Watchmakers Look Back on their First Watch
Vianney Halter started his training young and finished early too. “I began to learn the watchmaking basics when I attended a watchmaking school in Paris, and I was just 14 at the time,” the watchmaker recalls. “But I turned out to be quite a good student. I ended up completing the programme ahead of schedule, and even persuaded one of the professors to teach me some aspects of watchmaking that weren’t in the programme.”
An early sketch of an Urwerk UR102, courtesy of Urwerk.
That was just the start of his education. On graduation, he got a job at a clock restorers in Paris, then a year later moved across the city to work with a pocket watch maker. Three years later, he set up his own workshop, specialising in desk clocks, before finally moving to Switzerland to work with François-Paul Journe at THA “and to learn the Swiss watchmaking mentality, from repair to creation”. So, when he came to make his first complete timepiece, his first solo effort, he went for it. There was careful planning. He cut all the components out in cardboard at ten times scale and set them all out on to a wooden board - “that was my way of making sense of it all, not on a computer,” he says. Then came the careful making.
The result was a pocket watch commissioned by Audemars Piguet. “It had a minute repeater, grande sonnerie, power reserve indication, sunset indication and moon phase. The whole thing was my own conception too,” says Halter, casually. His first wristwatch, later on? No less than a musical piece with automaton for Jaquet Droz, “but I don’t remember much about that one,” he adds.
The first watch that Vianney Halter produced, start to finish, on commission for Audemars Piguet, courtesy of Vianney Halter.
“And yet, looking back, I’m still sometimes amazed that I could do that at such a young age, though over the years you learn to do the same thing in a much less complicated way,” says Halter. “You know, I’m 58 now, but I can still think like a teenager, like I did when I made that first watch, and that can be useful when creating.”
Most watch enthusiasts have a special affection for the first watch they owned – that basic Timex, or a digital Casio perhaps. For any watchmaker, actually making their first watch is a somewhat more resonant rite of passage – a moment of reassurance that the understanding and talent is there, an indication perhaps of the greater things yet to come. The opportunity to make that first solo expedition into the world of miniature screws, springs, and balance wheels – to make what’s known in the trade as their “school watch” – may actually come at watchmaking school or it may come closer to home, or perhaps not until a few years into one’s fledgling career.
A very early Vianney Halter Antiqua numbered 00 and made in platinum, courtesy of The Hour Glass, owned by Dr Bernard Cheong.
Sometimes it’s the very economic circumstances shaping that career that proves inspirational, as with the case of Ludovic Ballouard. The watchmaker had certainly been around. He spent three years at a watchmaking school in Brittany, on graduation moved to Switzerland to work for Lemania - “I didn’t have any idea where I was when I arrived and it was just mountains everywhere, and then the winter was a real shock,” he says. He moved back to Brittany and worked on making aircraft instrumentation, then still all mechanical. Seven years later, still keen to use his training, he got a job with Franck Muller, where he says he got his real education in watchmaking. He then later moved to F.P. Journe.
Yet, it wasn’t until 2009 that he made his first watch in its entirety, albeit based on a design he’d begun working on while at watch school. That, fortunately, would also become his signature piece, the Upside Down watch, with a movement involving 12 Maltese Crosses, which is a device that prevents over-winding.
The movement of an early Upside Down by Ludovic Ballouard, showing all 12 of the Maltese Crosses around the outside, courtesy of Sotheby’s.
“The idea really developed because of the economic crisis, when the media was talking about the numbers being up and then down and I thought well, if one number – just one – is up, then life goes on,” he explains. “I thought all you really need in a watch is the same single bit of information to be the right way up. Of course, this being my first watch, I had the idea but not the money to realise it.”
Remarkably, given that this was his first watch, he managed to find 12 collectors to give him a 50% advance on one watch each, “without them really knowing what they were going to get,” he stresses. “Actually, making it was pretty scary. People had paid and yet I wasn’t quite sure how this watch was going to work. Yet it never occurred to me that it might be too complex for a first watch.” It was, as is so often the case for independent makers, a matter of going in at the deep end and even pushing to be allowed to.
