Even in a rather conservative watchmaking industry, there is always a place for some rebels ready to go against the generally accepted formulas and risk everything for the sake of a dream. And if the history of Urwerk can teach us anything, it's these individuals who create the classics of the future.
It somehow feels natural, that apart from traditional offerings by big renowned brands, there’s now a considerable segment of bold, futuristic timepieces of the highest price range. Richard Mille, MB&F, De Bethune, HYT, Rebellion Timepieces and other independent manufactures are not just on a par in class with the competitors who have the centuries-old pedigree, but in a sense truly represent the XXI century horology, offering something completely new instead of an endless variations of Abraham-Louis Breguet's works. And although each manufacturer is noteworthy in its own way, there is one brand, whose contribution was vital for the birth of the whole segment.
At the time when a watchmaking school graduate Felix Baumgartner met Martin Frei in 1995, the market had no such segments at all. During the first boom after a long industry crisis, the momentum was dominated by tourbillons and hyper complicated traditional watches. And yet, the ambitious young men decided to go against the trends and make a bet on a new interpretation of measuring and portraying time, which has much more in common with the world of sculpture than with a watch in the usual sense. The company was called Urwerk and 1997 saw the birth of UR-101 and UR-102.A monolithic case almost completely covering the dial, a jumping hour window traveling along the narrow aperture and showing the minutes via its position, a visual allusion to the motion of celestial bodies – everything was so sophisticated and unusual that the general reaction was mostly raised brows. The only good news was the recognition among watchmakers – just a year later Baumgartner was admitted to the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, the prestigious organization bringing together celebrated independent watchmakers from different countries.
It took six years of hard work to achieve a full-fledged breakthrough with UR-103 debuting in 2003. It has more or less shaped the brand's DNA in its current form, combining the sci-fi inspired designs with a fresh take on a satellite hour complication. Three hour discs, rotating like satellites around the central axis, appeared in the aperture one at a time, performing as a retrograde minute indicator. Much of this mechanical magic remained hidden from prying eyes inside the case, making it almost impossible for those not in the know to guess the basic principle of the device.In a next couple of years, Baumgartner and Frei managed to build on the success with another two strong releases. A collaboration with Harry Winston, whose Opus series originally implied cooperation with independent Swiss manufactures was followed by UR-103.03, whose dial was not a monolithic metal surface, but a sapphire crystal revealing a movement in all its glory.
2007 was marked with the premiere of the next big concept – UR-201. The hour discs were now left behind in favor of rotating cubes with four numerals each. The telescopic hands hidden inside each 'satellite' acted as a minute pointers and were automatically tuned to the optimal length, depending on their position on the dial. The other indications included power reserve and day/night on the front, and two unique counters on the back. The first one indicated the time when the watch needs to be returned for service, and the second measured the total mechanism's 'mileage'.The same year Michael Jordan, basketball legend and avid watch collector, came on one of the American TV shows rocking a gold UR-103 on the wrist. From now on aggressive and instantly recognizable Urwerk design finally entered the pop culture domain. Meanwhile the manufacture continued to bombard the watch world with cool novelties: UR-CC1King Cobra with digital seconds, speedometer-like dial and a triple retrograde display, the crazy pocket watch UR-1001, and of course the EMC collection, offering customers to measure the movement precision themselves. For the latter, the company was even awarded two Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève statuettes in Mechanical Exception and Innovation categories.
The company has two workshops – one in Zurich and the other one in Geneva – however, their total staff hardly exceeds 15-20 people. Like some other independents, Urwerk does not seek to increase volumes, that are currently about a hundred and fifty pieces a year. The same applies to the R&D department. Don’t expect them to come with a new piece every few months, more likely once in a couple of years. There are also quite experimental projects, such as a Full Metal Jacket flask, created in cooperation with Macallan, the famous producer of Scotch whiskey. Why do anyone need a mechanical titanium flask, which, at the push of a button, can swap two hidden inside tanks with different drinks? For the sake of art, of course! And how did you like the Urwerk’s collaboration with Laurent Ferrier, the classic dress watches guru? What might they have in common? However, the Laurent Ferrier & Urwerk Arpal One – named after the complex alloy used for the case – was clearly one of the most striking timepieces of the Only Watch 2017 auction.
And as if all of the above seems not crazy enough, Martin and Felix have another ace up their sleeve: the unbelievable AMC, standing for Atomic Mechanical Control. Yes, we’re not joking! The lucky owner of such a device each night places his watch inside a special dock stationary atomic clock weighing 30 kg, whose error is only a second for 300 thousand years. A small mechanical miracle not only synchronizes with the big brother, but also automatically winds up. Talking of Abraham Louis Breguet parallels, it turns out to be a XXI century Pendule Sympathique. And one piece is already reserved for the museum.
We’ve had a chance to personally ask Martin Frei of this revolutionary, yet rather strange concept and his explanation was typical Urwerk. ‘In order to make something revolutionary, you have to make stuff no one asked for at the moment. After nearly 8 years of work, we’ve managed to combine the mechanical world with atomic timekeeping – the most precision-related device made by humanity. And it’s ok if some people need mode time to decide whether AMC goes along with their definition of modern watchmaking art. It’s much like our EMC is a mechanical watch but with electronic device that measured precision. It doesn’t really touch the mechanics. It literary looks at the balance wheel via the light, just like a machine any watchmaker has at the desk.’Well, if your strategy is based on going against the stream, there’s always have to be an element of surprise. And as for surprises, Urwerk can definitely give odds to anyone.