Ten Independent Watchmakers you may not know, but really should...
By Russell Sheldrake
Independent watchmaking has certainly been receiving an increased level of attention, of late. The combination of limited production, a signature style and a personal connection to the watchmakers themselves, has contributed to this. Of course by now, hopefully, many are already aware of the likes of Philippe Dufour, Roger W. Smith, Kari Voutilainen or Rexhep Rexhepi.
However, alongside these recognised names, there are many watchmakers toiling away behind the scenes. United by the desire to create on their own, outside of the confines of established brands and manufactures, their path is often a difficult one. As such, we thought we would take this opportunity to highlight ten independent watchmakers who don’t tend to get much attention, outside of the small circles of those who follow their work.
Some of these are still relatively new to the world of watchmaking. Others have been perfecting their craft for decades. Whilst there are a growing number of independent watchmakers out there, we only had the space to cover a few. Our intention is to come back to this topic in the future, to highlight some more, as there are many whose work is worth knowing about, and this gradual discovery forms part of the pleasure of collecting and learning about watches. Though we’ve only scratched the surface with these ten, between them, they offer a breadth of approaches to watchmaking, from the traditional, to the more experimental. Their work is not only diverse in terms of its focus, but also its geographical location, spread out from Japan to Germany. Let’s look at them more closely.
We start off this list with a watchmaker who hails from Japan, graduating from the Tokyo University of Arts, in 1990. Instead of becoming a watch restorer, one of the traditional routes taken by many young independents, Asaoka established his own design agency, the Hajime Asaoka Design Office, just two years after completing his studies.
Asaoka has clearly carried over his background in design into the watchmaking world, with every timepiece he makes being customisable by the client who buys it. While two of his watches might carry the same name, their aesthetics could be completely different, with perhaps only the movement and case size linking them. However, all of them abide by the same quality of finishing, and integrate a monochromatic combination of colours, with black and grey tones found throughout. Whilst they’re certainly visually distinctive, you won’t see much ornate dial or case work on any of Asaoka’s watches. He seems to take an idea and continually reduce it down, until it attains his chosen level of minimalism.
Asaoka presented his first watches in 2005, later developing a tourbillon calibre in 2009, where every part of the watch was made in house using traditional techniques. He now offers his clients personalised versions of four references, the time-only Tsunami, the Tourbillon Pura, the Project-T Tourbillon and a Chronograph. Each of these pieces offers something different and draws a different type of collector. Working out of Japan and not being named Grand Seiko, it can be hard for any watchmaker to truly make their mark. Through close client relationships and end-to-end production, Asaoka is hoping to offer something unique to his clients, with an individual watch taking up to a year to produce. Some might have come across him before in Watchmakers: The Masters of Art Horology, alongside many of the more established names in independent watchmaking such as Philippe Dufour and Roger Smith.
From another unexpected location, Aaron Becsei is a third-generation watchmaker, who still operates out of his home country of Hungary. Combining a gothic aesthetic with elaborate finishing, the watchmaker crafts his timepieces quite literally from scratch. His watches have always stood out from the crowd, thanks to their elaborate designs and intricate engravings which can wrap around the case and movement.
Having been surrounded by watch and clock mechanics growing up, it is no surprise that Becsei became the youngest-ever member to elected to the AHCI, or Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, at the age of thirty. He debuted his first clocks in 2005 at Baselworld and then, three years later, he presented his first wristwatch: a triple-axis tourbillon of his own design.
Despite having grown up around traditional watchmaking in his father and grandfather’s restoration workshop, Becsei was keen to embrace new ideas and technologies to aid him in his desire to develop his own watches. This led him to learn computer-aided design, or CAD, early on, which in turn enabled him to produce more complex pieces, in a shorter amount of time. Now, he’s able to offer his clients distinctive creations from a selection of three models in his catalogue. Remaining as artisanal as possible in his production process, he only has the capacity to assemble eight movements a year. Every component in his watches, bar the springs, crystals and some of the jewels are manufactured in-house, showing his commitment to the idea of independence.
Commonly known as the McGonigle brothers, John and Stephen were born and raised in Ireland. Once again descended from watchmakers, their father had a local reputation for fixing clocks and watches. As a consequence, friends and acquaintances would bring these round to his workshop for repair. This led Stephen to attending the Irish Swiss Institute of Horology in Dublin, where he graduated in 1996.
