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Q&A‘With Us, It’s A Continuous Ping-Pong Game Of Ideas Exchanged’: Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei Of Urwerk

The Urwerk duo discusses their watchmaking style, naming of iterations after predatory animals, and hopes India does away with certain administrative filters

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Unlike traditional watchmakers, the Urwerk co-founders Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei are not finicky about high complications such as perpetual calendars, tourbillons, chronographs, moon phases, gemstones, movement decoration and finishes, to upgrade and extend their watch collections. Instead, their watchmaking vocabulary consists of novel ideas such as asymmetric polygon cases, satellite/wandering hours display, fluid dynamics, solar distances, sci-fi influences, and ancient civilisations. In these times when mass production and usage of precious metal/stone are gamechangers, the 26-year-old independent Swiss watch manufacturer has stubbornly remained artisanal, belting only 250 timepieces as annual production.

Urwerk chief watchmaker, Baumgartner, hails from a prestigious watchmaking family that restored iconic timepieces such as the Campani brothers’ Italian night clock, and later studied at the watchmaking school in Solothurn, while chief designer Frei studied art from the School of Visual Arts of Zurich and Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst. Operating from Zurich and Geneva, the dynamic pair visited India early February, days before the launch of UR-100V LightSpeed, a new black and cherry red timepiece that records the distance it takes a ray of light to travel from the Sun to the different planets, including the Earth. Despite a packed schedule, including a visit to the astronomical observatory Jantar Mantar, Baumgartner and Frei found time to visit the Ethos Limited headquarters in Gurgaon, India, to offer insights into their avant garde bent of watchmaking.

Martin Frei Felix Baumgartner Urwerk cofounders
Urwerk co-founders Martin Frei and Felix Baumgartner

Martin has an arts background and Felix comes from watchmaking lineage. After 26 years of Urwerk, have the lines blurred to the extent that each of you can advise the other on their area of expertise?

Felix: Yes! After 26 years, we know each other and each other’s domains very well. Take the UR-100V SpaceTime. The watch shows the distance from the Earth’s rotation on its axis measured at the equator and measures the distance travelled by the Earth orbiting the Sun. This space-time concept is my idea. But the new LightSpeed, an evolution from SpaceTime, is based on Martin’s idea. He suggested placing the pointer at the side of the movement to indicate the speed of light travelling from the Sun to the different planets.

Martin: Between me and Felix, it’s a continuous ping-pong game of ideas exchanged. Every inspiration for a new watch begins with a discussion, which leads to more ideas. Of course, the lines have blurred over time, but sometimes when our watchmakers are trying to resolve a problem, I still don’t understand some of their watchmaking vocabulary. And it’s the same for Felix with watch design.

Urwerk 100V LightSpeed Satellite hours Carbon case Grade 5 titanium
The black and cherry red Urwerk UR-100V LightSpeed that records the ray of light travelling from the Sun to different planets

Urwerk launched the Space Time Blade clock at Only Watch auction last year. Does the brand plan to invest more time and resources into making such timepieces?

Martin: Of course. From the beginning, we’ve looked at different watch formats. Not only wristwatches. Our pocket watch UR-1001 is as big as a cellphone. Our AMC atomic master is a clock and wristwatch. The Space Time Blade is a clock.

Felix: The Space Time Blade clock, for instance, has over 1,400 parts. Now multiply this with 33 (clocks). We will present this limited edition at 2024 Watches & Wonders.

Urwerk started with the idea of introducing unprecedented horological innovations in a market dominated by Swiss heritage brands that viewed themselves. But certain Urwerk timepieces have paid ode to these ‘old masters of complications’. The UR-120 Spock takes inspiration from the Patek Philippe Nautilus created by the famed watch designer Gerald Genta, while the AMC is an atomic take on the antique Breguet Sympathique clock.

