Martin Frei, Urwerk

Angus Davies interviews Martin Frei, Urwerk.

During his conversation with Martin Frei, Urwerk, Angus learns much about the avant-garde Swiss watch company, including what makes the brand special, the inspiration for the company’s satellite system, the thinking behind the design of its unique creations and much more.

Martin Frei, Urwerk

Martin Frei, Urwerk

The nature of my profession means I see and touch many watches. Typically they are round and feature at least two coaxial hands. The key factors which differentiate watches are the presence of any complications, the finishing of the movement, the case materials used, the cachet of the watch brand and, ultimately, the price. It is the aforementioned factors which evoke thoughts and opinions. Indeed, when it comes to horology I seldom struggle to write about those watches which inspire me.

Occasionally, there are some watch companies who venture off-piste, choosing not to follow the same path as others. This strategy is riskier than a me-too approach, however, the potential yield is a thought-provoking timepiece which stands out from the crowd.

In 1995, Felix Baumgartner, a master watchmaker, met Martin Frei, an accomplished designer. The two men shared the same desire, to create a unique watch. A conversation ensued and the two men founded the Swiss watch company, Urwerk, in 1997.

Martin Frei, Urwerk

Martin Frei, Urwerk (left), Felix Baumgartner (right)

From the outset, the talented duo conceived timepieces which evinced a neoteric mien while upholding the no-compromise craftsmanship synonymous with haute horlogerie. Since its inception Urwerk has been an exemplar of avant-garde horology.

Some time ago, I seized the opportunity to wear an Urwerk UR-210, a large watch with a distinctive case shape and crown positioned above noon. The most notable aspect of this watch was its means of displaying the hours and minutes. Three rotating satellites take turns to proclaim the prevailing hour while at the same time pointing to a minute track. The watch proved intuitive to use and, despite its significant scale, incredibly comfortable to wear.

Urwerk will forever be associated with the satellite watch, however, this is not the only example of the company’s breathtaking ingenuity. A few years ago, Urwerk released the EMC, a mechanical timepiece equipped with the facility to monitor and fine tune the rate of the watch, dependent on the wearer’s lifestyle. This timepiece won two GPHG prizes in 2014, distinguishing the EMC as special.

Martin Frei, Urwerk

Urwerk EMC

At the heart of the brand’s DNA is a relentless need to innovate. Earlier this year, at Baselworld 2018, Urwerk launched the AMC. A timepiece endowed with the AMC calibre. Placed in a space-age device, the AMC control unit automatically winds the watch. More pertinently, it is also an incredible calibration tool. The AMC control unit communicates with satellites, governed by atomic clocks, to relay the prevailing time back to the control unit on earth, resulting in the AMC watch calibre being updated with the new time. Atomic clocks are the most accurate form of horology and, by default, they imbue the AMC watch with a remarkable degree of precision.

Martin Frei, Urwerk

Urwerk AMC control unit

Recently, I was granted an opportunity to interview Martin Frei, Urwerk. As well as being a co-founder of the Swiss maison, he is also the company’s Chief Designer. As a diehard fan of this high-end brand, I was eager to learn more about Martin and gain a greater insight into this fascinating company.

Interview with Martin Frei, Urwerk (MF) by Angus Davies (AD)

Martin Frei, Urwerk

AD: What makes Urwerk special?

MF: We are a niche watch brand, which in itself is quite special. Our job is to create new products and different concepts inspired by art, architecture, science fiction and the world at large. We believe that it is our job and that is what we enjoy. We are a small brand and we don’t want to become bigger. Being a small brand allows us to continue doing exactly what we like to do without too much pressure.

AD: The UR-105, UR-110 and UR-210 all feature an innovative satellite system for indicating the time. Where did this idea come from?

MF: The original idea is a very old idea, it comes from watchmaking history. It was the Campani brothers, back in the 16th century, who developed this time indication for the Pope. We consulted a historian who said there were other men working on similar indications before the Campani brothers. However, it was the Campani brothers who became known for the wandering-hour clocks, table night clocks, made for the Pope. These clocks allowed the Pope to work at night. It featured a quiet time indication, without any ‘tick-tock’, because it had a special movement. The time display was presented in a semi-circular format with the hours cut out and a candle behind, illuminating the time.

In later times, the wandering hours featured in other table clocks and pocket watches. When he was a child, Felix Baumgartner discovered a clock with wandering hours in his father’s workshop his father restores antique clocks and he began to think about time indications without hands. Felix thought the concept was interesting. From this, he decided to work on watches with wandering hours.

As children we are conditioned to interpret time with conventional hands. By presenting the hours and minutes with satellites, the time at first appears puzzling but soon becomes very easy to understand.

AD: A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be loaned a UR-210 for a number of weeks. I was amazed by two aspects of the watch, the readability of the time indication and the impressive wearer comfort. How do you convey these attributes to the watch buying public?

MF: You are right, with our watch it starts with the time indication. Unless you set the time, you can’t really appreciate the way the satellites move. The satellite system polarises opinion, you either love it or hate it. Often it proves fascinating for watch enthusiasts as they are drawn to the unusual presentation of time.

