Kari Voutilainen studied for years at the finest watchmaking schools, including Tapiola near Helsinki, Finland, and WOSTEP in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where he later taught. Still, the 44-year-old Finn, one of the few independents producing watches almost entirely by hand, says he learned the most from his mentor, Charles Meylan, a fifth-generation watchmaker 43 years his senior. After completing his studies in 1991, Voutilainen spent 10 years working with Meylan in the restoration department at Parmigiani Fleurier in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland, where he absorbed the master’s old-world techniques. “He taught me not only the unwritten tricks of complicated watchmaking,” says Voutilainen, “but also his philosophy of doing things by hand so they will last.”
Since 2002, Voutilainen has applied this credo to his own collection, which appears as if it emerged from the 19th century rather than from the 21st. Although it might be more practical to hire outside suppliers to mill movement components, Voutilainen prefers to cut plates, wheels, and pinions individually on a lathe. He also bends rough hairsprings into their final spiral shape instead of buying them preformed, as do almost all other manufacturers. His approach is time-consuming and laborious: He and his staff of three watchmakers in the Val-de-Travers atelier produce fewer than a dozen pieces per year.
But while Voutilainen’s methods are antiquated, his watches demonstrate his willingness to tinker with traditional complications. One of his first pieces—a minute repeater—chimes the decimals (10-minute intervals) so that activating the gongs yields a sequence corresponding to digital time, an alteration which, he claims, is more relevant in the modern age. His latest watch is a chronograph with a balance wheel that is made of quartz crystal and mounted on a carbon-fiber hairspring. Gideon Levingston, an associate who also makes Voutilainen’s watch cases, devised the unusual configuration to be both thermally stable and antimagnetic.
Such innovations aside, Voutilainen’s classical aesthetics and constructions are intended to have enduring value. The large dials and unobtrusive metal cases that characterize his watches were hallmarks of 18th-century master Abraham-Louis Breguet; however, Voutilainen’s use of multiple screws to secure even the smallest parts of the movement reflects the influence of his teacher. “Mr. Meylan insisted that a watch ought to be easily disassembled by watchmakers in the future,” says Voutilainen. “I hope to pass this down to the watchmakers who work for me.”