We love our rugged dive watches and whatnot, but there's more to watchmaking than handsome, everyday wrist gear: there's also a world of incredible artistry. It's worth paying attention to the top independent watchmakers, not necessarily from a consumer's perspective (as these can get very expensive), but because they offer a way to appreciate the craftsmanship and intricate mechanics of watches more deeply.
If you have a mechanical watch that features a view of the movement through a case back window, take a second to look closely at the metal's finishing and edges. Even the vast majority of mass-produced mechanical watch movements feature some type of aesthetic treatment like brushing, polishing or little overlapping circles called perlage. The more expensive your watch is, the more likely it'll feature a higher level of decoration and a finer level of finishing — but there's almost always going to be some compromise at some point.
Keep climbing in price and skill, however, and you'll arrive at the realm of high-end watchmaking, tourbillons, exotic complications and skeletonized movements. At this level you'll often find that every single component (even those inside the watch that you can't see) has been individually hand-finished, requiring hundreds of hours of work by highly skilled hands. Major brands produce this kind of work as well, but independent watchmakers hold a special place in fans' imaginations: they represent creative freedom and uncompromising visions that can be manifested both technically and artistically and result in anything from the traditional to the highly avant-garde.
There are, in fact, many fascinating individuals and small teams doing captivating work in watches, but the few below are some of the most notable names you'll want to know if you're new to high-end independent watchmaking. If watches intrigue you in this way, they're well worth following.
Mention independent watchmakers, and François-Paul Journe is one of the first names that many people will think of. In fact, this celebrated watchmaker has been successful enough to grow his brand, team and facilities (including a case maker and a dial maker), open boutiques and produce more watches. Chanel even bought a 20% stake in his company in 2018, but he remains representative of the high-end, independent watchmaking scene.
Journe stands out for his originality both technically and aesthetically. He's known for esoteric and highly complicated watches that nonetheless also maintain a focus on precision. He's surprised fans by introducing a sport watch line and a quartz watch, but he's best known for applying unusual technical concepts (like the principle of natural resonance), complex features and movements that are hand-finished down to the last component.
Based on the English Isle of Man, Roger Smith produces about 12 watches per year. That's because he's trained in "The Daniels Method" of watchmaking in which one person conceives and crafts a single watch from start to finish — without the use of modern tech used by most watchmakers such as CNC machines. (He is the protege of the legendary horologist George Daniels who devised the Method.)
Needless to say, this type of watchmaking is extremely rare and captures the imagination of watchmaking fans as the ultimate expression of horological craftsmanship. Roger Smith now works with a small team, but his timepieces represent a certain ideal for fans of watchmaking. Though traditional, Smith (like Daniels) is also innovative and his works are incredible to behold.
After first glance at a watch made by Laurent Ferrier, you might say, "Yeah, that's a really elegant dress watch." It might not be apparent until you look more closely that his conservative designs and traditionalist approach hide craftsmanship comparable with that of the many showier watchmakers at this level. In terms of style, it's unsurprising to learn that Ferrier worked for 30 years at the staunchly traditional and highly celebrated company Patek Philippe before founding his own brand, where he now works with his son.
What is somewhat unexpected, however, is to learn that Ferrier was a semi-professional race car driver in his youth — finishing third at the Le Mans race in 1979 (behind Paul Newman). This just gives the quiet watchmaker an extra shot of character, but the real interest lies in his watches, of course.
Even among the sometimes outrageous designs found among independent watchmakers, Konstantin Chaykin's stand out. Based in St. Petersburg, the Russian watchmaker/inventor executes concepts that are wildly original, unexpected and sometimes downright bizarre. One example is a watch made to tell the time on Mars — where the length of days are slightly different to those on Earth (it also simultaneously shows two Earth time zones as well as the positioning of the two planets in relation to each other).
Chaykin seems motivated to produce an incredible variety of highly creative mechanical concepts. His already mind-blowing creations usually incorporate a further twist when you look more closely or learn how to use them. Chaykin's most celebrated and recognized watch is one of his simplest: The Joker, in which two subdials form eyes, with hours and minutes respectively indicated by dots representing eyeballs, and a moon phase display forms the shape of a mouth with the moon in red made to look like a tongue.
The duo Robert Greubel and Steven Forsey have been called watchmakers' watchmakers. This is meant to express that the brand's level of finishing and technical sophistication can perhaps only be fully appreciated by fellow watchmakers, but it hasn't stopped the brand from amassing many fans and collectors. The design and aesthetics of Greubel Forsey watches seem driven by technical features — a signature element being a case (and/or crystal) that looks like it's been adapted to the movement, rather than the other way around as would be expected.
In actuality, these features function to highlight those technical elements. Greubel Forsey watches can be expected to incorporate a range of features and at least a prominent tourbillon — but these already complex mechanisms are made further complicated, for example, by producing them at tilted angles. The brand also recently announced a complicated watch that was notable for having been completely made by hand. The brand's watches are also known for being stratospherically expensive and are produced in very limited quantities.