At Beat Haldimann’s, life revolves around watchmaking. The aristocratic villa he and his family call home – built in 1907 overlooking the River Aare where it flows into Lake Thun – multitasks as a workshop, a place to relax complete with billiards table and one of the best-stocked watchmaking libraries around, an office, storage space and a machining workshop. Beat’s son Niklaus’s girlfriend is revising for exams at the kitchen table, which is also where the watchmakers meet for coffee and a break away from the workbench. In the entrance hall, a class of children from the local primary school are saying goodbye after visiting this “Ali Baba’s cavern”. You’re never too young to get your first taste of the intricacies of a mechanical watch. Tomorrow, this same hallway might welcome a prestigious visitor from India or Japan, lured by the temptation of one of the master’s creations. No doubt he’ll enjoy a quiet stroll through the gardens before waxing lyrical about the world of watchmaking or the subtleties of the Haldimann detached escapement.
It is this meditative peacefulness that makes Villa Nussbhül a place apart; somewhere horology dovetails with kinetic art; where the watch should be considered in its conceptual dimension before being simply an accessory that gives the time. George Daniels, the inspired inventor of the coaxial escapement who would park his car in Beat’s driveway before heading off to a classical music concert, described it as “the ideal setting in which to work.” A view, needless to say, that Haldimann shares: “Remember that a century ago, watchmakers worked from home. We wanted to perpetuate that tradition.” These are modest words coming from the winner of the 2009 Prix Gaïa, widely considered as the watchmaking equivalent of the Nobel Prize, and a man acknowledged as one of the twenty most prestigious watchmakers in the world. Because at Beat Haldimann’s, there can be no compromising with “tradition”. His watches and virtually all their constituent parts are made “the old way”, meaning by hand using pre-digital tools, often unearthed in the most unlikely places, such as a 1940s Schaüblin lathe that turned up at a hospital in the Netherlands. At Beat Haldimann’s, the most modern piece of equipment is an optical microscope from the 1960s!
After setting up as a watchmaker in 1991, age 27, Beat Haldimann made the surprising discovery that the measurement of time was a family tradition stretching back to 1642, the year of the first recorded purchase of a watch bearing the Haldimann name. “Ludwig Oechslin, then curator at the Musée International d’Horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, had already told me about old Haldimann watches but I knew nothing about them. So I set about researching my family tree and, while I was doing that, pocket watches made by my ancestors started coming in for restoration. I’ve actually bought a few myself.” By way of illustration, he pulls out a magnificent specimen and opens the back to reveal a mechanism engraved with carefully arranged scrolls that form the “Haldimann” name – a semi-circular signature that blends so beautifully into the decoration as to be barely perceptible. “This is exactly what my customers appreciate when they come and see me here. They discover a history, a true manufacture, an atmosphere. They’re also surprised to learn that I really do live on the fourth floor. It’s something they can actually experience, something real, a million miles from marketing spiel and as far removed as it’s possible to be from the likes of Rolex or Patek Philippe, whose watches they of course have several of in their collection.”
The basement is where Haldimann keeps his stock of parts, all carefully sorted and labelled per model, including the very earliest ones. Dotted throughout the workshop are the various machines, each a respectable age. Viewing them, it becomes clear that Haldimann does more than make watches; he applies a doctrine whereby any materialisation of time must deliver meaning, and that this extends as much to the various processes as to the finished product. Proof that the 20 to 30 watches that come out of the villa per year are “complete” timepieces, he gives each one a lifetime warranty. Haldimann is preaching to the converted, a small albeit growing group of customers, many of whom travel to Thun where they can soak up the peaceful atmosphere they hope to transpose to their wrist. Those who do make the trip to Villa Nussbhül are rewarded with this glimpse of what can truly call itself authentic watchmaking.
Beat Haldimann may have immense respect for the past, his watchmaking is anything but backward-looking. His first master stroke: the H101, a clock whose two movements oscillate in resonance. Presented in 2000, it incorporates Haldimann’s patented detached escapement that delivers precision to one-tenth of a second per day.
No other watchmaker since Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) or Antide Janvier (1751-1835) had tackled this type of complication. Two years later, Beat Haldimann was back with a world-first, premiered at Baselworld. His H1 Flying Lyra, a wristwatch whose central flying tourbillon revolves in a lyre-shaped cage, was an instant sensation thanks to the pulsating tourbillon on the dial side, and to the sound of the mechanism that “hums” in the ear.
This was followed in 2005 by yet another tour de force, the H2 Flying Resonance and its two flying tourbillons with remontoir d’égalité that synchronise via resonance, again on the dial side. “Looking at these watches,” says Haldimann, “you can see that my philosophy is to position everything in the centre to create a sculpture for the wrist.” The sequel would be far more conceptual: first the H8 Flying Sculpture, a “watch” with a tourbillon similar to that of the H1 but with no hands, then the H9 Reduction, again with a tourbillon but one that is completely concealed under a black dial without hands. The watch becomes a “black contour” on the wrist, suggestive of Malevich’s “white on white” composition.
“Who said a watch without hands isn’t a watch,” Beat Haldimann jokes. “I wanted to break that convention. For me, it’s the spirit of the object that counts, and in this instance the kinetic nature of the watch is equally as essential as its primary function which is to give the time.” But worry not: Beat Haldimann has conceived of his latest creations, H11 and H12, as actual timepieces, again conform to the principle of centrality with the balance mounted on the same axis as the hands, as can be seen from the back with its minimalist architecture. This ode to simplicity, to the very essence of a traditional watch, which demands a no less perfect mechanical intelligence, is another interpretation of Beat Haldimann’s vision of watchmaking. A vision with substance.