URWERK: The Evolution

URWERK: The Evolution

For all its upheavals, 2020 will also be known as the year that independent watchmaking came roaring back to take centre stage in the collecting community’s collective consciousness. What with Philippe Dufour’s Simplicity — the world’s most perfectly finished three-handed watch — now commanding in excess of one million US dollars, and early “Souscription” F.P. Journe watches jumping 10 times in price, independent watchmaking has certainly grabbed the auction world headlines.

But at the same time, I’d like to think there is a more honest rationale for our renewed love affair for independent horology, and that is, in times of confusion and crisis, we are even more drawn towards objects that are crafted with the greatest authenticity. We want watches made by real people whose names we know, who have become friends and whose watches resonate with a vast sincerity in approach and a totally personal philosophy in design and craft.

For this reason, independent watchmaking is more relevant than ever, and many of these brands have never had a more successful year. But if we put George Daniels, Daniel Roth and Franck Muller in his early days aside, the world of independent watchmaking is a relatively recent occurrence. Over the last 15 years, it has gained considerable momentum. And to me, there is one person in particular who is responsible for this: Michael Tay, group managing director of The Hour Glass. For me, Tay is the single greatest champion of independent watchmaking, and the individual who has curated them and spread their gospel in the way the famous gallerist Leo Castelli introduced the world to Abstract Expressionism.

Tay’s passion for independent watchmaking was formed in great part by his father, Dr Henry Tay, who, in an act that showed great foresight, bankrolled Philippe Dufour’s Grande Sonnerie project, and in so doing, gave the independent watchmaker his start on the path to becoming a legend. So, you could say, a deep affection for real watchmaking was already encoded in Tay’s blood.

Master watchmaker, Felix Baumgartner and chief designer Martin Frei of URWERK (©Revolution)
Master watchmaker, Felix Baumgartner and chief designer Martin Frei of URWERK (©Revolution)

Dynamic Duo

I still remember in 2004, when Tay staged Tempus — to this day the single greatest educational watch initiative I’ve ever attended — he introduced me to the men whom I have come to regard as two of the most significant figures in independent watchmaking, Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei of URWERK.

I often say that if you don’t own a watch or, more aptly, a kinetic time-telling work of sculptural poetry, known as an URWERK, it would be hard for me to think of you as a real watch collector. I know that is a potentially explosive statement. But it’s the end of a life-changing year and I think we can all benefit from a little honesty. That’s because if you think of any independent watchmaker today, they are largely inspired by the past. Their constant force, remontoir d’egalité, resonance, multi-axis tourbillon, twin oscillator setup with a differential, almost all are actually extrapolations of complications and aesthetics that were found in 18th- and 19th-century pocket watches.

The Master Watchmaker who has made every mad URWERK watch come to life and with an indisputable chronometric integrity, Felix Baumgartner (©Revolution)
The Master Watchmaker who has made every mad URWERK watch come to life and with an indisputable chronometric integrity, Felix Baumgartner (©Revolution)
The design genius who has lent his dreams and visions to every otherworldly timepiece that has become an URWERK, Martin Frei (©Revolution)
The design genius who has lent his dreams and visions to every otherworldly timepiece that has become an URWERK, Martin Frei (©Revolution)

For that reason, I consider URWERK to be the single most original voice in watchmaking today. To me, they are the John Coltrane, the Grandmaster Flash and the Jackson Pollocks of horology. They are the creators of an all-new art form that, in the context of horology, is as seminal as cool jazz, hip hop and action painting. And while their famous origin story always references them being inspired by a night clock created for Pope Innocent XI by the Campanus Brothers in 1682, their signature rotating three-dimensional satellites have forged what I consider to be the most unique and all-new time-telling language in modern horology. So seismic is their influence that they have inspired a generation of imitators.

