Independent watchmakers: 10 names you need to know
Specialist Sabine Kegel outlines the most collectable names and models, from impeccably crafted technological marvels to avant-garde designs inspired by space travel and motor racing
François-Paul Journe is a graduate of the Paris watchmaking school. He established his workshop in Geneva in 1996, designing and making watch mechanisms for other famous brands. In 1999, he presented his own vision of contemporary watchmaking with a collection of wristwatches signed ‘F.P. Journe Invenit et Fecit’ — using a Latin phrase meaning ‘invented and made’ that appears in the signatures of Renaissance artists, certifying that each of his timepieces combines an entirely original concept with rigorous craftsmanship.
A member of the AHCI, Journe is one of the most acclaimed players in the field of haute horology and has received numerous awards. Today, several of his timepieces are considered icons by collectors, notably the Chronomètre Bleu, but also the early models featuring brass movements, such as the first series of Chronomètre à Résonance watches from 2000.
Atelier Akrivia (Rexhep Rexhepi)
In 2012, the brilliant young watchmaker Rexhep Rexhepi fulfilled his childhood dream by founding his own watchmaking atelier, Akrivia — a name that means ‘precision’ in Greek.
The idea was to express his own vision of haute horology by combining traditional and artisanal methods with contemporary style. In 2014, Akrivia’s first watch, the Tourbillon Chronographe Monopoussoir, was revealed at the Baselworld trade show, and in 2018 his Chronomètre Contemporain won the men’s category prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG).
In 2019, Akrivia teamed up with the celebrated casemaker Jean-Pierre Hagmann, and today the small team produces fewer than 30 watches a year. To date, only one has been offered at auction: the Chronomètre Contemporain Only Watch, which sold for CHF 360,000 at Christie’s Only Watch sale in 2019.
The watch has a bespoke grey-blue multilayered grand feu enamel dial that contrasts beautifully with the white enamel numerals and scales and is also notable for its hand-hammered finish. The in-house movement is hand-finished using traditional techniques such as anglage, black polish and Côtes de Genève. The symmetrical architecture is a signature feature of Rexhep Rexhepi’s calibre designs.
Operating out of his own workshop in Le Sentier, Switzerland, since 1978, Philippe Dufour is venerated by a dedicated circle of collectors. His exceptional watches include the grande and petite sonnerie minute-repeating wristwatch, the first ever to incorporate such a complex mechanism, which was presented at Baselworld in 1992.
This has since been joined by two other models: the Duality, which has two escapements, and the Simplicity. Today Dufour works with his daughter Daniela, also a master watchmaker. Watches signed Philippe Dufour rarely appear at auction and are highly sought-after.
In 1999, after 25 years in the watch business, Richard Mille founded his own company in collaboration with Audemars Piguet. Launched in 2011, his first watch, the RM 001 Tourbillon, was produced in an initial series of only 17 examples.
The brand enjoyed a meteoric rise thanks to its avant-garde and highly recognisable design language, as well as its use of materials and techniques borrowed from motor racing and aeronautics.
Partnerships are crucial to Mille, and have led to the development of surprising pieces with high-profile personalities such as the Brazilian racing driver Felipe Massa and the actors John Malkovich and Michelle Yeoh. In 2010, Rafael Nadal won his fifth French Open tennis title wearing the RM 027 that Mille had developed for him, one of the lightest tourbillon watches in the world, weighing a mere 18 grams.
Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey describe themselves as ‘sculptors of time, choreographers of the passing hours and architects of watch movement — with a screwdriver for a brush, a propelling-pencil for a quill, and steel or gold as our supports’.
They have been working together for more than 20 years and, in 2004, launched Greubel Forsey to improve the performance of existing complications and invent groundbreaking models such as the Double Tourbillon 30°, the Quadruple Tourbillon and the Tourbillon 24 Secondes. They make fewer than 100 timepieces a year.
