Some time ago, our magazine shined a spotlight on the most important watch movement suppliers, offering a solid foundation for newcomers to base future purchases on. We intentionally limited ourselves to the big players whose movements power the majority of reasonably priced watches and make up a lion’s share of the market. This time, our focus is on those companies that may not be leaders when it comes to market share and output but instead shine due to their unparalleled expertise and exclusivity. Rather than produce ready-made movements, these manufacturers offer specially tailored and even bespoke watch movements to their customers. From this exclusive circle, we’ll introduce three representatives, their origins, and (of course) their most important creations.
In previous decades, high-end movement manufacturers were often only known among industry experts because watch brands preferred to take the glory for themselves without crediting who supplied their mechanical masterpieces. Recently, however, more and more brands are cultivating transparency regarding the origins of their high-end movements, which has led some workshops to gain a higher profile rather than continuing to operate in the shadows.
Some high-end movement developers have made such a name for themselves that collectors are guaranteed to covet their cooperations. The Genevan company Agenhor certainly belongs to that group. A glance at this complications specialist’s track record is enough to see that they’re no lightweight. Their résumé includes caliber for Parmigiani Fleurier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston, Arnold & Son, MB&F, and last but not least H. Moser & Cie, whose fascinating Streamliner Flyback Chronograph runs on the truly revolutionary “Agengraphe” caliber.
However, before we get into the details of this absolutely extraordinary movement, let’s take a brief look at Agenhor’s history. The company was founded in 1996 by watchmaker Jean-Marc Wiederrecht and his wife, Catherine. Wiederrecht had previously worked on complicated watches – in particular retrograde mechanisms – with another partner. That partner was no less than Roger Dubuis, who went on to start the brand bearing his name and later passed away in 2017.
Agenhor stands, above all, for the development of complex mechanisms and not for large-scale, vertically integrated production. Jean-Marc Wiederrecht was always convinced of the traditional Swiss system of specialist suppliers. Small workshops are unable to economically produce limited quantities and certain high-tech components anyway. One such highly specialized component is a toothed gear wheel that uses a spring to minimize the effect of shocks and the chances of the gears jamming. This component was fabricated by specialists at Mimotec using the LIGA process, and Jean-Marc Wiederrecht was granted the patent back in 2002. Movements with similar elastic gear wheels can be found in the limited Breitling Chronoworks from 2016 as well as the remarkable Patek Philippe 5212A, which was presented at Baselworld 2019.
Apart from MB&F’s alien-like creations, most of Agenhor’s movements are based on existing designs that were then outfitted with proprietary complication modules. However, the Agengraphe mentioned at the beginning was a new movement designed from the bottom up, which can certainly be described as one of the most radical and revolutionary watchmaking developments in modern times. As the name implies, this is a chronograph movement, and with almost 500 components, countless patents, and never-before-seen solutions, it eliminates some of the shortcomings of the classic chronograph.
The Agengraphe: The Facts
First of all, the Agengraphe lacks subdials because all the hands revolve around one central axis. Jumping hour and minute counters guarantee optimal precision. A completely new coupling mechanism unites the advantages of both classic horizontal and modern vertical coupling, without the disadvantages of either.
It’s well known that chronographs with horizontal coupling tend to stutter because it can never be guaranteed that the teeth will interlock precisely. This is typically rectified using a very fine and sharp-toothed wheel, but this design is then more subject to wear. The “Agenclutch” (yes, this mechanism was deemed so groundbreaking that it warranted its own name) features horizontal coupling with two wheel levels, in which one pair of toothless wheels transfers force via friction while an additional wheel level with a special tooth geometry prevents any noticeable slippage that would otherwise lead to imprecision, even during impacts.
The movement’s automatic rotor runs around the central axis on the dial side, so nothing stands in the way of observing the back. Agenhor even thought of a proprietary regulation mechanism for the movement’s balance spring, and that’s not even the end of features on this horological masterpiece.
The first implementation of the Agengraphe was in the Visionnaire Chronograph by Fabergé. However, the Singer Track 1 by Singer Reimagined achieved larger mainstream popularity. This watch promptly earned the Chronograph Watch Prize at 2018’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. That’s just one of the many GPHG victories for Agenhor, which started with its founder being named the Best Watchmaker of 2007. It’s safe to assume that the awards will continue to accumulate.