Indeed, shortly after the birth of URWERK, innumerable brands introduced watches with digital or three-dimensional indicators that superficially echo URWERK’s codex. But the difference is that pretenders to their crown simply add futuristic-looking embellishments to relatively standard timepieces; URWERK watches use real watchmaking skills to create a modern time-telling iconography that has forever changed our landscape. And while there is some similarity to Audemars Piguet’s now discontinued Star Wheel, that complication was still found in a relatively traditional watch, whereas URWERK have created time-telling sculptures that look like alien spacecraft landing on Earth.

This 17th century creation inspired URWERK's signature rotating three-dimensional satellites that have forged what can be considered to be the most unique and all-new time-telling language in modern horology
This 17th century creation inspired URWERK's signature rotating three-dimensional satellites that have forged what can be considered to be the most unique and all-new time-telling language in modern horology
This 17th century creation inspired URWERK's signature rotating three-dimensional satellites that have forged what can be considered to be the most unique and all-new time-telling language in modern horology
This 17th century creation inspired URWERK's signature rotating three-dimensional satellites that have forged what can be considered to be the most unique and all-new time-telling language in modern horology

Time-Telling Sculptures, Sci-Fi Style

Their story goes like this: In 1997, Felix and Martin, and Felix’s brother, Thomas, who would depart the brand shortly afterwards, created the UR-101 and UR-102 — both somewhat traditional-looking round watches with crowns at three o’clock but with the first rotating satellite hour indicators that were read along fixed minute tracks. In 2003, they created the UR-103, one of the most enduring and iconic watches of the modern era; this time, the case resembled a tonneau-shaped spaceship with the crown at 12 o’clock.

In 2005, URWERK had one of its most significant years creating the now legendary Opus 5 for Harry Winston — the first use of their three-dimensional hour indicators paired with a massive retrograde minute hand. They also create a glass canopy version of the UR-103 dubbed the UR-103.03, and for the first time, the world was able to marvel at the architectural feat of their satellite system.

1997: UR-101

URWERK UR-101

1997: UR-102

URWERK UR-101

2003: UR-103

URWERK UR-103

2005: OPUS 5

Two horological marvels from Santa Laura’s collection: the Harry Winston Opus 5 created by Felix Baumgartner and the Opus 3 created by Vianney Halter (©Revolution)

In 2007, the three-dimensional indicators made their way to the ultra cool UR-201, which had a telescopic minute hand. The back of the watch featured an automotive- inspired “oil change” indicator.

In 2008, the manual-wind Peseux base movement that URWERK had been using made way for an automatic movement by Girard-Perregaux, and the UR-202 was born. On the back of the watch, Felix Baumgartner invented a turbine mechanism to control the winding speed of the rotor.

In 2009, URWERK made their first departure from their signature satellites with the CC1, a watch with all-linear indicators and a case shaped like Louis Cottier’s Cobra, a prototype made for Patek Philippe, in 1959.

2008: UR-202

An exceptional execution of the UR-202

2009: UR-CC1

URWERK UR-CC1

In 2010, URWERK unveiled the UR-203 with a platinum case treated with PE-CVD (plasma-enhanced chemical vapour deposit), as well as the final version of the UR-103, this time with a full sapphire top case.  In 2011, URWERK created the UR-110 which added robotic arms to their three-dimensional satellite system, to read off a fixed minute track on the right of the watch, and unveiled their perpetual calendar pocket watch, the Zeit Device.

2012 was a particular key year as URWERK unveiled the UR-210 with its three-dimensional satellites now paired with a retrograde minute hand and an all-new case. Many consider this URWERK’s greatest watch; Ralph Lauren himself went on to eventually purchase two versions of this watch from Westime, in Los Angeles.

In 2013, URWERK launched the wildly ambitious EMC (Electro-Mechanical Control), which had a hand-crank-charged Maxon generator that powered a 16MHz reference oscillator. The watch could read the accuracy of your balance wheel relative to its electronic oscillator, and gave you a deviation so you could self-regulate your balance.

