Kari Voutilainen on Transparency

Interviews • 21 Jul 2020

Kari Voutilainen on Transparency

Tell us about how you got into watchmaking?

When I was a child, I was interested in mechanics, everything mechanical. I was playing a lot of sport and all doing all sorts of handwork and drawing, but I really was addicted to mechanical things. A friend of my father owned a workshop where he was repairing watches – I found the atmosphere fascinating. Also, at this time, when I was about ten years old, I completely disassembled an alarm clock, but couldn’t put it back together [laughs]. A few years later, when I was 15 or 16, I had a motorcycle, and I disassembled the engine to see how it worked and then put it back together. This is what I enjoyed!

After high school and after military service, I really had to think about what to do next. I was looking at other professions. I thought jewellery was too artistic for me – I preferred the more technical things, so I didn’t see a future in working just with jewels. Perhaps repairing jewellery, but not creating per se. I thought watches might be more technical, so I applied for watchmaking school. The entrance test lasted for two days, at the end of which they took two classes of 20 from a pool of 300 applicants. It wasn’t until the start of the course that I said, “wow this is really for me”. Ever since then, I’ve never felt like I was working, so in a way, my life has been very easy. But yes, watchmaking school went very well!

This was in Tapliola, right?

Yes, it was in Tapliola, Finland – they’ve since moved, it’s still in the same town but in another location.

Did you find class dull? A lot of brilliant watchmakers felt class didn’t provide enough of a challenge.

Well, that depends on the teachers as well. There were four classes in the school; the same teacher taught from the beginning until the end. The teacher I had, used to work at Patek Philippe in Geneva, he was good in that he pushed everyone. He was pushing me all the time, to go further and further. So, I thought it was exciting, he was always challenging me to do better and better. He would take a look and say, “you can do better than this”. During then, we also did evening work; our teacher would bring clocks and pocket watches for us to repair. So, I did repair work during my free time in the evenings and on the weekend.

Did he inspire you to take up teaching?

Yes. I realised at that time that in life we have to share. We have to share what we know. After watchmaking school in Finland, I worked for a year in Lapland in a retail shop. This was after all during the Quartz Crisis, so it was difficult to find work. It was nice though, as it was a small retail shop with a lot of things to repair. There were a lot of pocket watches and clocks. So, I did learn. But it wasn’t challenging enough for me, so I had to find something else.

At this time, I heard about WOSTEP in Neuchâtel, so I went over there, and that was mind-opening. Here I was exposed to more complicated watches, repeating watches. I eventually returned to WOSTEP to do another course on complicated watchmaking, but in between, I was working as an independent in Finland and started my own company. This was from autumn 1988 until autumn 1989, so exactly one year. I was my first experience working as an independent.

You actually started as an independent very early on.

Yes, that was a great experience. I was doing pretty well working for myself while teaching at the Finnish School, trying to save money to attend WOSTEP again and to buy all the necessary equipment. When I returned to Neuchâtel for the second time, we had to do a lot of practical work as well as research and report writing. Back then we didn’t have a computer, so I typed all this on a typewriter – if you make one mistake you had to start again [laughs] – and my English wasn’t great, so it was extra tricky.

And then you went to Parmigiani?

 Yes, after finishing the second course I didn’t work as I had closed my company – so again I had to think about what I was going to do. I wasn’t ready to start as an independent again in Finland; I wanted to find something challenging. But as the course finished around Christmas time, I was actually thinking about going skiing in the Swiss Alps first! So, I said to my partner (my wife now), let’s stay in Switzerland for a few more months to go ski. Around this time, I had several opportunities for work and ended up working at Parmigiani.

In 1992 you came across a Breguet watch with a natural escapement?

That was an inspiration! Parmigiani was a smaller company at the time – I was the 17th employee. And when I started, they did only private label work – there was no brand; they were only working for other companies. One of the very first things I was doing was restoration and making unique pieces.

I restored around 11 pocket watch tourbillions for Vacheron Constantin; these were watches that were used in the chronometer competitions. They used to be good, but they had been sitting on a shelf, so there were technical and aesthetic problems that needed fixing. I did this for almost three years– I learnt a lot about complicated watches. One of my colleagues was an older gentleman; he was perhaps 70 at the time and was actually the first employee at Parmigiani. But he was working mostly as a hobby at this point when it was bad weather, he would be in the workshop, but when it was nice outside he’d go ski! But I did learn a lot, and he pushed me and said you should make your own watch.

There was another gentleman called Mr Michlitch, who was a self-taught watchmaker in Aachen, Germany. I met Mr. Michlitch during my last course at WOSTEP. When I was at Parmigiani I wrote a letter to him saying that I was so impressed I’d like to see his workshop and look at his watches. And he said of course. I ended up visiting him several times; he was making pocket watch chronometer tourbillions. Fine watchmaking, but it was his hobby. He was working in a school – a regular school, not a watchmaking school, so it was his hobby that he would work on in the evening at his home. I also learnt a lot from him, for example, how to make parts from very simple tools. I got a lot of inspiration and felt motivated by him.

I started to make one almost immediately, working during the evenings. I finished my first watch, a pocket watch tourbillion with power reserve indication in 1994. I fabricated the movement and the dial and case. So that was something I was spending most of my spare time on. While I was working on this, I continued to do restoration work at home. And as I was doing this, I was investing all the money back into the workshop. So, I was buying more tools, more watches, selling watches. I was trading a lot at the time.

