“It is way too hot here,” Ludovic Ballouard tells me. “But I do love Singapore.” Towering at 1.96 metres, Ballouard seats himself down on the ruby sofa and unstraps his grey-dialed Upside Down watch from his wrist, the first model he made for the collection. Against the light grey dial, our eyes could read nothing else but the current time at ‘1:20pm’, indicated with only an hour aperture and minute hand, for the rest of the Arabic numerals on the chapter ring were upside down. He then instructed us to watch the upside-down ‘two’, as he began to demonstrate the jumping hour complication. Blink and you’ll miss – when the minute hand passed the 12 hour mark, the numeral discs flipped over in a flash and the next moment, all you read is ‘2:05pm’ in dark blue numerals. For an elegant front, one can only take a look through the sapphire crystal caseback to see the real work. When wound, or after going through a full hour, the lever pushing against the snail cam would snap on its levelled edge and send the gears advance one position, turning the respective Maltese crosses one position ahead in order to flip the hour discs. “Philosophically, the present time is what matters now,” Ballouard explains. “We don’t know what’s coming next, and what’s past is past. I like jumping hours because its instantaneous; it’s quick.”
Ludovic Ballouard, including Konstantin Chaykin, Vianney Halter, and Aaron Bescei were among the four independent watchmakers at this year’s Jeweluxe in Singapore. Primarily a luxury jewellery exhibition, the annual affair took a spin this year with a rebranded look, along with a showcase of its first watchmakers showcase. To the uninitiated, they would be unable to tell which two watches came from the same watchmaker. These independent artisans are their own inventors and designers, creating timepieces that either come to them at a whim or from a single idea that has been contemplated for a long time. For Vianney Halter, the Deep Space Tourbillon was a vision set for the future. “The Deep Space is a tool of sorts, that if we were to explore space, we remember where we come from. Who knows what more we will meet in space? On earth, we live in a 3-dimensional space that I want to realise in this watch. That’s why the triple-axis tourbillon is the centrepiece.”
Their ambition to put a name on their timepieces are viewed as “a legacy we leave to the world after we’re gone,” says Halter. His very first Antiqua model, now sought after by collectors as a prized edition, are only made-to-order, and in a white gold case. When I asked him if he would still take orders for special requests in different materials, he barely hesitated when he said no. “When I make my timepiece, it takes a lot out of me. Not just the hours spent on the bench, but also on an emotional level. I want people to know that there is a piece of me in every watch I make for them. Admittedly, I have rejected orders for customisation pieces simply because I don’t want to do them; I don’t want to do them like that. Yes, money is important because we need it to survive, but when I leave this world, the money doesn’t follow me. All I will leave behind is my work, and my name is on my watch.” He recognises that both the Antiqua and Deep Space Tourbillon carry a hefty price tag (approximately CHF200,000 to CHF230,000 respectively) and is looking to come up with a different model, possibly a simple-time version with a more affordable price tag.
Konstantin Chaykin’s Joker watch is one of his more popular models, being so that it was also donated to the Only Watch charity auction this year. His previous models were more contemplative timepieces, for instance, the rectangular Eadweard Muybridge-inspired Cinema watch paying homage to history, and the Lunokhod moonphase watch was created with the Soviet Union and its time during the space exploration in mind. The difference between the Joker watch and the aforementioned two, was that the idea was as whimsical as it portrays. “The idea of making the face of the Joker watch didn’t come to me immediately,” he explains. “I was sketching some examples at first. The idea then came to me last year (2016) on how to really create the face on the watch. I didn’t want to just have a picturesque face. I wanted people to feel the emotion from the watch. Hence the eyes move – in correspondence to the hours on one eye, and minutes on the other – accompanied with a wide smile. I want people to feel the happiness from this watch. Nowadays in the watch industry, there are not enough emotions being put into timepieces. With the Joker watch, I want people to simply be happy wearing them, and in turn be interested in the timepiece. For me, it’s a pleasure to make such a watch.”
While their creation varies from one watch to the next, these independent watchmakers are dependent on a small team, either comprising one or two other employees beside themselves. The hours they dedicate to the research and development on their own stylised complications are commendable to say the least, taking on the roles of both artist and engineer. And as much as Aaron Bescei of Bexei Watches wishes to materialise his own concept, or at the very least make a watch for himself, he simply doesn’t have the time. “Right now I am busy with made-to-order pieces. I expanded with hiring two employees who aids the manufacturing process because initially the delivery time was very long. I didn’t have the time to realise my ideas, so hopefully now I can do that. Someday, I plan on making another tourbillon version but in a smaller case with a different layout.” His pioneer triple-axis tourbillon wristwatch is a giant on the wrist, both in width and in height. The tourbillon, making a complete revolution of 12.5 minutes, takes up most of the engraved case and even has a sapphire crystal along its side to view the mechanical craft. Born into a family of watchmakers, Bescei makes each part himself, including the wheels, bridges, case, dials, hands, even down to the screws.
It’s not everyday you get to sit down with the makers behind the watch, who share both the emotional and mechanical aspects on how each timepiece operates. From the starting point in their imaginative minds down to their skilled fingertips, the translation of their stories encompasses every little detail. Ballouard told me how the grey dial of his favourite watch was reminiscent of the foggy air in his French hometown, and that the polished sides of the Upside Down reflect nothing but upside down imagery. Bescei left us some final words on the future of independent watchmaking, one that held a positive vision for both the community and himself. “People are growing to be more aware about us and what we are doing exactly. When we started out, we had to invest a lot into the development, improve the workshop and on our techniques. But I can say it’s worth all the energy.” For these independent watchmakers, passion sure pays. And we can’t wait to hear what they’ve come up with next – all on their own, of course.