The Amazing People Who Made MB&F’s Legacy Machines, AmazingBy Wei Koh
It’s been a decade since Max Büsser introduced us to his Legacy Machine watches that not only revealed a whole new dimension to his brand MB&F, but have also been universally lauded by even the most discriminating watch collectors. To be fair, by 2011, Büsser had indelibly inked his place in the canon of watchmaking’s greatest leaders. While the world today has reignited its passion for independent watchmaking, it was Büsser who was most critical in bringing attention to them.
By now the legend of Büsser has become popular horological folklore. Finding himself a young CEO at the helm of Harry Winston amid a crazed resurgence in complicated watchmaking, but with zero in-house acumen of his own, he tapped his friends like François-Paul Journe, Vianney Halter, Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei, offering them the chance of a lifetime — carte blanche to create the wildest, most innovative watches the world had ever seen. This project he christened “Opus” and, suddenly, thanks to the support of equally dynamic partners such as Michael Tay of The Hour Glass, the world suddenly realized the extraordinary beauty and singular creativity of independent watchmaking.
Büsser’s next move was to create his own brand with the same creative ethos of collaboration that made Opus a success. Aptly named Maximilian Büsser & Friends, the brand’s initial focus was on Horological Machines, “time-telling kinetic art forms,“ as I put it when I first saw them, that gleaned their iconography from manga and science fiction. To me, what has always separated Max’s watches from those of other modernist creators is his attention to detail, refinement in finish and genuine originality of thought. Shortly after he created HM4 in 2010, a watch that looked like two rocket ships sitting on your wrist, the question on everyone’s mind given the burgeoning shift in taste to vintage and classical watchmaking, was if Büsser’s hedonistically futuristic vision would still be relevant in the ensuing decade.
Clearly, Büsser had in some way already recognized this and astutely understood that a more classic Max Büsser watch would gain him an entirely new audience. So in the first year of the second decade of the third millennium, Büsser unveiled the Legacy Machines that he would have created if he had lived in the time of Ferdinand Berthoud and Antide Janvier. These were watches that heralded a level of finish that could only be described as sublime, that demonstrated emphatically that incredible creativity could coexist with classic values. They were watches that showed that MB&F was not a mono product brand and that Max Büsser’s imagination was limitless.
Says Michael Tay, “While we were all big fans of the Horological Machines, Max’s Legacy Machines caught us all off guard. But that’s the thing about Max — he is one of the smartest people I know and is tapped into the horological zeitgeist in a way that few others are. This is what has always defined him as a trailblazer; he is aware of where the world is heading and what people want even before we are able to express it ourselves. The Legacy Machines demonstrate a depth of knowledge for classic watchmaking that was incredibly impressive. They are, to me, some of the most beautiful and collectable watches created in the last decade.”
Speaking to Max on the 10-year anniversary of the Legacy Machine and the celebratory launch of the LMX, I became aware of the deeply human story that underlies this decade of watchmaking brilliance. So much so that I wanted to tell the story of these amazing watches in Max’s own words — not in terms of the technical details behind each timepiece, but of his relationship with the human beings that helped him create them or that inspired him. Here are some of the incredible stories that made the Legacy Machine project such a success. Albeit abridged here in written form, you should watch the following two part video interview with Max for the complete depth of these stories.
Editor’s Note: The remaining article is reproduced here as the stories that were narrated by Max Büsser
The Legacy Machine no.1: Jean-François Mojon & Kari Voutilainen
The Legacy Machine happened, as with a lot of things in my life, by accident. I have always had a fetish for balance wheels. You can already see that in the Horological Machines, in particular with HM4, which has a window through which you can see the oscillator. But I was dreaming of a huge balance on the dial that was seemingly disconnected from everything else. So I started working on a design with my friend Eric Giroud. But the problem was that every design we made kept bringing us back to a shape with several columns connected to each other. This would have been fine, except for the fact that Vianney Halter had created a unique piece called the “Hidden Mickey” for a project with the leather brand Goldpfeil.
No matter what we did, we couldn’t move away from that iconography and finally I said, “Alright, let’s just design a round case with the balance wheel in the center.” As soon as I said that, Eric, who is my best friend and was best man at my wedding, looked at me, cursed and he stormed out of the room. Another member of my team spoke up and said, “Max, we didn’t start MB&F to make round watches.”
