October 2021 16 Min Read

Watchmaking Through Time and SPace With Vianney Halter

By Russell Sheldrake

If you were to visit the workshop of Vianney Halter, without even meeting the man himself, it would quickly become apparent that he is no ordinary watchmaker. On the shelves, you can find scattered photographs of astronauts, dramatic science fiction film posters and intricate clocks dating back hundreds of years. Sitting on a hanger, you’d find his watchmaker’s apron, stitched with the profile of a cartoon character from the television series Futurama. Above it all, Halter has suspended a broken airplane, which he once flew through a storm and crashed, after being struck by lightning.

An image of Vianney Halter in his workshop.

Existing somewhere between the past and the future, between reality and fiction, Halter has created watches over two decades which challenge our traditional notions of what horology should look like. This began with the Antiqua, in 1998, which split up the traditional perpetual calendar complication into separate subdials, united by a futuristic, steampunk aesthetic which was markedly different to anything else being made at the time. Though he has only produced a handful of watches throughout his career, his inventive and whimsical approach will likely have a far-reaching legacy. Having long been admirers of the watchmaker and his work, we thought we’d look back on his path, creations, and contribution to the field. Get your time machine ready.

Becoming Vianney Halter

The approach that Vianney Halter brings to horology is far from conventional, and the way he entered his profession certainly reflects that. Born in 1963 in Suresnes, France, into a family devoid of watchmakers, he claims that his fascination with watches and clocks began at a very young age. “I would say that before the age of ten I was already playing with clocks,” Halter tells us. His father was a train conductor, which helped to fuel Halter’s passion for all things mechanical.

He began studying at the Ecole Horlogère de Paris, at the age of fourteen, which was one year earlier than other students were typically allowed to enrol. Due to his clear passion for the subject and the difficulty he was experiencing at his more traditional school, they allowed him to leave a year early, and begin his journey into watchmaking. Halter describes the difference between the two establishments as “night and day”, not only in terms of enjoyment, but also engagement.

A sketch of the Ecole Horlogère de Paris, courtesy of Tellnoo.

During his time at watchmaking school, Halter fell even deeper into his obsessions for mechanics, science fiction and space exploration, which would later come to influence his own creations. As he recalls, 'a friend of mine was really into science fiction and he had advised me on a few books to try, and then I was transported to a different world. These books opened my mind to the prospect of something further, something outside of our small world, a vision.' Moving to an urban centre like Paris broadened his horizons, shaping his taste and creative affinities in the process. “I wanted to explore alternative culture and underground scenes. Between this experience, the science fiction books and the films, it helps in creating, not my personality, but my vision. Or my feeling for the world and human life,” he tells us.

This process of mental expansion had a deep impact on Halter. He vividly remembers all the characters in these books and films operating otherworldly machines, which allowed them to travel through space or time. The notion of these intricate contraptions first came about in literature during the late 19th and early 20th century, and then carried through to many of the Hollywood movies which Halter enjoyed, such as Forbidden Planet or War of the Worlds. Years later, this would influence Halter’s own approach to watchmaking. As he put it, “when I’m making a watch, I’m working on this small dream, and even if it’s not possible to travel in time, with this tool, or instrument, you can dream.”

Vintage posters for some of Vianney’s favourite films, “Forbidden Planet” and “War of the Worlds”, courtesy of MGM and Fortuna Auctions.

His proficiency at watchmaking was clear as he progressed through the three-year course in Paris. In 1980, when a representative from a local repair and restoration workshop came to visit the school in his final year, asking if there were any students capable of starting straight away, Halter leapt at the opportunity. He worked in this Parisian restoration workshop for a year, before moving to another local store that gave him the opportunity to work on smaller pieces. Many other independents have taken a similar route, with their time in restoration deepening their understanding and appreciation for traditional methods and design.

