Megabrands may dominate the market but it’s often the independent brands that have the biggest ideas
Angelus movements are found in early Panerai watches made for the Italian navy. Founded by brothers Albert and Gustav Stolz 130 years ago, Angelus has racked up an impressive list of world firsts in innovative watchmaking: from monopusher chronographs in 1925 to the development of the world’s smallest eight-day movement five years later; from the world’s first series chronograph with a date display in 1942 to, in 1956, the first wristwatch with alarm and date function and, in 1958, the first automatic repeater. Its innovations also include some more unusual ideas: in 1944 Angelus created the Telco, the first watch designed for recording the length of long-distance phone calls.
Contemporary French watchmaker Vincent Bérard once said that his intention wasn’t to ‘shake the foundations of the industry… but to find the best continuation of its traditions, interpreting them in a modern key using currently available technology’. Three years after he launched his eponymous brand in 2003 — after 30 years as a watch restorer — Timex acquired it. The insight was right even if the timing — thanks to the 2008 financial crash — wasn’t, and the brand was put on the back-burner. The pieces that were produced during this phase, notably his Four Seasons series, are highly collectible, not least for their strikingly original movements.
This company was founded by Steven Holtzman in 2005 to market watches by superstars of the craft. Its first piece, 2008’s Chapter One, was designed by Peter Speake, Christophe Claret and Roger Dubuis; Speake-Marin and Dubuis were joined by Daniel Roth for Chapter Two, and Chapter Three, in 2012, was the work of Andreas Strehler and Kari Voutilainen. These, predictably, were elegant if spectacularly complicated watches: the Chapter One is a monopusher chronograph with retrograde date, retrograde GMT, rolling bars indicating days of the week and Moon phases and, oh, a tourbillon. Chapter Four is awaited with bated breath.
Ming is a collective of six Malaysia-based watch enthusiasts led by the photographer, designer and business strategist Ming Thein. It has designed several distinctive pieces, which are made by expert partners such as Schwarz-Etienne. The results can be an exercise in minimalism, as in the 18.02 Abyss dive watch and the OuJ Celestial models, or maximalism, as with its 20.11 Mosaic. What unites them is a retro-futuristic mood, appropriate for a company that consciously rejects the well-trodden idea that a watch company must have history to have credibility.
Bovet’s remit is artful design. The company established by Edouard Bovet in 1822 is a pioneer in highly decorative and skeletonised dials that reveal extremely complex movements. Take its hand-wound Récital 27 for example: it has three displays showing three time zones, together with a domed double Moon phase for both northern and southern hemispheres. Its Château de Môtiers 40 Papillon has a mother-of-pearl dial featuring a hand-painted butterfly.
The distinctiveness of some watches is the result of them not being the work of watch designers, and those by architect Alain Silberstein are a case in point. Inside they are mechanically A-grade, but outside they diverge radically from the traditions of watchmaking, with a bold postmodern aesthetic of bright colours and disrupted forms. His Krono Bauhaus is a stand-out example. Silberstein, who says the watch dial should be a work of art that, first and foremost, sparks emotion, first turned to watch design in 1987, and a series of collaborations with watchmakers including Louis Erard and MB&F followed.
In the 1980s digital watches started to include basic video games among their functions. Christophe Claret has taken this idea into the world of mechanical watches with his gaming models, on which you can play blackjack, roulette or even Texas hold ’em poker. Claret set up his watchmaking atelier in the late 1980s after training under Roger Dubuis. He launched his business with a single order for 20 San Marco jacquemart minute repeaters from Rolf Schnyder, the late owner of Ulysse Nardin.
Switzerland dominates watchmaking in the public imagination, but Japan’s history of craftsmanship is similarly esteemed. Watches designed by Hajime Asaoka for his brand Kurono Tokyo are made using traditional techniques and include features such as cylindrical dials, where the face is raised at the centre and tapers down towards its edge. He also uses hand-mixed dial colours, from orangey pink to celadon blue. As a self-taught watchmaker, Asaoka displays great technical finesse, and in 2009 he launched Japan’s first high-end tourbillon watch.
Arguably the most influential independent watch designer of the 20th century, Gérald Genta was the man behind Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, IWC’s Ingenieur, Cartier’s Pasha, Patek Philippe’s Nautilus and Omega’s Constellation, among many others. Each model pushed the aesthetic boundaries of watch design, with sharp angles, exposed screws and the use of steel as a luxury material. Genta founded his business in 1969 with a line of super-complicated watches but sold the company, his designs and patents to Bulgari in 2000. He immediately set up Gerald Charles, where he continued to work until his death in 2011.