How Swiss Clockmaker L’Épée 1839 Mastered The Art Of The Collab
For 172 years, L’Épée 1839 stuck to what it knew best – producing handmade clocks in the finest Swiss traditions for distinguished customers. It made carriage clocks and alarm clocks and was also a notable maker of mechanical music boxes.
That all changed in 2011. Over the past decade, L’Épée 1839 has discovered a new creative outlet – and with it, a new audience – as the maker of clocks shaped like tanks, planes, spiders and space stations. And often finished in black or silver with bright colour accents and distinctly avant-garde textures, rather than the mirror polishing or hand-engraving of yesteryear.
What prompted such a radical new direction? A meeting with none other than Mr Max Büsser, co-founder of MB&F. The maverick businessman and inspirational thinker had set up his own brand in 2005, founded explicitly on the notion of collaboration between artisans and craftsmen, and was in the process of starting his next wild venture, a series of experimental contemporary art galleries cum showrooms, known as the M.A.D. (Mechanical Art Devices) Galleries.
“We opened our first M.A.D.Gallery in Geneva in 2011,” says Büsser, “and I started hunting for creations to populate it. I met the great team at L’Epée and suggested some wacky ideas to them. Against all the odds, they thought I was not completely insane and turned them into real, incredible clocks.”
Through Büsser, L’Épée 1839 embarked on a series of collaborative projects and found itself catapulted into the blossoming world of cutting-edge indie watch brands, including Urwerk, De Bethune and Vianney Halter, which had already captured the imagination of a new generation of watch collectors. Among such left-field minds, whose watches rarely featured anything so mundane as a round case or a simple dial, the designers and engineers at L’Épée were surprisingly at home.
“They have been utterly incredible,” says Büsser. “It is so counter-intuitive when you see what they were creating and crafting before we turned up on their doorstep. But not only have they never turned down any of our ideas, they bring their own ones in the process to improve on the initial project. That is why these machines are so exceptional. I am still trying to find an idea that will stump them.”
The “machines” in question – MB&F and L’Épée’s co-branded clocks – now number 14 and show no sign of slowing down.
One reason these pieces, which are both completely fanciful and entirely serious in their construction, have captured the imagination is they have come along just as the watch industry as a whole has reached peak collab. Collaborative designs have never been hotter, whether you’re talking about the work done by Bamford Watch Department on staples from TAG Heuer and Zenith or the growing popularity of cross-segment designs. It would be remiss not to mention our own string of collaborative designs, most recently the MR PORTER x IWC 10th Anniversary Edition Pilot’s Chronograph.
L’Épée’s collaborations do not begin and end with MB&F. It has partnered with Scottish watch designer Ms Fiona Krüger to scale up her skull-shaped Memento Mori watches to wall clocks. The Vanitas clock measures 30cm x 20cm and has a 35-day power reserve, shown by the jawbone of the skull, which slowly opens wider as it runs down. So when it’s grinning a full deathly grin, it’s time to wind it up again.
“I see my watches like miniature pieces of art, so instinctively I thought about creating a wall-clock,” Kruger says. “I designed it so that elements of the mechanism were framed by key features of the skull. How would a skull show that it was running out of power? It would yawn, showing its owner that it was tired and needed winding up. This marriage between the technical and the design is part of what makes our pieces special; actions like the yawn act like a bridge for people to relate to mechanics through our objects. I was thrilled when the team at L’Epee loved the idea – it was a challenge they readily took on and enjoyed. I immersed myself in their world, looking at their technical and production capabilities, and their openness to sharing what they do was a huge help for the project.”
Most recently, L’Épée has built on the success of its collaborative efforts and developed its own range of creative art timepieces. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the Time Fast D8, a clock that looks like a 1950s racing car. The beating heart of the clock takes the place of the driver’s helmet, while the time is adjusted with the steering wheel and displayed via the black and white cylinders mounted in the middle of the car. Best of all, to wind up the eight-day mechanism, simply pull the car backwards on a flat surface – the rear wheels turn and wind up the mainspring. Measuring 38cm long and weighing nearly 5kg, each colour is limited to 100 pieces. Can your desk really do without one?