Watches: Independent's Day

Urwerk UR-CC1

Urwerk UR-CC1

Urwerk UR-111C

Urwerk UR-111C

It’s estimated in 2018 Rolex spent well over US$50 million dollars on advertising their products, with companies like Breitling and Omega catching up fast. Some could, and do, argue that many of today’s major brands should spend less money on advertising and more on manufacturing a superior watch. Rolex can perhaps be forgiven as when its founder, Hans Wilsdorf, passed away in 1960 he left all of his shares and hence the entire company, to the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation with stipulation profits should be re-directed back into the company or to various charities. Then again Hublot, an insignificant brand until the marketing genius of Jean Claude Beaver came along, injecting the watches with steroids (not literally) and, by spending a small fortune on advertising, he created a hugely popular monster of a company without specifically improving quality but just changing peoples perspective of it. If watch companies don’t have the funds to advertise heavily or seduce the media, how do they compete? What if you were a talented watchmaker today with a great passion and drive, good business ideas? How would you start? Alas, is money the key to everything in life?

Richard Mille RM004R

Richard Mille RM004R

Richard Mille RM032TR

Richard Mille RM032TR

With ETA’s decision several years ago to limit their supply of movements to companies, many new brands now require millions of Swiss Francs to design and manufacture their own movement or need to look elsewhere. Frankly, the life of an independent watchmaker can be a vicious circle. The constant dilemma; You want to build the best watch you can and gain respect in the industry, but start-up costs are prohibitively high. Then once you have invested every cent you have into your company, how do you pay for advertising? The independents are the unsung heroes of the industry, using their creative talents to bring new ideas to the market and always pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

Of course there is a vast spectrum of what could be classified as an independent. Traditional British watchmakers Roger Smith and Charles Frodsham could be one side of the spectrum, with Richard Mille or F.P.Journe on the other. With a different approach to customer service, Journe has opened a number of boutique stores around the world to control and prevent discounting of his watches. This is in significant contrast to Richard Mille who, since 2011, has been issuing a transferable 5 year warranty on new watches, as they understand it is the nature of watch collectors to trade, just don’t trade a special edition you were given the privilege to buy or they will know (trust me) and subsequent requests declined. Richard Mille is a theoretical independent with vast amounts of available funding and Audemars Piguet, who also own the research and development team of Renaud & Papi as major shareholders, hence they don’t suffer from the usual difficulties. Similarly, Greubel Forsey, who perhaps have the best of both worlds, remain strongly independent only producing around 100 watches a year under their strict quality control while retaining financial backing form the Richmond group, who own a 20 percent stake in the company. This investment allows the 70-strong company their own research and development team as well as a state of the art, environmentally conscious workshops.

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MB&F, under the guidance of Max Busser is another classic success story, with 900,000 Swiss francs in savings, Max resigned from Harry Winston to establish his own brand. After initial struggles working on his own and with the support of other independents willing to help his drive, work ethics and ambitions, he has created a unique brand in the industry that refuses to adhere to the traditional aspect of watchmaking. Usually companies will manufacture what they feel the buying public want, instead Max, with his friends, designs and makes what he loves and then allows buyers to follow his passion. 

MB&F HMX 10 year anniversary model. instead of making a watches for the select few, he released one a cost for the masses.

MB&F HMX 10 year anniversary model. instead of making a watches for the select few, he released one a cost for the masses.

MB&F HMX 10 year anniversary model is inspired by ‘drivers watches’ that show the time assume you are holding a large steering wheel.

MB&F HMX 10 year anniversary model is inspired by ‘drivers watches’ that show the time assume you are holding a large steering wheel.

Another brand that has successfully been able to create a niche market in the mainstream is Urwerk. Their signature design features a clever 3D revolving hour and minute instead of the traditional flat version and this had found them something of cult following with young entrepreneurs who liken the design to space-age watches they dreamt of as children. Of course no piece on independent watchmakers would be complete without the mention of British watchmaker Roger Smith. Roger is a rare, if not unique watchmaker in the industry as almost everything except the crystal is handmade. Yes, the screws, hands, dial, springs, gears, virtually every part. This was the technique of the legendary George Daniels and Roger Smith was his only pupil. With a production of around 10 watches a year, orders are taken ‘by request’ only, such is demand. Along a similar hand-made principle, Charles Frodsham, after perhaps two decades of preparation, have released their first production wristwatch with double escapement and it was worth the wait. Modern in proportions yet classic in design it is a masterpiece, alas with such low production the wait list is already several years long to obtain one.

Charles Frodsham, decades in the making, but worth the wait. Alas upon release the watch was so popular the current wait list is already several years.

Charles Frodsham, decades in the making, but worth the wait. Alas upon release the watch was so popular the current wait list is already several years.

Retaining traditional hand-mand watchmaking the movement is true to the heritage of the company yet incorporates modern advancements.

Retaining traditional hand-mand watchmaking the movement is true to the heritage of the company yet incorporates modern advancements.

One of the signatures of independent watchmakers is a very limited production. With Rolex manufacturing over 500,000 watches a year and even Peek Philippe presumed at around 50,000, Gruebel Forsey’s total production is around 100 watches a year, which brings into perspective how difficult it is to acquire a watch made by hand and the admiration received when someone realises what you are wearing. Independents are perhaps the ultimate watch for those seeking a modern escapism from the mainstream ideals of wealth.

