Between tradition and innovation: The watchmaking paradox

Between tradition and innovation: The watchmaking paradox (july 2015)


Showcasing centuries of traditional expertise while imagining the watches of tomorrow poses something of a challenge. Today, as in the past, it is seen as no coincidence that the French word for watchmaking, “horlogerie”, should rhyme with “génie”, genius.

Often, when we think of “fine watchmaking”, a clear image springs to mind: that of a man in a white coat, loupe strapped to his forehead, shoulders hunched over a workbench on which he – alone –assembles microscopic clock wheels. Yet this traditional vision holds a subliminal message: behind every mechanical watch movement lies a human brain, eyes, hands…

Each and every high-end piece contains a soul. That of the watchmaker who designed and assembled it. Not a single timepiece would ever see the light of day were it not deeply considered, reflected upon and imagined in every detail by a talented creator.

We might be inclined to believe that everything has already been invented in the world of the watchmaker, like the minute repeater designed in 1680, the automatic movement created in 1770 and the tourbillon, perfected in 1801. Can watchmaking today content itself with merely updating old recipes? Thomas Edison certainly wasn’t trying to improve the candle when he invented electricity! So much more than simply improving on the pre-existing, innovation involves carving out never before trodden paths and imagining truly new solutions.

Even if it might sound surprising and contradictory, it is often at the heart of small manufacturers, working in the “traditional” way, that the boldest ideas are born. Free from the straightjackets of marketing campaigns or productivity targets, a few rare, independent master watchmakers still manage to express their complete creative freedom. But even though they are capable of designing movements of outrageous complexity, they sometimes choose to combine this pioneering spirit with one of simplicity. The famous “less is more” principle.

Kari Voutilainen is one of the best examples. This Finnish watchmaker, producing only forty or so pieces each year for a well-informed audience, appreciates above all else the look of a classical watch: a rounded shape, fluid lines and genuinely useful complications. But behind the extreme sobriety of the dials, lies an absolute attention to technical perfection. Each wheel, each component of the movement, each element of the watch is completely perfect. Genius in its purest form.

Unknown to the general public, Kari Voutilainen, who received the Prix Gaïa earlier this year, considered as the Nobel Prize of watchmaking, is doubtlessly today one of the best watchmakers in the world. Amongst the likes of Andreas Strehler, Vianney Halter, Ludovic Ballouard and Bart and Tim Grönefeld

Ekaterina Sotnikova

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