Christophe Claret, who first interned with a watchmaker in Lyon at the age 14, shares a similar story. Having attended watchmaking school in Geneva for four years, he unusually went straight into business for himself, restoring and selling motorcycles to fund his first watchmaking workshop and tooling. There, he made a functionally basic watch.
“I also developed a machine for making circular Cote de Genève for finishing, which they used to subcontract before, because I wanted to do the decoration myself,” he says. “I think we were the first at the school to also make our own gold cases too. Unfortunately, I no longer have that first piece. It, and other watches from my collection, were stolen in a robbery.”
Indeed, Denis Flageollet, the watchmaker behind De Bethune, laments the fact that most watchmaking courses today don’t afford the opportunity for students to work up to more complex pieces slowly by actually making a basic watch during their years of study.
“That lack is a dramatic one for me,” he says. “I was lucky enough to be able to make a school piece by having the possibility to use the last Guillaume compensator balance at the watchmaking school in Le Locle, which I attended, and that allowed me to acquire advanced knowledge in chronometry. For me there was the great challenge of setting the watch well enough in the different positions and temperatures to be able to pass the tests of the chronometric bulletin of the Neuchâtel Observatory. Unfortunately, the know-how in watchmaking schools has been declining for more than 30 years, so, for the youngest of today, the [kind of school watch project I took on] is no longer accessible.”
A technical drawing for one of De Bethune’s signature design features, the articulated lugs, courtesy of De Bethune.
Looking back, he expresses some disappointment in the first commercial watch he produced too, a special commission for a collector in 1986. “When I finished it and delivered it, I still felt like I could do a lot better,” says Flageollet, who has his school watch at home. “You spend so much energy and put so much work into a piece and yet all I see are the flaws. It takes a few years before you can look back [on those early watches] to realise that maybe I wasn’t too bad. But it’s that kind of being hard on yourself that’s motivating to do better.”
Know-how can come in many forms, however. Growing up in the former East Germany, Marco Lang apprenticed during the late 1980s, not in watchmaking, but in fine mechanics. This is because East Germany’s watchmaking at the time - lacking any kind of local luxury market - was nearly all based on electronics.
The watchmaker Marco Lang at his workbench in Dresden, courtesy of Marco Lang.
“Actually, I think learning fine mechanics was more useful to me than being at a traditional watchmaking school then, because I really learnt how to make small metal parts, and that’s what the real basics of watchmaking are about, not just being able to put them together and finishing them nicely,” argues Lang, who also apprenticed in Glashütte for three years, and who’s now working on delivering his new Zweighsicht-1 model. “The fact is that you have real respect for a balance wheel when you have to make it.”
Indeed, Lang’s real passion was for restoration, particularly of precision pendulum clocks, but, as he found out, the market for those is limited. Consequently, his first watch build, for Lang & Heyne, was his Concept 1, based on a traditional late 19th century Saxony pocket watch. He was only passingly interested in making anything of this design “but then we got orders for 40 pieces at the Basel watch fair, and so suddenly I changed my mind,” he laughs. “It was a simple watch and really its high finishing was what made it stand out, though I think it was also in a way the hardest watch I’ve designed because, as a new company then, it came with no history.”
An early table clock made by Marco Lang, courtesy of Marco Lang.
Opting to first attempt a pocket watch before any wristwatch is not unusual among watchmakers. “It’s the same principles but with increased tolerances,” explains the maker Roger Smith. “You’re working at 100th of a millimetre rather than 1000ths, which is important when you’re learning”. For Bart Grönefeld, of Grönefeld watches, it wasn’t even a pocket watch, but a clock that would be his graduation work at the Dutch watchmaking school he attended. It wasn’t until he found employment with Renaud et Papi that he would come close to making his own first watch, by asking to be paid in the parts that would allow him to make a small minute repeater.
