11th Aug 2023
Independents' Day: Why collectors are flocking to independent watchmakers
by Watch Collecting
If you take a step back and look at it rationally, the spectacular rise of interest in independent watchmakers over the last few years was something of an inevitability. Collectors of high-end luxury watches are attracted by a number of things—effective designs, well-built movements, and a touch of historical significance if possible.
Of course, you can get all of that from any of the big players in the industry. The problem is, so can everyone else. Watch collecting as a pursuit has been around for a long time now, and the tastes of its practitioners have matured and become increasingly refined over the years. Part and parcel with that is the desire for ever more specialised attributes from their purchases, aspects the mass-produced models struggle to provide.
Exclusivity will always feature highly on the wish lists of sophisticated collectors, obtaining that particular piece you are unlikely to see on anyone else’s wrist in the office or after-work hang. But it is more than that. The true connoisseurs, of anything, recognize when a manufacturer has brought real passion to their work, and has produced something into which they have truly poured their soul, simply for the love of it.
When Andre Heiniger, only the second CEO of the behemoth that is Rolex, was asked how the watch business was going, he famously answered that his company wasn’t in the watch business but the luxury business. The indie brands, in many ways, are the opposite. Away from the marketing hype or the pop culture tie-ins, it is now the independents which represent watchmaking in its purest form.
What is an Independent Watchmaker?
The most obvious definition of what constitutes an independent brand is one not owned by any of the huge conglomerates; LVMH, Richemont, Citizen or Swatch Group. Under their auspices you will find practically every household name you can think of; from Blancpain to Breguet and from Panerai to Piaget.
There are several, extremely high-profile exceptions of course. Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet have all maintained autonomous control over the century or so they have been in business. But when we think of independent watchmakers, those are not the names which immediately spring to mind.
Much like with indie carmakers or indie bands, the term brings up notions of outliers and individuals, eccentrics determined to do things their own way; those who have a healthy respect for traditions and may have already paid their dues at more conservative benches, but who are driven by a certain zeal to come up with an alternative to the conventional.
It is with independent brands that we typically see the bold choices being made and the great innovations coming through. With no shareholders or overseers to placate, they have a certain freedom to break ceilings and push boundaries, to let their creativity off the leash without the same sorts of commercial pressures as their mainstream contemporaries.
A diverse group by nature, usually only producing low volume runs, these are the risk-takers of the industry, imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit that recognises no rules—not only in manufacture but also promotion. Digital marketing has allowed independents to laser-focus their advertising directly to the people they want to attract, practically for free.
For anyone tired of the mass market production line, independent watchmakers are a breath of fresh air.
Our Favourite Independents
If you were in any doubt over the rebellious, anarchistic nature of the Indies, meet François-Paul Journe, founder of F.P. Journe, a brand which creates some of the most sought-after watches in the world—and just about the only person I can think of who was expelled from watchmaking school!
While the mind boggles over exactly how someone might achieve that dubious honour (and I can’t find any details on it, so you’ll have to use your imagination), Journe has been at the very forefront of horology innovation for over 20 years. Established in 1999, the manufacture now makes more than 95% of its own components and produces timepieces of such engineering and artistic complexity that fewer than 1,000 leave their premises every year.
F.P. Journe was the first to offer a wristwatch operating on the principle of resonance, with the Chronomètre à Résonance, a model with two internal oscillating bodies synchronising one another, displayed on two time-telling subdials on the watch’s face.
More recently, in 2008, they brought out the Centigraphe, an ingenious collaboration with Jean Todt, boss of the Ferrari F1 Team and one of the first chronographs with the ability to measure elapsed time to 1/100th second. And, in a move no one could have expected, Journe introduced his own take on quartz technology with the entry-level piece, the Eleganté in 2014. Featuring a novel mechanical motion detector, the Elegante’s in-house movement can enter standby mode if not used for 30 minutes, freezing the hands but allowing the microprocessor to keep track. So, when picked up again, the watch immediately jumps to the correct time. This impressive feat of engineering can extend the battery life to 10 years.
Through each piece runs Journe’s distinctive design nuances, with asymmetrical dials, blued handsets and exhibition case backs, even on the quartz pieces. And somewhere you will find the company’s motto, ‘Invenit et Fecit’, a Latin phrase used in the signatures of Renaissance artists meaning ‘Invented and Made’—a testament to every watch’s originality and ingenuity.
Czapek & Cie.
