Felix Baumgartner,URWERK, Harry Winston and the Opus V

Felix Baumgartner, URWERK, Harry Winston and the Opus V

The Opus V - Where on earth did it come from?

by Ian Skellern
(c) May 2005

Part One - Felix Baumgartner and URWERK

(click on images for larger size)


Many companies set out to wow the public at the annual BaselWorld watch fair with luxurious booths, lavish parties and very occasionally an innovative watch or two. Unfortunately, we tend to see much more of the former than the latter. Not because of lack of will, but evidence that even with the huge R & D budgets available to the big brands, conceptualizing and realizing something with a horological ‘Wow!’ factor is no easy task. Too often we see the same old thing dressed in new clothes and being marketed as the next big thing with a massive publicity campaign.

Harry Winston Rare Timepieces have taken another approach; with their Opus series, they have harnessed, nurtured and promoted the incredibly creative talents of a few small independent watchmakers and not surprisingly, have managed to ‘Wow!’ us five times in a row.

The Opus series was inaugurated with the Opus 1 by François-Paul Journe in 2001. Antoine Preziuso’s beautiful Opus II followed the year after. 2003 saw the totally original, innovative and ‘crazy’ Opus III by Vianney Halter, which showed the risks and commitment Harry Winston was prepared to both take and make. Christophe Claret continued the series with his amazing musical Opus IV in 2004.

*The Opus I series by François-Paul Journe: three complications/models - tourbillon, resonance and power reserve.

*The Opus II by Antoine Preziuso: a tourbillon (left) and a tourbillon plus perpetual calender (right).

*The 'crazy' Opus III by Vianney Halter:
a digital mechanical masterpiece.

*The 'traditional' Opus IV by Christopher Claret : tourbillon, cathedral gong
minute repeater, date and large central moonphase on two separate dials.

Each of these Opus watches generated enormous publicity and horological respect for Harry Winston, and the
Opus V by Felix Baumgartner has not only continued that tradition, it has rocked the world of haute horology
like very few watches before.

Love it or loath it, the Opus V is not a watch to leave one feeling indifferent, so it may well be worth having a closer look at the team behind the project and the watch.

The Baumgartner Brothers and Martin Frei

Felix Baumgartner and his brother Thomas are third generation watchmakers - and you might nearly add a fourth as their great-grand father worked for a watch company as well - although in the office not the workshop.

The Baumgartners grew up in Shaffhausen in the north of Switzerland where their father had a shop selling and repairing watches: a shop he had taken over from his father. One day, Dad came home and surprised the family by saying that he had had enough; he didn’t like modern watches enough to devote his life to them anymore. He sold the shop and devoted himself to his hobby, which was restoring antique clocks in his atelier.
Felix Baumgartner at BaselWorld 2005

The atelier was the room beside Felix’s bedroom and with his father now working at home all day Felix, at this time only seven years old, spent most of his spare time learning and helping his father. A few years later, Thomas (the older of the two brothers) started an apprentiship with IWC as a precision machinist, while Felix went on to study watchmaking at the renowned watchmaking school in Solothurn. Not surprisingly, he found he had a significant head-start on his class mates.

In 1995, towards the end of his final year at watch school, Felix read an advertisement from Svend Andersen who was looking for a young watchmaker to join him in Geneva. The announcement said, ‘If you wish to be independent then now is the time to do it!’

Felix had no definite plans at that stage; however, he did feel strongly he wanted to be an independent watchmaker - like his father - and the magic word 'independent' leapt off the page. He arranged an appointment with Andersen and travelled to Geneva for an interview. Despite Felix speaking no French ,they got by with English and German, the interview went well and at the end of the meeting Andersen asked Felix for his CV; Felix had not prepared one as he thought his experience was not yet worth writing about. Andersen scribbled Felix's name and phone number on a small piece of scrap paper which he then placed on a tall pile of impressive looking CVs.

