Introducing Ressence X MR PORTER Watches
How the outsider watch brand became the insider’s favourite. Plus: a first look at the exclusive, limited-edition designs.
At the risk of stating the forehead-smackingly obvious, the watch industry is not a modern one. Despite frequent and insistent claims of innovation from brands eager to justify the creation of new models, watch aficionados are, at heart, connoisseurs of anachronism.
But there are always those early adopters who hanker for something different and, over the past few years, Belgian brand Ressence – which produces just 300 watches a year, and this week launches two limited-edition pieces for MR PORTER – has become a compelling alternative for those in the know.
While most watchmakers look to the past for inspiration, there is a Swiss avant-garde. The emergence of brands such as MB&F and Urwerk in the past two decades has ushered in a new aesthetic and kept some of the establishment brands on their toes. But all of the above come from the Swiss tradition. No matter how wild their designs or wacky their whirligigs, their creators were trained in Swiss watchmaking schools and apprenticed at the likes of Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. For genuine innovation in watchmaking, it takes an outsider.
Mr Benoît Mintiens is that man. He sees himself as a designer and engineer first, and a watchmaker second. With projects as varied as TGV locomotives, aircraft cabins, vacuum cleaners, hunting rifles and medical technology on his CV, it’s hard to argue with him. He is also the brains behind these two limited-edition watches, created exclusively for MR PORTER.
Watchmaking is now Mr Mintiens’ number-one focus, and has been since 2010 when, at Baselworld watch fair, he displayed the prototypes that would become the Type 1 some four years later. Today the company is highly respected by serious collectors and has been accepted by the notoriously hard-to-infiltrate watch industry. But, more broadly, Ressence watches appeal to people who simply appreciate fine design and innovation.
The Type 1 remains nearest to the engineer’s heart, and it was only natural to use it as the platform for the limited editions for MR PORTER. One in titanium with a blue dial, and one in rose gold, they are the most elegant take on the Ressence look yet. The latter comes with a sandblasted silver dial that is almost white, with rose gold LumiNova-filled hands and subtle red accents on the seconds dial and day indicator. In blue, the watch is marked out by its silver chapter rings and baby-blue accents. Both models have an engraved and numbered titanium caseback. And by the way, limited editions are seriously limited: just six of the rose gold and 12 of the titanium.
“They are extremely fresh designs,” says Mr Mintiens. “The rose gold is a monobloc case, milled out of one piece. We have done rose gold before, but not like this. We could have put in dark hands, but it’s a lot fresher with the gold. The silver dial – sandblasted so you get this off-white colour – is a lot more natural than a harsh white.”
It could be argued that Mr Mintiens has re-engineered clockwork. His designs take the bare minimum from recognisable watchmaking. Crucial to the whole concept, however, is the understanding that you can pack as much innovation into a watch as you like, but if the end result is too taxing to read or operate, you have failed. On a Ressence, the hour and minute hands may not pivot about the same point, and they may shift position around the watch face, but the time is still legible at a glance by the angle formed between the two.
The extent to which Ressence rips up the rule book is all the more impressive when you consider how common it is for start-up brands to mix a few off-the-shelf parts with quirky design and some token customisation, and arrive at a five-figure price tag. Everything Ressence has created beyond the base movement – the rotating dial, the crown-free winding system, the miniature mechanical bellows that measure the oil pressure – represents enormous investment in R&D, and a fundamental belief that the results are worth it.
While other watchmakers abhor magnets (owing to their ruinous influence on springs) and work to reduce their movements’ reliance on oils, Mr Mintiens made both materials fundamental to the Type 3. The case exists in two halves. The display is filled with oil, allowing for near-perfect legibility at all angles (a strength later exploited in the Type 5 diving watch). An impermeable barrier separates this from the underside of the watch, where small neodymium magnets link the rotation of the hour, minute and seconds discs to the mechanical movement.
It is not innovation alone that has led Ressence to its current standing as a respected independent brand. In truth, there is perhaps no single element that explains its success. The answer is more likely that it has done what others have failed to do in combining beautiful design, unobtrusive innovation and a savvy 21st-century head for branding and marketing. It also helps that Mr Mintiens is an engaging, modest and personable character who doesn’t take himself too seriously. One part eccentric inventor, two parts design guru, he’s enthusiastic without being overbearing.
As Spanish watch collector Mr Darío Fernández De Villavicenzio, one of Ressence’s first customers, puts it: “I encountered Ressence at its first Baselworld. It was just Benoît back then, and I was quite taken by the Type 0. It was such a fresh, unpolluted take on watch design. It was good to discover that something new could be done – and it was so important that he wasn’t a watchmaker, wasn’t ‘contaminated’ by the industry.”
This January, Ressence exhibited for the first time at the SIHH in Geneva. Exclusively the preserve of Haute Horlogerie brands, the Richemont-run salon expanded in 2016 with an area dedicated to selected independent watchmakers, the Carré des Horlogers. It is undoubtedly a mark of prestige, a seat at the top table, and yet Mr Mintiens is keen to stress the brand’s unique status within that rarefied company. “When you look at the Carré des Horlogers, it is pretty rare to be able to speak to multiple audiences – we say in French, ‘to play in another sandpit’. That is amazing for an independent brand. But our product doesn’t just speak to a single clientele. They sell technicité [best translated as ‘technical mastery’], which we also sell, but ours is well clothed. It’s not in your face.” And that, in short, is the essence of Ressence.