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While such august names as Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet continue to inspire reverence among collectors, newer watchmakers are garnering attention as well. Here’s a look at some insiders’ favorites.
Richard Mille: Frenchman Richard Mille has commanded attention from collectors for his starkly modern approach to a tradition-bound craft. In creating watches with pieces inspired by Formula One auto racing or high-tech aeronautics, Mille in many ways helped catapult Swiss horology into the 21st century.
“My objective was to look into the future,” said Mille, 57, who founded his business in 2001. “I found horology was using methods that belonged to the 21st century — computers and advanced machinery — to create watches that belonged to the 19th century. It’s like using today’s automobile technology to make a Model T Ford.”
Mille calls his approach antimarketing.
“I don’t give myself any price restrictions,” he said. “When you do that you have to compromise. For me, it’s only the end result that counts.”
Nonetheless, Mille recognizes that his approach has tapped into the trend for ultimate luxury with pieces that speak to collectors obsessed with owning the ne plus ultra.
“There are more connoisseurs today,” he said. “There are more billionaires. People who buy a Mille are not interested in social acceptance through a brand. They’ve gone beyond that.”
Though the average price of a Mille is around 70,000 euros, or $110,468 at current exchange, the designer said he doesn’t consider his watches destined for the bank vault.
“I’m not about gimmicks,” he explained. “All of the materials I put into my watches serve a function. They are watches to be worn.”
But not by many. Mille estimated that there is a more than 10-year waiting list for some of his creations, like the RM 004, a chronograph that has a movement base plate in carbon nanofiber.
“There have been no cancellations, so far,” Mille said of the backlog.
Last year, Mille managed to produce 1,550 pieces. “My goal is to go about 3,000 watches a year,” he said. “I’m not interested in volume.”
This year, Mille is introducing a watch that is an homage to Boucheron to celebrate the Paris jeweler’s 150th birthday. The wheels of the movements are made from semiprecious and precious stones. Thirty pieces will be produced.
Greubel Forsey: Collectors become enthused when the names of Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey are mentioned. They are the wizards behind some of the most sought-after horological creations in recent years, including the Opus 6 watch they created for Harry Winston in 2006.
“We like to push the limits,” said the French-born Greubel, 48. “People say everything’s been done in watchmaking. We believe we can invent.”
The duo has explored the possibilities of perfecting the tourbillon. Their Double Tourbillon 30 Degrees grappled with streamlining the mechanism Breguet invented in the 18th century to minimize the effect of gravity on time.
“Breguet created the tourbillon for a pocket watch,” said the British-born Forsey, 41. “We wanted to find similar perfection on a wristwatch, which is not often in a vertical position.”
Their Quadruple Tourbillon, which costs 580,000 Swiss francs, or about $567,000 at current exchange, is equally impressive in its attempt to create mechanical perfection.
“We are inventors,” Forsey said. “That’s what motivates us.”
Collector need to be patient if they want a Greubel Forsey. With annual production of 80 watches, the typical waiting list is two years.
Dent & Co.: The company that made London’s Big Ben in the 19th century, and provided clocks to the likes of Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington, was purchased a few years ago by British watch fanatics Twysden Moore and Frank Spurell.
When they bought the company, Dent’s existence had been relegated to a couple of intricate clocks a year. Sixty years had elapsed since the last Dent wristwatches were made.
Dent is now bringing out its first products. Big Ben inspired its Parliament range, and it has also referenced its English heritage with a similarly chic, round model called the Ministry.
“We’re modern and echo the glories of the past without being blurry-eyed,” Moore said.
With production limited to 500 pieces a year, demand for Dent watches will be high.
“We don’t want to get beyond 2,000 watches a year,” Moore said. “In a year or two, we hope to be making 1,000 pieces a year.”
In the meantime, Dent is developing its first sonnerie piece, which, in keeping with the firm’s history, will feature the chimes of Big Ben.
FP Journe: Since he burst onto the scene in 1999, François-Paul Journe has seized collectors’ attentions with his highly innovative and visually bold creations.
“I try to bring science to watchmaking,” said Journe, who is respected for his determination to invent new solutions to old problems.
“I don’t want to copy what already exists,” he said. “It’s easy to find solutions when you copy the old solutions.”
Journe believes it’s important to imbue even the trickiest complications with a simple air. His most accomplished piece is his grand sonnerie, which not only chimes the hour at will, but also the quarter hours like a clock. Among watchmakers, it is considered a formidable achievement.
“It was the most complicated I made,” Journe said. “It was 10 on the Richter scale of difficulty. It took six years to produce.”
This year, Journe will introduce an extraflat minute repeater. “It’s nine on the Richter scale of difficulty,” he said. “So it was easy.”
With overall annual production of 850 pieces a year, Journe can hardly meet demand. But he likes it that way.
“I’m an independent,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to function any other way.”