Over the past decade, interest in watch collecting has hit new highs, centred primarily around Rolex and Patek Philippe. But in the last couple of years, both wide-eyed newcomers and seasoned collectors have been increasingly drawn to the work of a discreet community of watchmakers, driven by an unyielding commitment to mechanical innovation, craftsmanship and a freedom from corporate rule.
From the traditional to the experimental, these watchmakers have brought a certain depth and range to the table, making modern watch collecting much more meaningful. Tucked away from the spotlight, they are driven by an inner passion and offer a perspective on watchmaking that is unhindered by marketing guidelines. While they may not have the market presence of their big-name competitors, their influence on watchmaking is often directly inverse to their production numbers and advertising budgets. Today, “independent” is just about the most emotive adjective to describe a watchmaker.
Here are five independent watchmakers who have made remarkable strides in their fields.
01 | Bernhard Lederer
One of the most mechanically impressive watches to have emerged in recent years comes from Bernhard Lederer, a German watchmaker with a deep understanding of escapements. A founding member of AHCI — an association that aimed to perpetuate the art of independent watch- and clock-making — Lederer has spent a great deal of his career building complications anonymously for other brands through his company, MHM (Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie et Micromécanique) while establishing his own line of watches called Blu (Bernhard Lederer Universe).
With his latest creation, the Central Impulse Chronometer, Lederer devised his own double-wheel escapement, historically known as the échappement naturel, which is technically superior to the more conventional Swiss lever in terms of its direct impulse and frictionless operation. His escapement builds upon the principles set forth by Charles Frodsham, George Daniels and Abraham-Louis Breguet, and combines it with a pair of remontoirs.
Like Frodsham and Daniels, Lederer did away with the geared connection between the twin escape wheels, enabling each wheel to be driven instead by its own gear train and barrel. On top of its elaborate construction, each gear train is equipped with a 10-second remontoir, which is a particularly fitting mechanism for such a delicate escapement as it ensures that power from the mainspring is controlled, releasing a fixed amount of torque each time.
To date, the Central Impulse Chronometer is the only watch with a dual-train natural escapement driven by a remontoir — it’s truly a feat of micro-engineering.
02 | Petermann Bédat
Petermann Bédat was founded in 2017 by a pair of now 29-year-old Swiss watchmakers, Gaël Petermann and Florian Bédat. The duo first met at watchmaking school in Geneva and spent their formative years at A. Lange & Söhne. Following a brief stint elsewhere, they opened a workshop in the Swiss town of Renens, right next to Renaud & Papi, the renowned technical powerhouse now owned by Audemars Piguet.
With the help of Dominique Renaud, the co-founder of R&P, the young watchmakers constructed the calibre 171 for their inaugural timepiece, the 1967 Dead Beat Second. The watch is one of the most elaborately constructed and visually impressive deadbeat timepieces on the market, earning them the Horological Revelation Prize at the 2020 GPHG.
Whereas a deadbeat seconds is more commonly achieved with the use of a one-second remontoir or the simplest of all, a star-and-flirt mechanism, the 1967 Dead Beat Second relies on a secondary escapement that is driven by the fourth wheel of the movement. Even more unusually, it uses a double-sided anchor to control the locking and unlocking of both escape wheels, creating a dramatic yet elegant motion.
In addition, the movement as well as the dial are finished by hand, as evidenced by the numerous inward and outward polished bevels.
03 | Krayon
Founded in 2013 by Rémi Maillat, a movement constructor who spent six years at Cartier, Krayon is known primarily for its remarkable take on the sunrise and sunset complication.
Extremely rare on watches as they are inherently limiting, sunrise and sunset displays are often combined with other astronomical complications like perpetual calendars.
For one, they are latitude-specific and have to be calibrated to the specific point on Earth where the owner is located.
Any change in location would require substantial modifications by the manufacture. As such, they are typically only found on limited-edition or one-off timepieces.
The Krayon Everywhere is an outstanding development on the complication as it is able to display sunrise and sunset times anywhere in the world once the time zone, date, latitude and longitude of a location are set.
This was primarily achieved with a unique cam mechanism that was designed with an elongated slot in the middle to facilitate a greater deviation, otherwise known as eccentricity, so as to reflect the change in latitude.
The movement is exceedingly complex, comprising a total of 595 parts, including four differentials.
Above all, the watch is relatively easy to read once you get the hang of it; all indications can be adjusted forwards and backwards via the crown.
04 | Cyril Brivet-Naudot
Making his debut just three years ago, Cyril Brivet-Naudot is in many ways the archetypal independent artisan who makes watches entirely by hand out of raw materials. Based in France, the promising young talent began working on his inaugural creation, a mechanical wristwatch dubbed Eccentricity, right after graduating from École Polytechnique Federal of Lausanne, one of the most reputed technical universities in Switzerland. In April, he introduced the Eccentricity Réserve de Marche, which has the addition of a power reserve indicator, driven by a conical differential.
While inspired by 19th century pocket watches, the Eccentricity features a rather unique display of time and movement construction. Crucially, it incorporates an improved version of an eccentric escapement invented in the 19th century by Swiss chronometer maker, Louis Richard.
Like the many alternatives to the Swiss lever escapement, including the co-axial and the natural, the free eccentric escapement was designed to combine the locking and unlocking systems of the Swiss lever and the frictionless operation as well as direct impulse of the detent escapement. While the balance wheel is displayed symmetrically to the time display on the dial, the escapement is located on the back of the watch due to its complex construction, comprising 19 parts, and made entirely by hand.
05 | Armin Strom
Armin Strom is one of the few watchmakers today to have successfully achieved a true resonance effect in a wristwatch. The brand was founded in 1967 by the eponymous Swiss watchmaker before it was bought over by the Michel family in 2006. Today, the company is helmed by Serge Michel and his childhood friend and master watchmaker Claude Greisler, who is responsible for the brand’s technical developments. The duo have expanded the business into a full-fledged manufacture that also produces movement components for other brands.
To date, Armin Strom has introduced a total of four resonance watches, including a minute repeater. Its method of attaining resonance is one of the most convincingly reliable and efficient.
While the renowned resonance watches of F.P. Journe were constructed based on the research findings of Antide Janvier and Breguet, Armin Strom went a step further.
Without delving too deep into the weeds, it is worth keeping in mind that the coupling forces in a resonance watch are inherently weak as the synchronicity of the two oscillators is dependent on the transfer of vibrations from the balance cock to the shared main plate. Armin Strom, however, incorporates a patented clutch spring between the two balances, providing a more direct connection, thereby strengthening its coupling force. It is an ingenious development in the field, making their watches entirely unique.