As with all the best tales, the story of luxury brand Czapek is one of mystery and redemption. It begins all the way back in 1832 when a young Czech-born Polish watchmaker named Franciszek Czapek fled to Switzerland following the November Uprising, an armed rebellion against Russian rule in Poland. Czapek had participated in the revolt in his role as a soldier of the Warsaw National Guard. Soon after arriving in Geneva, Czapek Gallicised his name, becoming François.
By 1834, he had already gone into business with a local Swiss watchmaker named Moreau, forming ‘Czapek & Moreau’, as well as authoring the first-ever book on horology in the Polish language. But, it was a meeting in 1839 which propelled Czapek to his greatest heights. That was the year he joined forces with a fellow Polish émigré, one Antoine Norbert de Patek (yes, that Patek!). ‘Patek, Czapek & Cie’ produced some exceptional timepieces, with François acting as head watchmaker, or Finisseur, and Antoine in charge of sales.
However, the enterprise lasted just six years. Patek went on to find a new partner in Adrienne Philippe, and Czapek did likewise, inaugurating ‘Czapek & Cie’ on May 1st, 1845 with Juliusz Gruzewski. Gruzewski was a close friend of Napoleon Bonaparte and Czapek’s new venture soon found itself the official watchmaker to the Imperial Court. Business flourished and the firm opened premises in Geneva, Warsaw and on Place Vendome in Paris. Yet, in 1869, Czapek inexplicably disappeared. No cause or even date of death has ever been established, but ‘Czapek & Cie’ was no more.
Fast forward to 2011 and a trio of watch lovers, Xavier de Roquemaurel, Harry Guhl and Sébastien Follonier came together and restored the name of Czapek. Taking the unprecedented approach of crowdfunding equity, collectors could not only acquire watches, but they could also secure themselves part of the company. There are now more than 200 shareholders.
True to the founder’s spirit, the initial release from this new company would be the ‘Quai des Bergues’ collection, named after the address on the banks of the Rhone where Czapek’s first atelier stood. Inspired by the design of one of his pocket watches from the 1850s, the Quai des Bergues were powered by a proprietary movement, the SXH1, and characterized by clever day-of-the-week indicators and power reserve displays.
Customers got to choose from a wide range of metal, strap and dial options and even had the opportunity to customise their watches with a secret grand feu enamel signature. That collection has since been supplemented with others, such as the tourbillon-equipped ‘Place Vendome’, their stunning take on the luxury sports watch in the ‘Antarctique’ range and the wonderful ‘Faubourg de Cracovie’ chronograph series.
Today, Czapek is in rude health, with a roster of imposing and highly original pieces, and a business model all its own.
Established in 2005 by Maximilian Büsser, MB&F (Maximilian Büsser and Friends) are renowned for their playful and unconventional take on watches, clocks and music boxes. Taking inspiration from the realms of fantasy and science fiction, the brand launched its first model in 2007 with the Horological Machine No. 1 (HM1). A bizarre, avant-garde creation, it featured the world’s first four-barrel calibre as well as being the first to have energy transmitted to the movement from two sources simultaneously. The watch itself had a pair of independent dials arranged in a figure of eight and would not have looked out of place in a Buck Rogers comic strip from the 1930s.
The follow-up, the HM2, became the first automatic watch with instantaneous jumping hours, retrograde date, concentric retrograde minutes, and bi-hemisphere moon phase. Since then, Büsser seems to have made it his mission to completely revolutionise the way we tell the time.
HM3 from 2009, for instance, was made up of two cones, on the sides of which displayed the hours and minutes, while on top were a running seconds dial and a day/night indicator. The date was shown on a semi-circular scale arranged around the exposed movement and the whole thing took on the impression of a grinning retro robot head.
The craziness has continued until the present day, and MB&F frequently collaborates with some of the world’s finest and most unconventional manufacturers to produce some truly astonishing co-creations. The Orb, made in conjunction with Swiss clockmaker extraordinaire L’Epée 1839, looks like an enormous eye with the wings of a beetle, while the wonderful MusicMachine 3 is shaped like a Star Wars Tie Fighter. Made together with Swiss artisans Reuge, ‘the last remaining producer of high-end music boxes’, the contraption chimes a selection of famous theme tunes; Star Wars, Mission Impossible and James Bond from the right wing, the Godfather, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Persuaders from the left. The perfect example of genius rule-breaking, MB&F are a breath of fresh air in a traditionally conservative industry.