THE WATCHTIME Q&A:

Talking with Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk About the New UR-111C (With Live Photos)


Urwerk’s UR-111C — the brand’s latest timepiece unveiled last week — is a direct descendant of the UR-CC1 King Cobra from 2009 (which itself was inspired by a Patek Philippe prototype created by Louis Cottier and Gilbert Albert in 1959), but it differs in a number of ways. By borrowing the retrograde linear display from the UR-CC1, Urwerk has once again eschewed its recognizable wandering indicator in favor of a brand new time-telling system that involves optical fiber, dual minute indicators, and a roller set smack dab in the middle of the watch that functions as its crown.

On the wrist with the Urwerk UR-111C in its gunmetal gray finish.

After its release, I had the opportunity to sit down with Felix Baumgartner, co-founder of Urwerk, to discuss the new watch. Before we get into the interview, which touches on a wide variety of topics including Alfred Hitchcock’s role in the watch’s creation, Urwerk’s evolution since 2009, and what Louis Cottier would think of Urwerk, here’s a look at how the UR-111C works and what makes it noteworthy.

The Urwerk UR-111C

Intended to function as an avant-garde “drivers” watch, the hour and pair of minute indicators are located on the front side. Hours are displayed digitally on a truncated cone on the left side; a skeletonized helix/cylinder displays the minutes linearly and stretches diagonally across the face of the watch; the second minute display is located to the right on its own truncated crown and shows the time digitally for enhanced precision; and the seconds are told in five-second intervals via two rotating plates set deep within the movement ( a Zenith Elite base caliber with an in-house module) and brought to the face of the watch via an image conduit constructed of optical fibers. 

The Urwerk UR-CC1, released in September of 2009. Credit: Urwerk

A direct comparison to the original King Cobra is enlightening. Where that watch was focused on a very flat perception of time through its usage of closed cylinders, only allowing for the slow crawl of the hours and minutes to be seen via an aperture, the UR-111C delights in its three-dimensionality. The helix/cylinder used for the progressive minutes opens the watch up and shows the deliberate passage of time as the cylinder rotates 300 degrees to the final minute of the hour before a coiled spring snaps it forward for the final 60 degrees and back to its starting position at the beginning of the hour. The digital minute display —which differs from the UR-CC1 with its single hour-and-minute display and dual seconds indicator — is meant for precision timekeeping, while the linear aspect is meant to demonstrate time’s fluid nature.

For the first time in horological history, a roller set on the watch’s case performs the duty of the crown. Rather than using a crown directly attached to a stem, a roller is set parallel to the winding stem. To wind the watch, all you have to do is push the fluted roller along just as you would a rolling pin in the kitchen. To set the time, a lever set adjacent to the roller on the indented side of the case must be pulled out. Once out, time can be set either forward or backward using the roller. It’s quite enjoyable and is likely the most interesting time setting mechanism of 2018.

The roller is fluted and set in the middle of the watch’s front-facing side. The lever used for setting the time is located directly to the right of it.

The seconds opening is also a horological first. The two rotating discs weigh only 0.0018 grams and were constructed through miniature lacework via the LIGA process. Through the pioneering use of optical fibers borrowed from medical engineering, the discs — which are set deep within the movement — appear flush with the crystal. It’s unlike any magnifying glass or loupe system that we’ve seen applied on a wristwatch before and could see future application from Urwerk and others.

The Urwerk UR-111C is limited to two 25-piece editions in either stainless steel or stainless steel with a gunmetal gray finish (Urwerk hasn’t ruled out future releases in other materials). Each watch is sized at 42 mm by 46 mm with 15 mm thickness and comes with a black crocodile leather strap. Both models are priced at CHF 130,000 and are available now. However, due to the complexity of the watch’s construction, Urwerk estimates they will only be able to produce up to three per month so now would be a good time to get yourself on the waitlist.

Felix Baumgartner Interview

Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk. Credit: Urwerk

You’ve made a King Cobra before. What made you return to it?

For us, it was just the natural thing to do because we love the idea of the linear time indication, which came from when I was a child. I loved American wide horizontal landscapes, and in Switzerland, we have mountains, and the horizon is not so far. In the U.S., it looks wider. The American [cars] from the ’50s had these speedometers with this linear indication, which was very long and wide. These images are my childhood vision of America.

