We instinctively root for the underdog, the David, the little guy battling the giants. Independent watchmakers are the Davids of watchmaking, armed with slingshots against the Goliaths, luxury groups like Richemont and LVMH; one man against a conglomerate with a nine-figure marketing budget.
Some independent watchmakers are literally a one-man show, the solitary artisan crafting mechanical marvels at home, in a workshop that’s actually a repurposed storeroom. It’s almost a cliché but sometimes true, and it’s a compelling story.
Because of their scale, timepieces made by independent watchmakers are made in smaller numbers, making them relatively rare. While big brands produce thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of watches a year, Urwerk, for example, produces less than 200 watches a year. Even the larger independents are still small, F.P. Journe’s annual output remains under 1000 watches.
Collectors like that sort of rarity; owning such a watch feels like being the member of a special club. While a Rolex is an emblem of wealth the world over, the Geneva giant makes some 800,000 watches a year.
Because independent watchmakers only need to cater to a small audience, they needn’t create watches formulated according to the lowest common denominator. Rather than conceive timepieces everybody wants, independent watchmakers can specialise, or go completely crazy.
Much of what can be called avant-garde watchmaking, horology’s equivalent of contemporary art, is courtesy of independent watchmakers. While Damien Hirst pickled a shark, independents like MB&F have constructed wristwatches that resemble spacecraft, timepieces that are decidedly not for time-telling.
And then there’s the personal touch – the name on the dial is that of the man behind the watch. It’s akin to buying a Ferrari from Enzo Ferrari, or a trunk from monsieur Louis Vuitton. That stands in stark contrast to the established, mainstream brands, most of which are named after long dead individuals.
While the talents of the Philippes and Piguets have been institutionalised in their namesake brands, the personal connection has faded with the centuries. Independent watchmakers are the here and now, perhaps the legends of tomorrow.