Leaping Forward, Back in Time
New York Times, November 24, 2011
At the tail end of a five-week business trip across Asia late last month, Maximilian Büsser, founder of the boutique watch brand MB&F, paused at the Taipei airport long enough to discuss his newest watch, the Legacy Machine No. 1.
At first glance, the new timepiece appears rather conventional and a departure from the brand’s funky, futuristic-looking models, which take their cues from Japanese manga characters, fighter planes and “Star Wars.”
“A round watch with two porcelain dials,” Mr. Büsser said by phone, while waiting for his flight to Shanghai. “In late 2007, I sketched the design and went to see my partner and he said, ‘I didn’t join MB&F to do that.”’
It took Mr. Büsser two weeks of cajoling before his team was persuaded.
“My best projects are the ones where I have to battle for them,” he said. “If it’s too easy, the watch is probably too tame or lame.”
The Legacy Machine No. 1 may seem tame to the untrained eye, but a close inspection reveals something out of the ordinary: a domed crystal beneath which appears a “flying balance wheel.”
Considered the heart of a mechanical watch, the balance wheel, part of a regulating system that ensures a watch’s technical accuracy, is typically hidden at the back of the movement. But in the case of the LM1, the 14-millimeter wheel seems to hover above the watch’s two sub-dials, reflecting a unique three-dimensional architecture developed for MB&F by Jean-François Mojon at Chronode.
The bridge upon which the wheel is suspended takes its inspiration from one of the 19th century’s great metallic structures, the Eiffel Tower, Mr. Büsser said. He sought out the master watchmaker and noted traditionalist Kari Voutilainen to lend the movement’s design and finish historical accuracy.
In describing the genesis of these ideas, Mr. Büsser called to mind the protagonist of Woody Allen’s latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” a disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter who is magically transported to 1920s Paris.
“I started thinking about what would have happened if I’d been born in the century when all the great master watchmakers had lived,” he said. “Between 1780 and 1870, virtually everything we value today had been invented — chronographs, perpetual calendars, tourbillons, grand sonneries, every single escapement. I’d have been born in that time.”
Mr. Büsser is not the only one feeling nostalgic. At Parmigiani Fleurier, an oval-shaped pocket watch by the London firm Vardon & Stedman, circa 1800, was the model for the manufacturer’s new oval-shaped Calibre PF 114 timepiece, whose telescopic hands feature a riveted structure also reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower.
From the Vintage 1945 XXL by Girard-Perregaux, a re-issue of a historic Art Deco-inspired model, to Bell & Ross’s new Vintage WW1 wristwatch collection, a tribute to the era of the 1920s pilot, rare is the introduction that does not evoke a past glory.
“The two words I’m seeing and hearing over and over again are heritage and classic,” said Jack Forster, editor-in-chief of Revolution USA, a specialty watch magazine. “Watchmakers like to demonstrate their authenticity by showing that they’ve got an interesting history and if they don’t have a history, they look back at the history of watchmaking in general.”
Given the present-day strength of the luxury watch business, the collective nostalgia may come as a surprise. For the first nine months of 2011, Swiss watch exports totaled 8.84 billion Swiss francs, or $9.64 billion, a 19.5 percent increase over 2010, and a 13.2 percent increase over the same period in 2008, the most successful year in the history of Swiss watch exports, according to Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.
“Despite the fact that three months are still missing, we are quite confident that 2011 will be a new record year for the Swiss watch industry,” Mr. Pasche said.