I remember reading an interview you did when the King Cobra first launched that you were influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The Birds, Hitchcock, that was also a part of discovering that world, that American world. In the movie, you have a section when [Tippi Hedren] gets attacked in the car by 200 birds. I also had a car from Volvo from the ’60s, so that’s something I like.

How to indicate digital numbers? You go for a circle around, or you go for a line. And that’s a very simple, logical way. So, we somehow wanted to continue doing that with hours here, then the linear minutes. It’s not [supposed] to let you know the precise minute, just to give you a feeling of the hour, the position in the growing, long hour. And you have the setting precision of each minute [on the right side]. So, it’s really a driver’s watch, because you absolutely have to read this watch from the side. Looking straight down, you’ll be in trouble. It’s not convenient. You really have to look from the side.

So with the CC1, the original King Cobra, it showed the seconds both digitally and linearly. Correct?

Yes, that’s true, that’s true.

With the new King Cobra, you’re showing the minutes digitally and linearly. Why the shift there, from seconds to minutes?

We still have the seconds. [With the CC1] we had one big wheel having the digits in a spiral showing the linear. Here we have only the digits. What we wanted to show here, with that optical transmitter, is to actually have the seconds down in the movement, projecting it up through the optical fiber. I think the effect is surprisingly cool if you see that they are floating here on the top, but are actually down in the movement. And on top is a real challenge because the distance between the optics and the digits, it’s 2/100 of a millimeter. So the assembling of the wheels and the digits is an incredible work of precision to make sure that optical transmitter works.

The Urwerk UR-111C in both case materials.

But was there a reason that you went with the dual minute indicators this time, instead of doing dual seconds?

Actually, no. There’s not a specific reason. The reason we have two minutes is to display the precise minute. It’s a time setting that you can set precisely. So when you set [the minutes by pulling the lever], then the seconds stop, you can set the precise minute …

And the linear minutes jump back to zero.

Actually, it’s not jumping back, that’s a totally unique retrograde in the first Cobra, here it’s jumping forward. Now the cylinder is doing 300 degrees up to 60.

And when it does jump, it does the final 60-degree rotation instantly.

Yeah, during the last 60 [degrees], it is jumping forward to go to zero. For us, it is always important that we have new technical things to research, to bring, but aesthetic is also important. So the form follows the functions, but can also influence the functions. That’s the relationship between Martin and myself. It’s always a game, we call that the “ping pong,” when we exchange ideas. I start to give him technical input, and then he plays back this technical input into the form. But then he says, “It could be cool to do that form, how can you adapt the mechanics?” We play ping-pong between Geneva and Zurich all the time.

Another thing I noticed about the original King Cobra, the CC1, was that the linear display moved via hidden cylinders in the background. Here you’ve opened it up, where you can actually see the cylinder that can change the time, and wind it. Plus, you can see the helix up front. What was the thought process behind opening it up and making the cylinders visible? With the original King Cobra UR-CC1, you wouldn’t even know that there were cylinders.

It helps for visibility, because, let’s say it’s 30 minutes, you see the line actually starting here on top, going through, and going back here. So actually you already see the positioning. The quick view is actually the easiest, it helps the visibility. Me, I always love to see underneath the mechanics. I think Urwerk is one of the first companies who gave that aesthetical pleasure, such as on the UR-103, to see the three-dimensional mechanisms, and here you can really look and understand how it works. On the first Cobra, we went more for understatement, with just a tiny indication. On the [UR-111C], it’s more three-dimensional. We can actually even compare it with the 101, the 102, which are two-dimensional, closed dials. And then we went to the 103, which actually went into the third dimension. So you really saw the deepness and the third dimension of the mechanism. You can say that between the first Cobra and the Cobra now, we’ve moved into the third dimension.

How does it feel to be moving further away from the wandering-hour display that you were known for? With the Atomic Master Clock (AMC) released earlier this year, it’s — I wouldn’t say traditional — but it’s a very non avant-garde way of displaying the time. Here, you have the same “different way of telling time” that you’re known for, but it’s still a new display for you.

Technically, there are two research centers at Urwerk now. One is different time indications. So we’ve redefined the satellite time indications, we re-invent the satellites every two to three years. We continue researching this. In parallel, we started the Cobra, so this is linear, so we continue here the linear research. And then the other family is chronometry, so it’s the EMC, which brings the electronic and mechanical world together. That’s a totally different league; it’s different ambitions.

