The more you talk about something, the more likely you are to be heard. With this idea firmly in mind, the Time Aeon Foundation works relentlessly to keep the human skills of watchmaking alive. The subject is all the more relevant knowing that, in the same way species fall extinct, year after year traditional watchmaking is being drained of its substance as mechanisation takes over from the human hand. Suffice to note how few schools now require their students to produce a montre école, the end-of-study “school watch” intended to demonstrate their newly acquired knowledge. What was once part and parcel of the learning process has become superfluous to requirements, not only because brands no longer expect their young recruits to have learned these “outmoded” techniques but also – and more worryingly – because the teachers themselves no longer master them. CNC is replacing the human hand; benchwork is lost to increasingly sophisticated machine tools, and the watch is becoming an industrial artefact that gives the time.
No-one is denying that watchmaking is an industry and, as such, is geared towards mass production. This is why both watchmaking schools and engineering universities must continue to train students in the latest-generation technologies. It is, however, equally important to remember that this industry grew out of a profession, and if no-one steps in to sustain this profession it could well disappear. Enter the Time Aeon Foundation, set up in 2005 by Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey, Philippe Dufour, Vianney Halter and Kari Voutiliainen. The situation was clear: widespread industrialisation and automation in watchmaking meant that an entire heritage of knowledge and techniques was threatened with extinction. It was time to bail out the sinking ship; a vast endeavour which in 2007 took the form of an important new undertaking: Naissance d’une Montre – Le Garde Temps.
Of machines and men
“Birth of a Watch – The Timepiece” crystallised months of reflection into a precisely defined project to compile an inventory of these disappearing techniques and to cherry-pick a watchmaker who would produce a complicated timepiece entirely by hand. These skills would then be taught to young watchmakers. Now known to be the first stage in a journey, led by Philippe Dufour and both halves of Greubel Forsey, this “Birth” came after what proved to be a long gestation. Seven years passed between the time Michel Boulanger was chosen to bring this vast undertaking to fruition and the sale of the prototype, in May 2016 at Christie’s Hong Kong, for $1.46 million. The eleven timepieces that followed this triumphant debut have all been sold, and Michel Boulanger has returned to his teaching position where, a condition of the project, he can widen the circle by passing on the skills he has learned.
This first watch now has a sibling; the second “Birth” whose protagonists are two talented young watchmakers, Dominique Buser and Cyrano Devanthey, and which again has the support of Time Aeon. The Greubel Forsey duo are still overseeing the project, this time seconded by another duo, Urwerk co-founders Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei. As Time Aeon’s David Bernard explains, the through-line of this second project is unchanged, focusing on hand-crafting and perpetuating knowledge. There are, however, two differences. Firstly, it will be a one-off edition (as opposed to a limited edition) of a three-hand watch with an inverted movement that incorporates a constant-force barrel and an unusual four-spoked balance, both visible on the dial side, with a power-reserve indicator on the back. Secondly, the project grew out of Buser and Devanthey’s interest in old watchmaking machines; the very ones workshops were selling off by the kilo when the quartz crisis hit. Whenever either of them came across an old lathe or a borer, they would restore it then, with help from older watchmakers, learn how to properly operate it. This sowed the seed for the idea that they could use these machines to make watches the traditional way, entirely by hand.
From Oscillon to Ferdinand Berthoud
This enterprise took the name Oscillon, the manufacture where Dominique Buser and Cyrano Devanthey “make Swiss watches the way they did a century ago”. The idea was bound to appeal to Time Aeon, especially as the pair already have some considerable baggage, including as Urwerk’s R&D workshop. Both are graduates of the watchmaking school in Solothurn, Switzerland. Dominique Buser, who also holds a physics degree, worked first for Vacheron Constantin then for Urwerk, arriving just in time (in 2003) to help develop the Opus V for Harry Winston. Cyrano Devanthey earned his stripes at Les Ambassadeurs, followed by a ten-year stint at Omega. It wasn’t until 2009 that the former classmates and friends got back together, and started hand-making their own wristwatches in 2012. At this year’s SIHH, they are presenting the prototype for Naissance d’une Montre II, which could be described as a twelve-handed co-creation. Once again, acquiring and sharing knowledge is part of the deal, as Dominique Buser and Cyrano Devanthey also teach at the watchmaking school in Grenchen.
With “chapter two” up and running, it wasn’t long before Time Aeon had a third iron in the fire. This time, inspiration came from Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard and the man who revived the Ferdinand Berthoud name. “Mr Scheufele first got in touch in 2017,” says David Bernard. “He was very much interested in the Foundation’s objectives, but made it clear he didn’t want a project that focused on just one person. He wanted there to be an involvement at every level.” After further discussion, it was decided that this third project, with Ferdinand Berthoud, would bring together representatives of every department involved in the creation of what will be another exceptional timepiece; a symbol of skills that were once considered natural and must now be relearned.