Incredibly, the scrap of paper was not lost and two weeks later Felix was offered the position. He spent the next two and a half years with Andersen.

Svend Andersen - 'When Felix finished watch making school in 1995 he came to me to work as an independent watchmaker and learn French . At that time we started making the famous Erotic automaton watch and Felix developed the technique for cutting out arm parts for the automaton figures and preparing them for painting (while also working more technically on a retrograde perpetual calender). Felix worked here for nearly three years and started to experiment and develop the mechanism for his 101/102 watch.

His interest was also to restore old watches and see how they were made: a very important step for a creator. The last couple of years have seen him really develop as a exceptional watchmaker.' The OPUS V is a functional masterpiece and Felix is a fine representative for the AHCI: he has a real 'academie' spirit.'

While this was going on Thomas had completed his apprenticeship at IWC and traveled to England where he spent a couple of years learning to restore antique English clocks and about their history. A short period in his father’s atelier followed, before moving to Saint Croix where he worked for a few years with François Junod: designing, constructing and repairing Automates - including Jacquet Droz’s famous Writer.

Thomas then moved to Geneva and set up a small atelier in which he continued to work for Junod as well as other clients. After a year, the brothers joined forces and opened up a new atelier together. Felix continued to work for Anderson; he also worked one week per month for Vacheron Constantin which helped to pay his bills.

The brothers first discussed making their own watch around 1995 as something to do for fun. They had seen too many complicated watches where they thought that telling the time was difficult because of the many hands on the dials. They decided to design and construst a minimalistic, modern and innovative watch. Basic sketches were drawn up of a watch with a traveling hour.

One of the early sketches

Martin Frei was an artist who had been a friend for years: though he was not just an artist. Frei was an artist who had loved and collected watches since childhood, therefore it was natural that the Baumgartners explain their ideas to him and ask for his input. Frei immediately grasped their concept and drew a few sketches which the brothers loved. He had come up with a very distinctive and new look-design!

Slowly the sketches become slightly more refined and a 'look' emerges.

The Baumgartners built a steel prototype which they showed to friends; the reaction was extremely positive . . . so they built another.

In 1997, Thomas and Felix Baumgartner joined Martin Frei and with 20,000 Swiss francs (approximately $16,000) formed their own company URWERK. Their philosophy was to develop original and innovative new complications and to show that haute horology could encompass more than tourbillons and minute repeaters.

Svend Andersen was looking out for young watchmaking talent for the AHCI. He was worried that if the association did not recruit younger members, as the existing members grew older it would just fade away . In 1997, with Andersen’s support and encouragement, they presented at Basel as AHCI candidate members, a brass prototype of the UR-101 (representing a gold watch), and a steel prototype of the UR-102.

The Geneva/Maltese cross compared with a star wheel.

The original prototype had used a star wheel arrangement to turn the hour disks: similar to the one used in Audemars Piguet's iconic Starwheel watch. They found, however, that the star wheel system, which has a spring under permenent tension on the wheel, had too much friction because of that tension which caused it to use too much energy: this in turn reduced the power reserve.

They looked for alternates and found that the *Geneva cross offered a number of advantages: much less friction because there is no spring tension and no tendency to jump an extra step if turned too quickly. The Geneva cross system does demand much tighter manufacturing and assembly tolerances as there has be a slight play between the parts;
Dial side of the 101/102 movement: note the pin in the however, URWERK have mastered this.
Geneva cross on the right. If it is too tight in the slot
the mechanism could jam and if too loose the satellite
might move slightly.

* The terms Geneva cross and Maltese cross are interchangable. Because of possible copyright concerns Geneva cross is becoming more commonly used.

Geneva crosses. **StarWheel.