“That was the Bart Grönefeld No.1 - and there wouldn’t be a No.2.,” jokes Grönefeld, who would subsequently team up with his watchmaker brother. “I had my name engraved on one of the parts, and the engraver spelled that wrong at first. It was an existing movement, but I took the finishing to the next level. Every part had a black polish because I wanted it to look really different. I now know it’s rather too elaborate to do every part with a black polish, but all the same it was a great thrill to make your own watch for the first time.”
The minute repeater movement that Bart Grönefeld first constructed, courtesy of Bart Grönefeld.
For some, doing so would simply be expected. There are those watchmakers who effectively grow up in watchmaking school by dint of being part of a family watchmaking tradition. The Dresden-based Marco Lang, for example, is a fifth-generation watchmaker. His father was the first in-house watchmaking teacher at A. Lange & Söhne, “so it was pretty obvious what I was going to do when I grew up,” he chuckles. And Denis Flageollet is a fourth-generation maker, “so it was a profession I was immersed in from around the age of eight,” he recalls.
Comparative newbie Felix Baumgartner, the watchmaker behind Urwerk, is merely a third-generation maker, “so it proved that my best teacher was probably my father”, he says. That being said, he did also spend four years at the only school in Swiss Germany during the early 1990s, then in apprenticeship with Svend Andersen where, he notes with some pride, he worked on one of the Danish maker’s erotic automaton watches featuring Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
The Urwek UR-102 that holds the first movement that Felix Baumgartner designed and also appeared in the UR-101.
“Like a lot of makers, I didn’t get to make my own watch at school, but I did make a number of tools that I still use today,” says Felix. “I restored plenty of clocks, including making new steel and brass compensations for pendulum clocks, but really the first watch I made was the 101, the first for Urwerk, and that really went against the tradition of watchmaking at the time, which was to pack in as many complications as possible, which is really just about showing off I think. The 101 was very minimal.”
However, it was not without its complexities, not least that the minute hand was replaced by a rotating dial hundreds of times heavier, and so seriously energy hungry. “Given that, it was still a complicated mechanism for us,” he laughs. “The independent watch sector didn’t really exist then and ideas like this one divided a lot of minds. In fact, the first eight years of the business were brutal.”
Tell that to Roger Smith, who spent seven years in solitary trying to make his first watch. Smith’s story saw him building his own workshop in his father’s garage and making his first watch – again, a pocket watch – entirely solo, using a book by the master George Daniels as his guide.
A young Roger Smith in the workshop he made for himself in his parent’s house, courtesy of Roger Smith.
“For me that just seemed the only way into making my first watch,” says Smith, who intended to use it as a calling card, a means of persuading Daniels to take him on as what would prove to be his one and only apprentice. “I did manage to get it to tick but, as George put it politely, the craftsmanship let me down. There were a number of processes I had to learn, many of which aren’t taught in watchmaking schools, that would allow me to make a watch from start to finish, whereas the tradition has been to fragment these skills [among specialists]. George told me you should never see the hand of the maker in a hand-made watch, because people were looking for perfection. And, um, mine wasn’t perfect.”
That led Smith to spend seven more lonely, obsessive years making his second pocket watch, the one he sees as his graduation piece. If his first was a time only, one minute tourbillon, his second was the same but with a four-year perpetual calendar. “I figured that the added complexity would teach me what I needed to know,” Smith says, “but going for such a crazy complication at that stage was a bit masochistic”. It did, however, get him through the door with George Daniels. There, Smith’s “milestone” pieces were two watches for the Millennium Project, created to celebrate the Swiss industry’s adoption of Daniel’s pioneering co-axial escapement.
The pocket watch that convinced George Daniels that Roger was finally a watchmaker, courtesy of Roger Smith.
As for those pocket watches, like many a watchmaker’s first watch, they have long since gone amiss, though at least Smith knows how. The first of his pocket watches was cannibalised to provide parts for the second, and the second just sat in a kitchen drawer for three years, before he finally realised he could get some much needed funds by selling it to an American collector.
“Well,” he says, “it’s just a watch you made while learning your craft. You can’t be sentimental about these things.”