Halter worked at this second shop for the rest of the ‘80s. Then, in 1989, he decided that it was time for a change, and he moved to Switzerland. “Moving out here gave me a whole new perspective on watchmaking,” Halter says. “In Paris, we only ever worked on older watches, but once I was here, a new world opened up to me.” This new world was introduced to him by none other than François-Paul Journe and Denis Flageollet, as he joined them in their newly founded movement developer, Techniques Horlogères Appliquées. The company specialised in developing complicated movements and counted brands such as Audemars Piguet, Cartier or Breguet as its clients. At the time, it was arguably rivalled only by Renaud et Papi. Halter spent around three years there, in a small village in the Jura Mountains, basking in this creative environment.

Rather interestingly, many of the watchmakers involved in Techniques Horlogères Appliquées went on to launch their own independent brands, no doubt partially motivated by their experiences creating and developing movements for others. Journe and Flageollet would establish their own brands, in 1999 and 2002 respectively. As for Vianney Halter, he founded the Manufacture Janvier SA in 1994, with the name being an homage to the 18th century watchmaker he admired. For a few years, he continued working as a supplier for more established brands, but gradually, the desire to create his own watch took over.

Setting Out On His Own

Vianney Halter’s first watch – the Time Machine Perpetual Calendar Antiqua – stands out for the inventiveness of its concept and design, at a time when watchmaking was much more conservative than it is today. The futuristic design takes the traditional perpetual calendar complication, and splits out the functions across four different dials, resulting in a deconstructed aesthetic which was particularly innovative at the time. It draws upon many different design influences, from an early submarine prototype to steampunk aesthetics. The design was heavily inspired by the work of Jules Verne, a French novelist from the 19th century, which has sometimes been described as the “father of science fiction”. The overall aesthetic of watchmaking cemented by Halter came to be described as the “Futur Antérieur”, or “Past Future”, which depicts a vision of the future as seen from the past. 

'When I’m making a watch, I’m working on this small dream, and even if it’s not possible to travel in time, with this tool, or instrument, you can dream.'

Vianney Halter

The innovative design of the Antiqua was created by Halter in collaboration with Jeff Barnes, an American graphic designer, with a longstanding interest in horology. The pair were introduced through a mutual acquaintance, Joseph Penula, who once drove Barnes to visit Halter in his workshop in Sainte-Croix. It is understood that Barnes had envisioned a wristwatch with four different subdials, which integrated steampunk influences, which spoke to Halter’s own aesthetic sensibilities. The watchmaker suggested integrating a perpetual calendar complication within the design, pushing its innovative character even further.

The public introduction of the Antiqua, in 1998, was almost accidental. The watch caught the attention of Philippe Dufour, from the Académie des Horlogers Créateurs Indépendants, who convinced Halter to display his work at their booth at Baselworld. Halter revealed to us that the initial public reaction to his first piece was decidedly mixed. On the first day of the fair, no one seemed to really understand what this watch was, or why it could be perceived as interesting. However, on the second day, there seemed to be a shift in perception and suddenly a handful of those that came to the stall started to appreciate Halter’s work and his distinctive vision. He even managed to sell a few pieces during the fair. It is understood the first three examples of the Antiqua were jointly signed “Halter Barnes”, with the following pieces only carrying the watchmaker’s name. 

The Antiqua used a double-barrel Lemania 8810 as its base movement, which was thoroughly redesigned by Halter. The perpetual calendar complication was designed from scratch, whilst two new bridges were also created. Rather curiously, when viewed through the open caseback, it appears that the movement only has one, large bridge. In fact, Halter chose to hide the gap between the two bridges by following the natural lines of the Côtes de Genève decoration. This detail is functionally unnecessary but speaks to the watchmaker’s attention to detail. The automatic movement is also fitted with a “mystery” winding rotor, where the oscillating mass is hidden behind a peripheral ring, with no apparent link to the central rotor. This allows for a complete, uninterrupted view of the movement, a feature which was carried through to later pieces. 

The movement that powers the Antiqua—a modified Lemania 8810 with a twist, courtesy of The Hour Glass.

