Straight to the Heart

One typically sweltering night in Singapore, sitting on plastic stools in the government regulated red light district I met one of my heroes. The late great Anthony Bourdain was on his first trip to Singapore. He had his heart set on visiting a legendary restaurant presided over by a talented curmudgeon bestowed with the online sobriquet the “crab Nazi,” such was the potential magnitude of his ire.

Seriously, you could wait for hours and not be served or even have your order taken, if he didn’t like your look. Deign to complain and face ejection. “Get the fuck out motherfucker,” would be the hearty farewell in Cantonese, along with several optional anatomically impossible yet ribald suggestions.

The ever street smart Bourdain and his publicist had therefore brought my brother, his wife and myself there to ensure the meal ran smoothly, thanks to our friendship with the chef in question. It turned out to be one of the best evenings of my life.

Bourdain was charming, affable, genuine, brilliant and in full mastery of that rare gift of turning his predisposition for irascibility into good natured, highly infectious humor. Between swapping tales of seminal punk rock experiences – Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys, electrifying CBGB’s like a spiked hair Odin, ascending to his throne in Valhalla amongst the top – I asked him, having circumnavigated the culinary world, what did his weary and jaded taste buds long for.

What was the balm that soothed his soul? He paused to take a sip of his ever-present beer and held aloft a prawn steamed in butter and heaped with garlic and replied, “Something like this. Simple, pure and elemental. Devoid of bullshit. Like punk rock. Like the Ramones. It what circumnavigates the brain and gets you in your heart.”

I’ve always thought the same instinctive response could be applied to watches. In my capacity as a watch journalist I’ve had the extraordinary pleasure to experience, wear and sometimes even own some of the world’s greatest horological finery.

But in the end what triggers my emotional response matrix? What shatters my impulse control mechanism and has me reaching for my highly distressed wallet, suddenly dreaming of ownership? Inevitably that is something pure, raw and elemental. And this is the response I had the first time I set eyes on Michiel Holthinrichs’ RAW Ornament.

Who is Michiel Holthinrichs?

Founder of Holthinrichs Watches, Michiel Holthinrichs (Image: Marcel Krijger Fotografie)
Founder of Holthinrichs Watches, Michiel Holthinrichs (Image: Marcel Krijger Fotografie)

Wait. Backdafuckup. Just who is Michiel Holthinrichs? You’ve never heard of him? I get it. Me too. Until recently. And that’s despite the fact that he actually set up his workshop in Delft in the Netherlands back in 2016.

Michiel is an architect by training who’s got a thing for Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Eero Saarinen. Which OK, I understand is nice, but so what? You’ve heard plenty of stories of individuals coming from outside the watch industry and wanting to set up their own atelier to express their inner horological vision.

So why am I so enamored with the Holthinrichs watch? Why is this the first time I’ve set eyes on a small independent start up that I actually really adore? First purely from a design perspective it is totally original, meaning it is not trying to channel a 40’s sector dial Patek with a clever twist on lume, or channel Jules Verne or draw from the world of aerospace or alien distant shores, or whatever.

The fact is I’ve never seen a watch design like the Raw Ornament’s, which is a collision of machine tech meets Art Deco yielding an all original aesthetic vision, one that I have to say I think is fucking beautiful.

Holthinrichs RAW Ornament

Holthinrichs Watches RAW Ornament - Pale Gold
Holthinrichs Watches RAW Ornament - Pale Gold

The Holthinrichs Raw Ornament has a wonderful sense of poise. In that it is utterly content to be what it is. A purely original design dreamed up by a man who is obsessed by beauty and clearly has a thing for lugs. Some guys have a thing for smoky voices, others like Quentin Tarantino are obsessed by feet. I’ll admit it. I have a penchant, OK a crazed passion, for lugs.

To me the most important aesthetic cynosure in watch design is the relationship between the lugs in the case. How do they meet? Is it an effortless marriage between to seemingly disparate forms occupying two different planes of existence? Or is it a question of polar opposites that somehow create a delicious juxtaposition, an alluring dynamic tension.

The mating of lugs and cases have a profoundly human parallel. The best couples are invariably intuitively connected, highly compatible and yet utterly different. So too with lugs, whether that be that they are the flared Latin lugs of the Patek Philippe 5970 that add the perfect soupscon of attitude, to an otherwise cool patrician beauty, or the spider lugged Deco exuberance of the Patek 1579, or the dazzling flamed lugs of the reference 2431, or the horn shaped sensuality of the Vacheron Constantin 6087.

Lugs on the Holthinrichs Watches RAW Ornament - Rhodium plated dial
Lugs on the Holthinrichs Watches RAW Ornament - Rhodium plated dial

And I think the RAW Ornament might just about have the sexiest lugs in modern watchmaking. Holthinrichs, who did his architectural studies in Delft and Paris was particularly inspired by the Art Deco and Art Nouveau periods, and in particular developed an obsession with detailing and architectural ornament. This obsession is wonderfully expressed in his case design, which consists of a round elegant – 38mm in diameter case – counterpointed at the four corners of this case, where his lugs explode into being, with a shimmering resonant power and a thrilling curvilinear form, highly reminiscent of the flying buttresses at Chatres Cathedral, or the concave lower back of a beautiful woman.

Says Michiel Holthinrichs, “I loved the idea Le Corbusier’s Cathedral Notre Dame du Haute which is both modern in its use of materials like concrete, yet wonderfully sensual in its architectural forms. I’ve tried to interpret both of these qualities in my watches.”

With the Raw Ornament the ethereal dynamic tension between the case and the lugs is enhanced to the point of high aesthetic theatre by the use of two contrasting finishes. The edges of the lugs are high polished, while the case and other surfaces are finished with what at first appears like a brutal sand blasted roughness that makes it feel it was hewn from rock.