Having spent some time restoring antique watches at Somlo in London and later developing tourbillons, automates and minute repeaters for Christophe Claret, Stephen eventually became Head of Complications for After Sales Service at Breguet. Whilst there, he was involved in the restoration of the renowned Sympathique clock. Eventually, Stephen opened his own atelier in 2003, first making complications for other companies, then setting out to create a watch under his own name. Working closely with his brother, John, the McGonigle brothers launched their first watch in 2007, a tourbillon, helping to demonstrate their ability with complex movements.
Like many of the other brands on this list, the brothers make all of their pieces to order. Today, they offer a number of different models that can be customised upon request. Perhaps because the country hasn’t traditionally been associated with watchmaking, they have chosen to incorporate their Irish heritage into the design of their timepieces, from the Celtic engravings on the movement bridges, to the names of their models. For example, their Ceol Minute Repeater refers to the Gaelic word for music. Their pieces often feature swooping half-skeletonised dials. These flowing lines are complemented by the swirls of the Celtic engravings, adding a certain fluidity to their design.
John has since parted ways with McGonigle watches and now operates under a newly established watch brand in Ireland.
Christian Klings’ work is a perfect example of how traditional watchmaking, from the likes of Abraham-Louis Breguet, can be carried into modernity. Based an hour outside Dresden in Germany, he crafts his watches by hand and with minimal, simple machinery. Having produced a mere twenty timepieces across a two-decade career, the watchmaker is highly regarded by those in the know, yet not widely known outside.
His limited output makes sense, when you consider that almost all of the parts for his watches are designed on paper and then made inside his workshop. This includes the bridges, wheels, springs, levers, tourbillon-cage, case, crown, gaskets, hands, and many others. Klings has been known to liken his work to sculpture, as he enjoys the process of shaping individual components by hand, using often nothing more than a file and polishing stick. As a result, each watch bears differences in the handmade work, leaving slight variants in the texture of the Geneva stripes or guilloché work on the dial.
As you might expect, Klings works on a commission basis, offering bespoke pieces to his clients. He has crafted a wide spectrum of pieces, from a ten second tourbillon with a free balance escapement to highly finished time-only watches with single-beat escapements. He has cited George Daniels, Derek Pratt and Richard Daners as inspiration for his work, which is evident not only in the designs, but also in how he goes about watchmaking. Klings principally attracts clients who value craftsmanship above all else, and don’t mind having to wait for it.
Despite English watchmakers having a long and storied tradition, there are few working in the country today. In more recent times, George Daniels and Derek Pratt have carried the mantle, though sadly both have passed away. Daniels’ apprentice, Roger W. Smith, continues working in the tradition and technique of the late watchmaker from the Isle of Man. Perhaps slightly known to the general public, is another British watchmaker, Frodsham.
By a long stretch, the oldest brand to make it on to this list, Frodsham have been around since 1834, when Charles Frodsham established the company, after winning a number of chronometry prizes at Greenwich. The Frodsham company has been around for so long that it can lay claim to being the oldest continually trading firm of chronometer makers in the world. Having changed hands several times over the years, it has been owned by Philip Whyte and Richard Stenning since 1997, with a descendent of Charles Frodsham also sitting on the board.
Though the company spends most of its time and effort restoring antique Frodsham clocks and pocket watches, they released their first wristwatch last year, the Double Impulse Chronometer. This watch is not only significant for being the first to come out of the 186-year-old firm, but also for making use of a British-born invention, the Daniels Double Impulse Chronometer Escapement. This escapement was developed by George Daniels, on foundations laid out by Abraham-Louis Breguet, and Frodsham was encouraged to use it by a contemporary of theirs, Derek Pratt. Before this watch was released, the escapement had only been used in pocket watches, with the George Daniels Space Traveller being a notable example.
It’s not often that a company with such history comes back to producing watches. However, Frodsham have undertaken the task, creating pieces which display their distinctively traditional sensibilities, whilst updating them for modernity – for example, the dials are made out of durable ceramic, rather than enamel. Whilst looking after their past, Frodsham is equally adding an important, new chapter to their history.
One of the youngest watchmakers on our list, Cyril Brivet-Naudot was recently brought to the attention of the watch community when he reached the final round of voting for the Chronometry award at the Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève. His Eccentricity model is distinctive for having been created entirely using traditional techniques, without the help of any machines. Almost every component was cut, filed and finished manually by him.
Brivet-Naudot’s grandfather and great-grandfather were both watchmakers, meaning that he got an exposure to the craft from an early age. After being educated as a watchmaker at the Lyceé Edgar Faure in Morteau, Brivet-Naudot went on to study at the École Polytechnique Federal of Lausanne.
