From a pleasant sitting-cum-meeting room overlooking the garden, Laurent Besse gets down to business: “Our background and our capacities mean someone can come to us with an idea and nothing more. We can develop this idea to create and build a movement. And if needs be, we can also take care of production and manage the entire process to deliver a finished timepiece, ready to be sold. On one condition: we have to like the idea. It has to appeal to us on an intellectual level so that we can shape it to fit our passion for beautiful watches, intelligent complications and innovative, intelligent solutions. In other words, while we all have to make a living we’re not in it to “cash in” by taking on whatever project we’re offered. If someone comes to me with a “cut-and-paste” idea or sketches with bits borrowed here and there, it’s thank you and goodbye straight away.” No labouring under false impressions here: for Laurent Besse and his partner Manuel Spöde, being an artisan means making choices.
The hard way
Les Artisans Horlogers practice their art in Combe des Enfers. Despite its rather sinister-sounding name, the customers who visit Laurent Besse and Manuel Spöde in this small entrenched valley, on the edge of Le Locle in the Neuchâtel Jura, have nothing to fear. On the contrary, they discover a heaven on earth offering a wealth of specialities for brands whose creativity has run dry or which lack technical resources. Here, in this old house set in magnificent gardens, the creations that will dazzle collectors and delight brands spring to life.
Today, the two founders are comfortably settled at the head of a superb company employing 18 people, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Take Laurent Besse. After leaving school, this future watch engineer enrolled at the Ecole d’Horlogerie in Besançon where he passed his full watchmaking certificate, adding a higher diploma in microtechnology for good measure. With this solid grounding under his belt, he left his native France to work in Switzerland, first at Nouvelle Lémania as a development engineer then for the Richemont Group, at Manufactures VLG in Neuchâtel, home to the group’s R&D unit under Eric Klein.
Two paths come together
From there he moved to Conseil Ray in La Chaux-de-Fonds, where he developed a mechanical movement for Progress Watch, the 11″‘½ 152 calibre. Shortly after, Conseil Ray entered the fold at Progress Watch, itself taken over just a few months later. However, it would be thanks to this particular “pass the parcel” that Laurent Besse met Manuel Spöde.
Was it a case of opposites attract? Manuel Spöde trained in business and commerce, and at one time competed as a professional triathlete. In 1998 he took a new direction and qualified as a watchmaker with Wostep. Hired by a research bureau as a watchmaker-prototypist, he developed a calibre for Indtec and another tourbillon calibre. When his company was sold to Progress Watch, his boss asked him to take over at the helm. Which is when his path joined that of his future artisan partner.
Projects and patents
Both men need room to express their ideas, and it wasn’t long before they decided to put the key under the door at the small companies they were managing for Progress Watch and head out. Laurent Besse moved to Zenith and Manuel Spöde to Technotime. For a year and a half, they went their separate ways, until Progress Watch again changed hands and the new owners asked the pair to return. Which they did. Laurent Besse took the head of R&D while Manuel Spöde took over in marketing and sales. But two years down the line and once again they packed their bags and decided to set up Les Artisans Horlogers. It was 2004.
It’s still very fresh in their minds. “We started out with a couple of contracts and a team of two, but we quickly grew and today we have a team of 18. No one else offers the same global service we do. We work as a private label. We realised we couldn’t develop products for third parties and under our own brand, that it would be incompatible. We do everything from single modules to the complete watch. Obviously our line of business leads us to file patents, either under the customer’s name or in our own name. This depends on our opposite number and the series produced. We also own generic patents which we can use in various projects. About a third of our research time is spent working for ourselves on ideas that we can patent. We’ve also found a partner with whom we’re going to develop our own movements which we can then sell.” Watch this space!