What do you think of when considering the classic goals of a (charitable) foundation? Perhaps strengthening education systems, improving healthcare, or supporting the arts? Those all count among the areas of operation for the Sandoz Family Foundation, started by the heir of a large Swiss pharmaceutical company. But what we’re interested in here are the watchmaking activities of this foundation, which has created a one-of-a-kind ecosystem of manufacturers of various watch components around the brand Parmigiani Fleurier.
The decision to branch out in that direction arose from the connection with renowned watch restorer Michel Parmigiani, who was entrusted with the restoration of a collection belonging to the foundation. Impressed by his exceptional talent, the foundation decided to invest in him. They ultimately took over his brand and solidified their position in the world of haute horlogerie with successive acquisitions of case, component, and dial manufacturers. Even escapement production is now handled internally by the company atokalpa – and of course, there’s also the design and manufacture of original timepieces by Vaucher Fleurier.
Instead of hogging these resources for the Parmigiani Fleurier brand alone, Vaucher Fleurier and the companies of the Sandoz Family Foundation made the not-so-surprising and certainly economically sensible decision to also cater to external customers. The brand Vaucher Private Label allows quality-oriented young companies and micro-brands commercial access to high-quality movements that they simply wouldn’t be able to produce in house. Vaucher offers small series starting at 25 pieces, wherein each movement costs well under 2,000 CHF.
Vaucher’s high-end products also include tourbillon movements, as well as the modern, integrated high-beat chronograph movement VMF 6710. The latter appears in the Faubourg de Cracovie from Czapek, a crowdfunded haute horlogerie brand. A few years earlier, an even more exclusive chronograph movement was presented under the name PF361. This rattrapante movement powered the Parmigiani Tonda Chronor. The VMF 6710 is a more accessible version for third-party customers, though the technical similarity to the PF361 is evident.
With three hands, a small seconds dial, and a micro-rotor, the 5400 movement family is probably Vaucher’s bestseller. Among other timepieces, this movement powers the Slim d’Hermès. The version with an enamel dial from Donzé Cadrans is a particularly successful demonstration of how one can be taken seriously as a “fashion brand” in the market for mechanical luxury watches. Hermès currently holds a 25% share of Vaucher Fleurier, a testament to their fertile partnership. Naturally, the same basic movement is also used internally, for example in the more expensive Parmigiani Tonda 1950, which offers a greater degree of refinement of the movement surfaces in exchange for a higher price.
The third company that we’d like to introduce here is also only known among die-hard enthusiasts. However, the same cannot be said of the watches whose development involved Chronode.
Jean-Francois Mojon founded Chronode in 2005. Mojon had previously held a leading role at IWC. He didn’t have to wait long for success, which came in the form of the Best Watchmaker Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in 2010, an achievement which he interestingly shares with Jean-Marc Wiederrecht of Agenhor. There’s also a connection to Vaucher Fleurier: One of Chronode’s most recent developments ticks away inside the Hermès Arceau L’Heure De La Lune with an impressive moon phase complication. This was made possible by a Chronode module integrated into a basic Vaucher movement. And before the young Czapek brand chose the aforementioned chronograph movement from Vaucher, they had used a Chronode-designed movement for their first model, Quai de Bergues… The world of high-quality watch movement developers is apparently quite small.
The watchmaking heavyweights that Chronode has lent its expertise to serve as a testament to the company’s influence. Upon its release, Chronode made a name of itself by supplying the watchmaking end of the supremely unique HYT H1. The actual time display using colored liquids in thin glass capillaries was entrusted to HYT subsidiary Preciflex.
Chronode also worked with Harry Winston, a brand that already employed countless exceptional watchmaking talents for their Opus model series. In particular, Chronode collaborated on the model Opus X, whose dials trace orbits like planets in a solar system.
Like Harry Winston, Max Büsser also takes a collaborative approach with his company, MB&F. The F stands for “Friends,” a reference the external designers involved in the development of their iconic models. Together with Kari Voutilainen, Jean-Francois Mojon of Chronode is responsible for the celebrated Legacy Machine LM1, as well as its successor, the LM2. Mojon and another Chronode representative, Vincent Boucard, are also designated as co-creators of the movement for the supercar-inspired Horological Machine HM5.
If the Chronode creations mentioned thus far are too eccentric for your tastes, take a look at the UJS08 from Urban Jürgensen. This movement features the first chronometer escapement in a wristwatch. Its design involved not only the miniaturization of this precision escapement but also mastering impact sensitivity and the lack of self-start capability. In this case, Mojon was able to build off the work of Derek Pratt, who died before he could bring his brilliant idea to completion.