not counting on Urwerk [developing into] something that would be in any way important to me in the future. For at least six years we didn’t have any success … Every now and then somebody liked [the UR-102] because the time indication was cool. But even our means of [creating] these watches were really limited. Thomas would carve the cases by hand, out of steel; we didn’t have the means to buy the gold [for the UR-101]. We were [so] happy when we were actually able to make our first gold watch that there was a party to celebrate.

Slowly the operation developed with Felix and Thomas moving to a cool new atelier in Geneva. Sometimes they would come to New York, and we would hang out. It was in New York that the first shop, [ Bergdorf Goodman,] exhibited our watches. We were super proud to be in New York. There were many moments where we felt it was just about to take off – as if tomorrow it was going to happen in a big way.

Was it a conscious decision to not be limited by mechanical watchmaking?

FB: At the most basic, I am a watchmaker. However, we have no boundaries, so we are all totally open and curious about any technical and emotional possibilities we have. For me – from working on 400-year-old ideas from the Campanis up to what is going on in science today in the most precise atomic clocks – the whole range is important. That’s the whole, huge playground we have at Urwerk. That is the freedom we created for ourselves.

In addition to the brand USP of displaying time along a 120° arc, there are advances such as telescopic arms displaying the minutes as well as complications like a split power-reserve indicator and oil change or service interval display. What inspires these ideas?

FB: These ideas often come from the past. You have, for example, the oil change which is more something [for] cars, and I wondered why we didn’t have this in watches. If the movement runs too long with old oils or without oil, it gets hurt and this is something, for a watchmaker like myself, very hurtful as well. My less emotional side would want to find a way to inform the wearer of the watch about the condition of their mechanical movement. So, we had to invent [an] oil change indicator that, after three to four years of running, turns red [to inform] the wearer that the movement should be serviced.

Other innovations such as the turbines on the rotor of the automatic calibres actually help absorb shocks from harsh movements on the rotor. When you have a unidirectional automatic winding system and in the other direction the rotor goes free, the rotor usually turns very quick [in this direction] and it can have too much play because they are turning too fast. So, the introduction of a turbine, that turns six times faster than the rotor itself, helps to slow down this very quick turning of the rotor in the non-winding direction, acting like an air brake. The idea was to make the mechanical movement more durable like this.

The fine-tuning on the 103, for example, came from the idea that you could have the most precise tourbillon watch, but it was regulated and improved in Geneva and then delivered in, let’s say, Singapore. But there you have a different climate and environment and, after a year and two, your tourbillon is still regulated based on what the watchmaker did in Geneva. So I thought [in order] to create an interactive relation between the watch and the client, it could be cool to come back to old alarm clocks. When I was a little child, I had [an] old alarm clock [on which you could] regulate the precision of the movement. You also see this in the pocket watches of Abraham Louis Breguet – quite often he had regulation, fine tuning. This gives you the possibility to regulate your watch based on the needs of your life.

Did any of these innovative ideas ever get a bit out of hand?

FB: The split power reserve was a big, stupid idea on the UR-220. On the UR-210, we had a power-reserve indicator and on the other side we had the efficiency indicator. However, we didn’t need this on the UR-220 because it is a manually wound watch.

Martin was very sad because aesthetically on the UR-220 he needed two indicators – with one missing, it’s visually less interesting. So, one of our engineers came up with the idea [of bringing] up the split power reserve to display the two days of reserve. [However, we needed more than] 50 parts to make this. It’s a crazy effort for not too much effect. But it’s a cool thing because you [can] see if you are [on] the first or second day of the power reserve.

Where do you find inspiration for the unusual displays and case constructions?

FB: From any technical machine – it can be a video camera [for example]. This is also the case with Martin. He’s deeply inspired by [aeroplanes and] spacecraft but also the James Bond movies from the 1960s and 70s, [and] early space history movies. Isaac Asimov made incredible books in the 1950s of the vision of tomorrow's possibilities, such as Foundation, the thriller trilogy. Even when skiing, the technology behind the telecabines and the mechanical opening and closing of doors … can be inspiring.

MF: The funny thing is, if you work on a concept or a project … and you walk around, you tend to see things around you that answer the question … We do a lot of strolling about when we visit these faraway cities, discussing stuff as we go along. Your eyes are open to a new place in a way that lets you notice things and then sometimes you find the answer to your question in your surroundings.

There’s this story with the UR-112. We were in Oman … in a hotel in the old Corniche in Muscat – that’s the old harbour area. We were walking to the harbour by the fish market, with these old traditional dhow boats. There was a kebab stand and we were hungry. While we were waiting for the food, we [watched] this chicken grill that was spinning the meat. The machine has a fascinating mechanism and we were marvelling at it. We said to each other, “Oh wow – that would actually make a really cool time indication.” The grill moves in a way that the chicken is getting the perfect heat, so it spins at the same time as the grill turns. That’s a familiar mechanism, close to our spinning cubes.

This happened many years ago. We talked about it, revisited the idea, and connected it to many other plans. That is how we developed the mechanism of the UR-112 – its origin is a chicken grill. Many times, it’s about collecting these kinds of ideas from culture, nature, or whatever. If you’re not limiting yourself, it’s endlessly fascinating.

What are some of your key personal influences?

MF: The tool set that I got as a conceptual artist and just the way I think, to a certain degree, formed by my education. I think artists are actually scientists in this sense. So if you think about a watch, or about a machine, or a human in relation to the machine, then you already have a lot of different themes in nature to inform you of what that interaction could be like. It is exciting to be on our planet, and be an artist, trying to make sense of all this.

