Wei Koh’s Favourite Independent Brands and the People Behind ThemBy Wei Koh
When I first conceptualised Revolution’s Summer 2021 issue, I imagined it to be an exhaustive, didactic and encyclopedic look into the world of independent watchmaking, from its OGs like Franck Muller all the way to its latest rock stars like Rexhep Rexhepi. But then it dawned on me that what I love about independent watchmaking, apart from the watches, are the friendships I’ve made with the human beings behind the brands. And so, rather than simply recite statistics related to innovative complications, I want to share my personal stories about each of these individuals and why I love them so much. I understand that this is an unusual pathway into understanding their unique vision for horology, but I’ve come to admire, in addition to their watchmaking know‐how, the way they live their lives which, in each instance, is with courage, ingenuity, kindness and a total unwillingness to compromise.
While his is the single greatest entrepreneurial success story in the modern history of watches; while he’s created timepieces that have so far transcended their genre that they have become cultural symbols in their own right; while based purely on his own imagination, he’s coalesced a vision for watchmaking that has been the single greatest influence on the contemporary horological landscape, none of these are the main reason I love Richard Mille. I love Richard Mille because he is one of the best and kindest human beings I know.
He probably wouldn’t want me sharing this story because he doesn’t do nice things for recognition. But I’d like to share it anyway as it perfectly illustrates my point. At one point many years ago, I found myself on the jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) back when it was being overseen by the colourful Gabriel Tortella. That year, Richard was also on the jury having won in the previous year the Aiguille d’Or for his RM 012 Tourbillon, a watch that used a tubular steel trellis structure rather than a traditional baseplate.
While I was pleased to have been invited to the jury, I quickly realised that due to the lack of transparency in the voting process (I assume that this has since changed),it really wasn’t the right environment for me. Further, the GPHG was scheduled the day after my birthday. In an amusing coincidence, the woman I was dating, who would eventually become my wife, was also born on November 11th — meaning I was missing our mutual birthdays to take part in the GPHG. After a busy day of scrutinising timepieces, Richard and I had ensconced ourselves at the Hotel des Bergues to eat cheeseburgers when he noticed that I seemed a bit dejected. I explained why. He paused for a moment, then took the prototype for his new watch, the Richard Mille RM 011, off his wrist and passed it to me. I looked at it as he said, “Happy Birthday.”
OK, in order to understand this moment that was happening in 2008, we need to go back in time to when I first set eyes on a Richard Mille watch, which was around 2004. To me, it was the most groundbreaking and visionary act of horological design I had ever set eyes on. And as a demonstration of how unique and extraordinary these watches were, if you look at any of Richard’s timepieces from his first 10 years, they are even more beautiful now than they were then. To me, they are the equivalent of the Ferrari 250 GTO and F40, which looked incredibly futuristic when they were born but later became design classics. Even more, when I learned about his iconoclastic work in shock resistance, ergonomics and lightness, I realised the amazing technical substance of his watches. But when I found out the price of his watches, I had to stop. At one point in Singapore, I almost spent my entire net worth on a RM 005 but stopped at the last minute, realising that I would literally have less than zero dollars in my bank account. Basically I couldn’t afford one. So cut to four years later, when Richard suddenly offered me my dream watch, the moment was simply unbelievable. At some point I recall stammering, “I’m sorry, Richard, I can’t accept this.” To which he replied, “If you don’t take it, I will leave it here on the table for the waiter.” At which point, I strapped it on. It was one of those watches that you can’t actually believe you own.
The point to all this is that there is no one who has created his own brand that is more successful than Richard Mille, and there probably will never be again. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing regarding Richard Mille watches is that they aren’t really watches any more than they are the membership symbols to the world’s elite community. Because they are prohibitively — OK, let’s just say it — staggeringly expensive, there is sometimes a stigma associated with them and an implication that their owners are all playboy billionaires. I’m not going to argue against that because as part of the Richard Mille family, I know this is partially true. But what I will say is that every single person I know who owns a Richard Mille is a nice person. I’ve never met anyone with an RM on that wasn’t up for a conversation or a drink or a joke, and I think that’s because they buy into this brand for the example set by its creator, who is not only the greatest visionary the modern watch world has ever seen, but also its nicest, kindest and clearly most generous human being who deserves all his success and more. Richard is proof positive in a sometimes cynical world that you can be a great human person while also being a great success.
