The popular image of the world of Swiss watchmaking is of a wizened old craftsman hunched over his bench, a jeweller’s loupe almost genetically attached to his eye socket.
This is hardly the most flamboyant of images but it seems to suit the generally tranquil nature of many watchmaking houses. But it would be a mistake to succumb to this clichéd idea about watchmaking. Just as Switzerland is about more than Heidi or slick antiseptic minimalism; so there are some unexpected characters involved in making fine watches.
The idiosyncrasy of this apparently placid world was made apparent when I first met Rolf Schnyder, who owns Ulysse Nardin, a maker of consistently interesting complicated watches. Schnyder, who spends much of his time in the Far East, is and engaging and open character – so open in fact that he shared the fact he swung weights from his penis as sort of exercise.
I cannot quite remember how this came up in conversation but it is the sort of thing that sticks in the mind and marked him out as an intriguing individual and the sort of man not afraid to take decisions that perhaps might be unthinkable for more conservative operators.
For instance, Schnyder collaborates with a man called Ludwig Oechslin. I have never met Oechslin, which is a shame as he is spoken of as a true character – a genius with the oddities of character that can come with creativity. Schnyder allows him near complete autonomy.
“Dr Oechslin enjoys almost total freedom in his relationship with Rolf Schnyder and Ulysse Nardin. The company does not impose or suggest anything: Oechslin alone creates, then presents his project to the company for approval,” runs a statement by the company.
In a country and an industry which pride themselves on adherence to time and discipline (when you see row after row of contented watchmakers assembling movements using components that at times are the size of a human hair, you gain a new understanding of the word discipline), such an attitude is refreshing and not as singular as might be thought.
Over in the quiet valley community of Le Sentier is one of the world’s most famous watch brands, Jaeger-LeCoultre. Its factory is a model of Swiss efficiency: old and new structures linked together to provide a seamlessly integrated environment.
To one side of the main factory is a small, low old-fashioned house. The juxtaposition is stark. This dwelling is the workplace of Eric Coutray.
Coutray has his hair cut annually and his beard trimmed every six months so, with his mane and his shaggy facial hair, shorts and sandals he looks like a hybrid of hippy, skate-boarder and early Christian anchorite.
He has his own working environment because, as he jokingly says, “j’ai mauvaise charactere”. In the past, he has been in prison for drunkenness. His current extramural activity is more constructive; he is using pieces of old stands and booths from trade fairs to refurbish his house. He may sound like a beach bum, instead he is one of the more talented watchmakers working today and it is this talent that allows him to bend the rules while creating such marvels as Jaeger-LeCoultre’s acclaimed Gyrotourbillon.
He affects not to know how his creations work but, given the intellect that blazes behind his brown eyes, it is safe to assume that this disingenuousness is just another of his games. If Coutray is the long-haired sage of the Vallee de Joux, then Giampiero Bodino is the genius in residence at Richemont and a man who has had designs of watches for brands as diverse as Cartier and Panerai.
I remember once complimenting him on a ring that had two large diamonds, one of which – and I am not exaggerating too much – was the size of a smallish Easter egg.
He told me he felt it was time to give up his pair of Harley Davidsons but that with the money he made on the sale, he wanted to buy something to remember them by.
Another watch creator, but one who has yet to give up his motorcycle, is Dunhill’s Tom Bolt. He rides a Triumph Daytona and got a car licence only when his wife refused to get into a sidecar with their baby, so he went out and bought a sensible family car . . . an old air-cooled Porsche.
Son of Sarah Miles and Robert Bolt, Tom Bolt had what one might call a colourful childhood. “By the time I had left school at 15, I had lived in 18 houses and was asked to leave nine of the 12 schools I attended. I would love to say for cool things but it was general non-compliance and refusing to adhere to dress codes: and the substances at the end had something to do with it.”
He joined a rock band when he was 13 and was so out of it at one gig that he had to be carried on stage. He then trained as an actor and was supposed to play opposite Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose.
“I got so wasted that the part went to Mr Slater.” To be considered more difficult to handle than Christian Slater is some sort of distinction. And then by the age of 18 he cleaned himself up and for the last 18 years he has been working with watches, first finding and selling vintage pieces and now working for Dunhill where he is ploughing his energy and his . . . how shall one say . . . idiosyncrasy, into creating clever timepieces for the British luxury brand.
“I suppose you could say that the energy I used to put into my addiction now goes into watches.” Bolt’s look is politely described as dishevelled, as Dunhill CEO Simon Critchell says: “He comes into the office with his crash helmet: we have had extreme difficulty getting him into a jacket and failed completely to get him into a tie.” But dress sense apart, “he is a unique character with a very quick mind and an interesting creative sense,” says Critchell.
The way he talks about Bolt, there is a sense of pride in having a maverick rather than a corporate politician creating Dunhill’s watch collection. “What is great about Tom is that he makes people excited about watches.”
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