Urwerk: The World’s Most Avant-Garde Watchmaker

Urwerk was founded in Geneva in 1995, but from the start its watch designs were so advanced and so far beyond conventional watchmaking they could have been teleported from some time well in the future, if not another galaxy altogether. The brand’s groundbreaking wandering hour and satellite hour complications, the latter combining the hours and minutes in a single indicator, which first appeared in the Opus V, its collaboration with legendary jeweler Harry Winston, is at the same time totally intuitive and utterly unique – unlike anything that came before and the starting point for a number of striking innovations which surely places Urwerk in the league of the great luxury watchmaking dynasties.

In 2011, Urwerk’s UR-110 was awarded the prize for “Best Design Watch” at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, bringing long overdue recognition from the watchmaking establishment; though the designs would be mere window dressing without their rigorous craftsmanship. There are always several layers of complexity to every Urwerk piece, and the brand’s name is no exception. A play on the German word uhrwerk, meaning clockwork, ‘Ur’ signifies “pure” and “original” but also refers to the ancient Sumerian city of Ur whose inhabitants used giant sundials to measure time 6,000 years ago; while ‘werk’ refers to the German noun das werk meaning “work” or “creation”. They produce only 150 watches per year, made entirely by hand.

Watchmaker Felix Baumgartner met artist Martin Frei, who “comes from a world of total creative freedom”, by chance 23 years ago and soon the pair were creating, and are still creating, new ways of displaying time, yet with a classical elegance at the center of everything they do. The Urwerk collection now includes several series of timepieces including the incredible UR-110, the 103, the 200, the 1001 and LAB. Baumgartner, who was born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland in 1975 into a family with a history of watchmaking and has “time running through his veins,” is a graduate of the Solothurn watchmaking school. And he continues to astonish the world with the creations he and Frei, Urwerk’s Chief Designer, produce.

Beyond watchmaking Urwerk is now branching out into other forms of avant-garde design, and recently created the world’s most complex flask for iconic single malt Scotch brand Macallan, made of machined aluminum, titanium and stainless steel. Here Baumgartner talks to Jared Paul Stern, Executive Editor of Luxury Life about his inspirations, inner workings and drive to create original works of watchmaking art which are rare, valuable and above all requiring us to rethink the way we perceive time:

What first inspired you to create timepieces that are completely unlike anything else? Were you influenced by anything in particular?

When I was 20 I had the chance to meet Martin Frei, one of my cousin’s best friends. From the very beginning we felt connected. We had one common passion – watches – and used to spend hours talking about time and our personal perception of it. One of the pieces that completely fascinated us was a night clock from the 18th century with an original wandering hour display. We loved this one. No wonder it become one of our sources of inspiration.

Even decades after the debut of your first watch, many still consider your designs a bit too “out there”. What do you say to such people?

What a dull world it would it if there was no diversity…. We do not want to convince people but we offer them an alternative. Our watches present a new vision, a new way into the traditional and classic haute horlogerie. Our hour satellite is one of the most intuitive ways of reading time. Combining the hours and minutes in a single indicator is, in my point of view, a most efficient way of communicating time.

Do you think traditional watchmaking where every case and dial is basically a variation on the original is hopelessly outdated?

Well. When I arrived in Geneva to start working as an independent watchmaker, I had the opportunity to visit the Patek Philippe museum. A great and beautiful place. But when I walked out of it I felt so depressed. I was thinking, “Well they already made the best clocks ever back in the 18th Century,” so how could I compete with those guys? This is when I realized I was thinking the wrong way. The matter was not “Can I do it better?” but can I propose something different. it made me realize that I had to fight to bring Urwerk to life.

What is your design philosophy? What drives you to continually create and innovate?

My partner Martin Frei is the one ruling Urwerk’s unconventional design. He is an artist. When he draws a new watch, he does not pay any attention to mechanical constraints. That gives him a total freedom of creation. We on the R&D [research and development] side have to figure out how to make these crazy ideas work and it is each time a real playful and great challenge.

Who did you have in mind as an ideal customer when you first created the brand? What defines the Urwerk enthusiast?

I was 22 when we created Urwerk. I had a huge dream and no marketing plan or a “typical” customer in mind. When we started we wanted to be the new Rolex. We wanted to go viral, to start a revolution and a complete change of paradigm. We did not change the world but what a cool mission it was!

Are there any celebrities you would like to see wearing your watches? Are high profile clients important?

Steve Mc Queen or Cary Grant would have been terrific. We are not looking for ambassadors but from time to time we hear a “personage” has bought an Urwerk. That was the case for Michael Jordan who is wearing a few of our watches as well as Ralph Lauren and Robert Downey Jr. They all are really cool.

Have you accomplished everything you set out to do and have your expectations for the brand been met?

When you stop having expectations you are done. That would definitely be the end of Urwerk. Yes, we have great challenges still to face and you should be hearing about some of them next year.

Why should someone choose an Urwerk over a Rolex or Patek Philippe?

Most of our clients have both. They wear their Urwerk during rainy days to be reminded that life is about having fun, that time flies and that each minute is important.

Are there other watch brands you admire? Do you collect any pieces besides your own?

I bought a Chanel J12 for my wife and I have an IWC which is a must have when you are born in Schaffhausen.

What else interests you from a design perspective? Do you have a favorite car, building or boat?

I am driving an old MG. This car is ruthless, not really comfortable, not really handy, not really fast, but I like it this way. When you are driving it you really “feel” the road. Literally each bump.

What are your passions in life outside of watchmaking?

I do love jazz from the ‘60s. I have a great collection of vinyl at home. I used to be a DJ when I was a teenager.

What prompted you to collaborate with Macallan on a flask? Are you planning other collaborations in the future?

That was fun! In fact, they contacted us to develop the most complex flask ever. We met a few times, had the chance to taste their best whiskies and worked together on the project for almost a year. We came with the concept and they made it come true.

What other objects would you like to design?

More than a project I love to meet new people and discover new worlds.

Are you interested in fashion at all? Which designers do you wear and admire? Do you have clothes custom made?

We met [British designer and tailor] Timothy Everest a few years ago and this turned into a nice friendship. He made a few suits for us, superb ones, custom made. In summer, I am a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy but during winter I like to be a bit more “smart.”

What are your thoughts on smartwatches? Do you think there will always be a demand for mechanical watches?

You can have a mechanical smart watch. We’ve even developed one at Urwerk integrating software that provides you precious information on your mechanical watch. Both can co-exist in harmony I am sure.

What innovations in watchmaking do you envision for the future?

I think watch amateurs will get more and more demanding. We, watchmakers, will be challenged as never before – which is purely positive in my point of view.