Watches: Under the Influence

  • James D. Malcolmson

Premium watch companies often resist advice, much less design input, from outside sources. But when Wempe recently suggested that the top-tier watch brands carried by the German watch and jewelry retailer create a special collection, the manufacturers listened.

Since it was established in 1878, Wempe has expanded from one to 25 stores across Germany and in prime international cities, including New York. But the company not only sells horological instruments, it also produces them. One hundred years ago, Wempe established a ship’s chronometer manufacture, which originally produced the boxed and gimballed (hinged for motion) clocks that, prior to the introduction of electronics, were critical navigation tools. Having made these historical timepieces, Wempe possesses nearly as much horological heritage as some of the watch brands that it carries. Furthermore, as a retailer, its influence is so strong that watch companies often preview their new designs to Wempe for preliminary feedback, explains Kim-Eva Wempe, who manages the family-owned business. “Many times the companies will make changes depending on our reactions,” she says.

Using this clout, Wempe enlisted Chopard, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Glashütte Original, and eight other leading Swiss and German manufacturers to produce limited editions commemorating its chronometer factory’s anniversary. The collaboration yielded an innovative collection featuring new case designs or complications not previously employed for particular models. The source for many of these innovations was Wempe itself; in a number of instances, Bernhard Stoll and Uwe Beckmann, Wempe’s top two watch executives, gave the companies drawings representing their ideas.

In the case of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Scuba, the Wempe team devised, for timing dives, a novel rotating ring that is placed under the crystal and operated with a second crown. The ring takes the place of the movable outer bezel that most diving watches feature. When they viewed the Wempe concept, which preserves the model’s signature screwed-down bezel as well as the character of the series, Audemars Piguet’s designers must have asked themselves why they had not thought of it before. “They sat there with their mouths open,” recalls Beckmann. “They really wanted us to let them use it for a general release.”

Wempe also worked with IWC to develop a special-edition Portugieser Regulateur with a movement called a Jones Caliber, which was reconstructed from an original pocket watch design by the company’s founder. The Jones Caliber also powers another new model in IWC’s main collection, but Wempe asserts that its limited edition prompted the movement’s development.

Perhaps the most compelling piece in the collection is A. Lange & Söhne’s Langematik Power Reserve. A power reserve indicator at 12 o’clock distinguishes this model’s dial, which has hands and numerals modeled after those on the dials of Wempe’s historic ship’s chronometers—timepieces on which the two German companies had collaborated.

Some of the pieces from the anniversary collection display the Wempe name on the dials, and others render it discreetly on the casebacks. Either way, these watches demonstrate that, on occasion, even the most celebrated watch companies can learn something from an outsider.

Wempe
212.397.9000
www.wempe.com

Photo by Richard Prince
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