To me, Max Büsser has been one of the most important figures in independent watchmaking. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without him, independent watchmaking would not have soared to the heights of its popularity and become the subject of such widespread cultural awareness. This all goes back to Max’s role as the managing director of Harry Winston watches. Previous to this, Max had worked alongside Henry‐John Belmont and the legendary Günter Blümlein at Jaeger‐LeCoultre. He still likes to quote Blümlein’s witticisms that were imparted upon him on what seems like a very regular basis. During this critical phase of brand rebuilding throughout the ’90s, Max participated in what was essentially the relaunch of Jaeger‐ LeCoultre under the visionary leadership of Blümlein.
In 1998, he was recruited to run Harry Winston’s watch division. Though to call it a division, Max recalls, was a bit of an overstatement. The watch revenue when he took over was a mere eight million dollars a year. Rather than try to play a volume game, it was Max’s preference to create high value, high concept, incredibly innovative watches that he knew would grab headlines and recast Harry Winston in a totally different light. There was just one problem. Harry Winston had zero watchmaking expertise or resources.
Max recalls, “I was really scratching my head about this because I could see there was a renewed appetite for complicated, technically and aesthetically innovative watches. But I just had no idea who I could approach to make them for us.” Then one day at Basel fair, Max famously found himself going up the escalator as François‐ Paul Journe was coming down. Max had, of course, heard that Journe was poised to launch his eponymous brand, which he had funded through a series of souscription watches (watches where a deposit is paid before their creation to generate positive cash flow). He suggested that Journe make a few additional movements to be cased in Harry Winston’s watches. He pointed out that it would be a win‐win as these timepieces would benefit from Harry Winston’s marketing and draw attention to Journe’s own watches, and of course it would be additional cash that was always useful for a start‐up brand. This resulted in three different watches each featuring one of Journe’s signature complications. Max came up with the name for this project: Opus. And with that, he was off running.
Soon he would transform Opus into one of the most exciting platforms for watchmaking innovation and,at the same time, turn the spotlight on independent watchmakers that, though talented, had toiled in relative obscurity until now. Shortly after the launch of the amazing Opus 5 created in collaboration with Urwerk, Max decided to leave Harry Winston and start his own brand. I recall him telling me this over breakfast at the Taormina Film Festival, and to be honest, I think we could all see it coming. He was too entrepreneurial to be part of a corporate structure for the long term. His brand was, of course, based on collaborations with independent watchmakers such as Peter Speake‐Marin and Laurent Besse, and started off with the wildly futuristic Horological Machines. He soon gained a strong following, in part thanks to big support from Michael Tay and The Hour Glass, and became the go‐to brand for wild, science fiction and manga‐inspired, childhood dream type high watchmaking which, from a design perspective, culminated in the HM4 that took the form of two rocket ships on your wrist. To this day, I consider this single timepiece to be the most avant garde watch of our era.
But in 2011, Max did something extraordinary — he went retro not to the 1950s, but to the 19th and even 18th centuries for his inspiration. He asked himself what his watches would look like if he had lived in the era of Antide Janvier, Ferdinand Berthoud and Abraham‐ Louis Breguet. The results were his Legacy Machines that created a new retro modern design language the likes of which the watch world had never seen before, and that I believe future historians will regard as seminal works. In particular, his is one of the most original and beautiful timepieces ever created and ranks up there with the Patek Philippe ref. 3448 as one of the icons in this LM Perpetual Calendar created with Stephen McDonnell category of complication. In 2021, he celebrated the 10th anniversary of his Legacy Machine with the LMX, a watch that pays homage to his first Legacy Machines, but features some of his most memorable design elements from the past decade, such as the inclined subdials driven by conical gears for the two time zones. Now, more than a decade and a half since he turned independent, it can be said without equivocation that Max has created one of the most important, creative and — considering the extreme modernism of his Horological Machines and the charming retro cool of his Legacy Machines — diverse brands in modern horology.
What’s my favourite Max Büsser story? Well, Max and I have had our ups and downs, and the occasional argument that results from two Asian guys with strong opinions, who both generally think they are right. But it is a history and relationship that I treasure. The moment I always think about with Max Büsser is when he basically saved me and my ex‐business partner from getting robbed and beaten up by a group of thieves in Geneva.
