Felix Baumgartner, URWERK
Angus Davies asks Felix Baumgartner, URWERK a series of questions about the brand he co-founded with Martin Frei. Felix, a son of Schaffhausen, explains that his first words were “tick-tock” and his career choice upheld a long-established family tradition of watchmaking.
A few years ago, I received a telephone call from the Press Department of URWERK. The brand kindly offered me the chance to wear a stunning UR-210, an avant-garde watch housed in a matte black case and featuring a ‘wandering hours’ display. I had seen the brand’s various models from afar and occasionally placed one upon wrist, albeit just for a few seconds. However, up to that point I had never had a full-blown ‘hands-on’ experience with an URWERK.
Image – URWERK UR-210
The URWERK UR-210 was in my possession for a couple of months. Indeed, a couple of blissful, highly enjoyable months. The combination of satellite hours and a static minute track proved incredibly legible and reading the time was instinctive. Furthermore, owing to the positioning of the crown at noon, my wrist and the UR-210 enjoyed a congenial and ergonomic relationship.
Image – URWERK UR-210
On several occasions I have visited the firm’s Genevan workshop and offices. I have seen part assembled watches sat upon watchmaker’s benches and noted the peerless finishing of movement components usually hidden from view. Be under no misapprehension, neoteric styling does not come at the expense of high-end finissage. Indeed, despite the cutting-edge composition of some URWERK models, the brand’s timepieces are shining examples of haute horlogerie.
Image – URWERK UR-210
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Felix Baumgartner, URWERK’s Master Watchmaker and Co-Founder, a series of questions in order to learn more about the Swiss marque.
Interview with Felix Baumgarter, URWERK
What makes URWERK special?
URWERK is a personal adventure which I have taken with Martin Frei. We created and invested all we had in order to bring it to life. We came close to stopping a few times when orders were cancelled the day before delivery or because components were proving incredibly difficult to source. Throughout this period, we were on a continuous emotional roller coaster. We would experience euphoria one day and then depression the next. These emotions and experiences are reflected in our creations.
Image – URWERK UR-210
I believe you are from a watchmaking family. Can you tell me about your background, including your early career prior to establishing URWERK?
My father is a renowned restorer of antiques. He knows pretty much everything when it comes to the pendulum. He was the son a watchmaker and wanted to perpetuate this family tradition. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that our family home was full of clocks. They provided a reminder of our family’s past and the profession my father wanted us to pursue.
My father says that my very first word wasn’t “mama” or “papa”, typical of most young children, but “tick-tock”. Clearly, my father succeeded in influencing my future career choice.
I studied at the watchmaking school in Solothurn, where I successfully passed my examinations. One month after graduating, I saw a classified ad in the newspaper. Svend Andersen was looking for an independent watchmaker to work in his atelier. I applied and secured the job. This led me to move to Geneva.
Around the same time, I worked for several big brands, mostly in their aftersales departments where I worked on an array of faulty watches, each with their own particular problems. I had to find ways of making these watches work. It certainly proved to be the best way to acquire knowledge and experience.
Image – URWERK UR-110
I have interviewed your fellow director and co-founder of Urwerk, Martin Frei. His creativity is extraordinary. How did you meet?
We met at a party. Martin was based in Zurich, studying at art school. He knew my cousin, hence he invited me to come along to the party. While each of us held a beer, we discussed time and space. Thereafter, URWERK was born.
Image – URWERK UR-105 T-REX
When Martin designs a watch, I assume he tries to explore the boundaries of his creativity. At what stage do you get involved, providing the necessary watchmaking know-how?
We work as a team, exchanging ideas. It’s a bit like a game of ping pong. We try to surprise and provoke each other.
Image – URWERK UR-111 C BLACK
URWERK often employs cutting-edge materials which have previously been used in other industries. How much time do you spend researching alternatives to brass, German silver and steel?
