AHCI: The Tinkerers’ Club

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By Iris Wimmer-OlbortMore from this author

Together they're a collective of elitists: The most creative and best watchmakers have joined forces in the Academie Horlogére des Créateurs Indépendants, AHCI for short.

Svend Andersen, founding member of AHCI, is building the smallest calendar watch and the flattest world clock in the world
You can read the hours during the day and at night at one glance from the Grande Jour & Nuit from the studio of Svend Anderson. Manual winding movement, red-gold casing and blue-gold face
Vianney Halter creates the watches of the brand name HTO Watches together with the designers Pascal Pagés and Jean Yves Mariez - here is the model Grand Voyageur The Railway Time
He is known as a creator of impossible time machines: Vianney Halter

Their driving motivation is great ambition and the enjoyment of technical challenges. The members of the AHCI, the "academy of independent and creative watchmakers", are the creative minds of the watchmaker's industry. They are constantly reinventing the watch in their studios: unusual displays, indicators never seen before and miniaturized watch movements. Ground-breaking ideas are linked to the origins of classical watchmaking and the sky is the limit to the imagination of the 28 academy members from ten different nations.

This group set itself high standards when it was founded in 1984: whoever wants to be a member of AHCI has to be able to design a technical construction, complication or an entire watch movement from scratch and translate his or her design into reality at a high level of quality and aesthetics. That is unbelievably complicated and there are only a few watchmakers who master their craft that well. Looking at it this way, AHCI is not just an academy in the specific sense of the word. The criteria for membership are already so high that there's little left to learn. It's no surprise that the creations of these great talents have a major impact on the world of luxury watches, particularly because some AHCI members are already working for known brands.

At BaselWorld, the largest jewelry and watch show in the world that takes place in Switzerland every spring, the stand of the academy is the place where all watch cognoscenti and industry insiders find their way to. It's where you find the most extraordinary constructions and iconic designs every year.

Perfect engineering in an aesthetical guise: the watch from Svend Andersen
The Time Machine Perpetual Antiqua from Vianney Halter breaks with traditions. Various differently sized displays remind you of portholes and they reveal the time and an eternal calendar

Records and astounding tales

Svend Andersen is a founding member of the academy and has been its speaker for 17 years. In other words, he is one of its masterminds. He hails from Denmark, but he lives and works in Geneva where he comes up with and builds extraordinary watches. At 63, he has even made it into the Guinness Book of Records with the flattest world clock and the smallest calendar watch in the world. But, it's not only engineering that is a challenge to him. Andersen says "translating it into an aesthetic design is also an important thing to me personally". He is inspired by unusual materials and he builds watch faces of blue gold or moon phase displays from multi-colored mother-of-pearl. "The complication is brought to bear by precious materials, and vice versa. That's the yin and yang of a beautiful watch."

The creations of Vianney Halter are also highly coveted. In his studio in Sainte-Croix, a small city in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland, he combines mechanisms never seen before with unique designs. That has given him the reputation of a creator of impossible time machines. "I want to translate my ideas into reality, even if they don't go down the beaten path", as Vianney Halter says. There is no such thing as traditional in this 43-year-old artist's creations.

Inspired by science fiction literature, the writer Jules Verne, old scientific instruments and antique cars, he joins forces with designers to create watches with glossy rivets, attached wheels, unusual hands and displays that remind you of portholes. There are also unusual things to discover inside. The transparent bottom of the Time Machine Perpetual Antiqua gives you an idea of the inner workings of its automatic movement for a real surprise: its centrifugal mass is invisible since it is made of sapphire glass.

The watchmaker Felix Baumgartner (one the right-hand side) and designer Martin Frei represent a new way to look at time with their Urwerk brand name
The UR 103 from Urwerk calls a space ship to mind: The hours are shown on four conical discs in a wing window and you can read the minutes on the lower edge of the case
Watches without hands: The mechanical timepieces from Urwerk, the watch brand name by Felix Baumgartner, catch you off guard with entirely new ways to show the time - here's the UR 103 model
The UR 102 from Urwerk doesn't need any hands at all: The hour wanders through the semicircular cut-out
Marco Lang is iconic for classical watchmaking with spectacular details from his brand name Lang & Heyne
A new type of display: The Moritz of Saxony model from Lang & Heyne shows the angle of the sun shining in to the equator at 12 o'clock

Crazy ideas for estimated time

The watches of Felix Baumgartner also evoke amazement and astonishment. In joint efforts with the designer Martin Frei, this 31-year-old artist set up the Urwerk brand name in Geneva that has dedicated itself to a new way of looking at time - in watches without hands. One of these models has the hour hand move through a semi-circular window, which allows the wearer to estimate the quarter hours on the semicircle. In fact, it is hard to get any more precise.

Baumgartner's philosophy is "you don't have to know the time right down to the minute and second" Model UR 103 is no less unusual because the hours are shown in a wing window while the minutes are shown on the lower edge of the case. The Urwerk watchmakers want to remain faithful to this idea. "We want to make more crazy wristwatches that go where no conventional mechanism has ever gone before" according to Felix Baumgartner.

Unusual talent: Felix Baumgartner is a gifted watchmaker
Marco Lang refines specific parts of his watches and watch movements with great care applying old techniques such as tin polishing
Classically elegant: The King John model from Lang & Heyne with an enamel face in unmistakable rosé gold case

His German colleague Lang has an entirely different approach to his art. He says "the watchmaker's art is supposed to be high on the agenda at our company Lang & Heyne". This is the reason why his watches have a classical and traditional appearance and they have the elegance of historical pocket watches. And the details reveal something spectacular: hand-crafted watch hands, classical enamel watch faces, mat ground wheel bridges or diamonds as the crown of the watch. The Dresden-based watchmaker Lang isn't trying to copy old techniques. Instead, he says "l want to transform the beauty of old watches into the present". And he is also exploring new avenues; the Moritz of Saxony calendar watch has a new type of declination display and shows the angle of the midday sun to the equator in the exquisite beauty of gold and enamel.

The watchmakers add to the prestige of AHCI with these aesthetical and technically polished creations. Svend Andersen: "We have been successful at putting the spotlight on watchmakers and boosting the appreciation for mechanical watches. A lot of the new ideas of recent years can be attributed to AHCI members. That's why watch fans looking for something special come to the academy."


by Iris Wimmer-Olbort

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Iris Wimmer-Olbort

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