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If there was a word that best summed up the Swiss watch industry, it would be 'conservative'. With manufacturers such as HYT, MB&F and Urwerk on the scene, that might seem a little contrived, but bear with me, because haute horlogerie hasn't always been this fruitful. Before HYT, and before even MB&F, there were two men who shared a passion for watchmaking: Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei. Felix, whose blood flows with horology, had just completed his training at the prestigious Solothurn School of Watchmaking, and Martin, a graphic design graduate from the Zurich School of Visual Arts, had founded a group called United Swiss Artists. In 1995, the two men met, establishing a partnership they would later call 'Urwerk'.
The name—a glottal, Germanic-sounding word that invokes a sense of industrialism—actually has meaning. 'Ur' was a city, the very place where time was first measured over 6,000 years ago, using great, sun-lit obelisks. 'Werk' means—in German—to create. Urwerk was to be the creation of time like it had never been seen before, and in 1997 the industry learned how true that was with the unveiling of the UR-101 and UR-102. 'When we first launched our watches,' Martin explains, 'people thought we were crazy.' And they would think that, because the Swiss watch industry is conservative and URs 101 and 102 were not.
1995 - Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei meet for the very first time
1997 - Urwerk is created, and so too are the UR-101 and UR-102
2003 - The dry spell ends with the launch of the outstanding UR-103
In hindsight these two pieces could almost be considered tame, but in 1997 this digital representation of time—plus the Star Wars and Sputnik-inspired cases—was a revelation, and not in the good way. Felix and Martin had a lot of work to do. 'We were depressed, saying how difficult it was to continue with absolutely no money,' Martin reveals. 'But the watches and the passion would fuel us once more, and we would always end up feeling hopeful.' And hopeful they felt, for six long years. It was then that a third Urwerk was revealed, which took the concept of the first two to such impressive lengths that it could no longer be ignored.
2005 - A full-length crystal reveals the secret of the UR-103
2005 - The Harry Winston-commissioned Opus V is revealed
2007 - Urwerk release the UR-201, the result of 3 years' development
A small window at the front of the UR-103 hinted at the ground-breaking talent of Urwerk, revealing nought but a numbered disk that slowly negotiated the skinny retrograde dial. Every hour, a new disk with a new number took over, but the mystery of the mechanism remained a secret until 2005, when the UR-103.03 finally revealed the four revolving satellites that gave the watch its incredible display. Over the course of five years, the conservative Swiss watch industry had been allowed to warm to the eccentricities of Urwerk design a step at a time. Now they were primed and ready for the big guns.
2009 - Codenamed 'King Cobra', the UR-CC1 is presented to the world
2011 - A deadly weapon is launched: the clever UR-110 'Torpedo'
2011 - The UR-1001—the world's craziest pocket watch—is announced
In the same year, Urwerk collaborated with the CEO of Harry Winston, Maximilian Büsser (who later founded MB&F) for the Opus V. Together they created a watch that didn't pull any stylistic punches, showcasing the satellite complication front and centre in its boldest form yet. Felix and Martin then took what they learned—plus the newfound fame from working with Harry Winston—and two years later they revealed the UR-201. From there the Urwerk fan base grew, and Felix and Martin finally got the respect they deserved. The UR-CC1 followed in 2009, the UR-110 and the UR-1001 pocket watch in 2011, and the UR-210 in 2012. The accolades flooded in.
2012 - A collaboration with MB&F inspires the C3H5N3O9 watch
2012 - The retrograde cage of the UR-210 is shown for the first time
2013 - Urwerk give us Electro Mechanical Control with the EMC
From the beginning, Felix and Martin's dream has been to 'change our vision of time and rejuvenate the world of haute horlogerie', and that's exactly what they've done. But they didn't stop there, because they've done it again with the EMC. By combining electrical sensors with mechanical engineering, the EMC is the first watch to offer a precise, real-time reading of its own accuracy, which can then be externally adjusted. Thank goodness Felix and Martin persevered through all those years of hardship, because they've done something incredible: they've made the Swiss watch industry that little bit less conservative.