18 November 2021
Beneath the surface: a peek at the world of “indie” watchmaking
by Mike Ortolano
Rolex. Patek Philippe. Cartier. Breitling. Omega. Tudor. Jaeger-LeCoultre. These are all globally renowned businesses in the luxury watchmaking world. When the average consumer thinks about fine watchmaking, one of these brands is very likely to be the first to come to mind. These brands don’t cover all of fine watchmaking though. There is an entire ocean that sits beneath the surface, often referred to as the world of “independent watchmakers.” Collectors and enthusiasts of these brands simply call them, “indies.”
The value proposition of an indie can vary greatly. Sometimes, they produce the most innovative designs in modern watchmaking (see: Urwerk or MB&F). Sometimes, they are considered the pinnacle of fine watchmaking for “insiders” and top-notch collectors (see: Philippe Dufour or Daniel Roth). Sometimes, they create exceptional craftsmanship at great prices (see: Habring, Kurono Tokyo, or Louis Erard). Whatever “it” is, the indies have done what they do so well that there is a massive, cult-like following by the watch collector community on Instagram.
Opposite of Fight Club, the first rule of collecting indies is to talk about it openly and often. That’s why we’re casting a light on a few of the watchmakers, some mentioned already above, for those who may be less acquainted with this horological underworld.
You may already be familiar with F.P. Journe. Of all the indies in focus today, it is by far the biggest brand. That doesn’t mean they have a massive annual production though. At roughly ~900 watches / year, the rarity of Journe timepiece is formidable when stacked up against the production of Patek Philippe at ~50,000 or Rolex (speculated) at close to 1,000,000 watches per year. You simply won’t see many of these in the “wild” on someone’s wrist.
That said, the appeal of F.P. Journe is about much more than rarity though. It’s about invention, innovation, and pushing watchmaking tradition along. And the man doing it is Francois-Paul Journe.
For collectors and enthusiasts, attraction to the brand cannot be separated from respect for the man behind the brand. Whether it’s his work inventing the first tourbillon with remontoir or the first watch to use resonance for accuracy purposes on the Chronomètre à Résonance, Journe has been at the forefront of watchmaking innovation for more nearly three decades now. These are marvels in modern watchmaking, and recent auction results show that the market recognizes them as such. For many, pwning a Journe timepiece has been elevated to the level of “grail” – the end game of a collector’s journey. Whether it’s the original, early Tourbillon Souverain or one of the watchmaker’s more contemporary, Chronometre Bleu timepieces, these watches have an undeniable appeal.
H. Moser & Cie.
H. Moser & Cie Streamliner
Run by Edouard Meylan, son of Audemars Piguet’s former CEO, H. Moser & Cie. is operated by a team with deep watch industry know-how. The brand’s in-house movements, expertise in escapements, and their beautiful dial manufacturing are widely recognized by collectors and enthusiasts as top-notch. And their timepieces run the whole spectrum from classic, time-only watches in precious metals to modern watches that embrace satire. That’s right, Moser is mostly alone in fine watchmaking as a brand that creates satirical timepieces.
In an industry dominated by “black-tie vibes,” Moser’s Swiss Alp Watch, the brand’s response to the Apple Watch, stands out and speaks directly to collectors with humour. They’ve gone much even further in the past though. The Swiss Icons Watch was so controversial that the brand never publicly showed it to anyone. Moser’s willingness to go where most other luxury brands refuse is definitely one of the main factors driving its success since the Meylan’s took the business over about a decade ago. For collectors and enthusiasts that enjoy a bit of humor in the watch world, Moser is worth a much deeper dive.
Though Louis Erard has produced timepieces since 1929, it feels like their recent collaborations with fellow indie watchmakers has brought the brand to the next level. At least in the eyes of the indie collector community, things have popped off recently with the Le Régulateur x Vianney Halter, a co-creation with another living legend in the indie underground. It’s astounding to see something resembling the distinct aesthetic of Vianney at much more affordable prices. Normally, owning any by the watchmaker would cost upwards of $100,000, especially in the case of either of Vianney’s two iconic watches in modern independent watchmaking, the Antiqua and the Classic.
It’s not only indie collectors that are wildly enthusiastic about the collaboration. The GPHG Awards, effectively the Emmy’s of the watch industry, nominated this timepiece for its Petite Aiguille – best timepiece that retails under $8,000. Combined with their more recent collaboration with Alain Silberstein, Louis Erard is a great indie brand for collectors that want something funky at relatively affordable prices.
Habring2 Foudroyante Felix
Value for money, there’s a case to be made that you simply can’t beat Habring2. And there's a good reason for it. A split-second chronograph perpetual calendar for under $25,000, it sounds frankly impossible! Not for Richard and Maria Habring, the watchmaking couple who make up the 2 in Habring2.
It makes sense when you come to realize the duo’s background. At IWC, Richard played a central role in the ingenious invention of a split-second module that integrates into a Valjoux 7750 movement. For this work, he’s widely considered the king of chronographs, and Habring2 reflects that. Their collection of timepieces are mostly focused on chronograph complications – monopusher chronograph, split-second, a patented crown-pusher chronograph.
Habring2 produces some fascinating novelties beyond the realm of chronographs with their Foudroyante Felix – an interesting, very unusual complication. Know sometimes as the “lightning second” indicator, a foudroyante complication indicates the foudroyante mechanism
This watch sheds more light on why indies can be so much fun – they experiment with and produce complications that won’t often come by with more “mainstream” brands.
Hajime Asaoka, the watchmaker behind Kurono Tokyo, is the most unorthodox in this list by a wide margin. Previously an industrial designer, Hajime is a self-taught watchmaker and a true student of the craft. Under his eponymous brand, he created Tsunami, widely regarded as one of the finest time-only watches in the world, and invented a tourbillon with the smallest ball bearings ever used in watchmaking for the Project T Tourbillon. Generally, the Tsunami and Project T Tourbillon timepieces sit at the same price point as F.P. Journe at the pinnacle of high watchmaking (>$50,000). Kurono Tokyo, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is Hajime’s attempt to democratize his creations and his distinct design language.
In its first few years of production, Hajime has put his foot on the pedal and hasn’t looked back. Kurono Tokyo has released XXX watches from the early Reiwa Copper Dial to more elaborate dial designs with the Mori Green or Grand Akane. The brand has even released an automatic chronograph.
There’s a similar play at work here, as with Louis Erard. When these “titans'' of independent watchmaking, the Vianney Halter’s and Hajime Asaoka’s, create watches at much more accessible prices than their usual work, it is widely appreciated by the indie watch community. And it creates a lot of excitement for the future. With a slew of recent, hot releases, everyone is on the edge of their seat awaiting Hajime’s next Kurono Tokyo release.
These five brands only scratch the surface of independent watchmaking. There are many, many more living legends, the “Journe’s” of this world, as well as highly talented up-and-comers in the early days of their watchmaking careers. And that’s what makes the indies so much fun for many, it feels like a living, breathing ecosystem of creators. And they are all focused on the same thing – creating exceptionally fine timepieces according to their vision.
Deemed the “watch community’s favorite thinkboi” by Tony at Rescapement, Mike is a watch collector and writer behind The Open Caseback.