This Watchmaking Rock Star Keeps It In The Family

Agenhor, the Genevan atelier of custom movements, is saving haute horlogerie


This Watchmaking Rock Star Keeps It In The Family
By Appointment May 23rd, 2018

Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, founder of Agenhor, is a contemporary horologer little known to the general public, but extremely appreciated by the greatest watchmaking companies for his expertise. The go-to watchmaker for mechanical movement modules, brands come to him with their design ideas and he creates the highly-technical mechanics that go under the watch dial. Easily shifting from one brand’s DNA to another, he enjoys the diversity and creative freedom of his work, and has the luxury of picking his commissions.

In this way, he has masterminded movements showcasing fairy dances, shifting seasons, a lovers’ meeting and time suspended. He describes his unique business model, “Generally brands and their designers imagine and produce new models starting with existing movements. From the very beginning of my conception activities, I suggested to my clients to have their own will, allowing them to produce watches following specific design needs.” He opened the door to creativity for them so they weren’t dependent on the limits of existing calibres, but could break away from traditional time displays and give free rein to their imagination. Since then, he has worked with everybody from MB&F, Arnold & Son, Cartier, Chaumet, Chopard and Fabergé to Hermès.

Born in Geneva in 1950, Wiederrecht obtained his watchmaker’s diploma in 1972, then joined Châtelain, performing repairs and assembling calibres, especially ultra-thin ones, while the sector was in the midst of the Quartz Crisis. In 1978, he set up his own business, an independent workshop specialising in the assembly and skeletonisation of extra-flat movements. Gifted and passionate, he became among those, together with Vianney Halter, Antoine Preziuso and Vincent Calabrese, who would reinvent mechanical watchmaking in the 1980s.

In 1996, he and his wife Catherine founded Agenhor, a Genevan atelier dedicated to add-on modules and movements, where each order is made exclusively for the brand that commissioned it. In 2007, he was named Best Watch Designer at the Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix and, most recently, winner of the 2017 Gaia Prize in the Craftsmanship and Creation category, considered the Oscars and Nobel Prize of watchmaking, respectively.

Wiederrecht’s retrograde displays were a sensation and became his signature, especially the world’s first bi-retrograde perpetual calendar mechanism, which Harry Winston put into production in 1989 and marked the start of a long-term collaboration with the brand. As retrograde hands were generally used to display power reserve at the time, he decided to innovate and enlarged a pair of retrograde hands to dominate the dial to show the day and date, doing away with small, hard-to-read counters.

The watch proved to be his breakthrough piece, as it helped to identify his emphasis on legibility and his design-focused watchmaking philosophy. He says, “For me, accuracy is one of the most important values in haute horlogerie. Without good legibility, it is not possible to see the accuracy given by a very good mechanism. I once heard François-Paul Journe say, ‘Legibility is a watch’s politeness’ and I totally agree with that.”

For me, accuracy is one of the most important values in haute horlogerie. Without good legibility, it is not possible to see the accuracy given by a very good mechanism. I once heard François-Paul Journe say, ‘Legibility is a watch’s politeness’ and I totally agree with that.

At this point, Wiederrecht could have easily gone on to create his own label, but he has always taken an extremely independent approach to business. He feels that having his own brand would limit the scope of his activities and require considerable investment in marketing and communication. Preferring to do what he knows best, which is creating watch mechanisms in collaboration with brands, sometimes working anonymously for big-name clients in secret, he is less interested in building a brand than in championing quality and craftsmanship.

Aware of the power of intellectual property, he retains the patents for his work so he can choose his clients. “The brands naturally wish to acquire the patents included in their products, but it is in my interest – and their interest also – to make sure I can reuse my inventions that will enable me to create new original watches,” he notes. “In the end, all will benefit from a large repertoire of know-how."

The first bi-retrograde perpetual calendar I developed for Harry Winston was original in terms of mechanisms and legible indications yet the specific solution remained my property. An important part of Agenhor’s successes have been thanks to the use of the technical retrograde display protected by this patent. Numerous other products flowed from this invention, sometimes very different from perpetual calendars, like the famous Hermès Arceau Le Temps Suspendu, which integrates this patent three times!”