We had just completed HM4 and the feeling was that we were these mavericks in the watch world. They felt I was becoming too conventional. But I asked myself, “What if I had been born one century earlier? What would be the watch that I would create, invoking all the codes of classic watchmaking, marine chronometers, incredible finish?” I became quite fascinated with this idea. Soon, I had the design for the dial but I needed a movement. That’s how I ended up with Jean-François Mojon.
I met Jean-François through my friend Denis Giguet, who created a brand called Manufacture Contemporaine du Temps (MCT). I really liked Jean-François, and I was impressed with his ability to deliver both innovation and reliability. I brought my design to him, and he loved the idea. But he said, “If we really want to get this movement right in terms of the type of finish with the correct historical codes, then we should get Kari Voutilainen involved. He has restored so many of the original pieces.” Jean-François and Kari had previously collaborated on the detent escapement watch for Urban Jurgensen and were very good friends, and Jean-François had been blown away by Kari’s knowledge of classic watchmaking from the 18th and 19th centuries.
So we made an appointment with Kari and drove over to Môtiers to meet him. For those of you who have never visited Kari, he really is a one-man show, and because he has an amazing following, he is always busy fulfilling orders. That day, he was in his atelier doing everything himself. Kari really liked the idea of the huge balance wheel, beating at a decidedly old school 18,000 vibrations per hour. He looked at the configuration of the dial, and it was clear he could already visualize the movement for it — the shape and array of the bridges and the type of finishing, complete with references from Berthoud to Janvier.
I was really excited and so, of course, I asked him to collaborate with us on this project. He shook his head saying, “No, I’m sorry I just don’t have the time. I’ve got all my watches to finish.” But he kept looking at the image of the dial and at some point, he had designed the whole movement on a piece of paper. At which point I said, “Kari, I think you’ve already done a lot of the work.” He laughed and finally agreed to help out. That was how Kari Voutilainen ended up collaborating with myself and Jean-François on the LM1.
One of my fondest memories: When the watch was finished, we set up shop in what used to be called the Palace at Basel watch fair, which is ironic as it was essentially a tent to the side of Messeplatz. I remember Kari was also set up in the Palace and, being the nice person he is, he stopped by to take a look at the Legacy Machine 1 and proposed that we should trade.
I was, of course, beyond flattered that one of horology’s greatest artisans and masters of watch finishing wanted one of my watches. With my Horological Machines, people would look at them more from the perspective of art or sculpture for the wrist even though they are finished to the very highest level. But with my Legacy Machine, everyone gets their loupes out and start poring over every bevel of the movement. Maybe it is the effect of a round watch, but that’s the thing. I am excited when they do this because I know they will discover finishing at the very highest level imaginable — something that I attribute to Kari. I love the story of the Legacy Machine 1, and I love the relationship it created between Jean-François, Kari and myself.
Legacy Machine no.2: Philippe Dufour
One of my favorite timepieces was always Philippe Dufour’s Duality. I love the story of him being inspired by a pocket watch created by the famous Albert Gustave Piguet, who would go on to become the technical director of Lemania in the late 1930s and who created the famous 2310 chronograph amongst others. It is a clear demonstration of his genius that Dufour created a pocket watch with two oscillators and with their results averaged by a differential mechanism for his watch school graduation project.
Since the defining theme of my Legacy Machines is the balance wheel taking center stage on the dial, I thought, why not have a watch with two balance wheels with their results averaged through a differential? I was always curious about why Dufour only made eight watches for Duality. It seems funny in the context of Duality trading for nearly a million dollars at auction today. One day, I had the opportunity to speak to him about this and he replied, “At the time nobody understood the watch and no one else wanted one. I made eight and there was no demand for a ninth.”
He was, of course, being quite humble. He also confided that these watches were an absolute nightmare to regulate correctly. Basically, you have to set one balance so that it runs slightly slower and the other one so that it runs slightly faster, so that they compensate for each other in the event of shocks or positional variations. Anyway, I went ahead with this project as sort of an homage to the Duality. Interestingly, one of the challenges in designing the movement was to place the balance wheels far enough from each other so that they would not enter into resonance. In the end, Jean-François Mojon and I learned that regulating these watches really is no joke, but it was definitely something fun.
Legacy Machine Perpetual: Stephen McDonnell
When I started MB&F, I had a contract with a company called Swiss Time Technology (STT), a complication and movement specialist that was going to make all the components and assemble the movements for my first watch. But one day, I received notice that STT had been sold and that I needed to see them regarding my movements. Amazingly, Peter Speake-Marin was with me. He was helping me on my first watch, but normally he would not attend meetings with suppliers. Somehow through divine providence, he was with me that day.