Despite the early sales achieved for the Antiqua, there was still a significant gap between the work that Halter was able to produce and the understanding of retailers and the public alike. To keep his business running, he continued to create commissions for other brands for three to four years, following the announcement of the model. In the early 2000s, he was approached by Maximilian Büsser, to design a watch for Harry Winston under the Opus collection. The objective of this series was to support and showcase the work of independent watchmakers, through a series of collaborations. Other notable contributors include François-Paul Journe, Antoine Preziuso and Christophe Claret.

Together, Busser and Halter worked on the Opus 3, an unusual piece with jumping hours and minutes, which also gave a countdown for the final four seconds before the jump, along with a date and day & night indicator. In an interview, Halter told Phillips that in order for the project to get signed off, Ronald Winston – the son of Harry Winston himself – visited the watchmaker’s workshop in Sainte-Croix. Halter was so convincing that, by the end of this meeting, not only had the Opus 3 been agreed upon, but Winston had also ordered an Antiqua for himself.

The futuristic and unusual shape of the Opus 3, which took almost seven years to complete, courtesy of Phillips.

The Opus 3 would go on to become one of the most well-known models of the entire series, not only because of its original design and high level of complication, but also because it required an extended amount of time for the fully functioning models to be delivered. It reportedly took seven years, as well as input from the likes of Renaud et Papi, to complete the twin-barrel, 53-jewel movement. However, according to Harry Winston, none of the clients that placed an order asked for a refund over those seven years. Only 53 pieces are understood to have been produced over that time. 

Beneath the case: the highly complicated movement that powers the Opus 3, courtesy of Quill and Pad.

Around the same time, in 2000, Halter launched his simplest model to date, which was aptly named the Classic. It took the same futuristic porthole aesthetic cemented by the Antiqua but integrated in a more pared back time-only watch. Only 250 pieces were ever made, cased in pink, yellow and white gold. This watch was also powered by the calibre VH198, based on the Lemania 8810, with its distinctive “mystery” winding rotor.

Don't be deceived by the 'Classic' name – Halter's experiments with this version extends to a salmon dial...
... and a white-gold version with integrated Urdu numerals

Rather interestingly, the earliest pieces feature a distinctive style of engraving used for the signature and numerals on the dial, where the flourishes of the engraver's hand are more evident. Many later examples of the Classic display a more uniform style of dial engraving, gradually moving away from this execution. The watchmaker has been known to experiment more widely within the Classic line, probably on account of its more restrained design to begin with, having created salmon dials or integrated Urdu numerals.

“Moving out here [to Switzerland] gave me a whole new perspective on watchmaking … In Paris, we only ever worked on older watches, but once I was here, a new world opened up to me.”

Vianney Halter

The next step in Halter’s evolution of the Futur Antérieur collection was the Trio, released in 2007. Once again, the design broke up the various functions which traditionally sit on the dial, into separate windows, with the hours, minutes, seconds, and the date split up. Halter describes the watch as a “wearable gold ingot,” a sort of horological gold bar, to be enjoyed on the wrist. It is believed that the watchmaker intentionally avoided using curved or rounder forms in the design, in order to create a truly rectangular watch. A scale model of the calendar module for the watch, made from plastic, can still be found in the watchmaker’s workshop, which is a nostalgic reminder for how movements and complications were developed prior to computer technology taking over.

The sleek and sharp edges of Halter’s Trio, courtesy of The Limited Edition.

One year later, he would introduce a deceptively multifaceted grand complication in the form of the Classic Janvier Moon and Sun – a round-cased, 40mm wristwatch that integrates a walking equation of time, a moon phase, a lunar calendar, and an annual calendar, all from one central arbour. The dial has five hands slowly proceeding around it, in homage to the work of Halter’s great horological mentor, Antide Janvier. Halter describes Janvier as an “enfant terrible” of watchmaking, due to his short temper and horological genius, especially in creating celestial complications. In fact, the direct inspiration for this watch came from a desk regulator that Janvier made for King Louis XVI, in 1788.  