Interesting. I didn’t realize that you had the two separate departments. And you have 17 watchmakers, currently?

Yeah, 15, actually. We are 15 people in the whole company. Not all of them are watchmakers. We do 150 watches …

Per year?

Yes. This is very stable, it’s important to understand that we are one of the few brands who have a very stable approach to volume in quantity. Over the past 10 years, we’ve kept it around 150 watches.

Do you think you’ll ever grow larger, approaching 250, 300? Or do you think you will be, for the foreseeable future, staying around the same figure?

Yes, our structure is built like that, we are comfortable like that. And this is what we’ve done for 10, 12 years now. A lot of start-up companies, they have [outside] investments, and actually, they have to grow. Because they have shareholders and investments they have to pay back, and that can push them in a direction which is not always good for the quality of watchmaking.

You must pull out this lever to set the time using the roller.

Absolutely. It seems like Urwerk is really focused on pushing horology further, testing the limits of how these-

We are a research center. We are grateful to all collectors who support our research.

Can you tell me about the decision to go with making the minute indicator diagonal rather than horizontal?

That was last minute. That was Martin’s idea, not my idea. That was an aesthetic idea. He loved this idea of giving a three-dimensional linear [perspective]. The linear [indicator] is not just flat, it actually goes over the cylinder. So the calculation to always have the right position is not easy. And, actually, to be totally right, you should always be at 90 degrees to the place where you are looking, where the minutes are. So it’s not easy, but it looks great and provides that third dimension.

Back to the seconds indicator and, I must say, I didn’t notice this before but viewing the optical fibers from the edge, where it gets kind of cloudy, is really, really cool. I’ve never seen anything like that.

It’s not at all like a loupe-

No, it’s not. Or a magnifying glass at all. How did you come to use optical fibers? Were you testing out different materials, seeing what would work, or was that something you guys kind of zeroed in on?

The first idea was to create the digital seconds like that because on the first prototype, we had it on one big wheel and we had some power issues, because on one big wheel you need much more power. When you have two small wheels, you have to have it displayed on two discs, you need less energy to make them work. It’s just a physical reality.

They’re incredibly thin, right?

Yeah, we pushed them to the limit. We skeletonized, and pushed them to the limit, but even then on the first Cobra it took us 20, 25 degrees of amplitude and that’s too much. That’s the prototype, it’s not really good. Here, we are like 10, 12 degrees, so it takes less energy. And that was the first idea, and then we thought, “Oh shit, they are very deep down in the movement.”

You can’t see them.

Yeah, because we have the whole crown mechanism here. So that takes space and we have to keep them down, so how can you bring them up? First, we had the normal loupe, you can do it with a classical loupe, but then in the classical loupe, you always have this kind of-

Distortion?

Yeah, exactly. And we thought it’s good to go for something new. Martin has one of these transparent stones in his working place, a natural stone which is transparent, and we thought, “That’s cool.” And then we found two companies in Europe that are producing [something] like that, I think for medical instruments. We contacted them and one of those two were able to do something with our measurements, with our demands.

Is this something that you would work with again?

Today we are not working on that but we are thinking about it. Another big challenge is the case. The case of the watch is in three parts. And so that means that actually the movement is not assembled from behind-

It’s slotted.

It’s slotted in from the sides. So that’s really an aesthetic reason, but also a complication because that [provides] additional difficulties in producing the case.

How the case of the UR-111C is fitted over the movement. Credit: Urwerk

And the clearance must be so, so tight.

It’s very sensitive, very sensitive. All these little details coming together made us struggle quite a lot, so we had to push back the launch one year because we were just not ready with all these different challenges at all levels.

How long was the watch in development?

Some three years plus.

Over three years, wow. So the idea for the roller, where did that come from?

I think that was Martin because he fought for the case shape. This is a design idea. It’s not a technical idea because we don’t need that crown to make this movement work, it was an aesthetic idea. And then, actually, it kind of creates technical issues because we have to transmit the power from here into the movement, so we have to go all around and in the case from the sides. So it doesn’t make it easier I’d say.

©Ralf Baumgarten
Martin Frei and Felix Baumgartner. Credit: Urwerk

How does the roller connect to the rest of the watch, to the rest of the movement?

Telepathy. No, it’s [part of a system of gears] which goes under [the roller] down and into the case. And with the lever, you actually move the axle which is going into the movement. But to assemble this only for 50 pieces, to make it work, it’s a-

It’s a process.

