Urwerk 101

Urwerk 101

Spirit of the '70s Rides Again, in Works by Young Swiss Watchmakers

New York Times, April 2, 2008

NEW YORK — NEW YORK: The Swiss watch industry would mostly like to forget the 1970s. Beyond the global shocks of the energy crisis, double-digit inflation, feminism, punk and Vietnam, the decade witnessed the advent of cheap Japanese quartz technology. Resonant with the era's Pop Art sensibilities and futuristic ambitions, it made 60,000 watchmakers, as well as the very notion of a high-end watch, obsolete.

The Swiss staged a comeback in the late '80s, thanks to a renewed appreciation for traditional horology that rendered '70s-style watches - with their asymmetrical or TV-shaped cases, funky dial colors and ill-fated Swiss-made quartz movements, known as Beta 21s - casualties of the changing zeitgeist.

Yet, today, the mood is changing again; and while the Swiss this time remain firmly in the saddle, there's no denying that a revival of the 1970s aesthetic is well under way, led by a cohort of contemporary watchmakers too young to remember the decade's strife and old enough to be nostalgic for its icons.

"In 1977, I saw 'Star Wars' with my father," recalls Martin Frei, 42, the co-founder and designer for Urwerk, a boutique Swiss brand lauded for its radical approach to timekeeping. "This generation has those images in our memory. People believed in technology in an optimistic way."

That faith lives on in Urwerk's first watch, the 101, introduced in 1997. Its minimalist time-telling display recalls a planet moving across the sky, while its asymmetrically placed lugs and round case betray Frei's childhood fascination with Han Solo's spaceship, the Millennium Falcon.

The space-age theme is evident in later models, too, including last year's UR-201, whose signature time-telling complication features telescopic minute hands that operate through three orbiting and revolving hour satellites. Next week in Geneva, Urwerk is unveiling a twin turbine-powered automatic watch, the UR-202, an evolution of the 201, both models the height of avant-garde horology.

"Cutting-edge watch culture is a post-modern phenomenon that grabs from many sources: high, middle and low," said Matthew Morse, U.S. editor in chief of Revolution, a specialty watch magazine first published two years ago. "There's absolutely a thread of '70s-inspired case design in many of the most interesting timepieces that have come out since 2000."

Morse cites the work of Maximilian Büsser, a hotshot young marketer who made his name at Harry Winston Timepieces, where he collaborated with teams of up-and-coming watchmakers - including Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk - to create a series of Opus watches that earned rave reviews for their breakthrough movements and styling.

After leaving Winston in 2005, Büsser launched his own company, MB&F (Maximilian Büsser & Friends), and dedicated it to slaying the sacred cows of Swiss watchmaking.

"I'd like to create the craziest piece of machinery with people I like and respect, without having to please investors," Büsser said. "As long as I have 30 people a year who love what I do, that's fine."

Büsser's fantastical and futuristic Horological Machine No. 2, introduced to the market in December, has found more admirers than that. The domed crystals covering its twin dials are derived from Büsser's passion for sci-fi films of the '70s, "when the earthlings were always shown under glass domes." Over all, the watch's design reflects a kinship with the period's boundary-pushing ethos.

"For the first time, horology didn't have to be serious," Büsser says. "The '70s allowed us to be less boring and more fun."

Even the Swiss watch establishment has raided its '70s archives for inspiration. In February, the International Watch Co., IWC, presented a collection of six vintage recreations, including the 1969 Da Vinci, then equipped with a Beta 21 quartz movement and now available strictly as an automatic.

Patek Philippe reintroduced the porthole-shaped stainless steel Nautilus on that model's 30th anniversary in 2006, causing a surge in demand for the watch, which had languished in the Patek stable for most of the preceding decades.