Whenever we do an article on Ochs Und Junior watches, something interesting always transpires in the comments. You sort of expect the watches to be a bit more polarizing than your average Omega, Seiko, or Rolex, and indeed this is the case – that’s not quite the interesting part though. The interesting part is that the O&J watches, when they produce objections, produce objections to aspects of the watches – I’m talking about the aesthetics, though it is a major characteristic of Ochs Und Junior that the aesthetics are in a certain sense all about the mechanics – which are actually the whole point not just of individual watches, but of the company’s efforts overall. Up to a point, of course, this is all a matter of taste, but at the same time, I think there’s a larger context in which these watches live that’s worth unpacking a bit. To shine a bit of a light on what’s going on with these designs, let’s look at an equally polarizing parallel in architecture: the style that came to be known as Brutalism.
I wouldn’t exactly call Ochs Und Junior watches Brutalist per se, but there are interesting points of similarity. (I’ve often thought that it’s probably not a coincidence that HODINKEE Managing Editor Steven Pulvirent is a fan of both.) Brutalist architecture made extensive use of concrete, which was usually left unfinished – the word, in fact, comes from the French expression béton brut, which is a term for raw concrete. As a style of architecture, it can seem oppressive, but there is a kind of candor about materials and their nature which, taken in the larger context of modernist architecture and its celebration of gleaming steel and glossy glass panes, can also feel like an expression of a certain kind of moral rigor. (Brutalist architecture is sometimes disparaged as totalitarian but I think the façades of modernist buildings, flawless as a model’s face that’s been through Photoshop until it gleams with marmoreal splendor, are their own kind of totalitarianism.) The style does not express any sort of aspirational tendencies, and isn’t an attempt to physicalize any sort of ideal; instead it’s meant to be an egalitarian foil to the slickness of much modernist architecture.
Ochs Und Junior is in a certain sense, working from the same playbook. What constitutes fine watchmaking is very rigidly defined in the codes of Swiss watchmaking in particular and watchmaking in Europe in general. Basically, it’s all about the finish, baby; if you like meticulously polished metal surfaces that glitter like so many diamonds as you turn them in the light, you’re gonna love haute horlogerie. Of course, every brand has its own identity and its own history and legacy of particular designs, but the movement and case finishing languages by and large start from the same set of assumptions, which is that what’s most desirable is the highest level of polish – in both a literal and figurative sense.
In the same way that Brutalist architecture was a reaction to the slickness of modernism, so Ochs Und Junior is a reaction to the very strict codes of traditional fine watchmaking. To understand what Dr. Oechslin and company are after – not to like it, which is a matter of personal taste, but to understand it – is impossible if you don’t view the company’s work in the larger context of the traditional practices of haute horlogerie. What Ochs Und Junior is doing is questioning those practices, and if you’ve ever found yourself feeling that fine watchmaking is maybe a little too precious for its own good, you’re beginning to have an inkling of what motivates Ochs Und Junior to create watches with surfaces that not only don’t make any effort to hide machining marks, but actually celebrate them. And the visuals are a natural extension of Dr. Oechslin’s approach to movement engineering, where doing the most with the fewest components is framed as a virtue (haute horlogerie has a tendency to venerate complexity for its own sake). The Ochs Und Junior Perpetual Calendar, for instance, does away with basically all the traditions and conventions that dictate how a perpetual calendar should display information – instead, Oechslin has figured out a way to enable the owner to literally read the time directly off the perpetual calendar complication itself.
Now, the challenging thing about all this, is that ironic rejection of a classical tradition can be pretty inside baseball. It’s a highly intellectualized approach and requires in the owner, not cynicism perhaps, but a certain willingness to affect fatigue with some of the more pretentious aspects of fine watchmaking (which, let’s face it, can have some exceedingly pretentious aspects, as can any form of luxury). Ochs Und Junior watches are also grounded to some extent in ironic humor at the expense of fine watchmaking, and humor, as the great perfume expert and scientist Luca Turin has observed, is in general inimical to luxury (whimsy sometimes finds its way into luxury, but it’s usually so labored that the word ought to be inside scare quotes).
Another potential gotcha is that ironic mockery can become its own kind of pretentiousness, and using it as a partial basis for design runs the risk of seeming sophomoric; it’s a tricky needle to thread and I think Ochs Und Junior does it successfully but not everyone will agree. Finally, if you don’t have a taste for this sort of post-modernist approach, there’s the not inconsiderable risk that the designs will just seem ugly – Prince Charles famously said of Brutalist architecture, “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble,” and there are some people who have a more or less identical reaction when confronted with an Ochs Und Junior watch.
If you have a taste for irony, though, and for this sort of aesthetic maneuvering, these watches can be extremely appealing, especially in their rejection of the sometimes stiflingly stuffy atmosphere that fine watchmaking in particular, and luxury in general, can evoke. This is not without its own irony, of course. There is another French expression that’s apropos: épater la bourgeoisie, which means, more or less, to shock the middle class. As it turns out, sticking it to the man, horologically, can be a somewhat expensive proposition – Ochs Und Junior watches are certainly not priced to the aggressive if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it (you peasant) costs that characterizes so much of luxury watchmaking, but they ain’t exactly cheap either – one is reminded of the successive iterations of -isms that characterized a lot of 20th century modern art, each one of which originally was a rejection of a previous established order, and each one of which was rapidly assimilated to the profit-seeking rapacity at which the art market has long excelled. At its worst, going back to basics and celebrating simplicity ends up with irritating nonsense like Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting playing at being milkmaids at the Petit Trianon; genuine iconoclasm is appropriated by poseurs with alarming rapidity.
Still, though, and to express a personal view (this is an editorial after all) I dig the watches from Ochs Und Junior. I like the rawness; I really like the ingenuity behind the movement designs, and I like the way in which the visuals are on a continuum with the philosophy behind the movement design. I like the way they touch down in deep horological history sometimes as well – the shutter mechanism in the sunrise/sunset complication in the just-announced Day/Night is uncommon, but can be found in some very old long case pendulum and mantle clocks and I’ve even seen it used (once) for a moonrise/moonset complication, in a French mantle clock from the 19th century – come to think of it, Patek Philippe also uses it, in the Star Caliber 2000.
There’s a fine line between bracing honesty and pretentiousness, but I’ve always felt that the mechanical cleverness of the watches does much to make sure Ochs Und Junior watches come down on the right side of that line. They’re not pandering or trying too hard to be novel or conventionally nice. Without the mechanics to back up the designs these would be all show and no go, as they say, but the sense of down to earth freshness these watches are shooting for is earned, and well earned, if you ask me.