Inside the World’s Only Watch Design University
Originally published by Anders Modig on Hodinkee.
Opening doors reveal the soft humming of machines, which mixes with conversations of carefree twenty-somethings milling about the leafy courtyard of HEAD – Genève. The 19th-century stone complex – a mix of exhibition spaces, workshops, libraries and classrooms located around the corner from the main station – is a typical artistic university: not too many students, but brimming with creativity. Still, it is also very atypical in that one of its chairs is truly unique: Alongside all the degrees you’d expect like visual arts, design, fashion and visual communication, HEAD – Genève has bachelor’s and master’s level programs dedicated to watchmaking design.
This features watchmaking culture like sketches, knowledge of watchmaking products, watch complications, packaging design and product environment, advanced 2-D design, as well as 3-D modeling and rendering. Says Jean-Pierre Greff, headmaster/director of HEAD: “The watchmaking design program has been in place for three years. Now we have a complete master’s program with four students. One of them is also simultaneously working for a very famous company, thus developing a master’s thesis project for potential commercial use. We are also happy about the new brand that has partnered with us for student projects: Urwerk."
I go into a room on the innermost corner of the courtyard, which despite its location is bathed in sunlight pouring in through generous windows. Creative chaos reigns: metallic green industrial machines, cartons of crumpled up oil paint tubes, rough wooden shelves and simple benches surrounded by young faces lit up by Apple laptops. On this day Jean-Marc Wiederrecht of Agenhor, independent watchmaker for brands like Faberge, MB&F, Van Cleef & Arpels, Hermès and several others under nondisclosure agreements, is conducting a workshop. His presence at HEAD has resulted in the Carpe Diem table clock, designed by students Bérénice Noël and Florian Wicki. The unique object will go on the block during the Only Watch charity auction in Geneva on November 11. The Carpe Diem is a transparent 84-millimeter perfect Plexiglas sphere, sandblasted at the front, whereas the rest conceals nothing, yet protects everything. Thus all 484 parts of Agenhor’s AgenGraphe movement in its innards are magnified 1.6 times.
Wiederrecht presented this chronograph movement in 2017, and so far he has supplied it to Fabergé and Singer. The big difference here is instead of having all central chronograph hands, the various chronograph indications on Carpe Diem are revolving discs with a linear reading point in the middle of a triangular aperture. The movement and the discs were the only prerequisites from Wiederrecht; otherwise the students were given free rein. “It is a whirlwind of numbers, which becomes a very poetic notion of time,” says Bérénice Noël about the AgenGraphe movement that will never again be used exactly like this.
“A ball is an object without stability, which is the unfortunate fate of kids suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, to which the proceeds of the Only Watch auction goes. The instability of the clock also adds a tactile dimension to the design,” explains Florian Wicki.
“The name is about catching the moments that you have left of your life when you have the disease – the concept of time changes when every moment becomes something extremely precious,” says Noël about the project that was also supported by the HEAD teachers Valérie Ursenbacher and Serena Trabalza.
Just after finalizing the design of Carpe Diem the duo plunged straight into the next school project – a Piaget workshop/competition, which could land them an internship in the jewelry department at Piaget – which they would actually prefer. “Watches are more difficult; they are so small. With jewelry it’s different, you can do what you want, whereas a watch is too restrictive. I like explosive jewelry – crazy things. It is more difficult to design watches than jewelry,” says Wicki.
“I don’t want to close the door on watches, but I prefer jewelry. That’s why we take such pleasure in the Carpe Diem concept: it blurs the border between watches and jewelry,” says Noël, who believes that watch designers could look more to jewelry to learn more about “finesse, liberty and more fun.”
Bachelor’s student Sandra Garsaud has designed a kids’ collection with unusual materials: blonde beechwood bezels, rubber straps and aluminum cases. Her conceptual collection with functioning prototypes comprises four stages of watches for four different ages. “These are obviously for children whose parents are interested in watchmaking, design and not throwing things away,” she says about the watches where you can use the same bracelet for several. The four watches feature fundamental complications in four levels. The première is the most basic watch. It has no indexes, no number, no drawing on the dial – just one 24-hour hand, that enables you to just see how time goes by. The second watch, approximately from the age of five or six features a jumping hour.