In 2006, Greubel Forsey joined forces with Philippe Dufour, Vianney Halter and Kari Voutilainen to found the Time Æon Foundation, an organisation that works to preserve outstanding craftsmanship in watchmaking. Initiatives include Naissance d’une Montre (‘Birth of a Watch’), whereby a young and talented watchmaker is taught the skills necessary to construct a watch by hand. In 2016, the first prototype, a collaboration between Greubel Forsey, Philippe Dufour and Michel Boulanger, fetched HK$11,296,000 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
Vianney Halter graduated from the Paris watchmaking school in 1981 and devoted the first few years of his professional life to the restoration of antique clocks, pocket watches and wristwatches.
Having set up his own atelier in Sainte-Croix, Switzerland — named Janvier SA in honour of the great French watchmaker Antide Janvier (1751-1835) — he designed and made a number of timepieces for other companies. In 1998 he launched a collection based on his own technical patents and trademarked designs, and joined the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI). He has since created 12 wristwatch models and won nine awards, including the prestigious Gaïa Prize in 2016.
In 2005, after decades in conventional watchmaking, Maximilian Büsser launched a totally new artistic concept called MB&F — Maximilian Büsser & Friends. The idea was to assemble groups of independent watchmaking artists to develop radical timepieces.
While continuing to respect traditional watchmaking of the highest craftsmanship, MB&F creates futuristic, resolutely unconventional timekeeping ‘Machines’: beautifully finished sci-fi creations in highly sculptural cases, which have won several prizes at the GPHG.
In 2011, MB&F opened the first M.A.D. Gallery in Geneva, followed by others in Taipei, Dubai and Hong Kong. The galleries showcase the full range of MB&F Machines as well as a variety of carefully curated Mechanical Art Devices capturing the magic of kinetic art. Monthly output is very low. To maintain quality, the company offers a free service and one-year guarantee for all watches sold at Christie’s.
Dr. Roger W. Smith OBE
Born in Bolton, England, in 1970, Roger W. Smith enrolled in a course at the British School of Watchmaking in Manchester aged 16 and passed at the top of his class. One of the visiting speakers was Dr. George Daniels, who inspired him to make watches by hand.
In 1998 he moved to the Isle of Man to work on the ‘Daniels Millennium’ series with the man he described as ‘the greatest horologist of all time’, and on completing the series three years later, he set up his own studio.
His own ‘Series 1’ — nine rectangular-cased watches each fitted with a retrograde calendar — was completed over a period of three years. In 2008, he embarked on his final collaboration with Daniels: a series of 35 numbered watches to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Daniels’s invention of the coaxial escapement.
Smith is one of the very few watchmakers in the world to have mastered all 32 unique trades needed to make a watch by hand. His outstanding services to watchmaking have been recognised on numerous occasions, notably in the UK government’s Great Britain campaign. In 2018, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE). His timepieces are among the rarest to appear at auction and are hugely popular with collectors.
Ur was an ancient Sumerian city in which sundials were used for timekeeping; Werk is the German word for creation. Together (in a variation on Uhrwerk, meaning ‘clockwork’) they make Urwerk, a company founded in 1997 by the watchmaker Felix Baumgartner and designer Martin Frei. They presented their first timepieces, the UR-101 and UR-102, at Baselworld the same year.
Baumgarten and Frei are admired for their avant-garde designs inspired by space travel, yet their signature time display of rotating satellites is based on a watch that dates back to 1656. They produce only around 130 to 150 pieces per year and have won a number of awards, notably the 2019 GPHG Audacity prize for the AMC (Atomic Master Clock).
Sign up today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Born in Finland in 1962, Kari Voutilainen studied at the famous Finnish School of Watchmaking in Tapiola, before completing a post-graduate course in the restoration of high-quality rare watches at the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Programme (WOSTEP).
In 2002, he opened his own workshop in Môtiers, Switzerland, before presenting his first watches at Baselworld in 2005. His success was immediate and his popularity has continued to grow.
Voutilainen’s watches are classic timepieces built on solid technical foundations. He produces every watch himself, shaping each detail, and has won several awards, including seven GPHG prizes and, in 2014, the prestigious Gaïa Prize for craftsmanship and creativity. Production numbers are low, with each watch incorporating its own specific characteristics and functions, making Kari Voutilainen’s timepieces a joy for collectors.