The above images show the difference between the StarWheel and the Geneva cross. Between the 2 and the 5 on the star wheel you can see the spring that the movement must overcome to change to the next position. Not only does overcoming this spring use considerable amounts of energy, there is also the possibility of the wheel jumping an extra position if turned too quickly. On the other hand, the spring on the star wheel holds the disk firmly in position. If you look at one of URWERK's Geneva crosses, you will notice the three U shaped slots that correspond to the three hours on the satellite. If the piece that fits into the slot lacks very precise and minute tolerances, you might notice the hour satellite moving slightly with the play. The Geneva cross system requires more exacting fabrication tolerances, while the star wheel requires more precise regulation and uses more energy.

Note. In Part Two of this article, you will see that URWERK has gone one step further with the Geneva crosses in the Opus V. Felix Baumgartner simplified the system by manufacturing the cross into the base of each satellite.

Click here to view an animation of a Malteses cross (in the winding mechanism): Theory, Stopwork, Maltese. Courtesy of Volker Vyskocil.

The UR-103 in rose gold The truncated cone shaped, three dimensional satellites.

The 101/102 watches are minimalistic in the extreme: no dial, no hands; nothing much that might lead you to believe it is a timepiece at all.

A lonely hour digit moves across a semicircular arc, while discreet points mark the quarters and half-quarters.

If the design of the case and complication was not enough to get you into orbit, the 101 was dubbed the 'Millenium Falcon', and the 102 'Sputnik', and with good reason: the travelling hour looks like a satellite moving across space. A variant of the 102, called the "Nightwatch", had a black, ceramic anodised aluminium case with platinum back and luminous hour figures.

102 : Sputnik

Even at that embryonic stage, and remember they had not sold one watch at this time; URWERK created a minor scandal among the traditionalists with their avant-garde watches. While they attracted plenty of press coverage sales did not exactly flood in. though they did receive a few for their steel UR-102 watches which they delivered a year later.

Using the proceeds from those sales, they built a gold watch and 1998 saw them increase sales to two gold UR-101 watches and eight steel UR-102s. The partners were overjoyed with the increased turnover and held was a party held for each watch sold: luckily though they still had their day jobs!

101 : The Millenium Falcon

From these small beginnings turnover increased steadily and has roughly doubled each year.

In 2001 URWERK make 200 watches for Goldpfeil which not only resulted in more public recognition, it introduced them to Christian Gros who ran a small, extremely high quality, precision machining company specializing in watch cases and parts. URWERK and Christian Gros formed a relationship that has endured and deepened to this day to the mutual benefit of both parties.

The URWERK for Goldpfeil

Ther big year for URWERK was 2003. BaselWorld saw the company presenting their new UR-103 model which replaced the discontinued UR-101/102 models. The 103 was a major evolution of the previous models as the hours were now shown by three dimensional satellites at the bottom of the dial which allowed for telling the time at a glance i.e., without having to turn the wrist.

The 103 saw the Control Board make its debut on the back of the watch.

The back of the watch saw the Control Board make its debute. This enabled URWERK to keep the dial clean and clutter free while providing useful (but not often used) complications. Innovative functions such as the precision adjustment displayed on the back of the watch enables the user to fine tune the watch's regulation forward or backwards up to 30 seconds per day. A 15 minute and seconds dial allows for precise time setting.

A couple of special commissons: The Junkers (left) and The Dragon (right).

The UR-103 was not only a much more sophisticated and upmarket evolution of previous models; it also attracted a much large pool of clients and admirers . . . and among the latter was Mr. Maximilian Büsser, managing director of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces.

Enter Max Büsser, Harry Winston and the Opus V

Click here to continue to Part Two - The Opus V


here to skip to Part Three - The URWERK 103.03


here to skip to Part Four - A User Review of the 103.03

Ian Skellern - May 2005

We welcome comments, suggestions, and corrections to this article.

ThePuristS.com Home Page | The AHCI Forum | The Harry Winston Forum | www.URWERK.com

Copyright may 2005 - Ian Skellern & ThePuristS.com - all rights reserved

* Images of the Opus series courtesy of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces.

Images of the 101, 102 and Goldpfeil courtesy of URWERK.