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Watchmaking is like any good story: there is a beginning, a middle, chapters and characters to know. If you are reading these lines, you are already familiar with the big names in watchmaking: Rolex, Breitling, TAG Heuer, IWC, Hublot, Panerai and many others. But today, we're taking you to another world: that of the independents. Ready for the big trip?
Some watches are unavoidable, and you may be lucky enough to own (at least) one model. Navitimer, Royal Oak, Submariner, Reverso, Monaco: so many legendary names that speak to everyone and cover a wide range of passions, from the classic to the sport-chic, via racing or diving. Models and brands that are sometimes centuries old, produced in hundreds of thousands of pieces - and even then, sometimes that is not enough!
Independent watchmaking is the opposite: a confidential reputation, rare examples, and a very narrow fringe of collectors. We don't even always talk about "brands" but more simply about the "watchmakers" who make them. Some names? François-Paul Journe, Vianney Halter, Ludovic Ballouard, Kari Voutilainen, Vincent Calabrese, David Candaux, among others. Don't panic: if you don't know three quarters of them, it's normal! We are here to guide you, both among the old hands who have paved the way and among the most promising young watchmakers!
François-Paul Journe is the best known. He is a pure watchmaker, probably one of the most talented of his generation - he is now 62. He grew up in Marseille but founded his own factory in Geneva in 1999. He is a specialist in antique watchmaking. He uses the codes but injects a good dose of modernity into his creations. An anecdote: Journe always designs the dial of his watches first! And it is from this pencil drawing that he then conceives the movement that will give it life. This is very rare, as most watchmakers usually start from the movement and not the dial.
Today, the F.P. Journe style is very identifiable, and his collections remain very limited: Classique, Linesport, Elégante. He has (almost) always had 10 boutiques around the world, but his creations are mostly pre-sold to his loyal customers. Hence the stratospheric prices at auctions and second hand...
It's much the same story for Kari Voutilainen. Like Journe, this Finnish watchmaker moved to Switzerland to establish his brand just 20 years ago, in 2002. Like Journe, he initially specialised in traditional Haute Horlogerie. And like Journe, he injects a great deal of modernity, even if his processes are sometimes more traditional - Voutilainen is a great fan of guilloché, for which he has invented a large number of motifs. Anecdote? He is the independent watchmaker who has won the most prizes at the GPHG, Grand Prix de l'Horlogerie de Genève, even though he is not physically based there! His current pieces require several years of waiting. But it is still possible to get close to the master's signature thanks to his collaborations, notably with Schwarz Etienne...
Collab is what sums up the approach of Max Büsser, the "MB" of the "MB&F" brand. You've guessed it: the "F" stands for the "Friends" of the great Max, a collective of watchmakers of varying geometry with whom he designs the craziest pieces. His inspiration: the cartoon heroes of the 1970s, the universe, exploration, design, and architecture. With several particularities: if MB&F has its own place, a historical place in Geneva, it is in fact...an art gallery! You may find a watch there, but also and above all photos, sculptures, and other unobtainable objects. Fun fact? It took Max Büsser almost 20 years to make his first ladies' watch, the FlyingT. And it is now his number one selling watch. Max designed it for his family: he is surrounded only by women, with his wife and their two daughters. They all live in Dubai today, an international hub where he can meet most of his collectors.
Vincent Calabrese is a different generation, one that is slowly approaching 80 years of age. But he is and remains a legend. A certain Blancpain tourbillon, it is him. The carrousel pro is him. The Corum baguette movement, it's still him. The Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI), which brings together the best independent watchmakers in the world, was also created by him. And much more besides. A man of the shadows but with a strong temperament, he remains a tutelary figure in watchmaking. The anecdote? After creating the baguette movement that gave life to Corum's Golden Bridge, Calabrese thought he could make a watch movement in the shape of just about any letter in the alphabet. If one day you want to have a watch not with your initials, but whose movement is the initial of your name or your first name, it is possible (but not cheap, it is made to measure!).
Vincent Calabrese has no pupils, like Philippe Dufour, a watchmaker of the same generation who is also a living legend (see his Simplicity: it has not been produced for 10 years, and Dufour recently confided that he still receives about ten requests every day to make one!) However, David Candaux could be their spiritual son. In fact, David and Philippe Dufour are neighbours, in Le Soliat, a few kilometres from Jaeger-LeCoultre (where David started his career - anyway, let's move on!). Today, David Candaux is 100% independent. His motto: heart and mind. His creation is one of the rare watches with a curved case, whose profile follows the curve of the wrist. Its crown is retractable. Tourbillon and hour dial are equally important. A very high-level piece that should be compared, in spirit, to a Ferdinand Berthoud. Pure works of art with six figures, very difficult to find. If there were to be a final chapter to the "beautiful watchmaking story" we were talking about, it would be this one...
A few generations later, the two founders Andrea Furlan and Hamad Al Marri have created the Furlan Marri brand. The project started in the middle of COVID and was launched on Kickstarter: a nice project that shows the support of enthusiasts for ambitious projects. The price, the look: these are the two ingredients of the (successful) launch of this young start-up, mainly on Instagram. The brand is on the same ground as Baltic, which very early on understood how to reinterest future generations in mechanical watchmaking if the product was beautiful, well designed, and affordable. The approach is the same as Norqain, but with an even more accessible positioning.
Furlan and Marri are long-time friends. The former has built up a network of suppliers in Asia, while the latter has already been introduced to the world of collectors. The codes of the brand's creations are rooted in Patek Philippe classicism and in the chronos of the beginning of the previous century. Inspiring and even very tempting!
Do we still need to introduce Rexhep Rexhepi? He is only 35 years old. Born in Kosovo, he moved to Geneva in 2012, at the age of 25. He works with Patek Philippe and F.P. Journe. The young man wants to hit hard, and his first piece is a tourbillon! But he quickly realised that only small, hand-made series, not necessarily complicated, would attract the favour of the greatest collectors. Rexhep Rexhepi has already sold nearly sixty watches. He makes them all by hand, and it now takes almost two years to get one. Are we witnessing the birth of a giant?
Watchmaking is like any good story: there is a beginning, a middle and, above all, no end. We will still be amazed by the future enthusiasts who will create the watchmaking of tomorrow. So, get out your pencils.