Schwarz Etienne ROMA SYNERGY by Kari Voutilainen (part one)
In this first part of a two-part feature, we look behind the scenes at the making of the new Schwarz Etienne ROMA SYNERGY by Kari Voutilainen. This new timepiece brings together two great names in the field of watchmaking, Schwarz Etienne and Kari Voutilainen.
Contrary to widespread public opinion, watch companies seldom make all the components they require. Virtually all watch brands rely on third-party specialists for the supply of cases, dials, hairsprings, screws and a plethora of other minuscule parts.
There is much wisdom in outsourcing components. A specialist producer of screws will enjoy economies of scale unavailable to most watch brands. Moreover, a company that has been making said screws for the last 60 years is likely to possess vast knowledge that is difficult to replicate. Nevertheless, despite numerous watch brands sourcing components from external companies, this situation is seldom discussed.
Recently, Schwarz Etienne and Kari Voutilainen collaborated, making a new watch bearing the names of both parties. However, this is not the usual customer-supplier relationship but something very different. For example, both brands have worked together on the design, the making of the dial and, lastly, the movement finishing. This joint venture promises much to whet the appetite of any self-respecting horophile.
Kari, a son of Finland and one of today’s most revered watchmakers, has referred to Val-de-Travers as ‘home’ for many years. He is well known for making high-end watches imbued with technical virtue and peerless finishing. In addition, his resplendent guilloché dials, created using traditional rose-engine lathes, are much in demand.
Unlike a conventional customer-supplier relationship, this is a real collaboration. Schwarz Etienne and Kari have worked together on this project from conception to completion. Both parties viewed the watch in its entirety rather than focussing on just a few components.
The objective of any collaboration is to draw on the expertise of two or more parties, creating something together which surpasses the combined efforts of each party working alone.
Schwarz Etienne was founded in 1902 by Paul Schwarz and his wife Olga Etienne. Today, the Maison offers an extensive array of watches, featuring striking designs and Manufacture movements.
As the term ‘Manufacture’ implies, this Swiss company makes its own movements. However, while some rival firms make their own calibres, they invariably need to procure parts relating to the regulating organ from specialist suppliers.
In terms of the regulating organ, Schwarz Etienne is very unusual. The Swiss firm makes escape wheels, pallet levers, balance wheels and, most remarkably, hairsprings. Very few companies make hairsprings owing to their complexity. Indeed, the production of hairsprings borders on alchemy. The spring has to be elastic, corrosion-resistant, temperature resistant and it must breathe concentrically.
The brand receives alloy wire on reels, specially produced for making hairsprings with a composition known to only a few trusted individuals. The wire is drawn over a series of rollers, gently stretching it and, by default, reducing its diameter. Afterwards, the wire passes through a series of dies. This latter step further reduces the diameter of the wire until the desired width is achieved. Thereafter, the wire is transformed into a flat ‘blade’. These blades are cut to length, coiled and baked in a specialist oven. Once again, the details of the baking process are shrouded in secrecy.
Schwarz Etienne has also gained recognition for its modular movement design. Several of the brand’s movements are engineered in such a way that a barrel can be exchanged for a micro-rotor. This confers economies of scale. For example, a modular movement, irrespective of whether it is hand-wound with two barrels or automatic with one barrel, will share the same mainplate and bridges. This approach allows the Swiss firm to create high-quality movements that represent impressive value for money. Moreover, this approach obviates the need to make wholly new movements each time a new model is conceived.
With its vast experience, Schwarz Etienne also supplies other companies with its hairsprings, movements as well as complete private label watches. The brand’s immense expertise is widely known by many companies within the watch industry, but also an increasing number of watch collectors who appreciate the brand’s impressive blend of eye-catching design and notable quality.
Kari Voutilainen was born in 1962 and attended watchmaking school in Tapiola, Finland. After graduating, Kari spent a further year working in his native country before he moved to Switzerland.
Initially, he attended WOSTEP in Neuchâtel where he completed a post-graduate course focussing on complicated watches. This provided a clue as to the professional direction Kari wanted to pursue. He subsequently joined Parmigiani Fleurier doing restoration work and making unique pieces. Thereafter, he returned to WOSTEP, but on this occasion, as a teacher.
In 2002, Kari took the bold step to establish his own watchmaking workshop in Val-de-Travers. Since making watches bearing his own name, Kari Voutilainen has gained worldwide recognition for his timepieces. These represent the very antithesis of mass production with each watch painstakingly made using a high degree of hand craftsmanship. In 2019, Voutilainen was awarded two coveted GPHG awards for his 28ti and Starry Night Vine models. Such is the magnitude of Kari’s horological prowess that he is widely considered as one of the world’s finest watchmakers.