We were taking a walk into downtown Geneva. My former business partner had just acquired a rose gold RM 004 which was a stunning watch, and he took great delight in displaying it to people in the way he liked to show up at events in an orange Lamborghini or white Bentley. Unfortunately, he inadvertently displayed it to a group of men that became determined to separate it from him. They started following us and soon, more and more of them were closing in on us from all directions. Panicking, we ducked inside a takeaway sushi shop as I desperately texted Max. He replied that he was on his way to meet us. After five daunting minutes or so, with the group of feral youths gathered outside the door, Max suddenly roared up in his Audi RS4 station wagon pulling onto the kerb, scattering the assembled aggressors. We both jumped in and sped off with Max looking absolutely nonplussed, his hair perfect and with that Büsser dryness remarking, “Well, that was good timing.”
Felix Baumgartner & Martin Frei of URWERK
I first met Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei at Michael Tay’s horological super show in Singapore, TEMPUS. Imagine a platform where Jean‐Claude Biver, Philippe Dufour and the CEOs of almost every major brand were present in Singapore. This was what Tay put together in 2004. Already I was impressed with the total originality of Urwerk’s watch, the UR‐103 and its satellite indicator. But the moment that made me a true Urwerk fan was seeing Felix the following year at the Harry Winston booth with Max Büsser as they presented the revolutionary Opus 5 with its three‐dimensional hour indicators and massive retrograde minute hand. Even better was the fact that the watch worked and that it was ready to be delivered as Harry Winston had suffered some criticism regarding Vianney Halter’s Opus 3, which would eventually be delayed for close to a decade. But while viewing Opus 5, I couldn’t take my eyes off the UR‐103.03 on Felix’s wrist, which was essentially a UR‐103 with a glass top so you could see all the intricacies of the mechanism within. But it was really when I went out on a press trip to Geneva organised by Tay and The Hour Glass and saw Felix and Martin in their guerilla warfare‐like bunker in a quasi‐ socialist building that I realised why I loved them — they were the punk rockers of the watch world.
At the time I was trying to identify precisely what it was that Revolution was all about, and after meeting Richard Mille and Max Büsser, I realised one of my primary missions was to give a platform to a new vision of watchmaking and Urwerk represented the most extreme part of this new voice. Theirs was a rupture from the prevailing form of watchmaking that was still influenced by classic pocket watches and 18th‐ and 19th‐ century complications. Says Felix, “In order for us to truly contribute to the story of watchmaking, our generation, and in particular Urwerk, had to find our own voice, create our own kind of watchmaking. I do not want to repeat the past. I want to bring all the quality of traditional finish and use traditional haute horlogerie techniques to create the future.”
Says Martin, “Looking back, we were intentionally trying to break from the past. It was like in cinema with the French New Wave that introduced handheld cameras to film or, as you say, like punk rock that took anger, emotion and dissonance and made them into a new music. The thing is the watchmaking of the past was related to precision. But today no one needs a watch to tell time. So it has to be an emotional object instead.”
It’s funny but looking back now over the 17 years I’ve known them, Urwerk is still as dynamically modern and wonderfully original. Their early watches, like Richard Mille’s, have become modern classics, and this speaks of the strength of their design and the power of their horological content. During this time, they’ve done incredible things. They’ve created the EMC “Time Hunter”, the world’s first watch which electro‐mechanically measures the amplitude of the movement and tells you to set it faster or slower. They’ve created the world’s coolest atomic clock with a sympathetic synchronisation for a wristwatch in the wildest riff on Breguet’s iconic Sympathique clock. But more than that, they’ve demonstrated year after year that their watches are some of the coolest, most desirable and utterly original timepieces on the planet. Amazingly, Ralph Lauren has two versions of their seminal UR‐210, one blacked out and one in titanium. Michael Jordan is an Urwerk fan. Today anyone that loves watches knows what an Urwerk is, and either has one or has the ambition to own one. That having been said, what I love about Felix and Martin is they keep it irrefutably real. They have no ambition to make more than a few hundred watches a year. They have no ambition to sell their brand to a big group. They are probably the two most genuine and real guys in the watchmaking game.
