Affordable Haute Horlogerie
Looking for bang for your buck? These finely made timepieces might make your jaw drop, but won’t burn a hole in your life savings.
You’ve picked up this magazine, so, chances are, you’re into fine watchmaking. Since I’m already stating the obvious, I’d also like to add that not everyone can afford to splash out on examples of high watchmaking from the top-tier brands. However, the following independent brands will surprise you with their métiers d’art, complicated and personalized offerings that don’t cost an arm and a leg. If you’d like an affordable yet eye-catching wrist accessory, read on to discover how you can own an example of haute horlogerie for four figures or less.
CHRISTOPHER WARD C1 BEL CANTO
A minute repeater or grande sonnerie is likely to set you back at least six figures. A hard fact of life: Not everyone has a few hundred thousand dollars lying around. Here’s where British brand Christopher Ward comes in and flips the script. Founded in 2004, Christopher Ward proffers exquisite timepieces that are designed in Britain and assembled in Switzerland.
The brand made global headlines when it released the C1 Bel Canto in November 2022, a chiming watch priced at USD 3,400. Naturally, all 300 examples of this eye- catching timepiece sold out in a matter of hours. Not a minute repeater but a Sonnerie au Passage complication, the Christopher Ward C1 Bel Canto looks and sounds beautiful all the same. You can set it to chime every hour or be silent.
Its engine is the caliber FS01, an in-house movement developed by Frank Stelzer, Christopher Ward’s technical director. Stelzer crafted more than 60 new components to form the striking mechanism module, which is also known as a hammer-and-anvil system, that sits atop a Sellita SW200-1 base movement.
Shortly after the blue dial C1 Bel Canto was released and sold out, Christopher Ward released a new green dial variant, which enjoyed a similar fate, so I’ve got a hunch that the C1 Bel Canto won’t be the last chiming watch that this brand will unveil.
Scottish brand anOrdain is a brand devoted to the complex art of enameling. Enamel is usually made up of lead, soda ash and silica, which starts as a lump that is ground into a powder, then applied to a surface for firing in a kiln.
After a tedious trial-and-error process that involved no less than 160 variations, this UK brand offered five styles of opaque dials when it was founded in 2015. The technique used to achieve the shiny and deep colors of anOrdain’s dials is called vitreous enameling, a term that is inscribed on these dials and might be better known to watch collectors as grand feu enameling. This arduous process fuses many layers of melted enamel powder perfectly onto a wafer-thin metal disk.
After each round of enamel application and firing, a dial has to be checked for inclusions and bubbles, which are removed and refiled before the next round of firing. It takes several rounds of enameling and firing at temperatures above 800 degrees Celsius before the exact height and desired color are realized. The result of vitreous enameling is a perfectly even work of art that is less than a millimeter thin. The enameled dial is then pad-printed with a typeface customized by anOrdain and incorporated into a timepiece that will be tested in six positions over a 48-hour period.
anOrdain also performs fumé enameling on dials, which produces a translucent gradient, as compared to vitreous enameling. Initially, anOrdain artisans noticed that after firing a dial blank that was coated with translucent enamel, the dial would warp, producing a raised center. When sanded flat, the edges of the enamel dial appeared darker as there was a thicker layer of enamel at the periphery while the enamel at the center was thinner and hence lighter, resulting in a natural gradient. Thus, the team began experimenting with ways of replicating the defect in a controlled manner and eventually hit upon a clever solution. The silver dial base is first stamped to create a subtle dome before it is coated with translucent enamel, fired in a kiln and sanded. Due to the domed surface, the depth of enamel can be greater at the edges and shallow at the center, achieving a colour that darkens towards the periphery. At the same time, the back of the dial is also enameled to prevent it from bending when in the kiln.
anOrdain’s resident jeweler is Adam Henderson and the brand’s three expert enamelers, Morna, Nicky and Sally, have spent years honing their craft ever since graduating with degrees in jewelry. They continue to refine their art by studying under enamelers who specialize in other disciplines of enameling like cloisonné and champlevé. anOrdain timepieces range from around GBP 1,500 to 3,000 before tax.
Timepieces with cases designed by living legend Kari Voutilainen are more within reach than ever, what with the stunning releases by Ophion.
Founded in 2015, Ophion made waves when it began retailing timepieces with cases made by Voutilainen & Cattin S.A. for around EUR 3,000. Voutilainen & Cattin S.A. is a company that specializes in cases and is partly owned by Voutilainen. Ophion timepieces sport the signature teardrop lugs that have become synonymous with Voutilainen’s design language. These lugs are attached to polished stainless steel cases using an invisible welding technique, which makes the case and lugs look like a cast monobloc.
Ophion watches are inspired by Art Deco style and their movements are meticulously decorated — not too shabby for their price point! When admiring Ophion watches like the OPH 786 Vélos, your eyes will be drawn to its arrow-shaped Vélos hour hand (Vélos is Greek for “arrow”), followed by the seconds and minute hands that have inwardly curved tops, and the impressive finishing of the dial. The compelling visages of Ophion watches range from understatedly elegant brushed dials to absorbing guilloché dials. A laser-cut minute track, applied indexes, along with interior and exterior diamond chamfering accentuate these flawless microscopic details. Each oversized concave Vélos pointer is finished in nickel or PVD blue. Within each Ophion watch are sandblasted, brushed and grenaille finished bridges and plates.