The Moon and Sun stands out for its complexity, which displays Halter’s horological skill. The movement gathers around 460 components, including 80 for the Equation of Time alone. In the simplest terms, the complication measures the difference between the two kinds of solar time. It is rarely tackled by contemporary watchmakers, except for a handful of independents who closely study horological history and seek to carry it forward it in modern times. George Daniels is another exception, having integrated the complication within several of the pocket watches he created throughout his lifetime.  

These four models – the Antiqua, Classic, Trio, and Moon and Sun – bring us to a pivotal movement in the history of any small business. With the global financial crisis of 2008 affecting the world’s economy, very few were able to escape unscathed. For Halter, whose business was still partially reliant on work from other brands, this meant a decrease in output. While his company, Janvier SA, at one point had 20 to 30 employees, now it seemed harder to warrant the long hours that Halter was used to putting in, as well as the relatively high number of staff. This downturn gave the watchmaker time to take stock of what was important to him. “I had spent the last few years working every hour at the workbench,” said Halter, who needed some space from his work. 

Vianney Halter’s workshop, courtesy of Haute Horlogerie.

As a result, he decided to take some time off, while those still under his employment kept his workshop running. During this time, he was able to reconnect with family and friends and rediscover old passions, including Star Trek. He wandered into a DVD store and started talking to the shop assistant, who introduced him to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The influence this cult science fiction show would be evident in the work he would later create once he returned to watchmaking. 

His Sequel

It took Halter a few years to get back into the creative process of imagining new watches, and his departure from this field was certainly noted by his contemporaries – so much so that he was granted the Best Watchmaker award at the GPHG in 2011. This was, to all intents and purposes, a tribute to the impressive horological skill that he had shown through his Futur Antérieur models, as he had produced nothing new for several years at this point. However, it was just the motivator Halter needed to get back in the workshop and start producing again. 

His next model marked a significant departure from his previous work, in both style and approach. What started out as a game with his fellow watchmakers in the workshop, a challenge to create something outlandish, turned into the Deep Space Tourbillon. Halter admitted to us that this was only ever meant to be a prototype, until a group of enthusiasts convinced him to turn it into a production piece. 

The Deep Space Tourbillon, a watch that was initially created as a challenge, but which eventually went into production.

One of the early adopters of this new watch was Californian collector Gary Getz, who purchased the “subscription” version of this model. Getz paid for the watch up front, almost sight unseen, trusting in Halter’s skill and the rough prototype he and a few other collectors had been shown by Halter’s head of marketing at the time, Bertrand Bourgeois, in the San Francisco airport. This just goes to show the trust and loyal following which the watchmaker has developed over time, from the dedicated enthusiasts who collect his work.  

Luckily, enough people believed in his vision and committed to subscriptions to put the model into regular production, with the watch even taking home the 2013 Innovation Award at the GPHG. Halter sees the Deep Space Tourbillon as more of a kinetic sculpture than a complicated timekeeper, enhanced by the three simultaneous rotations of the tourbillon. This watch not only marked a departure from his previous aesthetic, but also coincided with the last time he would display his work at Baselworld. It would take a visit from Kari Voutilainen, Stepan Sarpaneva, and the Grönefeld brothers to convince him to return for his 20th anniversary in independent watchmaking. 

Vianney Halter with his award for the Deep Space Tourbillon at the GPHG in 2013, courtesy of GPHG.

This milestone was marked a limited edition of 20 Classic pieces, in stainless steel. Each of them had an encrypted code on each of the watch’s patented mystery winding rotors. It can only be deciphered if all 20 collectors come together, with their own Classic, and share the codes amongst themselves. This unusual twist shows the whimsical and playful side of Halter’s creative process.  

A curious timepiece that only entered serial production back in May of 2020, but has been Halter’s personal watch for years prior, is the Grand Voyageur. This colourful timepiece links one of his great passions – trains – and his career in watchmaking. The watch was born from a meeting in 2000 between Halter and Jean-Yves Mariez, a man who had worked for the French railway, SNCF, for many years, and had most notably designed the signage used in their stations. The opportunity to create the perfect travelling companion was too hard to pass up for Halter, so he designed a deceptively complex three-hander by taking some styling cues from the clocks found on stations.

