The calendar says May, yet the chill in the air on this misty morning is more autumn than spring. The imposing manor house that is home to Kari Voutilainen’s workshop appears cloaked in silence. All is still behind the tall, wrought iron gate, bordered on either side by a moss and ivy-clad wall. Only the family cat strolls nonchalant among the tall grasses. The gardens are planted with a few flowers, but mostly trees and shrubs. Nothing showy. The house has the simple, faded charm of timeworn splendours.
Tucked in the village of Môtiers, at the far edge of the Canton of Neuchâtel, the building is the same today as a century ago. Which is how Kari Voutilainen wanted it to remain when he moved there in 2009. Creaking woodwork, solid parquet floors, walls as thick as the fog… there is no denying its charm. One side of the house is where Kari lives with his wife, Terttu, and their two children. The other is set aside for the workshop. An unassuming door on the left of the building opens into the watchmaker’s secret world. We enter, on tiptoe…
Stay small, think big
It’s something of a special day for the workshop: Kari Voutilainen has a decimal minute repeater ready for delivery. Standing in the main hall, the watch in his hand, he’s almost apologetic. “The delivery people will be here soon and there’s still a lot to prepare. Would you mind waiting? Can I get you a coffee? I’ll be with you in a minute…” Last year, only 38 Voutilainen timepieces were sent out into the wide world, which gives some idea how important a day like today is. Visitors can wait… long enough to notice the prizes and awards displayed almost as a second thought: the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in 2007, 2013, 2014 and 2015, the Prix Gaia in 2014, and more. Every now and then, one of the sixteen staff – movement developers, mechanical engineers, engine-turners, watchmakers – pad through the hall in flip-flops or Birkenstocks, on their way from the assembly workshop up under the roof to the decoration studio in the basement, next door to a couple of state-of-the-art CNC machines.
Kari Voutilainen explains how “apart from cases, balance springs, mainsprings, jewels and straps, we make absolutely everything ourselves. Our calibres, movement parts, dials, our own escapement, hands.” He values his independence and freedom. “I saw what happened to people like Michel Parmigiani, Frank Muller or Daniel Roth who grew so fast. I’ve always told myself, stay small.”
From Kemi to Môtiers
Before becoming the “small” independent watchmaker whose work is prized by collectors the world over, Kari Voutilainen was a small boy in Finland. He was born in 1962 in Kemi, a harbour town of 20,000 people on the Bay of Bothnia, near the border between Lapland and Sweden. This is where he grew up, among the familiar sight of ice-breakers, snow and, when summer came, nature in all its splendour. Nothing that might lead him to watchmaking other than a friend of his father, a watch retailer who offered him a glimpse of the secret world beneath the dial. “I enjoyed working with my hands, carving wood, messing around with engines… an office job wasn’t for me.”
He appreciates when a piece has been beautifully decorated or finished with care, "the work of Breguet or Berthoud".
After primary school and high school, Kari Voutilainen left Kemi for the Helsinki watchmaking school, where he studied between 1983 and 1986. He got his first job in a shop north of Kemi, repairing and restoring timepieces. Evenings and weekends were for sport, mainly orienteering. In 1988, Kari Voutilainen left Finland and signed on for the WOSTEP course in Neuchâtel, where he spent six months learning the finer points of watchmaking before specialising in complicated timepieces. He was gifted, passionate and hugely motivated. In 1990 he joined Parmigiani. “A dream job I kept for nine years,” he recalls. “There were just 22 of us. It was still a small company back then. I restored one-off pieces, grand complication watches. That’s where I met the talented Charles Meylan who, age 70, continued to work at Parmigiani simply out of pleasure. One day he said to me, Kari, you should make watches!”
Little by little
From there, Kari Voutilainen followed a natural progression, setting up on his own in 2002. He has an eye for fine craftsmanship, elegance, refinement without ostentation, and can appreciate when a piece has been beautifully decorated or finished with care, “the work of Breguet or Berthoud, the way these watches are made and how they have come through time.” He likes “a good, solid movement with real screws that stand up to the job, not the fragility of extra-thin movements.” At first, it was a case of making do in a tiny workshop, where contracting for others provided the funds for his own projects. His more famous collaborations include those with friends and fellow watchmakers Greubel Forsey and MB&F. “I made my first watch, then a second, and as the years went by I was able to phase out the contracting work completely. Now I’m focused entirely on my own watches.”
There’s no shortage of work. Admirers of the new Kaen watch, the Vingt-8, GMT-6, GMT, Tourbillon and other minute repeaters signed by the master’s hand must arm themselves with patience for the twelve-month wait between placing the order and taking delivery of the finished piece. Longer than it takes to make a baby, probably because of the extraordinary precision these particular “babies” require. “We have our own conception of our work,” he observes. “We use the same machines as the big factories, but the way we progress is different. For example, each of our dials is unique. The guillochage is done to the customer’s request. Imagine that it takes two days on average to produce a single dial.”
A name and a signature
A Voutilainen watch can have one of a thousand faces, on a two-hand Calibre 28 base. Movement-wise, it can include a GMT function, GMT with power-reserve indicator, or a minute repeater. The aesthetic variations are endless: dozens of guilloché patterns, produced in-house by two expert engine-turners, gem-setting, or stunning lacquer decorations which are created at the famed Unryuan studio in Japan make each timepiece an exclusive creation, a unique object in which an expert eye will instantly recognise the hand of Kari Voutilainen.
The watchmaker is at pains to pass this remarkable signature – a mix of style, exacting standards and the desire for excellence – on to his team. “Around 60% to 70% of what I look for in the people I work with concerns personal qualities. The rest is for professional capabilities. Teamwork is important. Here in the workshop, in the house, we’re like a family.” And so it’s time for him to return to the studious concentration of the workbench, and production of a new calibre. Kari Voutilainen shows his visitor to the door, soft-footed and with a nod and a smile through the small door into the workshop. Back in the garden, surrounded by the Jura mountains, the cat warms itself in a ray of sun while a delivery man hurries on his way. Carefully wrapped, in a few days’ time the minute repeater will be in California. Kari Voutilainen can go back to work. The narrow door closes. All is quiet.