And after Parmigiani?

I worked at Parmigiani for nine years. And then I was teaching for three years from 1999 to 2002. I was supposed to work only half the time at school, but as I was investing 150% into that, and because my workshop was no longer at home – I didn’t have a lot of time left to spend in the workshop.

When then did you dedicate 100% or I guess in your case 150% towards making your own watches?

I was working 150% in school between 1999 and 2002, and I didn’t have time for me. In 2002 I thought I wouldn’t like to continue like this for much longer so I thought it would be better to do something else. So, I set out on my own and started accepting a lot of work from other companies – but, all the while I was thinking, I wasn’t going to do the same thing as what other watchmakers were doing, with financial partners, backers and so on. I said I am independent, and I will stay independent – I will finance myself. So, I found another way around that by initially doing a lot of work for other companies.

Did you find it challenging to get your name out there?

Well, everyone knew what I was doing before. I was doing a lot of restoration, the world is quite small, so I was gaining the reputation – you could say, by working correctly.

And then while I was working at the school, the students would go on to work with companies and deal with collectors, so they knew as well. At that time, the internet was just starting, but it helped me a lot as there was a lot of serious Japanese and American collectors – little by little the collecting community learnt about what I was doing. I hadn’t even exhibited at Basel yet, but still had collectors from countries such as the U.S visit me. Before long, I had a lot of customers in California, mostly all because of word of mouth. I was, after all, doing a lot of work with other companies and couldn’t disclose some details, but word would get out, and things started to really move fast once I first exhibited at Basel in 2005.

You’ve famously worked with MB&F and also were one of the first to bring attention to Rexhep Rexhepi. Do you think collaboration is at the heart of the watch industry?

In my opinion, generally what happens is people are only taking care of their own business. Some don’t share and are only concerned with what others are doing; this is where jealousy comes from. But I realised very early on – we are making only a small handful of watches, so there’s no reason to keep secrets. I can’t make collectors buy my watches; they come to me because they like them. My watches are normally not collectors’ first watch, they have been collecting for some time, so they buy what they want. I don’t mind at all if they buy another watch from someone else, I’m not losing anything from that. Once you get over that, life is easy. I’m often exhibiting with other makers because we are sharing the same customers. When people visit us at Baselworld, we sit down and go through the watches – it’s very open and transparent.

You’re known for making amazing dials. How did this come about?

When I started, I was able to find engine turning machines. We were machining our dials but also, we were using external suppliers for the rest (printing etc.). I was, however, having more and more QC problems and issues with delivery time and so on. And then a little more than six years ago the owner of the dial factory we were using passed away. The company also went bankrupt and soon had a new owner and director. We were launching a new model at the time, but because of this, my dials were put aside. It took us months and months in Summer 2013 to get the dials ready – so even though we took a full set of orders at Baselworld, we went months without turning over any income as the watches weren’t ready. As it went bankrupt, I didn’t hesitate at all and spoke to my bookkeeper about acquiring the dial maker. Financially it wasn’t an easy time but at the same time since then I can get dials in time, we can be much more creative. It’s exactly the same with the movement, once you can do it yourself, you can push the quality up – you can set your own standards. It’s very important.

When you work with someone, you have to be happy with what you get. But when you work for yourself, you can set the standard, especially for someone like me. We only make a handful of watches – so it’s nothing like working with Cartier, where they’ll place orders in the thousands. Another important aspect relates to the future, because of this I’m better able to plan 5, 10, 20 years into the future. Even when I’m no longer here, I can plan for that. I think about this a lot.

From your perspective, how have collectors’ tastes changed?

It has changed a lot; people are thinking about what they’ll collect much more – it’s much less spontaneous. I remember in 2008 there was one article on the internet about me and there were tens of requests. It’s much more considered now; they want to see, they want to study your watches.

There’s more connoisseurship.

Exactly. I have customers who took 10 years to then decide to purchase. One gentleman visited me in 2008. I was in the workshop with my daughter. And this year, he’s ready to buy. So, it’s more than ten years of thought. European customers are mainly in their 40s, 50s and 60s, but in the States, I very often have young customers – so it’s a big big difference.

Teardrop lugs, the patterns on your dials – there seems to be an obvious connection to nature?

Oh yes, that’s one part. There’s also a very practical reason for this. I like watch cases that we can clean up and repolish easily. It’s more challenging to maintain if there’s a lot of sharp angles. A case like mine we can polish the lugs without destroying them, that’s the reason why I like this.

And how about skiing? Hopefully you’ve been again since finishing up at WOSTEP?

Oh yeah, I do that a lot [laughs] every year I ski hundreds of kilometres. Maybe 600 or 700 kilometres per year. I do a lot of hiking and bike riding. Last spring, I rode 650km through the South of France with four guys. It was great!

The Tour de Kari?

Yes hahaha!

I was talking to Denis Flageollet earlier about how he likes to escape to his Mongolian yurt to remove himself from the distractions of the city. Is this why you like hiking?

Yes at least for me. I do this regularly; I go hiking in summer almost 4 or 5 times per week, after work or during the weekend. We have the mountains just a few minutes away from where we are living. And also [clears throat] with age you need some exercise [laughs] to keep healthy!

[Minor edits were made for clarity]

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