The Best Watchmakers You Haven’t Heard Of
The watchmakers to watchmakers, these independent companies prove you needn’t require the backing of a conglomerate to get the industry ticking.
It’s true, these days the majority of major-label watch brands belong to the portfolio of huge parent companies—Swatch Group, Richemont and LVMH having spent the previous 30 years feverishly acquiring large swathes of the industry. Yet, behind the household dial-names taking up jewellery-shop windows, a cornucopia of independent companies is busy producing some of the most interesting, elegant and downright bat-shit crazy watches out there. If you’re looking for a watch with real talking-point status, these are the watchmakers’ watchmakers.
F.P. Journe is the only watchmaker to have won the Grand Prize at the hallowed Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix three times over. The cinematic equivalent would be for a filmmaker to be named Best Director at the Academy Awards on three occasions. It’s an even more impressive feat when you consider that F.P. Journe is an independent brand lacking the backing of a multinational parent company. A doff of the cap.
Having served at Patek Philippe for 37 years—a four-decade tenure that saw him rise to creative director—you might have forgiven Laurent Ferrier for putting his feet up. Not so for this third-generation watchmaker. In 2010, aged 63, Ferrier decided that the time was right to launch a watch brand of his own. He debuted with the Galet Classic Tourbillon Double Spiral, an elegant piece that was named Best Men’s Watch at that year’s Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix. The rest, as they say…
MB&F doesn’t call itself a watchmaker: it prefers to be known as an “artistic concept laboratory”. That’s because MB&F doesn’t make watches. Nope, what the brand makes is “horological machines”. And so we get robotic clocks, time-telling music boxes, and timepieces shaped like spaceships, jet engines and jellyfish. Occasionally, the maddest brand in watchland will come out with something you can actually wear on your wrist.
H. Moser & Cie.
The main advantage of being independent is, surely, autonomy, and therefore the freedom to pursue your dreams—regardless of how outré and commercially perilous those ideas might be. Never one to let convention get in the way, H. Moser & Cie. has, in its two-decade history, given us a mickey-take of the Apple Watch named the Alps Watch Zzzz; a timepiece with a case made of actual cheese; and an equally irreverent number from which real plants sprouted. Somehow, it works, often spectacularly—as with 2019’s Swiss Alp Watch Concept Black, which featured no hands and no hour indices. Go figure.
As British as a Beefeater eating a cucumber sandwich, Henley-on-Thames-based Bremont has been spearheading the mission to bring back mass-scale mechanical watchmaking to the United Kingdom since 2002. Two decades on, and the brand, with the backing of billionaire celebrity hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman since the beginning of 2023, is close to achieving that mission, manufacturing components for its own proprietary movement in a space-age technology centre close to the banks of the River Thames.
Michel Parmigiani began his career restoring historic clocks and watches, including many pieces from the Patek Philippe museum. After rebuilding a number of exhibits for the Watch Museum of Le Locle, in 1996 he began manufacturing watches of his own. King Charles III, a champion of traditional crafts, has proven himself an admirer, having been photographed wearing the now-discontinued Toric chronograph on several occasions.
HYT made a splash in 2012 when it became the first watchmaker to display the time using mechanical components to regulate coloured fluids inside cylindrical tubes. If you think that sounds crazy, you’d be exactly right. After a brief hiatus, HYT is back and as experimental as ever, so expect big things in the very near future.
Arnold & Son
When English clockmaker John Arnold presented his Arnold No. 36 to the Greenwich Royal Observatory for review in 1778, the clock proved so precise that it was the first timing device to be denoted a “chronometer”; and the term is still used today to signal a supremely accurate timepiece. Continuing in that vein—although now operating from Switzerland’s La Chaux-de-Fonds, instead of London’s Chigwell—is the clockmaker’s latter-day incarnation, Arnold & Son, creator of 19 proprietary movements and counting since 1998.
Last year, Speake-Marin celebrated 20 years in the watchmaking business with its first timepiece with an integrated bracelet. Inspired by architectural elements of London’s financial district—a geometric case recalls a church clock tower and the dial sports “Big Ben” hands—the sporty Ripples collection points towards a more contemporary direction for the low-volume brand. The watches might take the English capital as their muse, but the movements inside are all manufactured within the company’s workshops in Geneva.
Launched in 1991 between Franck Muller and watchcase designer Vartan Sirmakes, Muller is best known for exquisite timepieces that often defy logic and land with a heavy sense of “wow”. A watch boasting 36 complications and comprising 1,483 components? Please meet the Aeternitas Mega 4. Require a ten-day power reserve? Grab yourself the Giga Tourbillon. For all the complexity and wonder—Muller is rightly known as the “Master of Complications”—there are also softer moments such as the current Cintrée Curvex collection. Muller’s edge, though, is the crafting of something new and innovative—here’s an out-of-the-box thinker who has found incredible global success with tangible anticipation framing each year’s releases, and what is, ultimately, a unique take on watchmaking and one that’s become immediately recognisable.