“The hour on the first watch should never be in between – a young child cannot fathom the slow movement of the hour hand,” Garsaud explains. “For older kids comes then the complication watch in three versions – perpetual calendar, chronograph or moon phase – powered by quartz movements.” The fourth stage of mildly brainwashing children into watch aficionados? A watch with a mechanical movement, of course. This watch features hour and minutes with a heartbeat open dial revealing the pulsating balance wheel. “My goal is to make an object which is functional and can be worn; it is not about having just a vision and not a finalized product. It is important for me to design something that can be made.”
On the bench next to the Noël-Wicki team I meet Iris Gigon, who is working on a new kind of complication: a simplified, easy-to-use alarm function housed in a unisex case measuring between 39 and 41 millimeters. “I don’t know if it will work. But I am trying to make a reminder of the egg timer, where you simply turn the bezel to activate the alarm up to 60 minutes. This would be a complication for everyday use in the kitchen or for a scientist or as a reminder during workshops, sports...I want to create something that works for everybody. And it would be easier to use than the countdown function on your smartphone,” Gigon says. She is also doing a lot of research into bracelets, which led her to creating smooth, big-scaled, very elegant prototypes of unexpected origin: salmon skin, with a stabilizing middle layer of nubuck. “To use salmon is very ‘fair’; it doesn’t have the problematics of cruelties with snake or crocodile. The material is not well known today, but I think we will see a lot of salmon bracelets in a few years in the watch industry,” Gigon predicts.
Another HEAD project with an extremely high level of innovation and hitherto unseen design elements, although not part of watch design per se, is the GraphicCeram watch dial project of Magdalena Gerber. Her 2012 master’s thesis project in art design and innovation could be called “mineral design,” where for instance ceramic materials are being artistically elevated through a craft-oriented perspective and the methodology to go with it. These designs feature superexciting combos like sapphire glass melted together with enamel and magnesium carbonate, which gives uniquely speckled, multileveled, and highly textural and tactile dial surfaces.
Other results emerging from the roaring hot, 1,500-2,400° F furnaces were the deep, deep blue transparent enameling on cobalt and enameling mixed with zirconium: blue-greenish surfaces with organic black speckles, reminiscent of a mossy rock submerged in a dark lake on a sunny day. Gerber’s project also offered technical insights. For instance “traditional” laser engraving of these new material fusions led to unexpected thermic reactions: the material evaporated when absorbing the laser’s energy, resulting in visible fissures. Thus it was replaced by so-called “athermic laser engraving,” which works with extremely short bursts of laser – we are talking about femtoseconds or 10-15, in other words, a quadrillionth of a second. This worked.
Jean-Marc Wiederrecht is only one of several professionals from the watch industry working with HEAD. For instance the watch history classes are done in collaboration with the experts from the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, and among the designers I notice Alexandre Peraldi, the flamboyant kilt-wearing head of design at Baume & Mercier, and the founders of Etude de Style, who work for a plethora of brands ranging from Hamilton to HYT (and many more than you will find on their website – watch brands just love to keep their suppliers of everything from blued screws to design under nondisclosures). And if it weren’t for Manuel Emch, the former boss of RJ-Romain Jerome and Jaquet Droz, the chair in watchmaking would perhaps not even exist.
“I had one frustration when I was back in La Chaux-de-Fonds during the Swatch Group days. I always found that back then we were lacking creative forces in the people heading the design and product department – they were not from a creative background, but people sporting MBAs. And you need creativity in the watch industry, where one of the major assets is the ability create emotions – I would say a watch is more of an emotional than a functional object,” Emch says. “So, when I joined RJ [in 2010], I contacted HEAD to collaborate with them. Could I perhaps do a workshop with the students? From my days of studying design and economics – in all honesty I am better in business than in design – I also knew the importance of companies giving projects to students where they can really work. It went well, I shared some more contacts, and then I was a sounding board when they set up the program. Now I am on the board of the university.”
Swiss Made is of course important branding for a watch, but to Emch the education also enriches the industry through the plethora of international students. “Students from the United States, China, Sweden can maybe develop the industry in their country – and it works both ways: the watch design programs at HEAD become a fantastic opportunity to bring other attitudes, mentalities and cultures into the existing watchmaking environment in Switzerland.”
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