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Ressence: The Story So Far

As Ressence launches two exclusive editions for Mr Porter, we take a look at the independent Belgian brand’s progress from outsider to respected innovator
By Chris Hall

It is beyond stating the obvious that the watch industry is not a modern one. Despite frequent and insistent claims of innovation from brands eager to justify the existence of new models, we are at heart connoisseurs of anachronism. That’s the way we like it, and it is the reason we are beset on all sides by mainstream brands with winsome recreations of watches from the 1960s and 1970s.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is of course an avant-garde. The emergence of brands such as MB&F and Urwerk in the last two decades has fuelled the rise of a new aesthetic and kept some of the establishment brands honest along the way. We have become used to their non-classical shapes and steampunk stylings.

But all of the above come from the Swiss tradition; no matter how wild their designs or wacky their whirligigs, their creators were schooled in Swiss watchmaking colleges and apprenticed at the likes of Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. For genuinely innovative thinking it takes an outsider.

Benoit Mintiens is that man. As we have written before, he sees himself as a designer first and a watchmaker second – with projects including the iconic TGV locomotives, along with aircraft cabins, vacuum cleaners, hunting rifles and medical technology on his CV, it’s a description that’s hard to argue with.

Benoit Mintiens

Benoit Mintiens

Watchmaking now has his entire focus, however and has done since 2010 when he displayed the prototypes at the Baselworld watch fair which would, four years later, become the Type 1. Three years on and the company is highly respected by serious watch collectors – but perhaps even more impressively, appreciated by a wider audience.

Mintiens sums it up thus: “Ressence is a niche product in one sense, producing 300 watches a year and in a certain price category. But the product is not niche. The concept speaks to a lot of people. Age is not important; our oldest customer is 92 – he has three watches – what’s important is that you are an early adopter.”

His watches take the bare minimum from watchmaking as you would recognise it: round cases (although not exclusively, more on which later), hour, minute and seconds hands and weekday displays. The assumption that any of the above must be dispensed with in order for something to be modern is a misapprehension behind so many of horology’s fringe efforts – watches which, perhaps not coincidentally, rarely find a large audience.

But anchored to those basic elements are developments that betray a fiercely inventive approach to product design and an innate tendency to question established conventions. Must the watch have a crown for winding? Why does the dial’s layout have to remain fixed in the same position? Other watchmakers abhor magnets (for their influence on springs) and work to reduce their movements’ reliance on oils.

Ressence Innovations

The various innovations behind a Ressence watch: the ROCS system, running indicator and magnetic control system

Mintiens made both materials fundamental to the Type 3, arguably Ressence’s hero product. The case exists in two halves: the display is filled with oil, allowing for near-perfect legibility at all angles (a strength later exploited in the Type 5 diving watch), separated from the underside of the watch by an impermeable barrier, it uses small neodymium magnets to link the rotation of the hour, minute and seconds disks to the mechanical movement.

Ressence Type 5 Grey

The Ressence Type 5, which now comes in grey

Crucial to the whole concept, however, is the recognition that you can pack as much innovation into a watch as you like, but if the end result is taxing to understand or less than simple to operate, you have failed. On a Ressence, the hour and minute hands may not pivot about the same point, and they might not actually be in the same place on the watch that they were the last time you looked, but the time is still legible at a glance by the angle formed between the two.

Ressence Type 1 Mr Porter

On the dial of the new Mr Porter Type 1 you can see how legible the design is

As Silas Walton, founder of A Collected Man and a connoisseur of independent watch brands, puts it, “The challenge of reading the time, like on all original watches is superficial, and quickly resolved. Ressence has a distinct DNA and appeal based around the obvious ingenuity of their design and the fun in manipulating the floating discs.”

Ressence Type 3 Salon QP

The Ressence Type 1 (as spotted at Salon QP)

It is not innovation alone that has led Ressence to its current standing as a respected indie brand. In truth there is perhaps no single element that explains the Belgian brand’s success: the answer is more likely that it has done what others have failed to do in combining good design, unintrusive, natural innovation and a thoroughly 21st-century head for branding and marketing. It also helps that Mintiens is an engaging, modest and personable character who doesn’t take himself too seriously: one part eccentric inventor, two parts design guru and enthusiastic without being overbearing.

As Spanish watch collector Dario Fernandez de Villavicenzio, one of Ressence’s first customers, puts it: “I encountered Ressence at their first Baselworld. It was just Benoit back then, and I was quite taken by the Type 0 – it was such a fresh, unpolluted take on watch design. It was good to discover something new could be done – and it was so important that he wasn’t a watchmaker, wasn’t contaminated by the industry. I bought the Type 0 immediately, and now I have a new model on order.”

Ressence Type 1 early

A Ressence Type 0 – still with a winding crown, this would become the Type 1

This January, Ressence exhibited for the first time at the SIHH in Geneva. Exclusively the preserve of haute horlogerie brands, the Richemont-run salon expanded in 2016 with an area dedicated to selected independent watchmakers. Joining them this year saw Ressence rub shoulders with master artisans including Kari Voutilainen and Laurent Ferrier. It is undoubtedly a mark of prestige, a seat at the top table – and yet Benoit Mintiens is keen to stress the brand’s unique status within that rarefied company. “When you look at the Carré des Horlogers, it is pretty rare to be able to speak to multiple audiences. We say in French, to play in another sandpit – that is amazing for an independent brand. They are all sharing the same pie, a pie that we share as well. But our product doesn’t just speak to one clientele. They sell technicité [best translated as “technical mastery”] – which we also sell, but ours is well clothed. It’s not in your face.”

At the salon, Ressence unveiled the Type 1 Squared, a cushion-shaped watch that, smaller and slimmer than others in the line-up, many have described as Ressence’s take on a dress watch. Not only is it broadly in-step with others in the industry, it shows the versatility of the Ressence concept.

Ressence Type 1 Squared

The Type 1 Squared

And it is that dressier, style-conscious side that comes to the fore again now, as Ressence unveils two limited-edition Type 1 models designed especially for Mr Porter. One in titanium with a blue dial, and one in rose gold, they are the suavest take on the Ressence look yet. The latter comes with a sandblasted silver dial that is almost white, with rose gold luminova-filled hands and very subtle red accents on the seconds dial and power reserve indicator. In blue, the limited edition is marked out by its silver chapter rings and baby-blue accents. Both models have an engraved and numbered titanium caseback – there will be six of the rose gold and 12 of the titanium (the titanium model is already showing “more stock expected soon” on Mr Porter – did it sell out on day one?

Like the usual Type 1, they are powered by a modified ETA 2824/2 base calibre, with a 36-hour power reserve beating at 28,800 vph. Attached to the base calibre is Ressence’s ROCS module which provides for the orbital dial concept; the whole thing is driven from the minute axle of the ETA movement. As with previous Type 1 models there is no winding crown, instead using a caseback winding system. The watches measure 42mm across and 12mm thick. 

“They are all extremely fresh designs,” says Benoit. “The rose gold is a monobloc case, milled out of one piece. We have done rose gold before, but not like this. We have gold hands, with luminova inside. We could have put in dark hands but it’s a lot fresher like this. And the silver dial – sandblasted so you get this off-white colour – is a lot more natural than a harsh white.”

Fresh, and natural. You could hardly pick two more apposite words for Ressence as a whole, with its ingenious approach to watchmaking’s technical side, and the clear levity of its designs. Long may it continue.


 

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