Sometimes almost painfully too real, as I found out when I organised a meeting with them and their fan Ralph Lauren. The idea was to create a small series of UR‐210 based watches but with cases inspired by Lauren’s incredible Bugatti Atlantic SC. The design Martin had come up with was simply amazing. The meeting had gone flawlessly and we were about to leave the office ecstatic when Felix took it upon himself to launch into a 10‐minute none‐too‐positive critique on Ralph Lauren watches as Martin and I looked on in horror. To his immense credit, Mr Lauren took the comments with extraordinary grace and affability but, suffice it to say, that project never came into fruition. From time to time, this story comes up and Felix will say, “But you know, people like it when you are real with them.” To which I, Martin and Urwerk’s head of communications, Yacine Sar, will shake our heads and say to him, “No, Felix. No one likes this.”
What’s my favourite memory of Urwerk? Back when I visited their mad science lair, the first time they showed me the design of their UR‐201, the predecessor to the 210 with its three‐dimensional hour indexes and a telescopic minute hand. It was simply the coolest thing I had ever seen. Amazingly, I got the opportunity to own the first rose gold piece of this watch made. To receive it, Felix organised a fondue on the roof of his apartment in Geneva and he had asked his mother to make the fondue. There, I shared an amazing meal with Felix and Martin, one that I look back at with immense fondness. Because what I love about the watch industry are not only the watches, but also the people that make them, like Felix and Martin, who are always kind, generous, authentic, damnably wonderful and very, very real.
Denis Flageollet & Pierre Jacques of De Bethune
If I had to pick one person in independent watchmaking to assign the honorarium, it would be De Bethune’s co-founder Denis Flageollet. This is a man that in the 19 years of his brand’s existence has created nine different balance wheels; a proprietary hairspring with a unique terminal curve; a triple pare‐chute shock absorption system; the first perpetual calendar with three‐dimensional moon phase indicator; a 5Hz 30‐second tourbillon with the lightest cage in the world at 0.18 grammes; a dead seconds mechanism; an electro‐mechanical LED lighting system for a diving watch; a watch with jumping hours, dragging minutes and an inline day, date and month display; a 10Hz 30‐second tourbillon chronograph; a 5Hz chronograph with three different types of clutches; a mobile lug system; a way to flame blue titanium. And, honestly, that’s just scratching the surface of Flageollet’s horological canon.
What is particularly wonderful about Denis Flageollet, however, is that he is as genuine and humble a person as he is talented. Which is to say, immensely genuine and incredibly humble. While others may shout from rooftops and anoint themselves the modern era’s equivalent to A.‐L. Breguet, Denis, who would undoubtedly be the man Breguet would admire most were he alive today, is self‐effacing and discreet to a fault, preferring to let his creations do the talking. Because of his almost extreme humility, De Bethune has in the past not been the best at talking about itself. But finally, it seems the world has caught on to how truly wonderful the brand is. Collectors are now rallying around the brand, in particular its two signature models, the DB28, which represents the avant‐ gardist side of De Bethune and the DB25, which perfectly embodies the modern classic dimension of the brand.
Part of De Bethune’s current success, it must be said, is due to Pierre Jacques, who has been De Bethune’s CEO since 2011. I first met Pierre Jacques when he was plying his trade as a watch journalist, before joining the retailer Les Ambassadeurs and then becoming a shareholder and CEO at De Bethune. I’ve watched him navigate this journey with charm, humour, ethics, kindness and great leadership as De Bethune starts its long‐awaited ascent to become one of the most talked about brands in watchmaking. And I can’t think of a better or more able person to lead the way. In fact, it was Pierre who realised that De Bethune’s range of watches was so vast that, to a large degree, many potential clients were intimidated by the sheer magnitude of their offer. So he refocused the brand around a few iconic models like the DB28 and the DB25.
My favourite memory about De Bethune relates to that fateful 2005 trip to Switzerland. The very last stop was L’Auberson in the Jura mountains to visit De Bethune’s manufacture. Even though it was just three years after the brand’s launch, there were already abundant examples of an almost unparalleled level of verticalisation and self‐reliance. We had retreated mid‐day for lunch and a meal had been catered for the group of journalists. As this was one of my first trips to Switzerland, I requested to have a moitié‐ moitié fondue. After I said that, Denis quietly expressed that he would join me. When the waitress left, he explained, “In Switzerland, we don’t let our friends eat fondue alone.”