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Watches: Eclectic Eccentric

James D. Malcolmson

The timepieces that Felix Baum­­­­gartner and designer Mar­tin Frei create for their company, Urwerk, are not as bizarre as they seem. Instead of hands, their latest 201 series features a so-called satellite system that displays the hours with three rotating cubes that orbit the dial and sweep along an index at the bottom to indicate the minutes. (The 201’s predecessor, the 103, used four disks to display time.) But despite the futuristic ap­­pearance of the display, which Urwerk houses in an equally eccentric podlike case, its concept originates from the early days of watchmaking.

Baumgartner, 33, a third-generation watchmaker who tinkered in his father’s workshop as a child, was 5 years old when his father, a specialist in antique clock restoration, brought home a 17th-century Italian table clock. The timepiece employed a variation of the satellite system to display the hour digitally through an aperture illuminated by an oil lamp. The mechanics of the piece are relatively simple: Four disks, each containing three hour indications, orbit around a central axis. The disks turn so that the correct hour moves into the window. In that mechanism, Baumgartner, who trained extensively in classical watchmaking at Vacheron Constantin and with independent master Svend Andersen, saw the prospect for a watch that would be original, but still consistent with the spirit of the Swiss craft. “The big companies are extremely good with classic complications,” he says. “But I didn’t want to be one of the many watchmakers who merely emulate their work.”

Despite their watches’ idiosyncratic appearance, Baumgartner and Frei conceive their timepieces with practical intentions. The three-dimensional satellites are designed so that you don’t have to turn your wrist to read the time. The case back shows Urwerk’s “control board,” a gaugelike display that allows you to fine-tune the speed of the movement for increased accuracy. The control board also tracks the total number of hours the watch has run over its lifetime and reminds you when the piece needs to be serviced.

Urwerk originally designed the 201’s rotating hour cubes for the Opus V, its 2005 collaboration with Harry Winston. The 201’s system, however, is more complicated than the Opus V’s, because it implements a telescopic finger that protrudes from each hour cube and extends and retracts to conform precisely to the angular minute index. The modification allows you to read the minutes more quickly and accurately than you could with previous models.

To reduce friction and eliminate the need for lubricating oil, the watchmakers coat the entire system with a low-friction surface treatment they adapted from the aerospace industry. And although Baumgartner uses Teflon and titanium materials in the movement, traditional finishing techniques, such as fine polishing with diamond powder and oil, are necessary to enable the snugly fitting parts to slide with as little friction as possible. “Our constructions are a form of mechanical art, like a traditional minute repeater,” he says, “but we try to take them in our own direction.”

Urwerk, 310.205.5555, www.urwerk.com

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