Kari is multi-talented with a thorough understanding of several watchmaking disciplines. His small team of artisans and watchmakers uphold Kari’s exacting standards. With regards to the Schwarz Etienne ROMA SYNERGY by Kari Voutilainen, the Finn and his colleagues have been instrumental in the design, dial creation and movement finishing.
On many mass-produced watches with so-called guilloché dials, a circular brass disc is stamped under pressure, resulting in a patterned surface. However, the dial of the Schwarz Etienne ROMA SYNERGY by Kari Voutilainen is made using a rose engine lathe, conferring superior definition.
These machines are manually operated. There is an absence of computer controls and a lack of electrical power. Typically, rose engine lathes are very old as new replacements are unavailable. Indeed, the rose engine lathe within Kari’s atelier dates back to 1907.
By employing various shaped cams or rosettes, the time-served artisan can impart different patterns to a silver disc. In Kari’s workshop, two ladies, both of whom have many years of experience, create the intricately patterned dials.
In the first instance, a silver disc is placed in a rotating head, held in a vertical position and securely clamped. The artisan presses a cutter against the dial surface with uniform pressure while simultaneously turning the rotating head at a constant speed. The words ‘uniform’ and ‘constant’ are key. It is only by mastering the application of hand pressure and rotational speed that the desired results can be achieved.
By switching between different rosettes, the artisan is able to impart different patterns to the dial’s surface. However, each pattern must remain discrete if the overall composition is to prove pleasing to the eye. The simplest guilloché dial would feature only one form of decoration, but the Schwarz Etienne ROMA SYNERGY by Kari Voutilainen is not about simplicity or expedience. Indeed, this latest model encompasses three different forms of guilloché decoration; soleil, écailles de poisson and, lastly, vagues. This process is incredibly time-consuming, necessitating two days to complete, however, the dial’s extraordinary beauty justifies its protracted creation.
There are no formal training courses for novices to learn the art of guillochage, knowledge is handed down from one generation to the next. A trainee will spend many years perfecting their craft. However, when this form of horological art is expertly employed, the profound beauty of the dial is clear to see.
The automatic movement in the Schwarz Etienne ROMA SYNERGY by Kari Voutilainen can be viewed via the exhibition caseback. It has been exquisitely finished in Kari’s workshop. The bridges are embellished, again using a rose engine lathe. In addition, the bridges are hand-bevelled and feature polished countersinks. The ratchet wheel is enriched with diamond drops and snailing, while the steel components have been subject to black polishing. Further details will be revealed in the second instalment of my two-part feature.
A meeting of minds
Mauro Egermini, CEO of Schwarz Etienne has worked within the watch industry for many years, however, he was a mere child when he first succumbed to the charms of watchmaking. His father was an antique dealer and would allow the young Mauro to polish the cases of marine chronometers and examine minute repeaters and other complicated watches. As he explained to me, “I would often dismantle old Valjoux movements on the kitchen table and reassemble them. It proved to be a good school for watchmaking.”
In 1996, Mauro joined Richemont, working for various subsidiaries, including Cartier, Montblanc and Panerai, specialising in logistics. Thereafter, he worked for Dior and Louis Vuitton in senior positions. Mauro told me, “This taught me much about working with component suppliers.” In 2014, Mauro joined Schwarz Etienne and was appointed CEO.
Mauro can recall the testing times when the firm was developing its hairspring expertise. Indeed, it is clear this proved a huge technical challenge, one which often kept Mauro awake at night. However, with unwavering tenacity, the Schwarz Etienne team persisted with trying to make hairsprings in-house, a dream that would eventually transition into a reality.
Mauro met Kari in London a couple of years ago. He was already aware of the Finn’s exceptional work and reputation, but when the two men chatted, Mauro was struck by Kari’s endearing modesty and immediately felt at ease with him. The two men spoke again on a couple of occasions, they got along and ultimately, they explored the possibility of collaborating in some way.
The culmination of this alliance is the Schwarz Etienne ROMA SYNERGY by Kari Voutilainen, a fine watch conceived by two men with a shared passion.
In the next feature, we will reveal more about each element of the Schwarz Etienne ROMA SYNERGY by Kari Voutilainen, including its dial, case and movement. Furthermore, we will demonstrate why this horological creation is extraordinary.