The people at STT greeted us and explained that they simply didn’t have enough capacity to work on my movements. They wanted me to take the unassembled parts and leave. I think you know that I am not a “groveler,” but this was the one instance in my life where I truly groveled. My entire life savings was in those parts; without anyone to assemble them, they were meaningless. I kept saying, “Please don’t do this. It will destroy my brand before it’s even started.” They kept politely but firmly declining. Suddenly I felt Peter’s hand on my arm. He looked at me and said in English, “We will sort it out.” Then he guided me out of the room.
Moments later, we were in my car with these trays of watch components. Peter was furiously dialing every watchmaker he knew that might be able to assemble the movements. But they kept turning him down. To each person he simply but very directly said, “You owe me,” and then he would hang up the phone. I cannot express how grateful I am to Peter Speake-Marin. If it were not for him, the story would have ended there. And yes, I am acutely aware I also “owe him big time.”
The next day, Peter, Laurent Besse, who was working on the project from the start, and I were standing around the table with four watchmakers who had been crazy enough to answer Peter’s call. One of them said, “Wait, you want us to assemble these movements. But there are no plans. There are also components that are missing.” Again, Peter said, “We will sort it out.” They sighed collectively, and each took with them some kits to work on. One of these guys was Stephen McDonnell who was teaching at WOSTEP, which is Switzerland’s most famous watch school. But he had never had any formal training; he was a pure autodidact. Very quickly, he became the watchmaker in charge of the entire project. He would teach during the day and at night, he would work on my movements. If a part were missing or if he thought it could be made better, he would manufacture these components in his home workshop. I was really impressed with him. To say he was a huge part of making my first watch a reality is an understatement. We soon became friends, and I learned that he had been a theology student at Oxford University. I loved that he had a kind of introspection and sensitivity that to me are the mark of someone truly brilliant.
Cut to several years later. I had launched the Legacy Machines and, to my surprise, they had opened up a whole new client base and started a new adventure in my life. I was catching up with Peter Speake-Marin and we were reminiscing about the start of MB&F with the humor of people who had avoided a potential disaster. The subject turned to Stephen, and Peter said, “Well, it’s a real shame what happened to Stephen.” Stephen had signed a contract to create a movement for an individual who had pulled out.
A few days later, I got in touch with Stephen, who explained the situation to me. Beyond the financial implications, I knew how brilliant he was, and it was a shame that his movement would never see the light of day. I asked him what else he had been working on, and he explained he was thinking about a perpetual calendar. He asked if this was something I could be interested in and I immediately said, “No.”
From my experience, this complication is what I like to call a boomerang. It goes out to the client and then, for various reasons — because they are fragile and often because the client doesn’t read the instructions and operates the correctors in the wrong sequence or during a date changeover — the watch ends up coming back to you over and over again. “Yes, that’s because the design of the perpetual calendar is fundamentally flawed,” Stephen said. He explained that all perpetual calendars were calibrated to have 31 days in each month and then the movement compels a jump forward on days that have less than this, which is six times a year. For him, that is where the problem starts. Instead, he wanted to have each month at 28 days, then add three additional days in the months where applicable.
Basically, his idea was to create the world’s most foolproof perpetual calendar. It would be a mechanism that could be advanced with all indications synchronized, but each indicator could also be adjusted individually using pushers. And finally, it would use a system of clutches correctors, which would simply be blocked or disengaged when the movement could be potentially damaged. This means you could hand the watch to anyone, and they would be able to adjust it without fear of damaging it.
I asked if he had already designed this movement and he replied he had not, but that he could see it in his mind. I thought about it and decided that I owed him a debt of gratitude. I would fund his project for one year; if we make progress, then great, and if not, then no harm done. But each time we met, I became more excited by the project. In the end, it took three and a half years to create the LM Perpetual, but that is how the project got started.
People tell me they really love the design of the LM Perpetual but the irony is, this is the one watch where I had nothing to do with the design. It was all Stephen. People also ask me why I decided to launch an EVO version of this watch with a zirconium case and a rubber strap, and I reply that I made this watch for myself. I live in Dubai, so my wife and my daughters and I are frequently by the beach or swimming pool. I got tired of people asking me what I did and not being able to show them the watch on my wrist because everything I made was on a leather strap. That’s why the LM Perpetual EVO has a screw-down crown and is water resistant, so that I can show people what I do by the swimming pool.