Following some time working in the restoration of vintage watches and fabrication of prototypes for various brands, he set out to create his own watch, using the most traditional techniques. Three years in development, the Eccentricity is the young watchmaker’s first attempt at creating under his own name.
Assembling everything by hand poses its issues, even if Brivet-Naudot does use a computer to help him with design. The tolerances are extremely fine and getting things right can be particularly arduous. However, he remains committed to creating watches that pay homage to what he calls the “forgotten era” of watchmaking, before industrialisation and the quartz crisis changed the way watches are created. The only parts that are not made from scratch, in-house, are the mainspring, the hairspring, the jewels and the crystal. This is due to the fact that others already make these to a high level.
Looking at the Eccentricity – with its frosted mainplate and oversized blued screws – the watchmaker’s inspiration is evident. As with many other independents working today, he is influenced by the work of Daniels, though he also cites the automaton-animated clocks from the renaissance period as being a source of inspiration to him. The watch gets its name from the updated version of the free eccentric escapement which it uses, instead of the classic Swiss lever escapement. If his commitment to tradition wasn’t evident enough, Brivet-Naudot’s watch doesn’t have a crown. Instead, it is wound with a key through a shaped opening on the back, directly feeding into the mainspring.
A watchmaker with a distinctly more contemporary approach than some of the others we’ve mentioned, is Konstantin Chaykin. Born and raised in Russia, Chaykin creates bold and playful pieces. In particular, his Wristmons watches feature a dial in the shape of a face, with the minute and hour indicators acting as the eyes and an inverted moon phase resembling a mouth. Inspired by the moving eye clocks invented by the German clockmaker J. Oswald, in 1926, the most famous of these Wristmons is The Joker.
However, whilst these eccentric timepieces have gained him recognition outside of his native Russia, there is more to the watchmaker’s work. With highly complicated horology always having been his specialty, he has focused on space travel-related complications for the last few years. One of his first such projects was to build a watch indicating time on Earth and Mars simultaneously, all powered by a single movement. Not limiting himself to wristwatches, he also crafts detailed table clocks, including the Moscow Computus Clock, which is made of 2,500 parts and is the most complicated clock to have ever been made in Russia.
Though Chaykin’s creations can vary quite widely in their style, all of them have a link back to his Russian roots. For example, the unusual design of his Mars Conqueror MK3 Fighter is inspired by the cockpit instruments of a Soviet fighter aircraft. Looking at Chaykin’s work, from the playful faces to those intended to measure time in space, it is clear that he has been long been fond of science fiction and adventure. However, behind these whimsical designs certainly hides an accomplished watchmaker and inventor, with a score of patented inventions and ingenious watch complications to his name.
This Spanish watchmaker passed through what many consider to be the traditional route for independent watchmakers. He spent seven years at the watchmaking school in Le Locle, where he completed the basic four-year course, as well as an additional two years on restoration and a year on horological construction. After his time at school, he went to work in the restoration of antique and vintage watches. However, this is where the similarities with many other independent makers ends. Pagès’ first foray into independent watchmaking was producing an automaton tortoise, one of the long-lost mechanical skills.
The antique craft of producing automations is something that Pagès encountered during his restoration work, including a songbird pistol. Powered by a movement very similar to that found in a watch, the gold and enamel tortoise automaton was set with diamonds and sapphire. When fully wound, it slowly crawls across the table. Having taken a year and a half to complete, the small tortoise is on loan to the Watch Museum of Le Locle, not far from where the young Pagès first studied watchmaking.
More recently, Pagès has ventured into wristwatches. With his background in restoring vintage watches, it makes sense that he would have started with a vintage calibre, instead of designing one from scratch. Sometimes, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. As such, his Soberly Onyx is built around the Cyma 586k movement, which was first developed in the 1940s. It was stripped down to its simplest form, with many of the components, such as the balance assembly and the main plate and bridges, being discarded. Every remaining component was refinished, including graining and polishing all edges.
Pagès added his own components as well. Notably, he hand-crafted a balance wheel following the principles outlined by none other than George Daniels in his book Watchmaking. It features a four-spoke layout with gold regulating weights on each arm. On the outside, the Soberly Onyx is restrained and contemporary in design. The dial is made from a solid piece of black onyx, with white gold indices encircling it. Taking the best of a vintage movement, reworking it and integrating the whole within a paired back, refined case and dial, Pagès seems to hit all the key notes.
