The biggest new feature of the SIHH this year was, of course, the area set aside for presentations by nine independent watchmakers, known as the Carre des Horlogers. Based on word-of-mouth from participants, it seems to have been in general a success, allowing what many independent brands, journalists, and clients have had to do in a very chaotic way in previous years – meeting to see new products and designs in venues offsite – to take place under one roof. Of course, non-Richemont brands have always been a part of the SIHH (Parmigiani Fleurier, Audemars Piguet, and Richard Mille are all examples), but this is the first time such a large number of small-batch makers have participated. Of these, one of the most high touch and low volume is Kari Voutilainen, whose fame among connoisseurs is out of proportion to the very small volume of watches he produces. But there’s a reason his work commands the respect it does.
This is a unique piece in platinum, made for exhibition at the SIHH, of the GMT-6. This is Voutilainen’s dual time-zone watch, with day-night indication, and it’s been the vehicle over the last few years for a number of very different decorative motifs. This one is especially striking, with a combination of engine turning and enamel giving a very vivid but also very harmonious appearance. During our visit with him, Voutilainen told us that having his own dial manufacturing facility has considerably eased the chronic problem he’d had in years past getting dials delivered on time (one of the biggest problems with being a very small volume maker is that you’re usually at the end of the line when it comes to getting orders filled).
Despite the very traditional crafts used here (this sort of enameling has been part of the decorative repertoire of watchmaking, and especially Genevan watchmaking, for centuries) there’s an almost Modernist flavor to this particular piece as well. The sun and moon in the 24-hour disk notwithstanding, this could easily be a horological interpretation – a particularly good one – of geometric abstraction. The rounded shapes of the teardrop lugs flow very elegantly into the case itself, and the use of rounded forms extends to the rod-shaped hands, with their blued-steel circles tipped with white triangles. All the ornateness isn’t allowed to interfere with legibility, and the contrast between all the sensual convexities and the strictly controlled geometry of the dial layout make for an enthralling display.
The Vingt-8 is the simplest of Voutilainen’s watches, but here again, there’s a full-course banquet of traditional horological excellence in both mechanics and the decorative arts on offer. This burgundy-dialed Vingt-8 has, albeit in a monochromatic design, all the sophistication of the more colorful GMT-6 seen above, and benefits from the same elegant contrast between the tactile satisfaction of the rounded case and teardrop lugs, and the harmonious deployment of the geometric elements of the dial.
For Voutilainen collectors, a great deal of the value and interest of his watches is in the movements. They’re finished to a far higher standard than is generally available in series-produced, commercial watches. Again, extremely traditional in approach, but doing this sort of thing by hand, one movement at a time, is labor and time intensive, as well as representative of an historically important range of techniques that in general are practiced only partially, even by some of the most expensive and highly regarded luxury watch brands.
The movement, in addition to its meticulously careful decoration, is historically and technically important as well. Voutilainen has designed and implemented a modern version of A. L. Breguet’s so-called “natural” escapement. A conventional lever escapement gives impulse to the balance via a lever, using a single escape wheel. Voutilainen’s caliber 28 uses two escape wheels, which give impulse directly to the balance, in both directions. More details on the specific advantages of this escapement are in our in-depth look at the “natural” escapement and its modern variations, right here.
Interestingly enough, Voutilainen expressed to us that he has little to no interest in expanding his business; having found a happy medium between volume and general personal and artistic satisfaction, his central goal seems to be simply to go on making watches, as much as possible, how he wants to make them. His approach means his watches are very expensive (a GMT-6 will be in excess of $100,000, and the Vingt-8 costs around $70,000 to $80,000 depending on metal and other factors, as we reported here; both come in 39 mm cases). But the feeling you get from Voutilainen’s work is that despite the cost, what you are the recipient of is horology practiced primarily as a craft, and only incidentally as a business.
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