2010: UR-203 Black PT

An exceptional execution of the UR-203 Black PT

2011: UR-110

URWERK UR-110

2012: UR-210

URWERK UR-210

2013: The EMC

URWERK EMC

In 2014, URWERK launched the UR-105M with flat satellites and a sleeker, racier watch reminiscent of the original UR-103’s case shape. In 2015, URWERK created the UR-106 women’s watch. In 2016, URWERK launched the EMC Time Hunter with a sage-coloured case, as well as the UR-105 CT which featured a case that could flip up like a helmet visor. 2017 was another incredible year for the brand, for they launched the UR-T8 watch with a reversible case as well as the AMC Atomic Clock which could be used to set the EMC watch in a hyper modern version of Breguet’s Sympathique clock and pocket-watch combination. In 2018, URWERK evolved the CC1 to the UR-111C with all-linear indicators and a cooler more aggressive case.

In 2019, URWERK created the UR-100 collection, their slimmest most ergonomic watch yet with an indicator for distance travelled by the Earth along its equator as it rotates over 20 minutes. And in 2020, URWERK unveiled the UR-220 — the ultimate version of its iconic UR-210 and, to my mind, one of the most important future collectables.

2014: UR-105M

URWERK UR-105M

2015: UR-106

Urwerk UR-106 Flower Power

2016: UR-105 CT

Urwerk UR-105 CT Streamliner

2017: UR-T8

2018: UR-111C

URWERK UR-111 (Image © Revolution)

In 2019, URWERK created the UR-100 collection, their slimmest most ergonomic watch yet with an indicator for distance travelled by the Earth along its equator as it rotates over 20 minutes. And in 2020, URWERK unveiled the UR-220 — the ultimate version of its iconic UR-210 and, to my mind, one of the most important future collectables.

2019: UR-100

The URWERK UR-100 SpaceTime — Iron and Black (Image © Revolution)

2020: UR-220

(L-R) The UR-220 All Black limited edition of 25 pieces and the UR-220 Falcon Project
(L-R) The UR-220 All Black limited edition of 25 pieces and the UR-220 Falcon Project

Future Icons

Why do I consider the UR-220 very possibly the most important and potentially most collectable URWERK ever made? I would say that, for me, the most exciting and artistically significant of their watches are those with three-dimensional hour indicators. This, of course, began in 2005 with Harry Winston’s Opus 5 but made the leap to the 201–203 series of watches, which used pyramid indicators with telescopic hands. But, to me, it is the 210–220 series of watches that have both a more complex case shape and a retrograde minute indicator — this is actually an entire frame from the hour that jumps to zero and surrounds the new indicator — that is the single most iconic leitmotif for URWERK.

This watch was made in several different versions including some stunning fully engraved versions. The engraved watches, such as the version shown here owned by a famous Singapore watch collector who goes by his Instagram handle @santa_laura, and another example owned by the legendary Jimmy Ng, proprietor of Singapore’s famous cigar club, Jimmy’s, are the result of URWERK’s collaboration with Austrian rifle engraver Florian Gullert. The watches have also been made with full integrated bracelets, and even in a black platinum version with concentric circles engraved into the top case with and named “The Royal Hawk”.

The superb UR-210 Amadeus, engraved fully by the one and only, Florian Gullert (©Revolution)
The superb UR-210 Amadeus, engraved fully by the one and only, Florian Gullert (©Revolution)

Says Michael Tay, “What is interesting is that even though the UR-210 family is almost a decade old, it still looks as fresh, vibrant and relevant as it did when unveiled in 2012. To me, this is a very strong test of watches that have the potential to be future classics.”

But even as there have been stunning versions of the UR-210, the UR-220 is still a significant leap forward for the brand. Because for the first time since 2007, they have made a manual wind version of their three-dimensional hour index in the UR-200 family of watches, which has allowed them to reduce the thickness of the UR-220 to 14.8mm in height from the 17.8mm thickness of the UR-210. While in absolute terms this might still seem insubstantial, remember that the URWERK UR-220 is a transformative work of kinetic sculpture rather than a simple watch with hands.

Says Felix Baumgartner, “In recent years, wearability and ergonomics have been increasingly important to us, which is one of the focuses of the UR-100, our smallest and slimmest watch yet at 14mm [in height]. So, when we thought about the next generation of the UR-210 we decided to make something as slim as the UR-100.”