We are really curious, attending exhibitions for other industries. We also work with various partners in a variety of different fields, heightening our creativity. Lastly, we spend much time travelling, in order to free our imagination and learn by experiencing different cultures.
While most of our readers probably think of URWERK as an avant-garde watch company, it upholds fine watchmaking practice, endowing its models with flawless finishing typical of traditional haute horlogerie. Are you ever tempted to showcase more of the inner beauty of your watches?
Image – oscillating weight adorned with perlage
We often have. If you remember the very first watches presented by URWERK, they had a closed case. You could only see a pointer for the hours and that was it. Then we started to open up the case with the advent of the UR-103 Targa.
Image – URWERK UR-103T
I always associate URWERK with the wandering hours indication. Over the years you have conceived many variations of this concept, repeatedly creating something new and different. Recently, your company unveiled the UR-100. Where did your inspiration come from?
Image – URWERK UR-100 GUN METAL
The URWERK UR-100 was inspired by a nineteenth-century pendulum clock made by Gustave Sandoz for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This pendulum does not show time. Instead, it shows the distance of the Earth’s rotation at the equator. Martin had the idea to incorporate this information on the dial of the UR-100.
Were there any technical challenges that you encountered when making this watch?
The watch features a type of double deck dial. The hand of the minutes has to pass in between both decks which is actually an incredibly narrow gap.
The Chronometry collection has been at the vanguard of horological innovation. The EMC provides the wearer with the means to ascertain the rate of the movement based on their lifestyle and allows the owner to easily adjust the rate when needed. The AMC on the other hand is a modern take on Breguet’s Sympathique clock. Can you remember what inspired you to create both of these models?
Image – URWERK EMC
These models are at the core of what we call chronometry. They are inspired by the Witschi device, a control tool all watchmakers have on their workbench. With the EMC, the means of controlling the rate of the watch is optical, hence it is far more sensitive that using sound, such as with a Witschi device. In terms of the AMC, our aim was to merge atomic accuracy with the magic of a mechanical movement.
Image – URWERK AMC
An increasing number of high-end watch brands now offer bespoke products or piece unique. Do you envisage offering this service in the future?
We only produce 150 watches a year, our production is already limited and exclusive.
While I always think of URWERK as a futuristic brand, you have continued to use a conventional hairspring. Would you ever consider using a silicium hairspring in the future or other silicium components such as an escape wheel?
As far as I am concerned silicium is far too fragile to be used ‘extensively’ in our creations.
When you are away from the world of watches, how do you relax?
I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. I have two grown-up daughters who don’t consider watches to be a big deal, or at least not yet! They help me to relax.
What are your aspirations for URWERK in the longer term?
We have chosen to deliberately limit production and wish for this capacity to remain at the present levels for as long as possible. It is our wish for URWERK to remain a family business and we wish to continue working with people we love and trust.
Felix Baumgartner graciously answered my numerous questions. Prior to this exchange, I was already an avowed URWERK fan. Nevertheless, I am always keen to learn more about this innovative luxury marque. In 2018, I interviewed Martin Frei and found his view of watchmaking, design and the world at large to be fascinating. Likewise, my conversation with Felix proved equally interesting.
The Swiss Manufacture was founded in 1997. Over the years which have ensued, the professional marriage of Felix Baumgarter and Martin Frei has proved to be incredibly successful. The creative duo have never ceased conceiving new ideas and producing thought-provoking designs. They have never subscribed to convention but chosen to think of new solutions, such as using materials which hitherto had never been employed in watchmaking.
In the early years of URWERK, Baumgarter and Frei faced challenges. I suspect there were occasions when it may have been tempting for both men to quit. Thankfully, the pair persisted with their shared dream, leading to a brand many horophiles, myself included, hold in the highest esteem.
Perhaps, most tellingly, Baumgartner appears to shun the idea of being a horological colossus. In his response to my questions, he reveals an endearing desire to remain a ‘family business’, ‘working with people we love and trust’. His comments resonate with me and, in my opinion, provide the true meaning of success.