Martin: When you look at the UR-120, can you see any resemblance to the Gerald Genta watch? No. It’s true that this Urwerk watch is inspired by the Nautilus for its design of the caseback going into the bezel. It is only inspired by Genta’s idea of how to close the case. Not the shape of the Nautilus case. Our UR-120 has no bezel and the caseback is screwed in from the sides. Even AMC is based on the idea of the historical 17th-century Sympathique, but we have reinvented it with the possibilities of today. It is very important to be inspired by the history of watchmaking. But give it your own take, values, and inventiveness. Start a fresh comment on a previous idea.

Urwerk UR-120 SpaceBlack UR-Satellite
Although not explicitly visible, the UR-120 Spock draws inspiration from the idea with which famed watch designer Gerald Genta created the Patek Philippe Nautilus

Did you have any brand name options other than Urwerk?

Felix: For me, the only alternative was to use our family names, ‘Baumgartner-Frei’. It just didn’t sound as nice (laughs). So, we went with Martin’s idea, Urwerk. ‘Ur’ in German is associated with words that mean ‘the beginning’. ‘Big Bang’ is Urknall, ‘origin of time’ is ursprung der Zeit. There’s the city of Ur from Mesopotamia (one of the oldest civilisations of the world). Werk means ‘work’.

Martin: I think it’s cool because brands like Rolex have an ‘artificial’, concept-based name, not related to the founders but one that’s easy to pronounce.

The Watch Guide
The Urwerk UR-112 Aggregat Back To Black is deeply inspired by designer Ralph Lauren’s Bugatti Atlantic Type 57 SC

Even the individual watch titles are quite interesting. Apart from the sci-fi names like Sputnik, Spock, Aggregat for your watches, there are a number of Urwerk iterations named after predatory animals like T-Rex, King Cobra, Maltese Falcon, and Eagle.

Felix: These animals, reptiles, birds are some of the earliest evolutionary beings, and fit quite nicely with the meaning behind our company name.

Martin: The concept for the watch on my wrist (UR-210 Maltese Falcon) is based on this hunting bird. The retrograde minute hand is shaped like the bird’s beak. We had started calling the UR-202 ‘Hammerhead’ after the shark because of the cephalofoil shape of the case that includes a wide minute panel. While creating a new watch, we assign it a nickname, and now it has become a tradition to make this nickname itself the formal name.

Felix: Our most famous nickname was the Tarantula for the UR-103. We had encased a real tarantula spider at the launch. When the event began, the spider was sleeping. Towards the evening, suddenly it started to move, and knock on the glass. By then, the attendees started to leave, so maybe it was good thing that the spider did not move earlier (laughs).

Felix Baumgartner Urwerk
Felix Baumgartner, Urwerk Co-founder and Chief Watchmaker

Urwerk is not known for ‘feminine’ watches, except the UR-106 Lotus, the brand’s first ladies’ watch. Can we expect such offerings?

Martin: To create watches for women requires looking at the entire concept of ‘what women like’. It’s interesting, but also a bit tricky because this concept is changeable. We realised this after designing the UR-106 Lotus. We made it smaller than our other watches, but found out that women love wearing heavy jewellery, and don’t have a problem with big dials. The idea that women must wear miniaturised versions of men watches is quite outdated.

Felix: Even though the Lotus was designed for women, we ended up creating just another Urwerk watch. And for me, it’s the most elegant Urwerk we’ve ever designed.

Martin Frei Urwerk
Martin Frei, Urwerk Co-founder and Chief Designer

What can India do better about accommodating independent international luxe watch brands?

Felix: China and Russia are more complicated to deal with than India, but overall, all three countries are in the ‘same family’ in terms of logistics and regulations. Other countries have smoother, easier-to-operate markets. For instance, it took a visa to make our visas. These heavy administrative filters are tricky and make it difficult for India. People don’t get to the real stuff because the real stuff is held back by these filters. This scenario might change soon. There are some agreements under the table between India and Switzerland to streamline the process. Aside this, we are happy that the Indian market appreciates our brand. The people we have met here are well-educated about Urwerk, very professional, and quite interested in our watches. This makes us feel positive about India.

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