Watches: Thoroughly Modern Mechanism

<< Back to Robb Report, September 2002

Pierre Kunz defies the notion that high-end mechanical watchmaking is strictly a handicraft refined over generations by established brands. Just one year ago, Kunz was a top watchmaker working for Franck Muller, and today he has his own atelier in Geneva and a collection of 12 complicated mechanical timepieces.

Actually, Kunz did accumulate a wealth of experience working with the traditional brands, but now he is employing a highly efficient and somewhat controversial manufacturing method to realize his vision of progressive mechanical watchmaking.

Working with just one other watchmaker, Kunz will turn out approximately 1,000 watches this year, almost half of them complicated models. This feat is made possible through the use of “modules,” which are essentially self-contained, or ready-made, complications. While complications have been built in this manner for almost a century, today a number of companies design modules for use with base movements from ETA, the largest third-party supplier of movements in Switzerland. Thus, a company such as Kunz’s can purchase a base movement and a module for a perpetual calendar, for example, and assemble the finished product in far less time than it would take to build the same watch from scratch.

The artistry, Kunz says, comes in the way that he adapts these components to fulfill his personal vision of a retrograde movement, a Kunz signature. Also known as a fly-back hand, a retrograde indicates the time or date as it progresses along a distinctive one-way dial until it “flies back” to start another sequence. “I originally became acquainted with retrogrades while working on the most complicated models at Franck Muller,” says Kunz. “I love the way they work, and I want every Pierre Kunz model to incorporate the mechanism in some way.”

Kunz handily disposes of the stereotypical image of the grizzled craftsman laboring for months on one piece. However, in the politically charged Swiss watch industry, there are those who contend that the use of ready-made modules and base movements is a form of cheating. The criticism is muted, though, because the practice in one form or another is so widespread, and outsourcing of this kind is as old as the industry itself. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with modules,” says independent watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin. “It all depends on how they’re executed.”

Having worked with many prestige brands, Kunz has an impeccable background, and he has clearly built his collection creatively, using every advantage at his disposal, including the manufacturing expertise at Franck Muller. A balance between the traditional and the progressive shows in every facet of Kunz’s work. His cases, for example, are based on the most traditional of forms: the Empire style. Yet he has interpreted them with pure lines and straight sections to give them an avant-garde appearance.

Kunz’s collection is priced comparably to traditional manufacture-made timepieces—starting at about $10,000 and topping out around $290,000 for a grand complication with a tourbillon, minute repeater, and perpetual calendar.

Chances are, if you approve of Kunz’s novel spin on the mechanical watch, you’ll view his manufacturing technique in the same progressive light.

Pierre Kunz Geneve, +41.22.959.8969

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