Being able to appreciate the beauty in an inanimate object can be considered an art itself, but objects created by an artist shouldn’t require this. Often, I’m asked how to I manage to capture the beauty of a mechanical timepiece, but the answer is much simpler than one might think: A mechanical watch is a piece of art, and if you can’t see this, then perhaps you’re not looking hard enough. There is beauty in a lot of inanimate objects, such as furniture, high-end espresso machines, and other everyday things – and possibly even more beauty in archaic objects.
“There’s no time like the present,” as the saying goes, and although we live in modern times, the watches some of us chose to wear on our wrist are anything but. We love strapping mechanical watches to our wrist even though the technology within these pieces is centuries old, regardless of whether the method has been reinterpreted.
There is just something so charming about mechanical watches. Even a simple automatic Seiko or a mass-produced Rolex are created with a significant amount of handmade assembling – something often forgotten. There are also pieces created by true artisans (master watchmakers), who create breathtaking watches almost entirely by hand, with at least most of the overall value being because of the work of master craftsmen.
Admittedly, a lot of watches are judged nowadays depending on whether they are powered by an in-house movement or not, with the former being few and far between. Rolex is synonymous with greatness when it comes to everything watches, and there’s a reason for that. They produce and control almost every miniscule detail of every single watch they make, even down to the screws used.
However, this wasn’t always the case. In their early days, parts used in a Rolex wristwatch, such as dials, bracelets, or movements, came from external suppliers. Of course, that’s not a bad thing at all if the final watch is an overall masterpiece. Take, for example, the first automatic Rolex Daytona Ref. 16520, or the legendary Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph Ref. 5070. Both used base movements from external suppliers (Zenith & Lemania) and are highly sought-after collectors’ pieces.
Another brand that now only uses movements assembled in their own atelier is Jaeger-LeCoultre. They have one of the widest range of different movements in the watch industry, including some of the most complicated. There are also brands who use both their own movements as well as sourced movements from the likes of ETA and Sellita, such as IWC Schaffhausen and Omega.
The makers of Haute Horlogerie are given almost god-like statuses among watch collectors and it’s not hard to see why. Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Vacheron Constantin are world renowned for creating some of the finest watches the world has ever seen. But if you take a moment to consider the “Holy Trinity” of true Haute Horlogerie brands, today you’d could easily put A. Lange & Söhne amongst those mentioned. But what defines these brands as haute horlogerie manufacturers is their willingness to go above and beyond expectations and to not only make their timepiece aesthetically pleasing on the outside, but on the inside as well.
What do I mean when I say this? Consider this for a moment: The exhibition case back we all see on watches nowadays is quite a new fad and it allows us to observe the movement. Companies such as these go the extra mile in decorating the movement with special polishing patterns, blue screws, gold chatons, and intricate handwork. However, manufacturers of the “Holy Trinity” were decorating their movements like this before exhibition case backs were common play. That is haute horlogerie at its finest.
There is an elite group of independent watchmakers such as Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen, Roger Smith, Laurent Ferrier, and F.P. Journe. All the brands I just mentioned create the most beautiful pieces of watchmaking art. Take the Laurent Ferrier Galet Travel Time, for instance; it’s a masterpiece! It’s simple and subtle but has been executed by a watchmaker who has savoir-faire in abundance.
It is always these independent artisans who push the boundaries of watchmaking but remain mindful about the use of modern technology, making sure these timepieces still showcase what is still possible by hand. These brands go the extra mile to create works of art adored by collectors.
Mechanical watchmaking is an art form. While many large brands may use modern machines to aid their output and independent watchmakers chose flair over quantity, there are elements that require a human touch – that’s where the art comes in. Perhaps William Morris said it best when he said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Read more about the art of watchmaking
Better than perfect – overengineering in watchmaking
ETA movements – great and reliable workhorses or mass production without soul?