A dozen years ago, Kari Voutilainen was a horological ghostwriter, working anonymously for various high-end watch brands. Except for the few, one-of-a-kind pieces he made under his own label, his work bore the names of others. Now he’s a watchmaking star.
The turning point came at the 2004 Basel Fair, when Voutilainen had a conversation with his famed fellow independent Philippe Dufour. Dufour had just seen a watch with an extraordinarily intricate movement assembled by Voutilainen. The watch was being offered by a small-series, haut-de-gamme brand. “Nice piece,” Dufour told him. But Dufour had some advice: Voutilainen should step out of the shadows of other watch brands and put his energy behind his own. Soon after that, another well-known independent watchmaker, Vianney Halter, told him the same thing.
Voutilainen recalled the conversations in a recent interview in his workshop in the village of Môtiers in the Swiss Jura. “I thought to myself, they are right,” he said. It turns out they were.
Today, Voutilainen is one of the best known and best-regarded names on the independent-watchmaker scene, specializing in small-series and one-off watches. He is admired by collectors for his versatility (he has made tourbillons, repeaters, chronographs, GMT watches, watches with detent escapements, and more), for the quality of his finishing, and for his ability and willingness to custom-make watches for individual collectors. As one collector and fan points out, a customer can approach him with the request, “Make me a watch you’ve never made before,” and Voutilainen will get to work with his 14-member staff of watchmakers, technicians and movement-finishing and guillochage experts. Some collectors make the trip to Môtiers, in the watch-company-dotted Val-de-Travers, in Canton Neuchâtel, to discuss their requests with Voutilainen in the beautiful old-world villa where he works and lives. In time (sometimes a lot of it; the wait can last for more than a year), Voutilainen will come up with a watch that is one-of-kind not only on the outside, but, often, on the inside, with its own made-to-order movement. “It’s the ultimate in bespoke watchmaking,” the collector says. “He’s carved out that niche.”
His production is tiny: between 25 and 55 watches for each of the last 10 years. His prices are inversely proportional; they start at 72,000 Swiss francs.
Voutilainen, affable but quiet-mannered, and, when he talks about watches, as focused as a laser beam, was born in 1962 in the northern Finland town of Rovaniemi. (The town is the capital of Lapland. Its center is eight miles south of the Arctic Circle.) It was an unpropitious birthplace for a watchmaker. “Watchmaking was a pretty unknown profession in Finland,” Voutilainen says. He had caught the watch bug when he was about 13; a friend of the family owned a watch-repair shop.“I would go there and see the watches and clocks he was repairing, and the tools. That was my connection to watchmaking.” For three years, he attended the sole watchmaking school in the country, the Finnish School of Watchmaking, on the south coast of Finland. It was the height of the quartz crisis; the year he entered the school, 1983, was the year that the bankrupt ruins of the Swiss watch industry were merged into what is now the Swatch Group.
But Voutilainen (pronounced “voo ti LANE in”) was blissfully untouched by the crisis during his time at school. In fact, he knew he had found his future. “For the first time in my life, I realized that this is for me,” he says.
Voutilainen first felt the crisis after graduating. Jobs were scarce; he found work doing repairs at a retail shop in the Finland village of Ylitornio, on the Swedish border. “It was a small salary, a very small salary,” he says with a laugh. “I did it for the experience.” The bigger watch world soon beckoned and, in 1988, he left for Switzerland to attend the WOSTEP school in Neuchâtel.
Two years at WOSTEP, interrupted by one in Finland, where he worked to earn money for his WOSTEP training and for his watchmaking tools, were followed by a nine-year stint at Parmigiani, starting in 1990, doing restoration work. It was there, at the urging of the venerated, 70-year-old watchmaker Charles Meylan, that Voutilainen began making a watch of his own: a tourbillon pocketwatch. Voutilainen worked on it at night for three years, putting in a total of about 2,000 hours, and finishing it in 1994.
The watch gave him his big break. In 1996, the world famous International Museum of Watchmaking in La Chaux-de-Fonds included it in an exhibit of tourbillon watches. Connoisseurs saw it and liked it. Its admirers included the now-deceased Peter Baumberger, then owner of the Urban Jürgensen brand, who wanted to buy the watch. Voutilainen wouldn’t sell it, but Baumberger’s request led to Voutilainen’s working for Urban Jürgensen later, on the prototype for the detent-escapement movement the brand introduced in 2011. The exhibition also brought Voutilainen an order for an unusual minute repeater, which was activated not by a slide, as with most repeaters, but by turning the bezel. The movement was based on an ébauche by LeCoultre. The watch, made of gold, had the rounded lugs and pomme-style hands that were to become signature features of Voutilainen timepieces.
Voutilainen left Parmigiani in 1999: the restoration shop had become too big and too busy for his taste, he says. He then taught at WOSTEP, but resigned after three years because the job required so much overtime that he was unable to work on his own watches.
In 2002, at age 40, he took the plunge, setting up his own shop, in Môtiers, free to work full time on anything he wanted. At first, most of the watches he made were for other manufacturers. “I was working a lot for other companies to finance my own stuff,” he recalls. He did make some watches under his own name, such as a decimal minute repeater, so-named because it chimes the hours, 10-minute intervals, and minutes. Whenever he sold a piece, he plowed the money back into his workshop. “I was buying tools and more tools,” he says.
