For the debut of his own watch company, Stéphane von Gunten, a veteran Swiss watchmaker whose career has included a litany of jobs at elite brands and more than 30 patents, created a model that emphasizes what he called the “first pillar” of his new Haute-Rive brand: “to respect tradition.”
He didn’t need to look further than his family tree for inspiration.
In a way, his first release, called Honoris I, is a sequel to the historic timepiece created by his paternal great-great-grandfather Irénée Aubry. Titled La Montre du Pape (in English, the Pope’s Watch), it was commissioned by the Swiss canton of Jura in 1887 as a gift to Pope Leo XIII. The pocket watch, which kept time for 40 days on a single wind, is now believed to be in a private collection. (Mr. Aubry also was responsible for a patent behind the Hebdomas, an eight-day watch popular in the early 20th century.)
Mr. von Gunter’s new watch is a combination of a flying tourbillon — a mechanism that counters gravity’s effects on time-keeping accuracy — and a 1,000-hour, or 41-day, power reserve.
He said that power reserve is a record-setting feat for a timepiece using a single mainspring and tourbillon. (When a watch is wound, the mainspring is coiled; its uncoiling creates the energy to run a watch, so watches with lengthy running times often must have multiple mainsprings.)
The new watch is wound with the bezel, the ring that holds the crystal in place around the dial’s outer edge. Mr. von Gunten said he chose that method, rather than the conventional winding process using the crown, the small knob outside the watch case, because it provided more torque: “We need fewer turns — about 60 —- to completely wind the watch.”
Also, while most watches with tourbillons and long power reserves require relatively thick cases, the Honoris I is a comparatively compact 42.5 millimeters in diameter and 11.95 millimeters thick (1.7 inches wide and 0.5 inches thick).
The dress watch — available in 18-karat white, yellow or rose gold — has a grand feu enamel dial in white or black (Grand feu enameling requires multiple firings of enamel powder layered on a metal surface). It sells for 148,000 Swiss francs ($167,955).
Even though he was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a Swiss town whose history is so entwined with watchmaking that its very architecture and layout were tailored to industry needs, Mr. von Gunten said he didn’t focus on his ancestor’s work in his younger days. “Maybe I was not experienced enough to understand how amazing it was,” he said.
That changed about two years ago when a cousin showed him a newspaper clipping about Mr. Aubry’s work. The rediscovery set Mr. von Gunten on the road to establishing his own company (which has the same name as Aubrey’s, Haute-Rive, a reference to the business’s location on the high, dry bank of the once flood-prone Lake Neuchâtel).
“For me, it was a revelation because increasing the power reserve was always a focus for me in watchmaking,” he said. “When I realized someone in my family was already a master of long power reserve watches, I thought I should try to continue that work.”
He said Mr. Aubry’s achievement was remarkable because it was done “with old tools, and almost no microscopes, no measurement tools and so on.”
Mr. von Gunten, who had the benefit of technology, said that his challenge “was to reach the same power reserve, but in a wearable wristwatch.” The Honoris I, which debuted in August during Geneva Watch Week, is nearly one-third smaller in diameter than the Pope’s Watch, yet its power reserve is 24 hours longer. And while the designs vary, the new timepiece has a fluted bezel inspired by the original.
The current Haute-Rive production methods do resemble the cottage industry operation of Mr. Aubry’s day: parts are made by suppliers and assembly is primarily done on a freelance basis by one of Mr. von Gunten’s cousins and an independent watchmaker. Just 10 watches are to be made annually.
Mr. von Gunten sells the watch himself at selected events and plans to work with a small network of retailers; it already is available through Ethos, a chain of luxury watch boutiques in India. “Because I’m so small, it’s an advantage for me to be close to the final customer,” he said. “And I can do that, can even travel to the final customer to explain how the watch works.”
Embracing traditional techniques and materials could be considered a surprising turn for Mr. von Gunten, 46, whose career has included some significant cutting edge efforts.
In 2005, he worked on the Franck Muller Totally Crazy watch, which displays hours and dates out of sequence so the hands must jump different distances as time changes. At Patek Philippe, from 2005 to 2007, he was part of the team that developed Spiromax, a balance spring made of a silicon derivative. His longest tenure — more than 12 years — was at Ulysse Nardin, where he rose to research and innovation director.
According to Markus Hansen, a portfolio manager in New York with Vontobel’s Quality Growth Boutique, current conditions in the industry, with lengthy waiting lists for sought-after watches, could prove to be favorable for Mr. von Gunten’s brand.
The shortages of popular timepieces, he said, “has allowed a lot of these smaller guys and niche guys to develop a business model because they have the kind of product people are looking for.”
And such brands with a degree of “heritage” and manufacturing integrity can themselves become highly desirable, he said, giving buyers bragging rights when they purchase unusual pieces. “It’s almost akin to art,” he said. “The people who are in the know will know what you’re wearing.”
About 18 months ago, when Mr. von Gunten was ready to establish his company, one of the first people he contacted was Patrik Hoffmann, who had been chief executive at Ulysse Nardin during Mr. von Gunten’s years with the brand. Mr. Hoffmann now has a consultancy and is executive vice president for Europe at WatchBox, a platform for pre-owned luxury watches.
At the time, Mr. von Gunten “had the story and the concept,” Mr. Hoffman said, but little else. “It was all on paper.” Still, he signed on as an investor and put Mr. von Gunten in contact with potential backers; now he serves on the Haute-Rive board of directors and describes himself as a “coach” for the fledgling brand.
Mr. Hoffmann said he was sold on the concept for Honoris I, but it was Mr. von Gunten’s track record that was even more compelling.
“There are a lot of young watchmakers who start their own brands,” he said. “They come up with a concept, or with a look, which is outstanding, but that’s not enough to become watch a brand.”
Mr. von Gunten, in contrast, was a proven quantity. “I know him,” Mr. Hoffmann said. “He was involved in so many patents and developments, which were going in all kinds of directions. I know that this is not going to end with the one idea of the 1,000-hour power reserve.”
Mr. von Gunten said he does not have a fixed notion of where the company is going. “I have some ideas for the next two or three years, but no more,” he said.
Its next watch, however, may diverge from the classical mode. “I could do something more trendy,” he hinted.
For the moment, however, he is satisfied with being able to focus on Haute-Rive and the reception it has received. “I’ve had the great pleasure to share the techniques behind the watches.” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed the journey.”