Watchmaker Vianney Halter, celebrated for his avant-garde timepieces, talks on the perception of time in the modern day and the process behind his delicate masterpieces.
Close your eyes and picture a watch. What do you see? Is it a round dial with a glass cover, neatly enclosing twelve numbers and ticking hands? History has conditioned us to viewing watches as an orthodox shape, dating right back to the form of the pocket watch in 1510. But going round in circles isn’t for everyone.
Vianney Halter first set his mind to the world of horology when he was just fourteen years old. Born and raised on the outskirts of Paris, he took the train into the metropolis and enrolled himself at the Ecole Horlogère de Paris. Fast forward to 1994 and Halter, after dedicating a decade post-graduation to restoring antique timepieces, opened his very own company producing watches for the likes of Harry Winston, Audemars Piguet and Breguet. Despite his traditional training, Halter’s ascension into the horological world was down the path less travelled, creating avant-garde pieces that make you question exactly how within the extravagance of composition, these watches tell the time.
At the time of debuting his first model, the ANTIQUA Perpetual Calendar at the Basel Fair in 1998, Halter’s work was dubbed as a “relic from the future” by critics, a legacy he continues today, deconstructing the boundaries in watchmaking to prove that more is always more. In conversation with the French watchmaker, Halter talks on his early beginnings, and holding the torch for a more nuanced and experimental kind of watchmaking.
The Next Hour: Mr Halter, it’s great to chat with you. You’ve mentioned once that you can always remember being invested in mechanical things from an early age. Can you place when this started as a child and when you first became fascinated with time?
Vianney Halter: During my childhood, I was living in an industrial suburb of Paris, in railway wagons that originated from before the second world war, which were transformed into a house by my father. I grew up surrounded by mechanics, as my father was a steam train driver. Fascination toward “time machines” (tower clocks, clocks, watches…) appeared to me before I was 10. I was more fascinated by the mechanism of these machines than by watches and time strictly speaking. My interest toward mechanics comes from my father from one part, and from the tower clocks movements I discovered when I was a child, from the other part. My most memorable moment when I was eleven when I collected my first tower clock.
TNH: What prompted you to begin your studies in a watchmaking school? Was Paris a city that inspired your venture into horology?
VH: As I was not a very good schoolchild, and as I showed a great interest toward mechanisms, I asked my parents to enter the watchmaking school in Paris. They had to ask for a special authorization, as I was younger than the required age. Thus I entered the watchmaking school when I was 14. Paris is a very inspiring city indeed, especially regarding architecture (buildings of the 19th century such as the Grand palais, metallic bridges, etc), culture (especially the CNAM – Conservatoire National des Arts & Métiers) and history.
TNH: What would you say was one of the most important lessons you learned during your time in Paris as a restorer of antique clocks?
VH: Restoring antique clocks brought me a lot of knowledge about watchmaking and history. Unfortunately, I also understood that it does not allow to pay the bills, especially in Paris.
TNH: Can you think of a time when you were proud of something particular you’ve done?
VH: I have to say that I am quite proud of having acquired my freedom and to have been able to keep it.
TNH: How would you define the role of the watch in the modern day? Have you seen a huge shift in its role since you first joined the industry?
VH: From my very personal point of view, a watch – from a creator – is anything but not designed to tell the time. For me, it is rather a way to share a universe, emotions or a personal outlook. The role of a watch depends on 2 things : who made it, and what are the user’s expectations.
TNH: You’ve mentioned previously that the brand produces around 10 watches per year. What’s the main focus behind Vianney Halter watches?
VH: First of all, I would rather say that my watches come to birth through my brain and my hands. There is no „brand“, strictly spoken. When creating, I have no heading toward a commercial or marketing purpose. The main focus when I create and make a watch is to share what I have in my brain. It is an artistic way of expression, exactly as a painter or a writer does.
TNH: How do you find working independently on the bench to bring your watches to life?
VH: It ist he only way I can imagine working ☺ For me, pure creativity can arise only when you are free on any level. And sometimes, this can take time….
TNH: The concept of space is intrinsic to your timepieces and your work has often been described as futuristic. Was this an interest that you shared as a child?
VH: When the first man walked on the moon, I was 6, and the memories from this event is still very intense. I guess I have been deeply impressed by this journey. As I was a teenager, I read a huge amount of sci-fi novels, during the travels by train to go to school. Obviously, most of them were taking place in space. These stories made me dream and still do.
TNH: How would you describe the relationship between watchmaking and the future? What do you hope to see?
VH: My dream is to go to the future to imagine watches that do not exist yet! I hope, I guess, that future will bring us technical means to allow us to make watches that don’t exist today.
TNH: Where do you turn for inspiration to conceive new models?
VH: My creative process isn’t guided by anything. I have no specific creative process or method. By listening to my mood, what surrounds me, my encounters and my life experiences, things naturally come into being.
TNH: How far as a society would you say that we’re still consumed by viewing time in a linear, chronological way? Is this something you seek to challenge in your work?
VH: A huge part of my creations comes from dreams. And dreams come from another space-time. Therefore they are a way to take things from one space-time to another, whereas our consciousness allows us to have only a linear conception of ours.
TNH: If you hadn’t taken up watchmaking, what else do you think you’d be doing?
VH: For sure something among aviation, music or, of course, space exploration.
TNH: Can you remember your first ever watch?
VH: If I remember well, it was am YEMA which I received when I was around 8. But I keep a more clear memory from the tower clock I collected at 11, and that I still own and cherish.
All images courtesy of @Vianney_Halter_Official.