Two years after he struck out on his own came the fateful conversations with Dufour and Halter encouraging him to devote himself to his own brand. “I didn’t stop working for others,” Voutilainen says, “but I really took the big step.” At the Basel Fair of the next year, 2005, Voutilainen, under the aegis of the AHCI (Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indepéndants), exhibited watches for the first time under his own name. “It was rather quick,” Voutilainen says of his public debut.
For the next six years, Voutilainen continued to depend on existing ébauches to make his watches. Sometimes he would hunt the movements down; other times, vendors who knew he was in the market for ébauches would come to him. Voutilainen would enhance the movements, incorporating new functions and finishing the components to haut-de-gamme standards. For the decimal repeater, for instance, which was based, like his earlier repeater, on a LeCoultre ébauche, he completely changed the striking mechanism for the quarters and minutes. For his Observatoire series, unveiled in 2007, Voutilainen meticulously finished some Peseux 260 movements that had been produced for observatory trials. The movements were of superb quality, but plain and rough-looking. That watch won the 2007 Grand Prix de Genève prize in the men’s watch category, the first of four Grand Prix de Genève awards Voutilainen has won to date.
He remained financially independent, as he had been from the start, so that he would be beholden to no one. “I was aware that if I had [an investor’s money], I would have to do what someone else wanted me to do,” he says.
Ultimately he began to crave freedom of another sort: from components suppliers. He was often unable to get the parts he needed when he needed them, given his tiny output. “It’s impossible to buy 20 mainplates and 50 screws,” he says. And when he could get the parts, they were often delivered late and were of lesser quality than Voutilainen wanted.
So, in 2007, he bought his first CNC machine. Others followed. Piece by piece, Voutilainen shifted his movement production in house. He now makes nearly all his movement components himself. Among the few exceptions are the balance springs, which he buys from H. Moser, and the mainsprings, made by Schwab-Feller. (Expanding his in-house manufacturing has meant frequent moves to larger workshops. His current workshop is his fourth since he went out on his own: he moved there in 2009.)
Learning to make parts has been the hardest part of his career as an independent, he says. Big brands buy components from specialized companies that long ago perfected their production techniques and can make pinions, for instance, by the bushel-full, and to tolerances of a few microns. “They know exactly what they are doing. They’ve been doing it for decades. So when we do the wheels or pinions ourselves, it’s hard. There’s no one to tell us how to do it.”
As he was weaning himself from parts suppliers, he was preparing to take another step towards total independence − by constructing his own movement. Work on it began in 2008; it took three years to develop. The movement debuted in a watch called the Vingt-8 (French for “28,” a reference to the year he started developing the caliber). The movement itself is called Caliber 28. The movement’s most salient feature is its escapement, not a standard Swiss lever escapement but a so-called “natural” escapement of a type invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in the 18th century. Voutilainen had long been interested in experimenting with different kinds of escapements, as his work on Urban Jürgensen’s detent escapement shows. Under his own name, he was also making a one-of-a-kind tourbillon watch with detent escapement that he finished in 2014, after nearly two decades of toil.
The Caliber 28 escapement has two escape wheels; they provide impulses directly to the balance wheel via the roller jewel. This makes the escapement 30 percent more efficient than a Swiss lever escapement, Voutilainen says. (In a Swiss lever escapement, the impulses are delivered indirectly via the lever.) The escapement’s second virtue is that there is no sliding friction between pallet and escape-wheel teeth, as there is with a lever escapement, so less lubricant is needed. (None at all would be necessary if the escape wheels could be made of gold, not steel, but gold is too heavy and malleable to use for this purpose, Voutilainen says.) “The lubrication doesn’t affect the timing as it does with a Swiss lever escapement. There it gets dry and sticky and the watch starts to lose time.”
The escapement has yet another benefit, Voutilainen says: he can make it in house. The components of Swiss-lever escapements, particularly the escape wheels, are too complex for him to do himself.
Now nearly all of Voutilainen’s watches have in-house movements with double-wheel escapements. These movements include variations on Caliber 28, such as one with a GMT function (the GMT-6) and with a GMT function and power-reserve indicator (the GMR). Voutilainen also makes an in-house tourbillon movement.
As of two years ago, his watches also have in-house dials. Voutilainen bought the dial factory Dialtech SA, in nearby Saint-Sulpice, in 2014. As with his other moves to in-house production, he was motivated by his need for a reliable source of very small numbers of high-quality parts. “We were waiting two or three months for engine turning to be done. You can’t do prototypes like that,” he says. He renamed the company Comblémine, after the street in Môtiers where his atelier is located. Comblémine finishes dials not just for Voutilainen but for other high-end, small-series brands like Richard Mille and MB&F.
Voutilainen has continued to make movements for other brands, too, but less and less as his own has gained prominence. As he was readying his Vingt-8 movement he was also working on a movement for MB&F’s Legacy Machine 1. The watch, on which he collaborated with watchmaker Jean-François Mojon, came out in 2011. In 2013, the two collaborated on MB&F’s Legacy Machine 2. Sandwiched between these two watches was one he helped design for Maîtres du Temps. It was called the Chapter Three Reveal; he worked with Andreas Strehler to develop the movement and also did the movement’s finishing.
His production will not increase despite his growing prominence, he says; he will continue to make just a few dozen watches a year, even though he has sometimes had orders for many more. Following his first Grand Prix de Genève award in 2007, retailers wanted to order his watches in batches of five or 10 pieces, he says. He turned most of the orders down. “I would have had to make 100 watches a year to satisfy the demand. And it was just too much,” he says.