Advertisement for Great Britain featuring a Roger Smith watch at Heathrow Airport

Advertisement for Great Britain featuring a Roger Smith watch at Heathrow Airport









Watches: Celebrity Appeal

As I settle in for the night to watch a movie with a glass of wine, I’m reminded of the power of the big screen and people’s infatuation with celebrities; Whether we like to believe it or not, there’s no denying we’re all influenced by the media when buying luxury goods, mostly because we want to read about someone else’s opinion on a product before handing over our hard-earned money. But let’s be honest, when it comes to watches, seeing your favourite up on the big screen worn by an actor makes us fantasise about owning the same watch just that bit more.

For me personally, it was seeing Roger Moore wearing a Rolex Submariner Ref.5513 as James Bond in the 1973 movie ‘Live and Let Die’. This was the first Bond movie to be franchised and although Sir Roger Moore’s predecessor, Sean Connery, also wore a Rolex Submariner Ref.6538, it had never played such an integral role in the movie. The “wow” moment as a child was when Bond turned the bezel on his watch to activate the magnet gadget that started my personal fascination with Rolex. Such is the power of the big screen! No doubt Sean Connery wore a Rolex Submariner (ref.6538) in ‘Dr No’ due to his character's’ role as a British secret agent and the Britsh military testing of the Ref.65638 for its special boat service only a few years prior. I can’t confirm if it’s true of not but I was told by someone who did their college thesis on the subject, Rolex did sponsor to have Roger Moore wear a Submariner Ref.5513 in ‘Live and Let Die’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’.

Although first seen as a gadget in the 1973 James Bond movie ‘Live and Let Die’, in the 1974 ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ , the Rolex Submariner Ref.5513 received a full screen shot lasting several seconds.

Although first seen as a gadget in the 1973 James Bond movie ‘Live and Let Die’, in the 1974 ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ , the Rolex Submariner Ref.5513 received a full screen shot lasting several seconds.

Of course today the James Bond character is synonymous with Omega and the brand has certainly gained some of Rolex’s market share, particularly in Asia, due to the association. I have always wanted to know though, do the actors that wear watches on the screen do so because they are paid to do so or because they like the watch? I know, for instance, the advertising Omega used while Pierce Brosnan played James Bond was labelled as ‘Pierce Brosnan’s choice”, then when Daniel Craig took over it was changed to “James Bond’s choice”, presumably because Daniel had a personal fascination for vintage Rolex sport watches and famously went on a talk show wearing a 1950’s Rolex Submariner Ref.6538, the same model Sean Connery had worn in the original Bond movies. Shortly after I noticed an Omega advert featuring ‘Daniel Craig’s choice’ and have not seen him wearing a Rolex again, I guess the marketing men won that one, or Mr Craig is a shrewd negotiator, 

For most big-screen actors though, once you reach the A-list, almost anything is obtainable. You want the latest complication? Of course Sir! Another watch the same as the one you were given last month but this time with a black dial? It will be delivered to you this afternoon, Sir. Brands know that if a celebrity gets photographed wearing their product, the public will want it more, the celebrities know that too.

Sean Connery as James Bond in the 1964 movie ‘Thunderball’ wearing a Rolex Submariner Ref.6538

Sean Connery as James Bond in the 1964 movie ‘Thunderball’ wearing a Rolex Submariner Ref.6538

Perhaps the ease in which modern, even highly desirable, watches are so easily available to them draws the A-listers to vintage, mostly 1960’s/70’s Rolex sports models or Patek Philippe. At the 2019 Academy Awards presenter Ryan Seacrest can clearly be seen wearing a 1970’s gold Rolex Daytona Ref.6265 on a bracelet.  However it’s on-screen that their performances affect us. Perhaps the first and also one of most significant uses of product placement was Steve McQueen wearing a Heuer Monaco Ref.1133B in the 1969 movie ‘Le Mans’. Heuer bought the rights to Steve McQueens stock images from the family and still uses the pictures from the movie to publicise its current version of the classic Ref.1133.

Many of the big action-packed movies you see today feature the lead actors wearing desirable watches. Both Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren wore Panerai ‘Bronze’ editions is the movie ‘Expendables 2’, such is the size you could hardly miss the watch. This was no doubt due to Sly’s influence as an unofficial representative for Panerai and, to his credit, until recently collaborating with Richard Mille, he has been diligently promoting Panerai since the 1990’s.

For the 2014 movie ‘Expendables 3’ Sylvester Stallone changed allegiance from his usual Panerai to wear a Richard Mille RM25 on a subtle red strap.

For the 2014 movie ‘Expendables 3’ Sylvester Stallone changed allegiance from his usual Panerai to wear a Richard Mille RM25 on a subtle red strap.

Audemars Piguet and Arnold Schwarzenegger are another famous duo. Apparently Arnold was not a paid spokesman for the company but certainly the two enjoyed an excellent business relationship. Arnold was even asked for his input when they designed the 1999 ‘End of Days’ model for him to wear in the movie of the same name. Apparently in the process he asked for a black military look and the AP design team were all taken aback, but obliged. This was the first in a long line of stealth models that dominated demand and fashion in the early 2000’s. Who knew the ex Governor of California was such a trend setter?

Of course who wears what on screen is not always black and white. When I was living in Los Angeles, a prop master for the hit TV series ’24’ told me Kiefer Sutherland’s contract with Baume & Mercier had just ended and asked what I considered the ideal watch for his character, Jack Bauer, to wear. To be honest here, picking suitable watches for certain characters would be my ideal pastime. For me there was only one brand he should wear; IWC, something like the ceramic Top Gun model. A little while later IWC emailed to ask if the prop master was genuine, apparently they had asked IWC to deliver something like 20 watches with no promise any would be worn in the filming and plainly told them none would be returned regardless. I never did see Jack Bauer wearing an IWC.




A version of this article was originally written by Charles Tearle for Hong Kong Sprial magazine