Hubert Burda Media

Man at Werk

Avant-garde Swiss watchmaker Urwerk's co-founder Felix Baumgartner is constantly searching for new heights to conquer.

Man at Werk

Popular culture holds the Middle Ages in high regard. From the recent HBO blockbuster series, Game of Thrones, to Hollywood favourites such as Excalibur, Kingdom of Heaven and The Lord of the Rings, there is a certain mystery, bravado and allure that hold audiences captive. And Felix Baumgartner, co-founder and master watchmaker at Urwerk, is no different from the typical fan — judging by his manufacture's latest creation.
Featuring a titanium body reinforced by a steel armour that serves as the timepiece's bezel, the UR-105M comes in two versions: Iron Knight, which is cloaked in brushed steel, and Dark Knight, sheathed by AlTiN-treated steel. Orbiting on the dial of this medieval-inspired piece are the manufacture's four satellite dishes that display the time through an opening on a circular PEEK (PolyEtherEthercetone) canopy on the dial. If not for its futuristic satellite time indication — Urwerk's most recognisable trademark — the UR-105M would look quite at home on a knight's wrist.
“When the first armours surfaced 500 years ago, they were totally futuristic,” says Baumgartner. He also notes how all watch cases serve to protect the delicate movement that lies within, so the case of a timepiece is really just an armour that shields its mechanical heart, making its design direction a rather poetic one.
Baumgartner's pedigree is well-known. Like knights born into nobility, the horologist has watchmaking in his blood with both his grandfather and father having worked for IWC Schaffhausen in the past. His inclination towards horology came early, so following a stint at a watchmaking school in Solothurn and part-time work for Vacheron Constantin, Baumgartner founded Urwerk in 1995 with his brother Thomas and designer Martin Frei. Urwerk's entry into the industry was welcomed like a breath of fresh air, with its determination to offer novel watches that beat to the tempo of the future acknowledged by enthusiasts.
From its signature satellite time indication pieces to last year's Electro Mechanical Control (EMC) watch — the world's first mechanical timepiece that allows the wearer to adjust its precision — the Swiss manufacture's horologes push the boundaries of traditional watchmaking. “We just do what we like to do,” says Baumgartner with a laugh. “[Our] watches have to be different — and that's it. That's what makes it interesting to us.”
Likening his horological creations to having children, Baumgartner finds it impossible to pick a favourite, but clearly recalls the UR-103 as being the most challenging piece he has created to date. “We came into a new dimension with the 103 — the satellite discs were no longer flat, but three-dimensional,” he explains. “So the whole dial and mechanism had to become three-dimensional and that was a big challenge at that time, 11 years ago.” Urwerk went on to produce the UR-103 in various finishes over the collection's seven-year run, including white gold, red gold and TiAlN (titanium aluminium nitride) before retiring the line in 2010.
Apart from pushing technological boundaries in watchmaking, Urwerk is also known for its use of highly technical materials, such as TiAlN and AlTiN, to reinforce its cases — a likely contributing factor to the sizeable price tag that accompanies the timepieces. So when the new UR-105M debuted this year with a seemingly lower price point (starting from 58,000 Swiss francs or S$80,645), much chatter erupted among watch aficionados.
“Actually, it is in the same price category as the 103,” clarifies Baumgartner. “The 105 is a further evolution of the 103 — the next step of that category — so it continues the price point and complication [of the 103].” The watchmaker also asserts that Urwerk has not deviated from its pricing bracket over the years (between 60,000 and 300,000 francs).
Just when it seems like Urwerk has done it all, the contemporary watchmaker drops a bombshell: It will launch its first-ever women's timepiece in about a year's time. For a watchmaker who has never once defined its watches as either masculine or feminine but rather simply “watches”, a dedicated ladies' watch is a huge step — and one that many will be eagerly anticipating. However, Baumgartner is coy about the new women's watch and refuses to divulge details. “I don't like to talk [about a project] before it is [completed],” he says simply. “Because before it's done and really working, I don't really know if it will happen.”
His only admission is the piece will be less edgy and technical-oriented, compared to its more masculine counterparts — but knowing the independent watchmaker, it will be no less fascinating. “It will not be a downsized version [of our other pieces],” he reassures with a smile. “That is not our approach. It will be a watch on its own.”
Exclusivity remains important, seeing as how the manufacture has no plans to increase its production of about 150 watches a year. “It's a possibility that we might produce 180 pieces this year,” he acquiesces with a small shrug. “But [it will hover] around these numbers.”
Baumgartner's well of creativity is seemingly endless, no doubt owing to the many sources from which he draws inspiration. Whether from his children's toys or from his dreams at night, the man is inspired by almost everything around him. “Anywhere and any moment, I may [get an idea],” he says with a smile. “Our life, our interests, our education…everything comes together in a watch.”