Independent watchmaking has received a renewed focus as of late. Names such as François-Paul Journe, Kari Voutilainen and Vianney Halter are easy to reel off, and there are likely many more that spring to mind when the topic arises. However, now wind back to 1985, and imagine yourself in the darker days of traditional watchmaking.
Quartz appears to be on the way to being crowned king, and the lone makers who still practice the arcane art of clockwork are deemed old-fashioned, to say the least. They're considered as dusty individuals, who operate from who-knows-where during a pre-internet era in which you already need to be aware of them in order to be able to find them.
The AHCI booth at their first Basel watch fair in 1987, courtesy of F.P. Journe.
It was that need to be discovered that led Vincent Calabrese and Svend Andersen to get together in order to found an organisation dedicated to promoting their own work and that of fellow independents. It was called the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants - or "AHCI" for short - and it's still going strong 36 years later. with a membership of 31 makers from Europe and Asia, many of whom have become veritable stars of the modern-day horological firmament.
François-Paul Journe, Kari Voutilainen, Philippe Dufour, Konstantin Chaykin - the membership list reads like a roll-call of individuals whose watches any serious collector would covet, but who may never have achieved the recognition they deserved had it not been for the AHCI.
These days, when Googling the words "independent watchmakers" results in an instant blizzard of names, articles, images and opinions, it's difficult to imagine just how obscure such people really were, when the AHCI was founded. However, one man who remembers those days well is Bernhard Lederer, a long-established independent watchmaker and AHCI committee member.
Two of the most well known figures in the AHCI, Kari Voutilainen and Philippe Dufour.
"I first learned about the founding of the AHCI from a small article in a horological newsletter published in 1985 by the German watch journalist Christian Pfeiffer Belli," recalls Lederer.
"The idea behind the Academy was to support arranging exhibitions for independent makers in order to reduce costs and provide a platform - so I wrote to Vincent Calabrese and Svend Andersen, enclosing a few photographs of my work. Two weeks later I received a reply, and I was in as one of the first five members."
The initial AHCI exhibition took place at the Museum of Le Locle, but, by 1987, the Academy had secured a spot at the considerably more global Basel watch fair.
"There were eight of us and we had a very basic installation on the third floor, tucked away right at the end of the building - demonstrating the fact that the organisers of the fair had very little interest in us independents! But we made a bit of a fuss and eventually a few panels were placed around the building to tell people where we were, and gradually the visitors came."
A selection of AHCI booklets released over the last couple of decades, courtesy of SJX.
That first appearance at Basel certainly put the AHCI on the map, but another event took place in the same year that had an even greater effect on the Academie's profile - the arrival of George Daniels as a member of the group. Already a leader of the crusade to re-assert the relevance of mechanical watchmaking, Daniels was also a hugely respected figure among the small but important community of high-end, international collectors.
"We created a special exhibition dedicated to George's work at the next Basel fair and his presence was very significant in furthering the AHCI's reputation and making it better known," says Lederer.
"Gradually, we watchmakers went from being regarded as dusty old relics of little importance to being the people who could give mechanical watchmaking a future."
No one believed in that more than Calabrese himself. Born in Naples in 1944, he had moved to Switzerland at the age of 17 and found work with various watch companies that enabled him to build on an almost intrinsic understanding of horology that, in 1977, led him to create his celebrated baguette movement.
Not only did it fly in the face of the quartz invasion, it completely re-wrote the rule book in terms of what a mechanical movement had to look like - causing a level of interest that pointed towards the potential of a clockwork revival. Numerous brands were keen to adopt it, but Calabrese selected Corum, which developed it into the now famous "Golden Bridge" with which it has become synonymous.
The George Daniels Space Traveller pocket watch.
It won Calabrese a gold medal at the Geneva International Inventions Exhibition of the same year, spurring him on to create further unique movements and, in 1985 - the year of the AHCI's founding - a unique flying tourbillon that was about as far removed as possible from the quartz watches of the new era.
"We made a bit of a fuss and eventually a few panels were placed around the building to tell people where we were, and gradually the visitors came."
"Back in 1985, there wasn't really anything special for watch collectors to get excited about," Calebrese told us. "Mostly, they were all old-fashioned, three-hand models - more or less utility items, really - and so it seemed like the time to do something to promote the return of real watchmaking.
A Blancpain tourbillon, based on an off-center design by Vincent Calabrese, courtesy of Europastar.
"Back then, the term 'independent' didn't exist in our world but I decided to include it in the title of our organisation to make sure truly independent watchmakers stood-out from people who worked for big brands during the week and occasionally did their own thing in their spare time.
"By the time our membership included people such as Franck Muller and Giulio Papi, some of what I would call the 'factory' brands realised they could turn to us to design and make watches that were more complex than what they were capable of producing by themselves," explained Calebrese.
However, as time passed and bigger and better machines and more powerful computer programmes became available, many such brands were able to develop complicated pieces which garnered the attention of the press and boosted the respective companies.
"Now," says Calebrese, "I think there is a return to authenticity because people can see how almost any manufacturer can make an extraordinary watch by taking advantage of the latest technology and materials - and that means the true independents are looked upon as artists. Because we work alone, often creating our own designs and our own mechanisms, we are seen as the real makers.
"More and more people are looking for truth, and I think that is what independent makers offer and that is why our work is becoming more and more popular. I liken the comparison to what we do and what the big names do to the difference between painting and photography. "
One person who certainly agrees with that sentiment is the independent maker Kari Voutilainen, one of several AHCI members to have won coveted awards at the annual Grand Prix de Haute Horlogerie (GPHG).
A young Svend Andersen holding one of his earlier creations, the first bottle clock, courtesy of Escapement Magazine.
"I exhibited with the AHCI for the first time in 2005, almost four years after I went fully independent," he explains.
"The Academy provided a unique opportunity to get to know other watchmakers, and the exhibitions that it organises in Europe and particularly Asia [where the ACHI first staged a show in 1990] are always great places to make contacts both in the trade and with collectors.
"In fact, I would say the attraction of the AHCI at an exhibition is almost magnetic to true enthusiasts, because it gives them a chance to actually meet and talk to the people who make the watches they love and admire, to see technically exceptional pieces and to discuss developments - all things that simply don't happen with the bigger brands where the people who put the watches together are seldom seen."
Voutilainen does not believe that the AHCI would have enjoyed the same success if it had been founded in the Internet era when information is so readily available. However, the fact that it has become such an established aspect of the watchmaking scene over a 36-year period means that it has rendered itself invaluable - and still has scope to extend its significance.
One of the first watches made by F.P. Journe after founding his brand, a Souscription Tourbillon and the movement of a Kari Voutilainen Observatoire.
"The AHCI still revolves mainly around creating exhibitions for independents, which is hugely helpful as the costs and effort of showing are divided among the members," he says.
"But I think it could go further. I would like, for example, to see it being used as a platform on which makers could share and discuss technical information. But maybe that will come."
To learn more about the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, see AHCI.ch. Last year, the Academy produced a book - The Independent Spirit - to mark its 35-year milestone. It can be found through the AHCI online shop.