What a difference a century makes. In 1912 gentlemen checked the time with big-balance pocket watches that ticked via a slow-beat balance wheel. The dials on those 18,000 bph beauties often were domed and their bridges were ornately finished, though unless the case was a Hunter type that clicked to open the caseback, the engraved, highly polished bridges would have been visible only to the watchmaker.
Maximilian Büsser, the M and B of MB&F, not long ago imagined himself as one of those 1912 gentlemen. With his 2012 knowledge, he mused, what might he concoct today that would also appear contemporary to that bygone era?
You’ve likely seen the result of Büsser’s mental time traveling, the MB&F Legacy Machine No. 1, which we’ve pictured on this month’s cover. With the assistance of horological geniuses Jean-Francois Mojon (who we profiled in our May issue) and Kari Voutilainen, Büsser debuted the piece last year to glowing notices, and is now delivering the finished products around the globe.
To MB&F aficionados, the Legacy Machine marks a clear break from the independent firm’s annual look into watchmaking’s crystal ball. You’ll recall that MB&F’s previous designs were seemingly yanked from the future, or more correctly, from Max Büsser’s imagined future.
Büsser has often noted that his love of science fiction informs his designs, and that imaginary look ahead appears most clearly in the firm’s HM2 (2008) and HM3 (2009), though the firm’s first watch, the architecturally inspired HM1, can easily be imagined as futurist’s look at timepiece design. And just two years ago, the aviation-minded Thunderbolt (HM4) purposefully blurred the distinction between sculpture and timepiece.
While not the stuff of science fiction, the Legacy Machine is not strictly a nod to Victorian mores.
“It was our personal challenge to prove that yes it is possible to be super creative and innovative whilst retaining the codes of classic horology, and no, you don’t need to continuously copy what has been done for the hundreds of years before us,” explains Büsser (see interview within this article).
First, this Machine is not a pocket watch, though its style owes much to those vest-centric designs. Second, take a look at the protuberances that hover above the dial: the slow-beat balance hangs and gyrates from graceful twin arches like a high-wire gymnast under a circus tent.
Competing for attention, the power reserve indicator raises itself when wound up, delivering a three-dimensional display of remaining operating hours. Mojon and his crew at Chronode (Mojon’s company, which in 2010 won Best Watchmaking at the Geneva Grand Prix) have with this element created the world’s first vertical power reserve indicator, which Büsser compares to a miniature sextant. Both of these heightened elements require a bulbous sapphire crystal, a component that MB&F takes great pains (and expense) to custom-order from a world-renowned maker in Switzerland.
All that is visible under the crystal is unique. The regulating screws seen on the 14-mm balance are as customized as the retro-inspired domed (and “floating”) dials, which shine after the high-gloss lacquer is applied and heated several times. While the two lacquered dials aesthetically recall traditional finishes, with their blued hands and Roman numerals, each can be set independently, a feature rarely seen in even modern dual-time models.
And though set by individual crowns, each dial nonetheless is quite mysteriously regulated by the one very visible balance, adding another layer of intrigue to the piece.
Finishing the piece, Kari Voutilainen chose traditional methods, including Geneva waves, highly polished gold chatons and bridges superbly hand-beveled at angles not attainable with any machine. From the sapphire caseback you’ll see oversized ruby jewels set into those gold chatons. According to Büsser, the large jewels were frequently used in high-grade pocket watch movements to help reduce wear by accommodating large diameter pinions and holding more oil for efficient lubrication.
Now being delivered to wrists, MB&F’s Legacy Machine No. 1 is being made in white gold and rose gold.
MB&F Finnished its list of Friends this past May by adding Stepan Sarpaneva, a Helsinki-based watchmaker well known among collectors for his idiosyncratic dials and hand-forged cases. Born into a family of artists, Sarpaneva has stared long and hard at the Moon, which is easy to do in Finland during its long winter nights. As a result, his eponymous watch brand offerings have included a full-dial moon face model placed into one of his characteristic Korona cases.
Büsser last year asked Sarpaneva to meld his moon model with the MB&F HM3-based Frog, and this May the partners released the MoonMachine, a very specialized version of the Frog.
The Frog’s bulging eyes remain, but here they stare from a perpendicular perch rather than in the parallel alignment seen in the previous model. Sarpaneva’s mischievous Moon faces rotate to display their phases through a Korona-shaped aperture. The rotor is a steel disc with a 22-karat gold mass with laser-pierced stars that mimic those seen in the northern sky. The battle-axe, a shape MB&F uses frequently, sits in between the two moon faces at the axis of the rotor.
The watch is available in three limited editions of eighteen pieces each: titanium case with white gold moon faces in a light blue sky, black titanium case with white gold moon faces in a dark blue sky and red gold case with red gold moon faces in an anthracite sky.