A name that may be familiar to those who follow independent watchmaking closely, Beat Haldimann has been producing timepieces for nearly two decades. Having made his first clock that harnessed resonance in 2000, Haldimann has become renowned for mastering the phenomenon in his work, alongside his more complex flying tourbillons.
After starting his career as a watchmaker in 1991, Haldimann made the surprising discovery that the measurement of time was a family tradition stretching back to 1642, the year of the first recorded purchase of a watch bearing his family name. In respect of this tradition, Beat still restores these watches for clients, having also collected a few of them himself.
The watchmaker works and lives in the peaceful Villa Nussbhül, which overlooks the River Aare. Tucked away from the world, George Daniels himself used to visit Haldimann here, describing it as the ideal setting in which to work. From his workshop, he engages in forward-thinking watchmaking, whilst remaining tied to traditional techniques. Though François-Paul Journe might be the contemporary watchmaker most associated with mastering résonance, Haldimann also experimented with the concept. His H101 clock, introduced at the turn of the millennium, featured two movements which oscillated in resonance, creating increased accuracy. It also incorporated Haldimann’s patented detached escapement, delivering precision to one-tenth of a second per day. He would then move onto his most visually distinctive work, a wristwatch whose central flying tourbillon revolves in a lyre-shaped cage. To really highlight the technical refinement of Haldimann’s designs, all bar a couple of his latest creations have mounted the escapement above the centre of the dial.
Haldimann still works in the most traditional way. Creating pieces almost entirely by hand, the watchmaker and his team are among the few who still make watches without the help of CNC machines. This is particularly difficult, and therefore impressive, with a complication like the tourbillon; since the cage itself is rather fragile, the hand finishing requires a high level of skill, as even the smallest amount of pressure can alter its shape. Innovating whilst looking at the past, Haldimann produces no more than thirty pieces a year, with the help of his small team.
ochs und junior
For something a little different, ochs und junior offer watches that take a rather left field approach to classical horology. This pared-back design language comes from the mind of Ludwig Oechslin, the watchmaker responsible for the Ulysse Nardin Freak, who also curated and managed the Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH) in La Chaux-de-Founds for over a decade.
Whilst there might be clear design differences between these pieces and the rest of our list, another thing that makes them stand out is how they deal with their partners. On their website, they have an entire page dedicated to the companies and craftspeople that they partner with to help make their watches. Showing full visibility, they are open about the fact that they do not make their watches completely in-house. It’s hard to imagine a big brand doing something like this today.
The watches themselves may at first appear to be ultra-modern in their design, and they are, but the concepts behind them are as traditional as it can get in watchmaking. ochs and junior have created astronomical complications, alongside perpetual and annual calendars with dual time zones. Whilst certain manufacturers may want to put forwards the eye-watering number of components in their watches, ochs and junior take a different approach. Their complicated watches abide by the idea that the most intelligent solution to any mechanical problem is the one that uses the simplest possible design. Their perpetual calendar – a notoriously difficult complication to produce – achieves the complication with only nine additional parts. Making use of Ulysse Nardin and ETA ébauches, ochs und junior are able to keep the prices of these watches far lower than comparable complicated pieces from more established manufactures, integrating their complications in a pragmatic fashion.
Their approach to simplicity also extends to the external design of these complications. Bar the dual time watches, these are all displayed without a single numeral on the dial, thanks to a set of moving brightly coloured dots. These pieces also have a distinctively more industrial feel than many of the others we’ve discussed here. Though the surfaces are meticulously finished, the display of hand-finishing is clearly not what these watches are about.
It is a common criticism levelled at the watchmaking industry that many of the established manufacturers can have a tendency to create fairly homogenous products, such that many watches produced today fit a similar mould. Too many and too similar. Within that landscape, independent watchmakers can be a breath of fresh air. Whether they are based in Switzerland or Japan, and however classical or contemporary their approach might be, they are all united by a distinctive approach to watchmaking which they feel they can only achieve by working alone.
Though there are many more names worth mentioning, we hope that this condensed selection of ten watchmakers shows the breadth of approaches out there. From the traditional appeal of Brivet-Naudot to the much more industrial feel of Ochs and Juniors’ pieces, the strength of independent watchmaking lies in its richness. With the likes of Journe, Smith and Dufour getting greater attention today than ever before, it can be easy to forget that many others are out there, toiling away at their task.