Since the beginning of time, since the dawn of Homo erectus, and seen in evidence from the Serengeti plains reaching back 500,000 years, mankind and his forebears have left their decorative mark on the talismans, armor, weapon and tools that populated their personal universes. And it is perhaps in the regressive purity of marking a surface using a sharp tool known as a burin as a way to express the inchoate, to unearth the expressive vision buried beneath the subconscious, to honor one’s gods and express one’s Freudian Id that engraving resonates most powerfully.
Since the onset of the Swiss watch industry, engraving has been inextricably linked with the craft of watchmaking. Engraving techniques can be as simple as personalization with initials, or as elaborate as chased and filigree techniques on cases. The art of guilloché is the hand-engraving of massive gold dials with mimetic patterns used in both Anglo-Saxon art and neo-classical architecture. Engraving is also celebrated in conjunction with enameling in the art forms of flinqué, which involves painting in translucent enamel over an engraved surface, or in champlevé, where parts of a dial or case are excavated and enamel is used to fill the remaining voids to create ethereal artistic microcosms.
While I have nothing but the greatest respect for the high art forms of traditional engraving, the fact is that many of these métiers belong to a world that is classist and backward-looking. Conversely, I’ve always wanted to create a powerful new relevance for this art form by connecting it with the visual identity and iconography of today. I’ve always wanted to change the perception of engraving from something ornate, decorative and (let’s face it) feminine to something bombastic, visceral, even aggressively masculine. Through a chance encounter on Instagram, I discovered the work of Johnny Dowell aka King Nerd, a former master engraver at revered British gunmaker Purdey, and my entire perception of engraving and its expressive potential experienced a seismic shift.
Because in Johnny’s work, I saw the same desire to simultaneously respect his craft and define an all-new language which evokes the worlds of Japanese manga, Marvel and DC comics, tattoo iconography and even martial-arts cinema culture. I saw in him two worlds colliding: that of the iconoclast and rebel, and that of the devoted artisan. And I knew I had to transpose his art on the canvas of my favorite mechanical watches by creating a series of Revolution pièce unique timepieces with him.
The URWERK Story: Genesis of a New Chapter
The first brand I knew we had to collaborate with was URWERK because of the intellectual and philosophical alignment between the brand and Dowell’s work. Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei created their brand with the exact same desire as Dowell, which was to simultaneously respect their craft and advance its story and contribute to its evolution by creating the watches of today for the contemporary audience. Says Baumgartner, “My father was a watchmaker. His father was a watchmaker. I respect them but I did not want to repeat what they did. I saw that the vast majority of brands were content with repeating the past. Ninety-nine percent of watches today are miniaturizations of complications dating back 200 years. We wanted to create an all-new complication. We wanted to advance horology. We wanted to redefine the language of time.” When I met Felix Baumgartner for the first time and peered into the seductive engine of fire that was his sapphire-canopied UR-103.03, I recognized that I was witnessing the creation of a new chapter in horology. URWERK watches unveil the passing of time using a system of orbital hour satellites that traverse a fixed minute track on the bottom edge of the case. This system in fact has its roots in antiquity. But the end result is something totally modern.
Says Frei, “While we were inspired by a 17th-century night clock created for Pope Alexander VII by the Campani brothers, the resulting URWERK watches were totally modern, inspired more by science-fiction films than horological antiquity. We wanted for you to look at our watches and experience a total shift in the way you experienced time.” And it is in this regard that URWERK has altered my experience for reading time. Instead of witnessing the imperious march of hands around a dial, I saw a satellite hovering for a moment in existence with a certain haughty equanimity.
Says Baumgartner, the brand’s watchmaker, “The idea was to create something powerful, primal and expressive, hence the word ‘UR’ in our name which means original or primitive.”
Says Frei, the chief designer, “By removing all the hands, you relinquish the traditional way of measuring time. In that moment you transform the idea of time from a pragmatic measurement, to something where time gains a private significance to you. It causes your mind to move into a religious trance and meditative state, something you would experience in a shamanic ritual.”
Because the actual time-telling sector of URWERK watches is relatively minimal, this liberates the amount of space on the top plate. In many instances, the top of the watch is rendered in sapphire crystal to allow owners to witness the function of the satellite system. But in other instances, this entire top area can be covered with metal, providing a surface perfect for engraving. Baumgartner and Frei have long experimented with decorative engraving on this large metal canvas. Says Frei, “The first experiment with the UR-105 family of watches was the T-Rex, where we created a unique pattern that conjured up the idea of a dinosaur or a giant reptile’s scales.”
Says Baumgartner, “We loved this effect because it was simultaneously ancient and modern. The watch looked like a science-fiction instrument but one that had been buried in the ruins of an ancient civilization.” Collectors apparently agreed with the entire production run of the UR-105 T-Rex instantly selling out. URWERK continued to experiment with decorative engraving, tapping the considerable skills of gun-engraver Florian Gullert to create last year’s Amadeus UR-210 with fully engraved case and bracelet.
Conveying Power Through Art
When Baumgartner and Frei saw examples of Dowell’s work for the first time, they were enthralled. Says Baumgartner, “We loved Johnny’s engraving because like us he had respected his roots but defined his own language.”
Says Frei, “There was a powerful primacy to his work that really fit into the spirit of ‘UR’. At the same time, we loved his references, this sly way he incorporated popular culture, comic and tattoo references.” For URWERK and Revolution’s first collaboration, Baumgartner and Frei wanted to work with Johnny Dowell on totally exploding the perception of engraving.
Says Baumgartner, “We totally understood what you wanted to achieve. There is a perception that engraving has to be baroque, florid and ornate, but we wanted to find a new contemporary language that connected engraving to the audience of today.”
Says Frei, “We wanted to create a series of engraved watches centered around symbols of power, around warriors. And for the first of these watches made in exclusive partnership with Revolution, we chose the image of the Samurai, and then the image of the Dragon.”
Says Dowell, “I love these motifs because they are so universal. Any man sees a samurai and a dragon image and instantly understands they are these vast, totemic images related to power and to a warrior mentality. When studying how to render these motifs, I looked at traditional Asian art, manga and even tattoo art, to study how they permeated all of these disciplines. Then I created images that were in some ways a fusion of all these, a style that I hope is unique in the world of engraving. I also love that Felix, Martin and you chose bronze cases for our first collaboration because the way this material ages is reminiscent of the patina found on ancient armor.”
Says Baumgartner, “We are really happy with the way the first watches in our collaboration turned out. It is a great demonstration of the infinite creative possibilities related to our timepieces.” He adds with a laugh, “And it is just totally badass.”
Beginning of a Singular Collaboration
For 2018, URWERK, Revolution and King Nerd will create an ongoing series of pièce unique engraved watches in motifs and executions we hope will surprise and delight. Our ambition is to create watches that will explode into your cerebral cortex, shatter your impulse-control matrix and enflame you with desire. I’m also pleased to announce that we will also create a series of these watches for The Hour Glass Singapore.
Says Michael Tay, owner of The Hour Glass, “We now live in a world where the astute consumer has eschewed mass luxury. He doesn’t want the same ubiquitous thing as everyone else. This is why the bespoke tailors are experiencing such a renaissance. This is why vintage watches, each aging differently from the others, have connected with the modern audience. I applaud what URWERK, Revolution and Johnny are doing and am pleased that the Hour Glass will be the exclusive partner for these watches as well. I am excited to see what expressive possibilities this new form of engraving has to connect with the modern consumer.”