When founding Ressence, Benoit Mintiens’ lack of familiarity with the watch industry proved to be a trump card rather than a disadvantage. We discuss his approach of putting the user first.
By Josh Sims
Benoit Mintiens says he’s no heretic. And surely there are many who agree with him. “I’ve always been surprised by the failure of the watch industry to be more modern, rather than this habit it has of looking backwards,” he says. “So much of it seems to be about just making a tourbillon run that little bit better. I mean, I’m impressed by the fineness of it all. But it doesn’t make my heart run faster. And while it’s incredible to think of doing all that a century ago, perhaps it’s less the case now. Or maybe it’s just not my thing.”
But then Mintiens – to draw a distinction that is greater than it at first seems – is a product designer, and not a watch designer, albeit still the man behind watch company Ressence. He is, he jokes, not even Swiss, but Belgian – a fact that he has occasionally had to downplay, such are some markets obsession with the stereotypes of provenance.
“When you’re a generalist designer as I am,” he says – this is a man who has designed push-chairs, vacuum cleaners, shotguns and train interiors, for companies from Maxi-Cosi to LG, Browning to SNCF, “you’re always looking for ways to make things more efficient. Of course, you can always copy a Rolex, change the colour of the dial and call that a new watch if you like,” he goes on, hinting that this is precisely what a lot of the watch industry does, “or you can re-think the whole thing to make it more interesting, more animated, more functional.”
Mintiens confesses that he is – and this will surprise nobody – “not a watch freak”. Indeed, his first visit to Baselworld, the industry’s leading trade show, was something of a revelation, and not in a good way. “My first impression was ‘wow, how can all these watchmakers do almost exactly the same thing?’. It felt like the car industry to me – everything standardised,” he says, before letting go another small salvo. “The level of creativity seemed so low. His second visit, to see independent watchmakers Urwerk – “because of course, there was nowhere in Belgium I could see the watches” – was also revelatory, and in a good way. “I realised then that you could be independent, and do something new,” he says.
In all credit to Mintiens, that’s precisely what he has done over the last few years. Having sketched, built 3D models and run tests, and although he still wasn’t convinced there was a customer out there for him, Macbeth-like, he’d just come too far to turn back. He’d junked his other design work after he realised he was burning out. He’d almost had a serious accident when he fell asleep at the wheel – that’s the steering wheel, though Mintiens might well fall asleep at too much talk of wheels of the watch movement kind. It was crunch time.
Fortunately, his first watch, the Ressence Type 1, quickly proved something of a cult object: not just for its timeless (as opposed to classical), machine-like, Bauhaus aesthetic but for what would become the company’s signature, pioneering idea. This was the patented ROCS – or the Ressence Orbital Convex System: time display via a series of concentric discs, moving around each other, aptly, like moons around a planet, giving as much an impression of time as a reading of it, “and if a watch doesn’t express time then I think as a design it has failed,” says Mintiens. “There are just so many watches that are impressive from the mechanical point of view but not so much from the user point of view. Product designers start by thinking about the user experience and go from there…”
Other details also aimed towards improved utility: the dial is single rather than multi-layered, because that is easier to read; it is extended out to the very edge of the watch – much as cellphone screens are aiming at these days – to maximise its surface area, because that is easier to read; it is fixed as close to the crystal as possible, because that is easier to read. Later models, the likes of the Type 3, have pushed this further still: the space between dial and glass is oil-filled to prevent the refraction of light and so minimise the human eye’s depth perception because, yes, that is easier to read. This has invited some ingenious problem solving of its own: since oil contracts and expands according to fluctuations in temperature, the watch is fitted with a number of tiny bellows that similarly expand or contract in response, ensuring the glass remains entirely and precisely full of oil.
Other things have gone just because, well, they seem to have irritated Mintiens in their pointlessness. Although his watches are mechanical – “people have an empathy for gears and they don’t have empathy for circuits – as humans we feel for the mechanical over the digital, which is why digital devices that don’t work any more go in the garbage,” Mintiens explains – they have no crown. A crown, he says, is another of those antiquated vestiges of past thinking – the equivalent of having a hand crank on a car.
It is all clever stuff, albeit the kind that might leave a master watchmaker of the old school perplexed – akin perhaps to the one to whom Mintiens showed his early designs, only to be met with “two minutes without saying anything”.
“But, let’s face it,” adds Mintiens, who is launching a new watch next spring, “all of what we do here is part of a micro-cosmos. It’s all very marginal. To be honest I never thought this project would go so far. The idea of making watches seemed like deciding you were just going to make integrated microchips. It just seemed impossible. But there are makers out there who will push themselves to work with new ideas and make the various parts for you, experts who can assemble them, and social media now means you don’t need to have a huge marketing budget to reach people.”
Ah yes, marketing budgets… The real way of the watch business, to take, perhaps, a skeptical view. “My impression of the industry has changed over the last few years because I understand the logic of it more now,” says Mintiens, winding up a killer blow, even if he doesn’t mean it to sound as damning as it somehow does. “It’s in equilibrium. There are just too many people who want to buy a brand, or want a certain look or image and, really, they don’t care what’s going on inside their watch – so why should most watch companies put their energies into making interesting watches? The watch industry is just a reflection of society. And I certainly don’t blame the watch brands for doing what they do.”
Seven years in and Ressence, is in danger of becoming a brand itself, with all the rail- roading of vision that this seems to imply. But Mintiens says that there is still so much to be done. “There’s a lot of building to be done yet, and other things to design too,” he says. “I would like to design a car some time, but then I’m not a car designer. That said, I not really a watch designer either.”