The first time you see a timepiece by Swiss company Urwerk, you're likely to wonder what the hell you’re looking at. How can a watch (many of which exceed $100,000 in price) be so difficult to actually read?
Once you figure it out, though, it's really quite incredible. Urwerk watches, which have been around for fewer than two decades, don't need to look like watches. Not watches as we know them, anyway. And that’s kind of the point: An exciting new way of presenting something very familiar.
So what do they look like? Maybe they look like the art of watchmaking itself.
Okay, that actually doesn’t mean anything. More accurately, Urwerk timepieces look like a watch that has been turned inside out. But that’s not really telling you anything, either. Perhaps they resemble other familiar things of beauty — like cars.
In fact, if some of the faces look like dashboards of beautiful automobiles, that’s because co-founder and chief designer Martin Frei found a love of them early. "I grew up with cars," he says. "Being born in the sixties, I was a boy when some of the coolest cars were created. I am definitely a big fan of the way some designers had managed to encapsulate lifestyle, optimism, and mood of their time, and some still do today — though I could not limit my field of inspiration to cars only." But that influence is also not limited to a visual nod. Frei says, "We are very much interested, too, in rethinking concepts connected to the display of information about the machine, info you read from the gauges on a dashboard."
Functionally, Frei lists several features inspired in part by car mechanisms: "We came up with the Oil Change indicator, the Generations indicator, and the 1000 Years indicator," he explains. "All these indications are measuring the working time of your watch, and tell you when the watch needs to be serviced or they inform you, much like an Odometer, about the total running time of your device."
It may come as a surprise that when a car-lover is so responsible for a timepiece that — forgive the pun — sought to reinvent the wheel, with movements far from typical.
One particular innovation stands out for Frei thus far: the hour satellite indication. "This concept demanded a different, asymmetric design. Coming from visual art and filmmaking sector rather than from product design," he says, "I knew that a machine that does such a philosophical job as to measure time needs to be thought through and crafted as a contemporary object."
What exactly is it? A different way of presenting the same information. Instead of the time-tested (again, forgive the pun) watch face most are familiar with, some Urwerk pieces include a rotating trinity of indicators that still tell you the hour, minute, day, etc., but as a rotated readout, not a revolving dial.
Frei says that this construction, while not entirely different from the traditional watch, requires a lot of other considerations. "Our watches in some ways do work differently than a regular watch," he adds, "the hour satellites we need to move and guide precisely on their track are much heavier than regular hands for instance. Therefore they have to run very smoothly and need to be engineered energy conscious."
That's most apparent in the strangest and, arguably, hardest watch to read in the portfolio: the 1001, a pocket watch about the size of a folded wallet. "With the 1001 'Zeit-Device' we created a timepiece that gathers all our mechanisms and achievements up to the moment it was finished," says Frei. "It is an Urwerk 'Grand complication,' so to say. It features hours and minutes, days and months indicated both using our iconic satellite indication."
In terms of sales, Frei says the model that will "remain a milestone in Urwerk history” is the UR-103. It was released for the first time in 2003 and exhibited at Baselworld. Variations on the model seem to find a sweet spot around $50,000, but others frequently clear $100,000. And the 1001? It clears $400,000, but with a guarantee to run for a thousand years.