Looking back on the history of the AHCI.

by Ian Skellern
(c) March 2006

The AHCI -Where did it all begin?


The AHCI section at BaselWorld

Looking back at the origins of the AHCI who
celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2005.

For many of us who appreciate fine watches, the AHCI - Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants - represents the very best in great watchmaking. In these days when expensive timepieces roll off the manufacturer’s assembly lines with monotonous, mass-produced, style-over-substance, regularity, the mental image of a solitary watchmaker toiling away in a small workshop, lovingly hand-crafting each and every part, assembling and adjusting each innovative watch, is extremely alluring. While reality may not always live up to the dream, the AHCI bring us closer to that ideal than anyone else and 2005 saw them celebrate their 20th anniversary.

No visit to BASELWORLD, the world’s biggest watch fair, can be considered complete with looking in on and appreciating the enormous creativity on display in the AHCI booths. Nowhere else can you see and talk to so many innovative and passionate watchmakers in one place. Names that are now part of the fabric of haute-horology: Vincent Calabrese, Svend Andersen, Franck Muller , François-Paul Journe, Philippe Dufour, Felix Baumgartner, Peter Speake-Marin and Vianney Halter, all came to be appreciated by a wider audience thanks largely to being able to showcase their work with the academy.

Vincent Calabrese: a man whose bench always
contains very interesting 'work in progress'.

It may come as a surprise to learn that neither of the two men instrumental in forming the AHCI, an horological association at the very heart of Swiss watchmaking, are Swiss. It was the outsider status accorded to foreign watchmakers that partially motivated Vincent Calabrese (Italian) and Svend Andersen (Danish) to found the academy: an international outlook and membership was a goal right from the start.

Calabrese was a self-taught watchmaker: well versed in knowing how watches worked but not the theory of why. Despite (or perhaps because) of this he created one of the most innovative and iconic watches ever made: the Single Golden Bridge. Released in 1980, the Golden Bridge was an instant hit for Corum, and Calabrese - having retained the rights to use the movement himself - had every reason to believe that it would make his reputation as well. He soon came to realize just how hard it was for an independent watchmaker, especially a ‘foreign’ independent, to construct and market his own watches. The more difficulties he ran in to - especially marketing his work- the more he thought, ‘Surely I am not alone with these problems?’ The germ of an idea sprouted that perhaps other independents were in the same position and that they would have more impact and success if they presented their work together.

Svend Andersen (left) and colleague Philippe Cantin discuss watches.

Calabrese, who lives in Lausanne, went to see his Geneva-based friend, Svend Andersen. Andersen had lived in Geneva for over twenty years and was well integrated in the city’s horological circles. In the late 1970s, Andersen had created his own association: the Cabinotiers de Genève. This was a group of the various artisans needed to make a complete watch: enamellers, case makers, dial-makers, engravers and watchmakers. If a client wanted a special watch made the Cabinotiers de Genève was intended to act as a one-stop shop. Andersen had invited Calabrese to join this association; however, Calabrese pointed out that he was not Genevois and not even Swiss. What he had in mind was an association available to all talented independent watchmakers: whatever their nationality and wherever they lived.

Svend Andersen's popular World Time .

The Cabinotiers de Genève disbanded in 1984 – one of the problems being their Geneva-centric mentality - leaving Andersen reluctant to start all over again. The more he and Calabrese discussed a new association however, the more Andersen saw the sense in it. While the mechanical watch was pronounced dead (because of the quartz revolution) in the late 1970s, both Calabrese and Andersen had seen first hand that discerning collectors were beginning to demand innovative mechanical timepieces in ever greater numbers. They had also noticed that companies and groups were starting to buy up virtually empty, non-producing watch brands. The signs were beginning to point to a renaissance in mechanical watchmaking and if independent watchmakers were to be a part of it then they had to act.

At this time there were very few independent watchmakers who had actually designed and constructed their own complete watch movements. If the association was to have a viable membership, then the criteria for entry had to be easier than designing and constructing a complete new movement: designing and constructing an original, high-quality complication was chosen as the minimum requirement.

The ground-breaking single-bridge flying
tourbillon by Vincent Calabrese.

The two men set to work looking for members. Here Andersen played a key role as he had a much wider circle of international contacts than Calabrese and also spoke English and German (as well as Danish and French), while Calabrese spoke ‘only’ French and Italian.. They managed to convince watch and clock magazines around the world to run free advertisements explaining the goals of the association and setting out the membership criteria for interested parties.

This new association found eight qualified members – Calabrese and Andersen would have settled for a minimum of five. In1985 the new members presented their watches and clocks for the first time at the famous watch museum in Le Locle. The presentation was a success with both public and press alike; the fame of the small group started to spread which in turn attracted more members. The directors of Europe’s largest watch fairs such as Italy’s Elogio all’Orologio offered the space, as did what was to become BASELWORLD where the academy first presented in 1987. The rest, as they say, is history.

The AHCI goes from strength to strength each year with innovative and exciting watches presented by old and new members alike. Where independent watchmakers were once thought of as a ‘risky’ choice, they are now viewed by many astute collectors as a reliable source of innovative, cutting-edge, quality timepieces. This is thanks in no small part to the high quality the AHCI represents. If there is one thing a watch collector wants above all else, it is a superbly executed, hand-crafted watch that very few others have . . . AHCI members deliver those better than anybody else! Long may it last.

So just 'who' is the AHCI?

Click on the images/ names below for more information.

George Daniels
Image courtesy of Antiquorum.
Bernhard LEDERER
Paul Gerber
Francois-Paul JOURNE
Christiaan van der KLAAUW
Philippe DUFOUR
Image courtesy of SteveG
Vianney HALTER
Image courtesy of Thomas Mao
Robert BRAY
Marco LANG
Thomas Prescher
Philippe WURTZ
Aniceto Jiménez PITA (member from 1st April)
Kari VOUTILAINEN - (member from 1st April)
Miki ELETA - candidate
Vincent BERARD - candidate
John C. ERMEL - candidate
Christian KLINGS - candidate
Aaron BECSEI- candidate

For more information on the AHCI: The AHCI.com ,

Ian Skellern - March 2006

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