The Falcon Project

The URWERK UR-220 “Falcon Project” Carbon Edition, launched in September of 2020 (©Revolution)
The URWERK UR-220 “Falcon Project” Carbon Edition, launched in September of 2020 (©Revolution)

Nicknamed the “Falcon Project”, the UR-220 features a completely redesigned case made of a completely new material for the brand, carbon fibre. Says Martin Frei, “We wanted to create a slim, very light watch for the evolution of the UR-210. So, we decided on carbon fibre. But we felt that the grain and texture of the carbon fibre had to complement the overall aesthetic of our rotating satellite indicators.”

Says Felix Baumgartner, “After some research, we arrived at high-resistance 150 G CTP (Carbon Thin Ply) material. We layer 81 sheets of this and compress it with a hard resin before machining the case.”

Frei continues, “Because of the orientation of the fibres, there is a beautiful series of concentric circles, almost like the famous crop dust circles believed to be left by aliens that also serve to echo the direction of movement of the indicators.”

81 sheets of 150 G CTP are compressed paired with a hard resin before the case of the Project Falcon iis machined; because of the orientation of the fibres, there is a beautiful series of concentric circles (©Revolution)
81 sheets of 150 G CTP are compressed paired with a hard resin before the case of the Project Falcon iis machined; because of the orientation of the fibres, there is a beautiful series of concentric circles (©Revolution)

On the back of the UR-220, you will find the return of the famous oil-change indicator found on the original 2007 UR-201 “Hammerhead”. Says Frei, “We have reimagined this element so that it now uses two side-by-side rollers that count to 39 months when you wear the watch, which lets you know when to bring it in for its scheduled service.”

Another new indication for the UR-220 is the splitting of the power-reserve indicator. When winding the watch, the indicator for the first 24 hours on the top right is charged, and when that is full, the indicator for the second 24 hours on the top left is charged. This splitting for these two days of full wind required an additional 81 parts. The increased thinness and ergonomics come from a refreshed aesthetic defined by a new typography for the minute and what is, objectively speaking, a damnably cool strap that is moulded, curved and textured by a process called Vulcarbone.

The split power reserve indicators of the Falcon Project; when winding the watch, the indicator for the first 24 hours on the top right is charged, and when that is full, the indicator for the second 24 hours on the top left is charged (©Revolution)
The split power reserve indicators of the Falcon Project; when winding the watch, the indicator for the first 24 hours on the top right is charged, and when that is full, the indicator for the second 24 hours on the top left is charged (©Revolution)
URWERK's famous oil-change indicator, which counts down to 39 months as you wear the watch, letting you know to bring it in for its scheduled service (©Revolution)
URWERK's famous oil-change indicator, which counts down to 39 months as you wear the watch, letting you know to bring it in for its scheduled service (©Revolution)
The damnably cool strap of the Project Falcon that is moulded, curved and textured by a process called Vulcarbone (©Revolution)
The damnably cool strap of the Falcon Project that is moulded, curved and textured by a process called Vulcarbone (©Revolution)

I have no idea what that means but the strap looks damnably sexy with its three-striped pattern near the lug area. Now just as I was about to head off to Wine Country, my holiday destination which, in the context of this year, is the sofa in front of my television, I received a last-minute press release from “Urweena”, which is codename for Yacine Sar, URWERK’s head of communications, to announce that the UR-220 will also be made in an “All Black” titanium and steel version, with the same focus on ergonomics and thinness, and still, all things considered, remarkably lightweight. Whichever you choose, to me, the UR-220 is one of the key watches of the last 20 years, and one that you will never regret having as part of your collection.

This article was brought to you in partnership with The Hour Glass, the sole retailer of URWERK, Singapore.

URWERK is available at the follow The Hour Glass locations:
The Hour Glass Paragon
L’atelier by The Hour Glass at ION Orchard 

Portrait photos of Felix and Martin by Munster.

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