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Independents Do It Their Own Way

New York Times, January 16, 2012

GENEVA — The art of watchmaking has thrived in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland since the 17th century, and this heritage — and the image of an aging, white-haired watchmaker toiling away in his mountain workshop — still resonates with collectors of fine timepieces.

The reality, however, is more prosaic. Most high-end Swiss watches are produced by teams of anonymous engineers in state-of-the-art factories owned by the big brands. That includes the collections of 16 well-advertised firms belonging to the luxury holding companies LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Richemont.

It also includes the independent powerhouses Rolex, Breitling and Patek Philippe, as well as a handful of privately owned prestige brands — Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet, for example — with the finances to support large-scale marketing campaigns.

That leaves a discreet community of independent watchmakers who operate in the shadows of the business, far from the klieg lights that shine on their name-brand competitors.

The timepieces they produce often cost more than $10,000, and sometimes 20 times that amount, giving new meaning to the term limited; it is not unheard of for an independent to turn out fewer than 10 watches a year.

For example, Marc Jenni, after a decade of overseeing Tiffany & Co.’s watch division, left in 2008 when the company struck a strategic alliance with the Swatch Group, the behemoth of Swiss watchmaking. “I was 30 years old, and it was the right time to become independent,” he said by telephone recently.

Mr. Jenni is a candidate for membership in the prestigious Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, or A.H.C.I., a coalition of 33 watch- and clockmakers bound by a fierce commitment to artisanal watchmaking and freedom from corporate rule.

Beyond the ability to design and self-manufacture a working watch mechanism, A.H.C.I. members abide by one overarching rule. “They must be absolutely independent,” the group’s president, Philippe Wurtz, a precision clockmaker based near Frankfurt, said by telephone recently. “A.H.C.I. is there to help people who want to create a brand, have good ideas, but no possibility of having their own booth at Basel.”

Mr. Wurtz was referring to the BaselWorld luxury watch and jewelry fair, a springtime staple on the watchmaking calendar, where independents have traditionally sought the attention of retail buyers. This month, however, Mr. Jenni and his cohorts have another platform to showcase their inventions: The third-annual Geneva Time Exhibition, which runs through Friday at the Espace Hippomène in Geneva. The show coincides with the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, an invitation-only exhibition of 19 big brands at Palexpo, near the Geneva airport.

With retailers, distributors and journalists from around the world in town for the S.I.H.H., the time seemed right in 2010 to introduce a satellite event for independent watchmakers, said Florence Noël, co-founder of G.T.E.

This year, the show welcomes 50 exhibitors, from Quinting, a manufacturer of transparent movements, to Frédérique Constant, a volume producer of classic, affordable timepieces in Geneva.

“Our exhibitors are different,” Ms. Noël said. “Most of the time they create unique timepieces. Sometimes they only need to sell one or two a year, and that’s O.K.”

For firms like Heritage Watch Manufactory, founded in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 2010, G.T.E. offers the means to connect directly with end-clients. “We’re not a brand you can see in a retail setup,” said the H.W.M. co-founder, Christian Gütermann.

H.W.M. plans to introduce its new Viator watch, a G.M.T. model developed by the German master watchmaker Karsten Frässdorf and designed by Éric Giroud, a celebrated watch stylist. The piece retails for €33,000, or $42,000.