FB: Probably [the inventions of] Breguet and Ferdinand Berthoud. These two influenced me the most on technical details. [Our time indication was inspired by] the Campani Brothers, but [also those by] Gilbert Albert and Louis Cottier, and his linear-hour time indication. [Inspiration] can come from Casio but equally from Denis Flageollet and Vianney Halter. We are a community of people living together, exchanging ideas and comparing in a very positive way. We're looking to our brothers; there aren’t that many sisters, unfortunately.

I’d say it’s about 50-50 [that] inspiration could come from historical clockmakers but [also from] people like Pascal Rochat, whose atomic research in Neuchâtel has been influential. You have Professor [Gaetano] Mileti from the University of Neuchâtel, who has been working for 35 years in atomic research, looking into how we can measure time most precisely.

While the two have designated roles – Martin bringing the “vision” and Felix the “time”, as evidenced by their company email addresses – like in any longstanding partnership, the reality of the day-to-day is rarely so defined.

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.

What role do collaborations outside the brand serve in your creative process?

FB: When we started with Urwerk 26 years ago, in the beginning we did everything artisanally, using manual machines. We did not have the financial possibilities to outsource and to order parts. The 101 and 102 were 100% crafted from manual machines. As another watch brand’s tagline goes: to break the rules, you must first master them.

Dominique … loves the two extremes of computer construction and the possibilities of computer engineering today and, on the other extreme, manual machines from 100 to 150 years ago. He had a dream to create a watch [created] 100% with manual machines and then I discovered with Robert [Greubel] the idea behind Time Aeon Foundation’s Naissance d’une Montre #1 watch. We said, “Let’s join together make #2.”

With Denis Flageollet we did an Only Watch [charity auction] in 2019. During this project, I visited [De Bethune’s] team and [Flageollet] visited me and we exchanged ideas, philosophies and ideologies. That is always inspiring.

Our most recent collaboration for Only Watch 2023 was with Dalibor Farny, a young guy from Czechia, who gave up a career as a software engineer because he is in love with Nixie tubes. What surprised me was that these Nixie tubes, [which] were overtaken in the 1960s by LEDs and LCDs, are still a more reactive technology for digit indication. Every second they can indicate up to 100,000 numbers. So, the rate of switching is much higher than LED or LCD because they can only produce around 2,000 to 3000 numbers per second. I thought it really cool that this very old-school technique is still relevant today, because it’s still the most reactive digit indicator. The idea came from the Gustave Sandoz clock that my father gave me. This clock only shows the kilometres travelled on the earth’s equator. While we are talking here, we are travelling like hell through space due to Earth’s rotation [on its axis] as well as on its revolution around the sun.

This is something we are expressing with this space-time blade where you can switch different modes – you can go into local time, but you can also go on the kilometres on Earth’s equator and get information such as how [how far] and how fast we are travelling. It’s a collaboration between our dreams and our possibilities, executed by Dalibor.

[These collaborations are] what bring the “chili” to Urwerk and makes us tick even today. In collaborations you can be curious and discover new worlds, ideas and approaches.

You were one of the first independents when you came together to create Urwerk in 1997. Is there a watchmaker from the original crop of independents who you are sad is no longer involved in the craft?

FB: While the early years [of independent watchmaking] could be thought of as spring, with many names flowering, we are now in the autumn, where the leaves are falling off and the flowers are becoming a bit older. [There are] a lot of watchmakers and designers who came up in the 1980s and 90s who are geniuses in their domain, but they are not entrepreneurs. So often they [were] bought by shareholders or others who did it in an opportunistic way, and they are doing something [with the name] that is not consistent with the values of the brand.

You have Daniel Roth, Gérald Genta – these big names [who] struggled because they were not really entrepreneurs. You see that today with watchmakers in the Academy who are fighting both on the watchmaking side but also on the entrepreneurial side. There is a German saying that you have to stay where you feel comfortable. A lot of people, with a little bit of success, want to push too far, and they come into fields and water and they don’t feel comfortable anymore. Then they start to lose control.

Is there any advice you would give young watchmakers?

FB: Initiatives such as [the F.P.] Journe Young Talent Competition have created new generations of watchmakers and you have a few good names [as a result of this]. I really hope that these really very talented independent watchmakers know their limits in terms of volume. If they go too far in volume, everything will change, and probably not in the way they want – especially in the beginning.

At Urwerk we managed to stay super true to what we are, what we love and what we like. Why can we do that? Because we grow very slowly in volume, probably in a very boring way. Every year, [we grow by] 5% more or less. So, it’s not at all exciting.

What is an aspect of the state of the industry you find frustrating?

FB: There are different motivations in watchmaking. For instance, I have a lot of respect for Karl-Friedrich Scheufele of Ferdinand Berthoud. He started with a [hexagonal] case, which to me is very good case design. I like that shape and it [was] a characterful, tasteful way of bringing out Ferdinand Berthoud watches. He did it in a respectful way. But then everybody told him, “It’s too characterful; you have to make it round.” Then two years later he [came] out with the round [case].

It is also very strange to me because when Berthoud was alive, watches didn’t exist. For me, to bring up an old name today, even De Bethune, it’s still sad somehow.

There are the ones who are following a certain demand of the market and creating products are essentially a marketing construction – an easy, digestible version of their more interesting offering. These are the watches that then come to be the bulk of their sales. [However] that’s the business we are in.

What does the future look like to you?

FB: We are working on that every day. We are a team of 22 people but … six are in the concept, research, [and] engineering on the development side. It’s like a laboratory of new possibilities. Somehow, the craziness of Urwerk will continue. We have growth of 5% per year and so [we will continue to explore] new ways of expression in haute horlogerie. We are absolutely open to collaborate, as we said before, with the best [scientists and artists], and that gives us that whole playground.

We thank Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei for speaking with us candidly and answering our many questions, and the wider team at Urwerk for making this happen