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Astral Ludwig Oechslin
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Astral Ludwig Oechslin

Friday, 31 March 2017
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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6 min read

Ludwig Oechslin, who was awarded the 2017 Hommage à la Passion prize by the Haute Horlogerie foundation, was for long the watchmaking genius behind the scenes at Ulysse Nardin before becoming the curator of the International Museum of Horology (MIH) at La Chaux-de-Fonds. Eleven years ago, he established Ochs & Junior in Lucerne, a company that goes to the essence of watchmaking.

Eschewing the superfluous to go to the essence of watchmaking could well be the motto of Ludwig Oechslin, who today demonstrates his brilliance as a horological constructor at the Ochs & Junior company he founded in 2006. Yet this is far from the culmination of the career of this watchmaker who learned his trade in the 1970s because he is still overflowing with ideas. One thing is certain however: while each of his creations is the completion of a long learning process, it is nevertheless far from being the ultimate expression of his genius.

“It’s not just simplicity that’s my main aim,” explains Ludwig Oechslin, whom we met at the International Museum of Horology where he presided as curator from 2001 to 2004. “I must confess to being somewhat lazy and thus adverse to compounding manual interventions in timepieces. I have always, in a manner of speaking, put thought before action. In other words if you want to reduce the number of components in a watch without sacrificing its functions you have to put in some thought upstream. That is what characterises my approach to watchmaking. The aim is to make watches which provide useful information that is as accessible as possible.”

The Ulysse Nardin Copernicus Planetarium watch, designed by Ludwig Oechslin in 1988 combines Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the universe with the heliocentric model of Copernicus. © fred Merz / Lundi 13
Childish simplicity

The principles that make Ludwig Oechslin focus on the essential are to ensure the functionality of a watch movement with a minimum number of components and to provide useful information, in particular time and calendar indications that can be understood at a glance. “In practical terms, I construct my watches so that I can produce just about everything by machine, with very little to be done by hand, seeing that I have a three-axis numerically controlled milling tool in my workshop,” he states. The resulting watches are of a disconcerting simplicity.

One example is the Ochs & Junior annual calendar model based on an ETA 2824-2 calibre that, according to the company’s website, “provides all that is necessary to create new functions,” namely enough space, enough power and great reliability. Furthermore, after-sales service is never a problem for this widespread and proven basic calibre, a factor that gives the watch owner a degree of independence. Ludwig Oechslin has thus grafted onto this movement his annual calendar module that operates on a train of gears rather than on the usual system of springs and levers. As a result, the Ochs & Junior model uses just six components while Patek Philippe’s version resorts to 154. The analogue indications abandon numerals for the calendar display in favour of coloured dots on circular scales — childish simplicity!

The Ulysse Nardin Johannes Kepler Tellurium watch designed by Ludwig Oechslin in 1992 views the Earth from above the North Pole. © Fred Merz / Lundi 13
Return trip to the Vatican

It is this disconcerting approach that constitutes Ludwig Oechslin’s hallmark from his earliest days. There was nothing to indicate that watchmaking was his predilection, since he spent years studying social sciences, and especially because at that time the mechanical watch had a poor reputation. Nevertheless his insatiable curiosity meant that nothing was ruled out. Attracted by mathematics and physics and something of a handyman, Ludwig Oechslin concluded that the measurement of time could certainly satisfy his quest for knowledge while putting food on the table. Just when the trade of horological constructor was on the verge of disappearing, killed off by industrialisation and the quartz crisis, he enrolled as an apprentice in Lucerne determined to learn the mysteries of a condemned profession. But perhaps not entirely condemned, because the Vatican was looking for a volunteer specialist to restore one of its masterpieces, an extremely complex 18th-century astronomical clock known as the Farnese clock. Ludwig Oechslin rose to the challenge. It did not matter that the restoration demanded knowledge of the intricacies of astronomical timepieces, because anything could be learned — or, if necessary, self-taught.

The Ulysse Nardin Galileo Galilei Astrolabium designed by Ludwig Oechslin in 1985 shows the positions of the Earth, the sun, the moon and the stars at any time from a designated place. © Fred Merz / Lundi 13

Ludwig Oechslin was to spend four years at the bedside of this clock at the Vatican library in Rome, and he made it the subject of his doctoral thesis — one might as well. But if science is one thing, its creative application is another. “You can’t have one without the other,” he declares. “Curiosity feeds on scientific research which you express by creativity. Horology gave me the possibility to satisfy these two desires, or even needs.” Returning to Lucerne, Ludwig Oechslin therefore went straight to his workbench to devise a wall astrolabe, the same that came to the attention of Rolf Schnyder. “When he came to see us in Lucerne, Rolf Schnyder was looking for watchmakers who could restore his newly acquired Ulysse Nardin to its former glory,” Ludwig Oechslin added. “His aim was to reproduce the great horological complications in wristwatches. At that time there was nobody left who could undertake such a task. When he saw my astrolabe, he immediately asked me if I could miniaturise it. I said no. Why reproduce something that has already been done?”

The watch constructor, Ludwig Oechslin, at the International Museum of Horology in La Chaux-de-Fonds, where he was curator from 2001 to 2014. © Fred Merz / Lundi 13
Unbridled creativeness

Despite this refusal, the meeting between the two men proved decisive, for Rolf Schnyder saw very well Ludwig Oechslin’s potential, especially when it came to astronomical watches. He gave him free reign to produce the results that are today considered landmarks in modern watchmaking. In 1985, Ulysse Nardin thus brought out the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, then described by the Guinness Book of Records as the most sophisticated watch ever produced. This first attempt turned out to be a masterstroke, especially as it was shortly followed by the Copernicus Planetarium and the Johannes Kepler Tellurium to constitute a classic trilogy. It set the foundation for a lasting collaboration with Ulysse Nardin, which produced such inventive watches as the Perpetual Ludwig or the GMT ± Perpetual, not forgetting the Freak introduced in 2001. This trailblazing watch, packed with innovations, saw the first appearance of silicon in watchmaking.

The International Museum of Horology in La Chaux-de-Fonds offers an introductory tour entitled “Mankind and Time.” © Fred Merz / Lundi 13
The International Museum of Horology in La Chaux-de-Fonds offers an introductory tour entitled “Mankind and Time.” © Fred Merz / Lundi 13

After 20 years of close collaboration, Ludwig Oechslin put his career on a new path by becoming curator of the International Museum of Horology in La Chaux-de-Fonds until 2014. Meanwhile, Ulysse Nardin still had on its books a number of Ludwig Oechslin’s projects that needed to see the light of day. Among them were the Sonata, launched in 2003, or the Moonstruck in 2009. However the watchmaker chose to devote his time to the modernisation of the museum and to staging thematic exhibitions. To put money into the MIH, he brought out the MIH watch, which was sold to give the institution “substance”, in other words badly needed funds for research and restoration. The sight of Ludwig Oechslin striding energetically between the MIH showcases, some of which displayed his own work as scientific breakthroughs, makes you realise that he doubly deserved his place in the museum. But nothing is frozen in time, for Ochs & Junior has taken up the baton to show that creativeness cannot be constrained.

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