Forerunner of a new school of horological thinking, Wiederrecht was at the origin of Van Cleef & Arpels’ poetic complications, which brought him out of the shadows and into the international spotlight, the brand is among the first to see the value of openly giving him credit. Born from the desire to convert women to mechanical watchmaking with an adapted proposal, this new aesthetic took shape for the first time in 2005 with his Quantième des Saisons (Seasons Calendar) movement inside the Lady Arpels Centenaire timepiece: a grand feu enamel dial taking a year to complete one full rotation.

It was a watershed moment in his career and for women’s complicated watchmaking as the starting point was an artistic expression – a totally new way of inventing a product. He went on to create the Lady Arpels Féerie in 2007 (two retrograde displays pointed to by a fairy’s wand and wing) and the award-winning Pont des Amoureux in 2010 (where lovers climb a bridge according to the rhythm of the hours and minutes to meet twice a day at the top, before returning to their point of departure). For men, this year’s Van Cleef Midnight Heure d’Ici & Heure d’Ailleurs presents two time zones that may be read through jumping hours and retrograde minutes, and Hermès’ Slim d’Hermès GMT offers a playful time display.

Wiederrecht continues to innovate new dial display formats, most recently a revolutionary chronograph movement — one of the very few calibres to have been entirely developed by Agenhor, as it mainly makes movement modules — that was simultaneously launched last year in watches with drastically distinct aesthetics: the Fabergé Visionnaire Chronograph and Singer Reimagined Track 1. A creation that is closely associated with Agenhor rather than just the brands, the AgenGraphe calibre features an unprecedented architecture as the first automatic chronograph in the world to use central hands to display all its indications, offering unparalleled legibility – which has been touted as the most significant chronograph since its invention by Louis Moinet in 1816 and was nine years in development. The perfect foundation for a wide variety of designs, the base movement with a hole in the middle for centrally-mounted complications allows for very clear dials using big hands and can adopt many variations such as a flyback chronograph or perpetual calendar, which will attract further clients in the years to come.

I fear with great regret that true watchmakers are an endangered species! They have been mostly replaced by engineers for the conception and operators for assembling watches.

In the process of passing on the reins to his two sons, Wiederrecht defines the complexities of a family business, “The first challenge is to stay alive. For that, the most important thing is to think differently and to have new ideas because the other huge competitors are talented in producing and improving existing products. Being a family-run company allows us to make all our decisions very quickly without external ‘fast profit’ needs. I have the chance to have the two best possible sons who have the required qualities to take over: Nicolas for all management and administrative questions will perfectly succeed his mother Catherine, while Laurent, our second son, with his incredible conception and construction faculties, will be perfect to take my place. Of course, it will never be possible for me to stop thinking about watches and all that is going on in the watch world, but I will be able to continue to do so without having to go to the workshop daily.”

With a team of 23, Agenhor manufactures approximately 2,000 pieces annually for different brands, with no plans for expansion. Nicolas discloses, “We believe that between 25 and 30 people is a good size – big enough to be able to create and produce new complications and movements every year and small enough to keep our creativity, reactivity and authenticity. In the future, we will be more and more active in the production of customised movements with integrated complications and AgenGraphe movements.”

Wiederrecht explains how traditional watchmaking values have evolved throughout his almost 50-year-long career, “Our industry has changed a lot during the last decades. I fear with great regret that true watchmakers are an endangered species! They have been mostly replaced by engineers for the conception and operators for assembling watches. They produce very well running watches but, for me, they are like modern cars versus old ones: flat and too aseptic. In a few years, no one will be able to repair them anymore! A comparison with Monsanto fruits and vegetables could be made: they are perfect, but are clones with little taste. In my opinion, it is imperative, at least for haute horlogerie products, to reintegrate watchmakers for the production and conception processes.”

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