Ophion recently dedicated two limited edition variants to my tiny island, Singapore, which boasts a high percentage of luxury watch collectors per capita. The Ophion OPH 786 Vélos Singapore Limited Edition arrives in Radial Red and Salmon Red, each limited to 55 pieces worldwide. Behind silver or thermal blued Arabic numerals and laser-cut minute markers, the movements of these timepieces each feature grenaille or sandblasted plates, chamfered bridges and a brushed balance bridge. Kudos to a brand that pours its soul into the finishing of every aspect of its timepieces.
“You deserve a bespoke watch,” is the welcome message of the Sartory Billard website, and the brand’s asking price is very attractive. TL;DR: The brand’s founder and designer Armand Billard tempts us with his handmade watches that come with a mind-blowing array of customization options. The former industrial designer’s current horological offerings are the SB04 and SB05. The former is a collection of 40mm self-winding timepieces that starts from under EUR 4,000, while the latter is a manual winding range of 38mm timepieces that starts from under EUR 10,000.
The SB04, for example, comes with options like a titanium case that is full polished or combines several different finishes. Might you fancy another case material like a precious metal, patterned steel or carbon fiber? Sure. Its dial can be heat-treated to realize various colors like burgundy, purple and blue.
The stone and guilloché dial options of Sartory Billard watches are impeccable. You can even request for a dial that combines both stone and guilloché. Choices of stone include various shades of aventurine, shades of mother- of-pearl, abalone mosaic mother-of-pearl, different types of jade from around the world, ruby, opal, turquoise, ferrite, lapis lazuli, malachite, onyx, variations of jasper, tiger’s eye, bull’s eye, falcon’s eye and meteorite.
Numerals can be polished, matte finished or heat- colored to different hues, and dials can be finished with or without lume. Various other components of the case are also available in different colors and finishes. And, of course, Armand Billard and his associates offer engraving as well.
Furthermore, the SB05 offers options of Arabic, Chinese, Indian or Roman for its even numerals, which are interspersed by markers that symbolize the odd- numbered hours, and dials are available in titanium, guilloché finish, silver, brass or various stones. You can even customize a name and quote plate on your SB05.
The sky’s the limit for Sartory Billard’s multi-talented litany of artisans.
You might have come across Horage’s Autark, Tourbillon 1 and Supersede. However, one particular Horage creation that generated immense international buzz is the Lensman 1. This gorgeously and intricately fashioned timepiece unveiled in October 2022 was obviously inspired by the elegant aesthetics of high-end camera equipment.
This Swiss brand has developed three in-house calibers since its inception in 2007. Among these, the K-TOU tourbillon movement powers the Lensman 1. The Lensman 1 is a recent Horage creation that followed the Horage Tourbillon and is priced at CHF 8,890, which makes it one of the most accessible in-house Swiss tourbillon watches today. Furthermore, it is an impressive chronometer that is accurate to -4/+6 seconds per day.
Its blacked-out dial is inspired by pitch dark camera equipment and beautifully contrasts its hand polished and brushed T5 titanium case. The circumference of this case has a textured grip, as if it were the focus ring of a camera lens, and even sports numerals that mimic a distance or aperture scale. Upon this obsidian dial reside indexes and pointers that are coated with Super- LumiNova. These suave features are complemented by a push/pull crown with a black onyx stone insert. An unusual differentiator on this already distinct dial is a huge cyclops lens that magnifies the Horage Lensman 1’s flying tourbillon at its six o’clock position.
This tourbillon’s titanium cage weighs 0.29g and is 3.4mm thick. Further reducing inertia, both the escape wheel and pallet fork are made of silicon, effectively mitigating sliding friction. It also boasts a silicon hairspring, a technological innovation which until late last year, was the domain of a consortium led by CSEM. Above these components, a blued screw also functions as a seconds indicator.
Flip the Lensman 1 over to enjoy its see-through caseback — a ravishing work of art that showcases its in-house movement through a double layer anti-reflective sapphire crystal. Around this crystal is engraved a quote by celebrated French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: “One’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.”
MORE TO LOVE
In today’s eclectic and highly democratized watch market, it’s easy to find affordable watches that will win your heart. If you’d like a handsome timepiece that looks distinctive but does not cost several months’ paychecks, check out Brew, Feynman, Studio Underd0g, Xeric and Yema, and the list goes on.
You might fancy the Seagull 1963 too, which offers column wheel chronographs for under EUR 500, and Havaan Tuvali, which made a splash with throwback watches that use vintage components.
Founded in Singapore by then-26-year-old Elshan Tang in 2014, Zelos is best known for its burly dive watches in exotic materials such as bronze, forged carbon and meteorite at highly accessible prices. In recent years, the brand scaled upmarket with the launch of the Mirage Tourbillon that incorporated a slim skeleton tourbillon movement made by La Joux-Perret.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight the Solios, which makes a versatile and elegant array of solar-powered watches. Then there’s Bulova, creator of the iconic Accutron, that produces a wide variety of affordable watches today including remakes of heritage models such as the Lunar Pilot, Oceanographer as well as those supplied to the military. Accutron, on the other hand, became a brand unto itself. It was launched as an independent subsidiary by its parent company Citizen Group in 2020. The Accutron Spaceview recreated the look of the original with a newly developed electrostatic movement by its stablemate, Miyota.
All kinds of eclectic brands have been mushrooming around the world, each appealing to collectors of various personalities and inclinations. Traditional watchmaking techniques have been passed on far and wide, and from this, new methods, styles and expressions have been evolving. This means that if you keep looking around, you’ll continually discover refreshing brands that each bring something new to the table.