“We’re condemned to seeing the past, present and future,” shares Martin Frei, one half of the brains behind Urwerk, the independent Swiss watch manufacturer that launched back in 1997. One look at an Urwerk watch and you’ll understand exactly what Frei means.
To picture a watch in your head, we’re conditioned to imagine circular models with numbers etched onto a dial, and hands that tick clockwise to indicate the time. We base this on heritage and the maelstrom of watches mass produced in the same shape, and as a result, it’s shaped how we view time. A circular dial enables us as viewers to view not only the present moment but the hours that predetermined it and those that lie ahead.
For Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei, their mission was to change the scope of the timeline and bring back the pleasure of the present moment, by diversifying the circular anatomy of a watch. Conceived on the cusp of the millennium, they entered the industry with a niche partnership, a watchmaker and an artist, offering a unique wandering hours display, isolating individual hours rather than all 24 of them, accompanied with an unusual dial-less case. The distinct harmony between Baumgartner and Frei, introduced through the former’s brother, became partners, exhibiting at Baselworld in 2000 for the first time with their unseen avant-garde style.
Creating a narrative behind a watch has always been integral, but what separates the duo apart in the market is their efforts of personalisation, alluding to their favorite films and songs in each model. Take for instance Urwerk’s UR-100V P.02, visually demonstrating its tribute to the Star Trek orbittal shuttle, the Enterprise. “We look, but we never really see,” reflects Frei, taking abstract concepts from the everyday and reconfiguring their purpose. “That’s what my art teacher would tell us. Even if you just bend over and look at the world through your legs, the colors are more intense.”
At Urwerk, it’s not just about breaking the mould aesthetically and coining something new. It’s about preserving the present moment and finding peace in the now. Centralising the focus on the hour, rather than what came before, or what comes next, our Editor-in-Chief caught up with Frei in Geneva to discover why the most precious thing is now.
TNH: Hi Martin, it’s a pleasure to meet you. To kick things off, I’m intrigued to learn about how you’ve channeled your career as a designer and brought this to the world of horology.
Martin Frei: I started in the art world and it’s through this world that your curiosity has to be satisfied, to look at the world around you and understand what it is. You need to somehow test, and transform and have it in your hands. It’s much more than a money machine. Especially in the glamorous world of watches, where certain things might be lost in 100 years time, the reason why you do it is because you want to answer these questions, right? When you grow up as a child, you start with this natural curiosity. Kids do this very precisely, they. They can ask the questions that sometimes we as adults find astonishing
My transition into the watch world came totally by chance. My father is a physicist, he was always very busy studying the natural world, mathematics, science and technology. Kids want to prove that they have their own space to think and I think for me, art was this different world, even though later o you realise actually that it is not a different world, but the one we live in.
TNH: It’s interesting that in society, we’re so eager to divide these two schools of thought into separate disciplines. You’re either deemed creative, or scientific. How important is to you to break down these boundaries?
MF: To me, art and science are the same, even tracing back to the Greeks in ancient times who designed beautiful pillars with lines going down them to coordinate the direction of the rain, to create patterns. We occupy places in this specialised world, and you become so aware of that small but complex part in order to reach or gain something. You focus on that area and you almost forget about the rest and what else is out there.
TNH: Speaking on the evolution of how we perceive time today, how would you determine the meaning of luxury in modern society?
MF: In the Bronze age, what was considered luxury was to drop your bronze weapons and leave them in a river and offer them to the Gods. It was about giving to others, rather than receiving. The meaning of luxury has drastically changed where we always want more. We look for that little bit extra to compliment our lives from fresh air, to the food we eat. And that’s what makes life interesting.
TNH: As a designer pulling on the references around you, how does your creative process work? Particularly when each watch you and Felix produce has neat associations with films you’ve seen or songs you’ve listened to.
MF: I went to the Seychelles with my family, and it was really great because it was such a different experience than from here in Switzerland. The fall and summer we’re all one. When you go to the forest, the leaves are on the ground, while you have all the green. I’m constantly thinking about things, reflecting so I can create. It all goes hand in hand. Between the two of us, we have a pot filled with ideas that continues to grow. We can’t run all of our ideas at once so we might develop an idea and realise it’s not the right time to put it in the box, so we leave it there and it will continue to develop. I’m always taking in as many inputs as possible.
Of course, for the next generation of consumers breaking into the luxury market, a purchase isn’t a simple exchange of money to obtain an object. It’s about the narrative and story behind it. New technology isn’t wholly embraced without knowing the arc of heritage that birthed it in the first place. At Omega, the novel timepiece does just that taking notes from the brands past, paying homage to the chronograph wristwatches from the 1940’s. Alluding to the leaf-shaped hands from 20th century models, the spiral track pattern that circles the dial, running beneath the Arabic numerals neatly nods to what the future of Omega looks like, all the while reflecting on what has been.
If I look at the process as a designer, when you create something, you put all of your energy into it. The question is how do you continue to do that? It’s learning to create new things over and over again.
TNH: Urwerk watches centre themselves around distorting a traditional perception of viewing time. Some people would go so far as to call them futuristic watches, given the wandering hour complication. How do you feel about this?
MF: Sometimes we think we’re looking into the future, but we fail to realise we’re actually just being given shapes from the past. Shapes have a purpose, they come from somewhere. But we should look to find new shapes. Let’s say for instance, electric cars. They copy the car’s original shape, rather than trying to find something new. Eventually this will come, as we look for revolutionary change.
But our watches are also a construction of the past too. I remember once I found a nail on the floor in Greece. We went to this site where the fight against Cleopatra took place with Mark Antony and the Roman ruler Octavian. When Octavian was victorious, he founded the city there, and everything is still there, but buried under layers of dust. So the past is not gone, it is just transformed differently. So when I found this nail as a child, I began thinking how it would’ve been used at some point for putting stuff together. You start to think: what is everything used for?
TNH: And finally, what advice would you give to the next generation about pursuing their careers as someone who found themselves unexpectedly entering the watch industry?
MF: If you tell yourself you want to be a painter, or whatever, and maybe you change that idea every now and then, I think you have to have these changing thoughts. I always wanted to become an archaeologist because I was always fascinated by history. It’s almost superhuman that we have this ability to think back and have memories. One thing that really makes us who we are is that we’re almost forced to have the concept of the past and future in order to organise our lives. You have to just go with the flow and don’t expect everything to fall into place right away.