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Feature: 10 watches that surprised me

Watches have been around for centuries, and so it’s pretty easy to become jaded and think everything’s been done before. But it hasn’t, as these ten watches prove. Watchmaking can still be surprising.

Hodinky Berkus

Deep in the forests of Czechia is a lunatic who goes by the alias Hodinky Berkus. Perhaps you would think me harsh for addressing him as such, but if you speak to the man himself, it will quickly become apparent either because of his mannerisms or more likely because he will just outright tell you. And how else would you explain the actions of a man who decided one day, completely out of the blue, to build watches? Not convinced of his madness? Okay, well how about this then: for every watch he designs, he makes one. Just one. After all that design and development to make a watch, he moves on the next. It’s not like they’re simple watches either. There are watches with remontoirs, twin balances coupled with differentials, and this one here, the Black Hole, which has a tourbillon right in the middle. And he makes them all by hand. Sure there are a few bits and pieces here and there he doesn’t make, like jewels and springs, but he doesn’t buy those in from Switzerland, he gets them from eBay. From start to finish, each watch is an unknown, evolving organically to its completion. Actually, I told a fib about each watch only being made once. The original Black Hole was stolen, and so Berkus had to make it all over again from scratch. Which he did. I told you he was mad.

Behrens Perigee

If you’d told me five years ago I’d be holding a $13,500 watch with some unbelievable complication that was made in China, I would have politely laughed in your face. Yet here it is, the Behrens Perigee, and it is all those things. First take is that $13,500 seems a lot for a watch made in China, but the second take is that it packs an awful lot of unique functionality and quality for a watch that costs $13,500. I’ll take you through the long list of craziness. First are the hours, which are read from a ruby-jewelled chain that spans the entire length of the watch. Then there’s the minutes over on the right, displayed in retrograde form. In the middle is the Earth, which rotates once per day, just like the real Earth. And all the way around the outside is the moon, which orbits the Earth just as it does in real life. Just in case that wasn’t enough, there’s a power reserve on the back, too. There’s no third-party movement, no cut corners. The quality is impeccable and the design just outrageous. It’s a testament to possibility, and a sure sign that the future landscape of watchmaking is changing.

Lyrique Etude

If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. That philosophy was taken to the extreme by a Facebook watch group led by Bill Sanders, who decided they’d had enough of paying watch manufactures big bucks for their watches. So they gathered together—about fifty of them—and decided that it would be a perfectly feasible and not at all ridiculous idea to design and build a watch together. It’s hard enough for two people to pick what to watch on TV let alone get the internet to agree on something, but yet, they persisted. The first hurdle came when movement supplier Agenhor—who the group had come to, cap in hand, hoping for them to make their dreams come true—had asked if they had a designer. They did not, and being greener than an unripe tomato, they had no idea they needed one. Agenhor introduced them to Matthieu Allégre, as well as to suppliers for the dial, hands, case and strap, and with a very strict set of design rounds that were voted on in turn, the Lyrique Etude came to be. And it’s not even hideous. Not even slightly. Not only did it actually turn out really well, it also cost them just a third of what it should have done, at just $7,500.

Ophion Velos

There are so many beautiful watches out there made by legendary watchmakers who pour their heart and soul into a creation that’s simply excellence personified. Unfortunately, to pay for tweezers and metal and such, those watchmakers tend to charge quite a bit of money. Sounds like game over for those short of change, but thanks to Miguel Morales, it’s not. So step one in his process to making a cool, unique, elegant watch affordable is to ditch the biscuit-tin watchmaker in the mountains and switch him out for something a little closer to Wall-E. This—like all your favourite high-street brands that still pretend to be handmade—is a machine-made watch. Machine cut, machine shaped and machine polished, the Ophion 786 Velos may seem like the watchmaking singularity, but the reality is that Miguel is just being transparent about the way watches are made and passing on the savings onto you He’s asking about $3,500, about the price of a Tudor, for a watch that looks like it costs considerably more.

Tudor Black Bay 54

Speaking of Tudors, nobody but nobody expected the surprise addition of a Black Bay dive watch at just 37mm. That’s the Black Bay 54, which very accurately depicts a 1954 Submariner right down to the diminutive case size. The styling gets a subtle update too, with a sunburst dial, monochrome bezel and a neater, more original crown. But the biggest surprise overall was, actually, how universally wearable this small diver really is. 37mm would be, to most, a few millimetres under the minimum, but there’s something about the 54 that defies that rule. Off the wrist it looks like a watch for ants, but on it the case size suddenly doesn’t feel quite so miniscule. It’s a great trick, and being at the cheaper end of the scale for the Black Bay diver line, it also marks the entry point to this very poplar collection. What’s next, a Black Bay Chrono that’s not the size of a hockey puck?

