june 2017
may 2017

Felix Baumgartner, co-founder of Urwerk

Cut and Thrust

Felix, you’re no doubt going to tell me that your decision to work with Chronopassion was easy and natural – a case of working only with the best, and so forth? 

 
Felix Baumgartner:
Not at all! My father worked in clock restoration. He often went up to Paris, to a small shop close to Laurent’s. Twenty years later, I thought of giving that shop my first watches. There was an offbeat aspect that I really liked: finding really unusual timepieces, some of which were really futuristic, at a traditional clock repairer’s.
 

There must be a “but” coming somewhere…

 
Laurent Picciotto:
…but he sent me his brother (laughter)! More seriously, Felix’s brother did come to see me one day, just before they moved on to the UR-103. It was a turning point for Urwerk, transitioning from two to three dimensions. He came with a steel prototype as well as to talk about cash, because cash was precisely what he needed! We talked all afternoon and in the end I placed a preliminary order with him for a certain number of watches, which he was then able to start producing.
 

Prototyping is one thing, production another. Were there any surprises or delays for the first watches? 

 
Felix Baumgartner:
Yes, I’m afraid there were.
 
Laurent Picciotto:
No, Felix, you’re being too hard on yourself – that’s not really the case. We had to wait a bit, but not unusually so. And I had every confidence in you. I was hearing honest, open talk.
 

That isn’t always the case for a brand that’s just starting out, seeking to provide reassurance as to its viability, when in fact it’s really fragile and in dire need of financial support.

 
Felix Baumgartner:
That was all the more true for us because we were totally independent – with no financial partners, banks or shareholders; we were and still are fully independent. We needed people who believed in us. Not a lot – four or five was enough for us to launch. Laurent was one of them. At the same time it was an honour for us to be at Saint Honoré (laughter).
 
Laurent Picciotto:
It was a case of fair winds. Our world is really tiny, and I was picking up what my colleagues were saying. Max (ed: Büsser) very much encouraged me to take a look at the brand new Urwerk. He helped build up trust.
 
Felix Baumgartner:
Max already had some great references. He’d contributed to the Opus. He was also a valuable asset when it came to approaching the Southern European markets; my natural leanings were taking me more towards Scandinavia.
 

Once the brand had been launched, were you able to adopt a long-term vision – for five or ten years? 

 
Felix Baumgartner:
It was more like a ten-day vision! I’m a watchmaker, not a businessman. The last time I tried to do marketing, the result was the Urwerk name. I don’t think I could have found a less sexy name if I’d tried (laughter)!
 

It seems to work quite well, though.

 
Laurent Picciotto:
The name can indeed make life easier for a brand – or harder. But I’m convinced that when a product’s good, it can cope with any name.
 
Felix Baumgartner:
For hundreds of years the trend was for the names of the founders to be used side by side: Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and so on. However, I also noticed that these brands were basically competing to see who could put the most hands on the dial. We weren’t interested in that. So from the outset we had to find a name that suggested that we were in a different game altogether!
 
Laurent Picciotto:
That does leave a lot of people thinking it’s a rather obscure name, though.
 
Felix Baumgartner:
Not nearly obscure enough! A lot of people confuse us with Kraftwerk, a brand of drills! We have a great reputation in the world of machine tools (laughter)! More seriously, I didn’t like the idea of a “Frei-Baumgartner” style brand. I don’t like white light – I prefer reflections.
 

Having a mysterious brand means you need to know how to explain it to the clients, though. 

 
Laurent Picciotto:
No, not really, because…
 
Felix Baumgartner (interrupting):
…because your customers trust your choices!
 
Laurent Picciotto:
Not always! We have a lot of customers who literally took a shine to Urwerk. People who are very keen on traditional, institutional brands ended up going away with an Urwerk having really fallen in love with it. And then of course there are the specialist collectors who absolutely must have one of everything.
 

Have you never thought about offering more technically and aesthetically accessible watches for a broader clientele, gradually enticing them on to a higher degree of complications? 

 
Felix Baumgartner:
We tried that in 2001 with the Goldpfeil project. The design may have been very detailed, but the way the hands displayed the time was extremely conventional. It didn’t work.
 

Does each of you still pay attention to what the other is saying, and value having a joint opinion? 

 
Laurent Picciotto:
Felix always listens to me. But he never does anything differently as a result! Except once, when I mentioned that we could work together on a limited edition known as ‘White Shark’. Once the project had been greenlit, Felix and Martin wanted it to have a platinum case. I suggested steel, and they agreed. But that really was the only time!
 
Felix Baumgartner:
That’s true. I admit that I’m inflexible! But that’s what enables me to carry our ideas through to completion.
 
Laurent Picciotto:
Compromise is never the right solution.
 
Felix Baumgartner:
Our strength is the way we leverage the power of our growth, without over-expanding.
 
Journalist : Olivier Müller (01/2013)