Legacy Machine Thunderdome: Eric Coudray & Kari Voutilainen
I first met Eric Coudray when I was working at Jaeger-LeCoultre. He was already a mythical figure with shoulder length hair and a beard; this was well before hipsters made this look commonplace and it was definitely original in the context of the Vallée de Joux. Eric worked out of his own mad scientist-like workshop at the manufacture in Le Sentier. He is such an amazing innovator — his most famous creation is, of course, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Gyrotourbillon, one of the first multi-axis tourbillons created. When I heard he had left Jaeger-LeCoultre, I immediately rang him up. But he had just signed with Cabestan, and he had to work exclusively with them. So I remained vigilant and, many years later, when I saw him at one of the watch fairs, I found out that he had set up his own workshop. I immediately leaped on the chance to work with him. He asked what I had in mind and I told him that I was happy to let him take the lead — just as long as it was truly crazy and ambitious.
He came up with the idea of a triple-axis tourbillon, but with each axis rotating at speeds far faster than any other watch before. The first axis completes a full rotation every eight seconds; the second one every 12 seconds; and the third, every 20 seconds. The effect is hypnotic and dizzying. I loved the tourbillon, but because this occupied so much of the space on the watch, we had a hard time integrating the time indications. We had it recessed on a disc, but it wasn’t really visible. It was one of those times where I wasn’t happy with the design, but we needed to finish the watch and so I let it go. We were developing the FlyingT concurrently, and I really loved the inclined indicator using our conical gear train which is placed at seven o’clock. I had initially conceptualized this so that a woman wearing the watch could keep the time to herself. But I realized that this would also be the perfect time display for the Thunderdome. The problem was Eric had already finished the prototype for the watch with the other display. I remember going to meet him and hoping he wouldn’t be too upset. This is the kind of guy he is. He looked at me and explained the amount of work it would take to integrate this display and the conical gear train. Then he sighed and laughed, and just went off and got it done without a single complaint.
Legacy Machine 101 MB&F × H. Moser: Edouard Meylan
I have so much respect for what Edouard and Bertrand Meylan were able to do with Moser. They took over a brand that had great technical assets but was primarily functional classic watchmaking. And they were able to make that brand cool, something that the younger generation identified with and loved, while still retaining its classic appeal.
I remember talking to Edouard at Dubai Watch Week. I loved what he had been doing with the fumé dials and the minimalist charm of the Concept watches, and I asked him if he would like to collaborate together on a watch. e aHeThe first thing he said was, “You should use our double hairspring.”
This is why I love Edouard because that was exactly what I wanted. Since the beginning of the Legacy Machines, we had been using the Precision Engineering hairsprings but never in the double hairspring format where the spirals are mounted in opposing directions to aid in concentric breathing, no matter the position of the watch. I had already conceptualized an LM101 with no subdials or indications just like Moser’s Concept watches, fume dials and my signature balance wheel, but now with the double hairsprings. I was delighted. But then Edouard paused and smiled. He said, “OK, but what are you going to do for us? You have a Moser-themed MB&F; we should have an MB&F-themed Moser.” So he decided to do an Endeavor Tourbillon, but using the cylindric hairspring from our LM Thunderdome, which was incidentally created by Precision Engineering, our domed sapphire and the angled subdial we used in both the LM Thunderdome as well as the FlyingT, but this time in sapphire.
MB&F and The Hour Glass present “10 Years of Legacy Machines – A Retrospective Exhibition”
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Legacy Machine collection, MB&F and long-standing retail partner The Hour Glass proudly present “10 Years of Legacy Machines, a Retrospective Exhibition”, taking place in Singapore from March 25th to April 15th. Launched in 2011, MB&F’s first Legacy Machine marked a significant evolution of the Geneva-based horological lab, inaugurating a more classic collection alongside its very unconventional Horological Machines.
Watch enthusiasts will be welcomed at L’Atelier by The Hour Glass , the boutique dedicated to independent watchmaking located in the heart of Orchard Road. Visitors will discover the first-ever retrospective collection of Legacy Machines, from the original Legacy Machine No1 created in 2011 to the new LMX, which will be released officially on the eve of the exhibition. No less than 23 different Legacy Machine models will be on display, including pieces sent especially for the exhibition from MB&F headquarters in Geneva.
25 March – 15 April 2021 (Open to Public)
L’Atelier by The Hour Glass
2 Orchard Turn #03-06 ION Orchard, 238801
More information: thehourglass.com