Felipe Pikullik FPSK Skeleton

If nothing but proper, electricity-free watchmaking will do for you, made by tools powered by nothing more than elbow grease and dogged determination, then I would thank you to park your Rolls Royce outside and step this way. That’s because this very traditional style of watchmaking just isn’t cost effective for anything below an eye-watering price point—that is, unless you’re Felipe Pikullik. Every line is cut with a hand saw, every angle is carved with a burin, every polished surface finished with a stick and some abrasive paste. This is as Amish-friendly as watches get, and they don’t cost as much as the GDP of a small nation. For the price of a mostly machine-made Patek Philippe Calatrava, you can have a watch that’s built closer to the $1,000,000 Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1. How is this possible? Because Pikullik starts with a cheap Unitas movement as his base and works his magic on that. The work he does is no less painstaking and skilled, and those who can see past the movement’s origin will enjoy an incredible bargain.

Minhoon Yoo The Carved Piece

When you’re the only person in Korea who wants to make watches and you have no money to learn, what do you do? Why, you figure it out through internet videos, of course! And what do you do when you have no equipment, and no money to buy it? You simply buy broken equipment online for next nothing and fix it yourself! That’s the protracted process Minhoon Yoo has undertaken to becoming Korea’s shining star in the field of watchmaking, and his first watch, The Carved Piece, is a living prototype that is emblematic to his education. Within his tiny studio, where he eats, sleeps and works, where he is surrounded by tools and equipment—some working, some not—in a Blade Runner-esque depiction of the future of watchmaking, Minhoon has been working, component by component, on making a watch. Some parts he started on completely from scratch, like the bleached silver dial, hand carved with texture. Other parts, like the Peseaux calibre 7001, he is working on replacing each component with his own one by one. Every single step is an education. There’s some gleaned knowledge and a lot of guesswork, but he’s figuring it out. It’s watchmaking, but on hard mode.

Ochs Und Junior Annual Calendar

What if I told you this watch, with just two hands, is an annual calendar? That with just three extra parts, converted a normal movement into this most hallowed of complications? Call me a liar, but that’s exactly what the genius mind of Ludwig Oecshlin achieved with the Ochs Und Junior Annual Calendar. This is the guy that brought us the incredible Ulysse Nardin Freak, so yeah, anything’s possible. The secret is the display, which uses an array of holes to communicate the date, day and month. The date is the largest ring of holes around the outside, the month just above the centre and the day just below. By using this layout, it was possible to extrapolate the output of a standard ETA 2824 with just three parts. It’s the kind of solution most watchmakers wouldn’t arrive at in a million years, but then that’s what’s so special about Oechslin. You’d never guess this simplistic, industrial-looking watch was the product of such ingenuity.

Baltic MR01

For less than $600, there’s simply no chance of getting a beautiful, classic watch with a micro rotor movement. No amount of wishing upon a star is going to make it happen. Wish upon French watch brand Baltic, however, and you may will see your dreams come true. That’s because Baltic managed to source the Hangzhou calibre 5000A for its MR01 as the perfect accompaniment to its ultra-elegant dress watch. Not only does it have a highly coveted micro rotor movement, it’s also less than centimetre thick, so the 36mm case doesn’t feel weird. The case itself is kept simple, with a deeply knurled crown, allowing the exceptionally well-executed dial to take centre stage. There’s polished Breguet numerals, leaf hands, asymmetric sub-seconds and a mottled texture that suggests this watch costs anything but $600. The only difficult part is choosing which colour, silver, blue or salmon.

H. Moser Swiss Alp Watch

The idea of a high-quality mechanical Apple Watch is just stupid. There, I said it. The Apple Watch is not a luxury accessory, it’s a techy, connected addition to a digital lifestyle, and aping it under the guise of haute horology is just about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. So of course, H. Moser made it. As one in a series of statement campaigns where Moser makes a watch to prove a point, the Swiss Alp is designed to ask the question: what is a proper watch? Moser argues that the Apple Watch is temporary, unexciting and less emotive than unbuttered bread—not because of the way it looks, but what’s inside. So, Moser built its own version, complete with a unique rectangular movement just for this watch. If you want a watchmaking flex, it’s that. Count the number of rectangular movements there are out there. You’ll be doing well if you can think of one. And do you know what? Point proven. It looks incredible. Marc Newson and Jonathan Ive’s Apple Watch design is demonstrated to be incredible, and is given the level of quality it really deserves by the Moser Swiss Alp watch. I still think the idea is stupid—it’s just this execution is so damn good.

Ten incredible watches that took me completely by surprise. Which is your favourite, and is there another you’d add to the list?

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