In this day and age, watch brands that plough their own distinct furrow have a vital role to play
By James Buttery
FP Journe changed my perception of the term ‘independent’ as it applies to watchmaking when I interviewed him at Salon QP in 2016. Asked how independents were faring given the difficult market conditions of the time, he quipped “you mean independents like Rolex, Patek Philippe and Chopard?”
Journe’s point was well made: the moniker ‘independent’ doesn’t really communicate anything other than a company’s ownership status, no matter how it’s intended. Rolex and Roger Smith might both be independently owned, but other than that they share very little in common, other than a great deal of respect from their peers of course.
Similarly, there are watch companies which, while independently owned, are very much embedded in the horological mainstream. Patek Philippe and Chopard are two such brands; their number has been dropping of late as the likes of Breitling and Frederique Constant have been acquired by venture capitalists and the Citizen group respectively. At a smaller level, Bremont or Nomos Glashutte can boast independent ownership, but for all their strengths, they are never what is meant when we offhandedly refer to “the independent” watch brands.
Perhaps then what we really mean when we refer to “independents” is manufacturers that display an independent spirit, watches made to fulfil a genuine desire rather than a niche in a marketing strategy. Just look at De Bethune or Journe himself for that matter, I don’t think I’m being overly naïve in suggesting that they produce the watches that they want to make and rely on finding an audience that embraces their work.
It transpired during the same interview that Journe prefers the term ‘artisanal’; those that produce no more than a few hundred watches a year rather than those that produce tens of thousands a year or more. It might be far more accurate but, to me at least, it evokes images of rustic sourdough loaves and elaborately named cheeses from elaborately named villages.
Its accuracy comes in reflecting the amount of time that people have spent hand-working the components of the watch themselves, whereas ‘volume’ producers will inevitably incorporate varying degrees of automation to achieve economies of scale.
That hand-working could be De Bethune’s heat-bluing of its cases, the black polishing applied to the bevelled edges of Romain Gauthier’s bridges or the intricate enamelling found on Laurent Ferrier’s dials. I’ve always found it ironic that when you enter these realms of watchmaking you are paying for someone else to lavish their own time into the embellishment of these creations.
This is something more mainstream brands will never be able to replicate on a large scale and a luxury they could not afford to bring to market even if they could. Instead “the independents” exist in a rarefied niche where others fear to tread.
As a collector, the appeal of buying from a smaller, artisanal watch brand is multi-faceted. You feel as though you are buying into a certain level of horological purity; something created without the input of a marketing department, free from the need for each product to fill a niche or compete with a rival. It will also be free from outside influence – at least, the kind of influence that stipulates a product must not get too close to another offered by the brand’s sister company. In short, at no point will your watch feel like its birth was a box-ticking exercise.
The individuality that runs directly from the brand into your watch, the knowledge that you own something few others can own (increasingly, the chances are you own something totally bespoke) and the chance t0 find something which reflects your own personality are compelling reasons for these watch brands to exist. But they also have a role to play within the industry: they are the boundary-pushers, the true innovators.
As with any isolated ecosystem interesting approaches slowly evolve; floating lugs, complicated case shapes, dials which display the time without the need for hands. None of these concepts would be given the time of day in more mainstream sectors. The Independents are truly horological auteurs.
But existing away from the mainstream can bring its own challenges. The industry’s woes over the last few years have been well documented, and it can often be smaller businesses that feel the pinch, as suppliers, distributors and retailers all play it safe during tougher times. Thankfully, horology’s high-end mavericks are well supported by a devout community of collectors, although every one of them would agree there is no place for complacency. Independence in watchmaking is to be cherished; it brings vibrancy and spark to the world of watchmaking.
Here at QP we are big believers in the importance of independent thought: hence we have partnered with William & Son on a series of events during London Craft Week that celebrate the watch brands who demonstrate the importance of independence with their every action. To hear CEOs and watchmakers from Romain Gauthier, H. Moser & Cie, Moritz Grossmann debate the role and future of independent watch brands, come to our panel discussion on May 11th. Register for a place here.