Martin Frei, Urwerk

Urwerk UR-210 Royal Hawk

AD: What is your current entry level price? Could you envisage making a more affordable model?

MF: At the moment it is around CHF 60,000 for the Urwerk 105 model.

We are now working on a brand new watch, I do not know yet what the price will be. The time invested in its development, the originality and uniqueness of its case and, lastly, its display will determine its pricing.

AD: Urwerk products are sold worldwide. Are there any regional preferences you have discovered?

MF: We all know that Asian markets prefer smaller watches but they also appreciate technical details. They like to see the engineering in each creation. The US market was the very first to open its arms to our creations because of the originality of the product. We feel we have a special bond with this market.

Nevertheless, we don’t create our watches to address a specific regional preference.

When I design a watch, I want it to fit comfortably and I look closely at the shape of the case to ensure it feels comfortable.

AD: Recently you collaborated with Laurent Ferrier. On the face of it you are two very different companies. Urwerk make contemporary watches while Laurent Ferrier craft traditional timepieces. Can you tell me more about this?

MF: We seem like opposites, but the gap is actually quite small. Laurent Ferrier is a really good designer and he makes very beautiful watches in the classical field.

It would be interesting for me to design a watch for them (Laurent Ferrier), perhaps it would force me to do something more classical.

For the UR x LF, Laurent Ferrier used our time indication. This forced him to give the watch a different shape. There are not many mechanisms to influence the design, providing more freedom to create something fascinating. The UR x LF became a very interesting fusion of his sober, clean look and something very futuristic.

Martin Frei, Urwerk

The UR x LF

AD: The UR-105 CT Streamliner was inspired by the Art Deco movement and the architecture of New York. Are you able to reveal the design influences for any of your other models?

MF: Sources of inspiration are all around us. You are on this planet and you walk around, fly or drive but you are always looking at things. Your eyes and your mind are wide open.  That is how I understand the world. It is a very visual way of understanding the world. Other people may look around and see numbers, analysing things differently, seeing things differently, but for an artist it is much more than a surface or a layer.

I have learnt much from my father, a physicist. He was always telling me about crazy concepts and ideas on how the world works. So, you walk around always curious; almost with a childlike curiosity. I think you should try to keep that alive. So, I am looking at everything at all costs. It doesn’t need to be something from art, leisure, high culture or car racing, albeit these are fascinating areas. It can be an everyday object like a computer, a plastic tool, a child’s toy, it could be anything.

In my case, I obtain inspiration from different areas. It could be linked with functionality or a particular colour combination, a type of box. I am curious about everything. I have ultimately created my pot of concepts. If I need to create an object, I can find the perfect start from this pot and then combine it to create a new thing. Once you become accustomed to working like this, it does not take long to connect two concepts to create something. When I draw something, I don’t have to wait long, the idea just flows logically. I find working like this very enjoyable.

AD: Your background is in art and design. Urwerk watches are notable for their contemporary styling which distinguishes them from other timepieces. Could you envisage employing your design talents to create other items e.g. buildings, cars or other luxury goods?

MF: I have already worked in the field of architecture. I share an office with a team of architects and spend time in this environment which provides a source of inspiration. I also enjoy film-making.

At the moment I have an interesting job designing clothing for a skipper. This is a multi-layered suit, designed to tolerate adverse conditions, for example in the North Pole. This has been a very interesting design job.

I like these kind of side jobs, I can’t do too many and I don’t want to go and hunt for this type of work, but if it comes to me, I am interested.

Designing is not about thinking about the surface layer but thinking beyond that. What is it? What does it mean? Based on my education in art school, I want to look at something from all sides. I want to understand it and then create something as a comment on what I understand.

Closing remarks

Martin Frei, Urwerk was very open about his wish for the brand to remain small, allowing the company to retain its flexibility and creativity. Furthermore, the scarcity of its watches will ensure exclusivity, preserving the cachet of Urwerk’s products. Nevertheless, despite its diminutive size, Urwerk has shown an incredible capacity to innovate and produce thought-provoking watches.

It is by listening to Frei that one realises he gains inspiration from many areas. This has included the wandering-hour clocks of the Campani brothers, Art Deco architecture or the myriad of objects he has placed ‘in a pot of concepts’ for later use.

The avant-garde company has repeatedly collaborated with others, including: the Savile Row tailor, Timothy Everest, the Scottish whisky producer, Macallan, MB&F, and, most recently, Laurent Ferrier. It is by working with others that the creative juices freely flow.

My previously favourable opinion of Urwerk has not diminished, in fact, it has grown. Frei looks at time, and design in general, from a philosophical perspective. He clearly observes those objects surrounding him, looking for inspiration beyond their aesthetic veneer.

During my interview, Martin Frei, Urwerk revealed a passion for design. His interests are not restricted to watches alone. His exposure to other ‘concepts’, whether in the field of architecture, whisky flasks or multi-layered clothing for sailing, elicits fresh ideas which may ultimately influence the timepieces he styles.

I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Martin Frei, Urwerk and hope one day to interview his business partner, Felix Baumgartner and hear about his contribution to what is undoubtedly an amazing company.

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