The striking, colourful dials found on Halter’s Grand Voyageur series, courtesy of Vianney Halter.

This watch runs off an auto-quartz movement, giving it a power reserve of 100 days and impressive accuracy. With a rotor powering a small generator, it can combine the best of both worlds. There is also one final trick up this timepiece’s sleeve. According to Halter, when it reaches its last 18 hours of reserve, the watch will enter “End of Energy” mode, where the seconds hand will jump four seconds, every four seconds, to warn the wearer that they need to move it. If, for some reason, the owner knows that they won’t wear the watch for 100 days, they can place the watch into sleep mode by pulling out the crown, all while the watch keeps its 30m water resistance.  

The Grand Voyager is not Halter's most recent release. It was followed by the latest evolution of his Deep Space Concept, the Deep Space Resonance. The inspiration for this piece dates back to 1998, to the very start of his brand. During the financial crisis in Asia, Halter found he had some spare time on his hands and took up playing the piano. Unfortunately, while he had spare time, he lacked the money to pay for a professional tuner, so he took on the task himself. While tuning his piano, he noticed that when he struck one of the three wires that make up each note, the other two would pick up its frequency and begin to resonate. This discovery stayed in his mind for more than two decades and would eventually lead to him developing his unique resonating movement.  

Here, two balance wheels are connected mechanically to allow their frequencies to match, no matter the conditions. This was one issue he had with François-Paul Journe’s own approach to integrating resonance into a wristwatch. Within Journe’s approach, if the air pressure in the watch were to ever drop, the phenomenon would completely lose its effectiveness. Halter chose to tackle things differently, by mechanically connecting the balance wheels. 

While Halter’s Resonance might not be to everyone’s taste, it demonstrates his ability to turn his horological mind to a myriad of complications and transform them into something unique. This is something of a theme throughout all his creations – Halter respects traditional watchmaking while adding his own creative spin, which is a result of his mixed influences, from astrological watchmakers from the past to science fiction and the novels of Jules Verne.

The movement that powers the Deep Space Resonance, courtesy of Vianney Halter.

It’s likely that Halter is aware of where he sits in a wider historical context. As Getz tell us, “He’s not only a watchmaker, but a historian of watchmaking. And, at the end of the day, I think he’s going to be regarded as being on the right side of history in the development of his craft.” One of the many things that has constantly impressed Getz has been Halter’s impressive attention to the smallest details. “The box for the Antiqua not only has a winder that he designed to ensure the watch always stops facing upright, but the ring around the display window matches the metal type of your watch.” Getz also believes that you could even select the type of wood your box was made from. 

Parting Thoughts

As we’ve hopefully illustrated, Halter is no usual watchmaker. His varied interests – from Star Trek and trains to tuning his own piano – have come to influence, and even define, his watchmaking. His work fits quite interestingly within the rebirth of mechanical watchmaking which occurred towards the late 20th century, as the industry was forced to adapt in the wake of the Quartz Crisis. Whilst some, from established manufactures like Patek Philippe or rising independents like Dufour, looked back at the past and focused on tradition, Halter was firmly set on reinventing the future.  

An image of Bender, a character from Futurama, stitched into Halter’s apron pocket.

He was arguably part of a small group of independents who chose to push horology forward, either through their use of innovative materials or by breaking the design codes of the past. Whether it’s the bold designs of Urwerk and De Bethune or the irreverent approach to complications adopted by Richard Mille, a few watchmakers during this period felt that the future of horology could look different. And they acted on it. As far as we’re concerned, if you were to take a time machine a century into the future, we still think that Vianney Halter’s work would stand out.  

Our thanks to Vianney Halter and Gary Getz for sharing the rich and varied history behind these futuristic watches. We would also like to credit The Hour Glass, The Eclecticum, and The Naked Watchmaker for their images of Vianney Halter's pieces.