Tomorrow’s Watchmaking?

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It’s only five years old. It’s Belgian. And there’s no watchmaker, not even a businessman, at the helm. And yet Ressence, founded in 2009 by industrial designer Benoit Mintiens, may just be the most important thing in watches right now.

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Benoit Mintiens pulls no punches. He had never, he admits, ever thought about designing a watch until he visited the Baselworld watch trade show one year, “and I was amazed to see so many watches with such low levels of creativity,” he says.

“Don’t get me wrong – the big groups do an incredible job. But most watches aren’t interesting because of their ownership and the owner’s agenda: they’re not selling watches, they’re selling brands. And most people don’t buy their watches for their technical advances, but for the brand too, so why invest in technical advances? Is it any surprise that Nespresso is Swiss, for example? It’s a cheap product very well-packaged.”

Being outside of the watch industry mainstream perhaps gives Mintiens refreshing licence to say such things. He is, after all, Belgian, not Swiss. And he is not a watch designer, but an industrial designer, and one of some pedigree too: he was involved in the design of the Eurostar and of the new generation TGV trains for SNCF; he designed the first class interiors for Air France; he has designed strollers for Maxicosi, vacuum cleaners for LG and, most unexpected of all, guns for Browning. Oh, and since 2009 he has designed watches too, under his own brand – Ressence. “Creating a brand was not the idea,” he notes. “As a non- Swiss, non-watchmaker, it’s quite a mountain to climb.”

Yet arguably, his Type 1 and Type 3 watches (Type 2 will launch in 2016) – have not only introduced pioneering ideas – time display via a series of concentric discs, moving around each other, aptly, like moons around a planet, for example – but have re-calibrated watch aesthetics. They are curvy, pebble-like pieces, countering the sharp- edged machine aesthetic, with dials that are the horological equivalent of big plasma screens. And, refreshingly, they reflect a rather un-horo- logical way of thinking.

“Most watchmakers start with the movement and build around it. In fact, the very way we’re taught to read the time, by a series of hands, isn’t – from a designer’s point of view – the best way. Yes, such a graphic device is better than digital because it can be read much faster, but it has to be explained and it’s not intuitive and only when it’s learned does it become the best way,” Mintiens says. “Yet we have it because watchmakers found a mechanism for measuring time and then, pre- cisely what an engineer would do, just stuck some hands on it to give a read-out. But, in some respects, industrial designers build from the

outside to the inside. What they’re trained to do is start inside the user’s brain: so, who’s going to wear this watch, and what should it do for them. It’s about the user’s experience. For me the movement is the last thing.”

Indeed, while Mintiens says that he is no design fundamentalist – as he jokes, he doesn’t wear black or have a beard – he does want his watches to do one job, display the time, and he lets nothing stand in the way of that. “I don’t care about how the gears are working inside the watch, though I know some do,” he says, bullishly. “There is for me no need to make a watch look technical. It just has to express the time. The dial is animated, but any other technical information has no value to the user.”

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It is a notion Mintiens takes to the max too: the dial is single rather than multi-layered, because that is easier to read; it is extended out to the very edge of the watch to maximise its surface area, because that is easier to read; it is fixed as close to the crystal as possible, because that is easier to read; and, with the Type 3 at least, the space between dial and glass is oil-filled to prevent the re- fraction of light and so minimise the human eye’s depth perception because, yes, that is easier to read.

Similarly, the crown, absent from both Type 1 and 3 models (though present on Mintiens’ earlier pieces), is simply a reminder of the technical quality of a watch that no user needs reminding of. Yes, the function is still required, but to have the mechanism for that func- tion protruding from the device makes, on a 21st century watch, about as much sense as an engine winder would on a modern car.

“For me the crown was the last physical link to the idea that the watch is something mechanical,” he says. “And I want the watch to be de-materialised – to just be the purest expression of time. You have to have that final function. If you don’t have functionality you’re left with art. It’s like vacuum cleaners. There was a time when we wanted it to clean but didn’t care about it much more than that. Now we have guys like James Dyson who came up with a new philosophy for the cleaner, a way of doing that function differently.”

You get the idea: Mintiens takes an intellectual position that, while it may not be fundamentalist, is anathema to much of the watch in- dustry, with its view of watches being as much about the expression of status, heritage, history and sometimes olde worlde craftsmanship as it is about being personal time-telling machines.

For some his position will feel too rational, too unromantic, too in- dustrial, too Belgian even? For others – as with some of the growing band of independent watch companies, and Mintiens speaks of his admiration for the likes of Urwerk and MB&F in particular – he will be pointing the way to a new, futuristic kind of watch appreciation that is both aesthetic and ascetic.

Why, for example, does he bother to fit his watches (each model is made in Switzerland by a team dedicated to that model) with a me- chanical movement at all, when presumably his industrial designer way of thinking would deem a quartz movement to be that much more efficient and more accurate in the telling of time? Unsurprisingly, he has an industrial designer’s answer to that too. “The fact is that people have an empathy for gears and they don’t have empathy for circuits – as humans we feel for the mechanical over the digital,” he argues. “It’s why digital devices that don’t work any more go in the garbage, but we don’t do that with anything mechanical – we imme- diately imagine that there’s some little cog that could be made better, like a little animal.”

Will Mintiens’ little animal live on? Certainly Mintiens has in- vested in the expensive patenting of his ideas, more or less globally, which is a statement of his intent, but also a recognition that it is the ideas within his watches that really give them value. And he says that, with his outsider, non-watchmaker perspective, he has ideas for new innovations in watch design that will allow him to launch one model a year up until 2022. Indeed, perhaps the only obstacle to this messiah of tomorrow’s watchmaking is that, as the wider watch world might see it, he has the misfortune to be based in Antwerp and not Geneva, to be Belgian rather than Swiss.

“I’ve tried not to get too sucked into the Swiss watchmaking world but really it’s impossible not to – it’s such a small world and you have to work with it, though I’d like to keep out of the politics,” says Mintiens. “But being Belgian is certainly more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Mature markets might not care where Ressence is from, but it matters to, say, customers in the Middle East. In fact, I can’t re- ally say it’s a Belgian watch even in Switzerland – I have to emphasise that it’s made in Switzerland, even if Ressence is a Belgian brand. It’s kind of like Apple – designed in California but made in China.”

It is a telling analogy: is Mintiens the Steve Jobs of the watch world?

 

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