Lugs on the Holthinrichs Watches RAW Ornament - pale gold dial

Indeed, one of the reasons I like the RAW Ornament case so much is it reminds me of Richard Mille’s RM 009 a watch with a case from a material named Alusic, which is silicon and aluminum spun in a centrifuge until it bonds at the molecular level. But the RAW Ornament is somehow even rougher its texture, more irregular and primal. Says Holthinrichs, “I was really inspired by Le Corbusiers use of raw concrete. Before him it was unthinkable that buildings had left concrete surfaces unfinished but he loved the way this looked and referenced the manufacturing process. I personally love the raw look because it almost looks like stone. At the same time, I wanted to demonstrate the high level of finish, so every detail on the case and every bevel in the movement has been hand polished by me.”

Holthinrichs’ cases are steel and he is able to achieve this wonderful roughhewn texture not through sand blasting but as a result of the 3D printing technique he has pioneered, in the creation of his watches. This has the added advantage of creating the appealing raw finish I’ve described, which is much more resistant to scratches. Using the 3D printing processes combined with vigorous polishing he is also capable of rendering smooth cases as seen in the Ornament 1.

But with the RAW option, Holthinrichs’ idea was to show the intrinsic detail of the production process, to transform the futuristic manufacturing process into a language all of its own. The 3D printing process also allowed Holthinrichs’ to create wild and lasciviously complex forms through-out the case that would be impossible or crazily expensive in a traditional watch. Instead of a case band, the center of the case features a hollow excavated section that flows into the watch’s signature skeletonized lugs. The merger of lugs and case seen from the back of the watch is equally dramatic. Parts don’t just meet they interconnect through a series of dynamic dips and flares that provoke of feeling of constant energy radiating from the watch.

Holthinrichs Watches RAW Ornament seen from the back, showing off the heavily reworked Peseux 7001 manually wound movement powering it
Holthinrichs Watches RAW Ornament seen from the back, showing off the heavily reworked Peseux 7001 manually wound movement powering it
The heavily reworked Peseux 7001 manually wound movement destined for the RAW Ornament Pale Gold
The heavily reworked Peseux 7001 manually wound movement destined for the RAW Ornament Pale Gold

The back of the watch also reveals the heavily reworked Peseux 7001, manually wound movement that has frosted plates and bridges that are hand beveled and polished by Holthinrichs. A nice touch is – depending on which dial option you go with,  rhodium plated or 14 carat yellow gold – the movement will also be complimentarily finished.

Turn the watch to the front and you’ll see that the dial in the RAW Ornament also features a beautifully frosted satin finish. Contrasting with the machine age modernism of the case. The iconography of the minute track and markers feels charmingly handmade, almost as if it were drawn on with a pencil and a few simple geometrical tools. This is intentional, of course, and has the same sense of playful whimsy that I’ve always found so appealing about Cartier’s Roman numeral dials, which often feel like they’ve been sketched on by an artist rather than printed.

Even the hands of the RAW Ornament – made in-house in Delft, of course – continue to provoke the sense of dynamic tension, between rough and refined with both polished and frosted finishes mixing together. Proudly emblazoned on the dial are Holrichthins’ signature and the words “Made in Delft.”

A close up of the Holthinrichs Watches RAW Ornament - Pale Gold - beautifully frosted satin finish dial
A close up of the Holthinrichs Watches RAW Ornament - Pale Gold - beautifully frosted satin finish dial
Manufacturing the Holthinrichs Watch hand
Manufacturing the Holthinrichs Watch hand
Watch assembly at Holthinrichs Watch
Watch assembly at Holthinrichs Watch
Michiel Holthinrichs working on a dial for Holthinrichs Watch
Michiel Holthinrichs working on a dial for Holthinrichs Watch

The other thing I like about Holthinrichs’ watches is that they are affordable. His Ornament 1, which features a 3D printed surgical steel polished case, with your choice of matt ruthenium or satin finished silver, start at just under €3,389 (without VAT). Note that the Ornament 1 differs from the RAW Ornament in that its case is slightly more understated without the more aggressive architectural ribs in contrasting finish yet is equally appealing as a more elegant alternative.

It also has a slightly less finished movement. However, as every watch is made to order you can always request a higher level of finish. I understand in absolute terms €3,389 is still a lot of money but in wristwatch terms, is a strong value proposition.

Prices go up to €4,490 for a steel case with a handmade lacquer dial inspired by Delft ceramics. This dial looks like the stretched lacquer that is highly reminiscent of enamel. And then up to €5,500 for the RAW versions. There is also an option for bespoke watches, and Holthinrichs has 3D printed platinum cases and even created engraved movements.

To summarize, the Holthinrichs Ornament is to me a devastatingly sexy, totally original and yes affordable, independently made watch. I often am asked what I would consider a strong contender for a first independent watch. I would say for €3,389 the Ornament 1 with the satin silver dial is it.

holthinrichswatches.com

An Ornament 1 from Holthinrichs Watches - Delft Blue dial
An Ornament 1 from Holthinrichs Watches - Delft Blue dial
Holthinrichs Watches Ornament 1 seen from the back showcasing the reworked Peseux 7001 manually wound movement powering it
Holthinrichs Watches Ornament 1 seen from the back showcasing the reworked Peseux 7001 manually wound movement powering it
An Ornament 1 from Holthinrichs Watches - Matte finished Ruthenium dial
An Ornament 1 from Holthinrichs Watches - Matte finished Ruthenium dial
An Ornament 1 from Holthinrichs Watches with bespoke dial