If you had to name the most successful independent watch brand of the 21st century, Richard Mille would surely appear near the top of your shortlist. It’s certainly the only name on this register of which non-watch folk will have heard. Mostly, that’s down to the strategic sponsoring of big-draw sporting events, everything from tennis and golf, to polo and Formula 1—hell, for several years now Richard Mille has sponsored the F1 teams of both Ferrari and McLaren. Yet there’s also the watches, including a handful of timepieces that have broken records for their physics-defying, lightweight construction.
Jean Daniel Nicolas
There’s limited edition. And then there’s Jean Daniel Nicolas. The second independent brand founded by legendary watchmaker Daniel Roth—his first company, simply Daniel Roth, was established in 1988 and acquired by Bulgari in 2000—produces a grand total of just two watches a year. Having cut his teeth at Audemars Piguet, Roth spent 15 years spearheading artistic direction at Breguet. Save for springs, rubies, glasses and cases, everything inside the brace of watches produced each year by Jean Daniel Nicolas is manufactured by hand within the company’s own workshops.
Grönefeld’s first watch was a statement of intent. Resurrecting a Dutch dial-name first established by their grandfather in 1912, Bart and Tim Grönefeld relaunched the family business in 2008 with the GTM-O6. Not only was the brand’s maiden timepiece powered by an in-house movement, it was also equipped with a minute repeater—broadly considered the most challenging of all complications to execute. This year saw Grönefeld release its first sports watch proper, the water-resistant, shock-absorbent 1969 DeltaWorks. Testament to the popularity of the independent brand, the customisable collection sold out shortly after launch.
The holy grail for any independent watchmaker is to lay claim to its own proprietary movement. To successfully design, manufacture and put into production just one “in-house” calibre is a feat of micro-engineering that typically takes years, if not decades, to achieve. Since its launch in 2004, Greubel Forsey has developed more than 20 of its own branded movements, leading to more industry awards than you could shake a quadruple-tourbillon-regulated GMT hand at.
Manufacturing a minuscule number of watches each year by hand from his workshop in Le Sentier, a sleepy, lakeside village in the foothills of the Jura Mountains, white-haired, pipe-smoking Philippe Dufour is straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. The Father Christmas of independent watchmaking, if you will. In 2021, Dufour’s Grande et Petite Sonnerie No. 1, the watch he used to launch his brand in 1992, sold at a Phillips auction in Geneva for US$5.21 million (approx. $7.86 million), making it the most expensive timepiece ever sold by an independent watchmaker.
Before turning his hand to watchmaking, Thomas Prescher was a captain in the German Navy. These days, following stints at IWC, Audemars Piguet and Blancpain, Prescher creates super-complicated wristwatches—including triple-axis tourbillons and perpetual calendars—on the shores of Lake Biel. Models such as the Nemo and the Nautica nod towards his former life.
Roger W. Smith
Waiting lists for Rolex Daytonas have nothing on those commanded by watches by Roger W. Smith. Put your name down for one of the five models the company currently produces, and it could be a decade until the Isle of Man workshop is ready to ship your order (although we’re guessing Ed Sheeran and his wife Cherry, who had a pair made for their wedding, didn’t wait that long). The cause of the lag? Every single element that goes into a Roger W. Smith watch enters the company’s boutique studio as a raw material. As such, only a dozen or so timepieces emerge each year.
During the 1970s, Armin Strom made a name for himself skeletonising watch hands. That talent was demonstrated in his own timepieces, which began appearing in 1984, and continues to be a hallmark of the brand today under the stewardship of Serge Michel and Claude Greisler, who used to frequent Strom’s workshop when they were kids—although the company’s penchant for skeletisation has spread from hands to the rest of the dial. The brand, boasting a handful of its own movements, produces all of its main plates, bridges, levers, springs, wheels, pinions and screws in-house at their fully integrated manufacture in Biel—more than can be said for many of the industry’s big boys.
You might not have heard of Kari Voutilainen, but the judges at the annual Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix have. In the 20 years since the Finnish brand’s inception, critics at that prestigious awards body have bestowed Kari Voutilainen with eight awards—the most recent in 2022 for his stunning Ji-Ku piece (Artistic Crafts Watch Prize). Few brands, even among watch-world heavyweights, can claim such a substantial, and sustained, medal haul. Interestingly, in 2021 Kari Voutilainen acquired another star of the independent watchmaking scene, Denmark’s Urban Jürgensen.
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