It’s a process, exactly.

You can only make three per month, is that correct?

Yeah. I hope so, that’s the goal.

Going back to the movement, you guys use a base movement, is that correct? With an in-house module?

Yes, actually, we have a base movement which is transformed for our needs. So we transformed the basic movement, which is a Zenith Elite, to be precise. However, you cannot recognize the movement anymore. It’s been adapted.

The caseback is slightly curved for extra comfort while on the wrist.

The price point is, if I remember correctly, quite a bit less than the original King Cobra’s price, is that right?

Yes, it’s half of the price actually. The first Cobra was limited to fifty pieces. Although the [cost of] investment in the development of both Cobras is similar, if we do double the quantity of this one, we could adjust the price. And first of all, we profit from our experience with the original Cobra. So using that experience, we could take [some] cost out of the development. So that plus, if we do double — for the moment we do 50 pieces, 25 and 25 — but we are looking into another two pieces, 25 and 25, with different case materials

What did you learn the most from the original Cobra that you adapted for the new watch? Was there any lesson in particular that stands out? 

Similar to how we learned with the satellite [indications], as we went from the 103 to the 202, to the 105 and 210, it creates a whole culture. And now it’s the second step, with the linear-hour cylinder. The first Cobra was kind of a retrograde, so it spins 360 degrees, almost 360, and then it spins back for the hours. And here, we go 300 degrees, and then we go forward and jump 60 degrees. It’s a totally different mechanism. The CC1 was actually directly, the mechanism was directly, inspired by the [Louis Cottier] Patek Philippe piece.

Information on the Gilbert Albert and Louis Cottier Patek Philippe Cobra prototype. Credit: Urwerk

The time telling mechanism is very similar.

Actually, the power transmission between the movement, the minutes wheel, and cylinders are somehow one-to-one. It’s very strongly inspired by the solution of the original Louis Cottier Patek Philippe piece. [With the UR-111C], we really went for our own solution.

The first Cobra used a triple cam system, correct?

Exactly, triple cam out of bronze beryllium pushing up a lever, and that lever transmitted to the cylinder, that was how Louis Cottier did it. But the problem with that is gravity. So, when the lever is in that direction, the gravitation makes it fall, but the lever has to go up. So, it has to force against gravity, and that was always the problem with the Cobra, the first one, and the one that Cottier built, as well. It’s sensitive, very sensitive. Actually, Cottier’s [version] didn’t work exactly like that. Because the lever was done out of steel and we did it through LIGA, so very fine, skeletonized, very light, as light as possible, but we still had problems ensuring its function in all positions. It works, but is very sensitive. Here we don’t have that problem anymore because we didn’t use that lever technique, we have a direct gear. It’s a direct gear system to the cylinder.

What do you think Louis Cottier would say if he saw the new Cobra?

You know, hopefully, he would be inspired to go on with that [concept]. On his side, I would be interested to see what he is doing.

What his response would be.

Exactly, exactly, because he joined up with Gilbert Albert in the ’50s. Gilbert Albert was the jeweler, designer jeweler, in Geneva at the time. The two great artisans, they wanted to create a new brand. Together they created the Cobra. It was not at all ordered by Patek. They really wanted to create their own brand.

And they only made the single watch.

Yeah, I think they made three prototypes. And they finished them. They wanted to try to commercialize, create the brands, but they didn’t get it done. So in the end, Patek was happy because Patek was working with both artisans on other projects, so Patek just halts the whole project and says, “Okay, now let’s just continue work on our [other] projects.” In our case, I think that actually these two guys, the designer and the watchmaker, Martin Frei, is the designer, the artist, and I’m the watchmaker. What we did twenty years ago, they tried to do fifty, sixty years ago, the same steps. That is why they are kind of a vanguard, and it’s cool to make it work [with the UR-CC1 and UR-111C]. To give that tribute to them.

2 Responses to “Talking with Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk About the New UR-111C (With Live Photos)”

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  1. Thor Torsen

    Ghastly thing. I remember you would find things like this at the bottom of Kellogs cornflakes packets once.

    Reply
  2. “It’s not [supposed] to let you know the precise minute, just to give you a feeling of the hour…”

    Don’t forget the feeling you get having spent a fortune on an avant-garde art piece that approximates time.

    Reply
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