They garner admiration from enthusiasts, influence the market, and are increasingly at the center of discussions.
But who are the independent watchmakers, really?
What is their essence in the current watchmaking landscape?
The Definition of Independence
Being an independent watchmaker is, first and foremost, not being part of a large firm such as LVMH, Richemont, or the Swatch Group, implying not conforming to certain requirements and not receiving financial support.
The economic power of Rolex or Patek Philippe allows them to remain independent, to keep control of their business, yet they still respond to needs dictated by their history, philosophy, and clientele.
Independence is not just a legal status; it's a state of mind.
Artistic Freedom in Watchmaking
It's about designing freely, without the constraints of a targeted clientele or a specific brief. To illustrate the difference, let's take the example of Richard Mille and Svend Andersen. The first follows a marketing strategy, while the second creates for the sake of creation, crafting bespoke pieces, responding to a client's demand, without concerns for mass production but driven by the pursuit of artistic perfection and the desire to satisfy a single client, often creating unique pieces.
Only watch 2023 - Jumping hours pièce unique - with the courtesy of ANDERSEN Genève
For some, it's also the desire to see their creations appear under their own name. Most independent watchmakers start their careers in large manufactures, attached to a specific department or in more significant roles within those companies. Their innovations and creations are absorbed by the brand, giving rise to a desire for recognition that pushes them to start their own ventures.
But how do these independents make a name for themselves and survive in the watchmaking industry without the fame of big brands, or the marketing resources invested by the latter?
Let's go back to 1985 when two watchmakers working in Switzerland, Danish Svend Andersen and Italian Vincent Calabrese, joined forces to form a community of independent watchmakers: The Horological Academy of Independent Creators.
Their initial intentions were to resist the industrialization of the trade following the quartz crisis, against a capitalist and globalized system engulfing craftsmanship for the benefit of multinationals. They sought to preserve craftsmanship, traditions, and create a space for exchange between watchmaking artists and artisans.
The idea of a gathering of independent watchmakers was born, and the offer was proposed to specialist magazines around the world and published in some of them, like the German magazine Christian Pfeiffer Belli. Faced with a positive response, the first exhibition took place in the summer of 1985 at the Museum of Locle, called Académie des créateurs indépendants horlogère, composed of Anderson, Calabrese, Giovanni Pozzi, Charles Hirschy, Kurt Schaffo, Joseph Snétivy, and the company La Montre Extra Plate, meeting immediate success with both the public and the watchmaking industry.
The first exhibition, with the courtesy of AHCI
The turning point came when they officially entered as the Academy Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI) in 1987 at the European Watch, Clock and Jewelry Fair in Basel-87, known today as BaselWorld, giving the AHCI an indispensable place in the watchmaking world. By this date, 12 new members joined the Academy, including Franck Muller, Georges Daniels, and Bernhard Lederer.
Today, it comprises 34 members, 7 candidates, and 18 founding members, of American, European, and Asian nationalities, demonstrating undeniable global influence. Their fame enables them to support and contribute to the development of their careers.
What about watchmakers who are not members of the Academy? First and foremost, they benefit from the aura of the Academy, notably the opportunity to participate in the Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève.
The growing interest of the public in independents has grown exponentially in the last three years, undoubtedly with the support of auction houses.
Recent auctions have shown a spectacular increase in prices, among the records being a Georges Daniels Spring Case tourbillon sold for CHF4’083’500 at Phillips in November 2022, a Philippe Dufour Grande and Petite Sonnerie sold for CHF4’749’000 in November 2021, and the F.P. Journe X Francis Ford Coppola FFC Blue auctioned for CHF4,500,000.
George Daniels, Spring case Tourbillon, auctioned at Geneva watch Auction: XVI Geneva auction 5-6 November 2022, with the courtesy of Phillips
The rise is also evident among retailers, such as Silas Walton, founder of the site A Collected Man, testifying that watches from these artisans were still considered risky investments fifteen years ago: "If you bought these watches (...) you were losing money." Being a newcomer, he chose to invest despite the trend and now holds the record for selling a Philippe Dufour Grande and Petite Sonnerie No.3 for CHF7,200,000.
Philippe Dufour - Grande et Petite Sonnerie N°3, with the courtesy of A Collected Man
Their success benefits all other independents who, in turn, feature prominently in sales results or on the websites of retailers.
But this rapid increase in prices raises questions. Could it lead to excessive speculation by independents, tempting them to yield to demands for overproduction or succumb to pressure from major firms to buy their businesses?
Remember that most of the time, for smaller businesses, the independent watchmaker manages everything from A to Z, from welcoming customers in the store, watchmaking, commercial aspects, marketing, and even responding to Instagram DMs.
Jacopo Corvo, director of GMT Italia SRL, one of the first to promote independents in his store, tells A Collected Man how he saw some of them disappear due to the overload of work, the excessive burden of wearing all the hats of a business owner.
Nevertheless, some successful independent watchmakers resist, maintaining limited production, preferring a human-scale approach rather than an industrial one.
The Gronëfeld brothers, for example, produce only 70 timepieces per year and were forced in 2021 to refuse any new orders, unwilling to make any concessions despite the expansion of their workshop.
Their undisputed position allows them, instead of being acquired, to collaborate with major firms. Louis Vuitton, for example, releases a limited series every 5 years in partnership with an independent watchmaker to revitalize its watch department.
Being independent is adopting a philosophy, an alternative mindset to materialism and capitalism. It's elevating watchmaking to the status of art. The value of these watches lies in their craftsmanship, rarity, and horological excellence. Thus, buying a watch from an independent watchmaker is acquiring a signed work of art, wearing a distinctive signature on the wrist.
But a new debate arises among purists: should pieces created by independents be 100% handmade?
Let's return to the criteria, as stated by Sven Anderson, to be a member of the AHCI, outlined in an interview with A Collected Man: "They must be independent, capable of making a watch and presenting it at an exhibition, but above all, they must be able to execute it themselves. The watch must be a finished product of a certain level of quality.".
Indeed, they do not stipulate the 100% handmade criterion.
The logic lies more in the machine's intervention to enhance, optimize, or develop the finish to the maximum, rather than using it for mass production.
This becomes a marker that distinguishes artisans, and one could compare this debate to the arrival of serigraphy in the art world, thanks to its detachment from its technical role. Some independents combine both; Urwerk, for example, positions itself more in the choice of materials and methods, or Roger Smith, who manually finishes the pieces.
They divert the machine's original function to reclaim it.
Urwerk Atelier - with the courtesy of Urwerk
Post on Instagram by Robert Downey Jr, wearing a Urwerk UR-110 Torpedo in Rose gold.
In conclusion, independent watchmaking is much more than an industry; it's an artistic movement, a rebellion against standardization. These artisans continue to captivate the minds of collectors, enthusiasts, and investors, reaffirming that watchmaking can be much more than a simple time indicator.