Had you worked with Kari Voutilainen prior to your collaboration on the LM1?
Never, but it was an old dream of mine. I am Kari’s number one fan. His Chronometer 27 is to die for, and his new direct escapement is just stunning. The man has talent, taste and incredible knowledge. Not a common mix in today’s world of watchmaking.
Likewise, what was your history with Jean-Francois Mojon?
I had never worked with Jean-François either. I had been very impressed with what he had achieved with the DeGrisogono Meccanico, the MCT Sequential One and the Harry Winston Opus 10. Serge Kriknoff, my partner in MB&F, and I had gone to meet up with Jean-François a few times before pitching him this idea.
Was there a lot of back and forth between you and Mojon and Kari as the design was underway? How does the final result differ from initial sketches or prototypes?
Amazingly not. My original sketch and the subsequent design we developed with Eric Giroud are practically exactly the piece you see today. In my experience, that is the imprint of a great idea – some products just never develop with harmony and need to go back to the drawing board again and again. In the case of Legacy Machine, all went so smoothly that I think it was by far the easiest development process of my MB&F days –which of course does not mean it is the easiest product to develop!
Where did the idea for the vertical power reserve come from?
It came super naturally also. I wanted the LM1 to be the epitome of the 19th century. That century was amongst others the era of the Universal Exhibitions where each country and company would compete over the most amazing and efficient machines. From there it seemed just normal to integrate the lever system, which was arguably the most popular mechanical contraption in that century.
Do you think LM1 attracted press or buyers beyond what MB&F had previously seen? Did its round, more classic profile broaden your
I must admit that we do not think of that sort of consideration when we create a piece. We create what we believe in and then observe how the market reacts. In fact I had to battle against my whole team to create the LM1 because they initially thought it was not an MB&F!
When we presented it confidentially first during Basel 2011 to our existing retailers and took 230 pieces on order (our yearly production is sixty to seventy pieces) we realized suddenly what we had done. Yes, the Legacy Machine will be much easier to “understand” than our HM series, because it retains all the classic watch codes people have come to understand so well over a century of wristwatches.
It was our personal challenge to prove that yes it is possible to be super creative and innovative whilst retaining the codes of classic horology, and no, you don’t need to continuously copy what has been done for the hundreds of years before us. I think the result is definitely up to our expectations.
When you are considering your next machine, how do you determine which watchmakers/artists/designers to approach with the ideas?
A question of specific competence – every engineer/watchmaker has a preferred field – but also of personal feeling on our side. Jean-François is known for his ultra creative “new horology” creations and we still believed he was the man for our most classic creation to date. Kari was a no-brainer. He is the living anthology of our industry. Working for two years with Kari taught me more than the twenty years before.
Do watchmakers or artists approach you with their ideas for your next machine? How do you respond?
Indeed more and more people contact us these days with ideas they want to pitch us, and they leave a little surprised as we immediately turn them down before seeing anything they may have. What most people don’t really understand is that MB&F is a personal creative quest, and as such I have so many ideas in backlog that only time and money don’t allow us to make them come true all at the same time. Why would I look at anybody else’s creations if I cannot even transform all of mine into reality?
You’re trained technically, but do you consider yourself an artist as well?
If anyone had said I was an artist ten years ago I would have told them to get their head examined… How life changes you is amazing.
After twenty years in the watch industry, and now seven years at MB&F, I am actually starting to think of myself more as an artist. Why? Because I create only what I believe in while not taking any possible market acceptance into consideration and because I am continuously incorporating my personal souvenirs and life experience into my creations. Does that qualify? I still don’t know…
Will you consider opening a MAD Gallery anywhere else?
Sure, if we manage to find how to finance it (we auto-finance all our creations and the Geneva M.A.D. Gallery as well).
How have collectors in the United States responded to the LM1? Are U.S. collectors avid MB&F
The biggest issue in the U.S. is the quality (or in fact non-quality) of the distribution. Most retailers don’t actually like horology; they just love money and will easily forfeit long-term brand building for short-term benefits. To promote and sell an MB&F you need to not only really love watchmaking but also understand our very strong personal values so as to share it with customers. People still don’t walk into stores asking for MB&F pieces. We have now cut down to only one retail partner in the whole U.S.
Now, interestingly enough, U.S. customers are our number one clients in our Geneva M.A.D. Gallery when we don’t give any discount. This means there are indeed a lot of collectors who are fans of our creative lab but don’t find the right answers at their local retailers.
Can we show our readers a sneak peek at the next Machine?
Horological Machine No5 will be unveiled in November and all I can say is that it will be back to my childhood. In fact it will pretty much be the epitome of the Seventies!