THE WATCHMAKING OF SVEND ANDERSEN
by Alan Downing
Moon-phases in a rotating dates dial. Svend Andersen is an expert in lunar calendars, and the idea of this Orbita Lunae automatic came to him while designing a Jewish calendar for Alain Silberstein in 1995. The disc under the dial carries two gold moons and two blue circles. The disc rotates at around half the speed of the dial, compensating for the 10 days difference between the lunar and solar year. Andersen adds 2 1/2 days every two months or 15 days a year. The adjustment of the calendar five times a year (in months of fewer that 31 days) removes the five surplus days.
Svend Andersen, co-founder with Vincent Calabrese of the AHCI in 1985, has done more than most to keep watchmaking alive as an art in an era ruled by the dead hand of the brands.
Andersen, like Calabrese, is one of those natural mechanical geniuses for whom anything is possible. Born in 1942 to a Danish smallholder, Andersen was apprenticed to a watchmaker in Padborg on the border with Germany (most of the work consisted of replacing broken balance-staffs of pre-Incabloc watches), and gained his watchmaking diploma at the Royal Danish Technical Institute. During his military service - 20 metres underground at Nato's northern command - he staved off boredom by fixing officers' watches.
But hopes of expressing his inventive talents in the Mecca of watchmaking were swiftly dashed when arrived in Switzerland as an immigrant worker in 1963. His job, in the repair workshops of Gübelin, the big Swiss watch retailers, in Lucern and then in Geneva, was pure frustration. His suggestions for improving techniques were rebuffed as a matter of course. "You are here to work not to invent," he was told. "I was dancing faster than the music," he recalls. He became increasingly sidelined.
Andersen saw his watchmaking career reach a dead end, so he decided to show the world how clever he was. He built a clock in a bottle. The dial is in narrow strips that pass through the narrow neck to be fastened together inside the flask. Andersen made the long tools to assemble the movement, which is about the size of a large pocket-watch movement.
This exploit, exhibited in 1969, brought Andersen a certain degree of fame as "the watchmaker of the impossible," and, amazingly, a job in the complications department of Patek Philippe under the legendary Max Berney, the company's most accomplished watchmaker.
But the watch crisis was well underway, and by 1976 Andersen was on half time. What saved him from the fate of hundreds of watchmakers during those dark days was a commission from a collector to build a case for a 19th-century triple-complication pocket-watch movement. "Researching in the Geneva museum library, I got to know a great deal about watchmaking styles," he says. "The reconstructed watch brought me an avalanche of clients. I then realized I could survive as an independent watchmaker."
He set up his own workshops in 1979. From 1983, Franck Muller was one of his apprentices, and Patek Philippe one of his clients. His workshops restored the watches in company's private collection for the publication of the Huber/Banbery book.
Taking it slow. This automatic calendar watch has a wheel that completes one revolution every 400 years. It over-rides the normal leap year cycle in 2100, 2200 and 2300 to give their Februaries 28 days. 2400, on the other hand, is a leap year with 29 days in February. How many owners, one wonders, will see the hand on the back complete its 50-year tour? Owners can choose the style of the dials and indications, as well as, presumably, the spelling of "perpetuel". The movement is COSC certified.
Today the ever-ebullient Svend Andersen (61) rules a busy little workshop of three watchmakers on the right bank of the Rhône downstream from lake Geneva. Philippe Cantin, 13 years a watchmaker; Fredric Moser, a former Patek Philippe apprentice and Roland Goor, who has returned to Svend Andersen after doing the rounds in other workshops, together make around 300 watches a year, as well as prototypes for some brands.
The workshop is decorated with the cartoons, awards and memorabilia of a 40-year career.
Andersen's work ranges from erotic automata with a record 11 different movements (including the dog) to the only secular perpetual-calendar wristwatch, operating on a 400-year cycle. He also claims the thinnest world-time mechanism, 0.9mm, giving a cased-up thickness of 6.7mm in the automatic version and 4.2mm with a Frédérique Piquet manual movement.
Andersen will finish and case up an ETA automatic movement into a nice gold dress watch with date for you for around USD5000. The secular perpetual calendar in gold can be made for five times as much, but it's a bargain when the alternative is a Patek Philippe Calibre 89 for several million dollars.
The thin world-time watch at around USD10,000 in gold is a fraction of the Patek Philippe equivalent, but you have to make sure that Andersen spells the names of the cities correctly on the bezel. He also tends to be careless about the adjustment and jewels text engraved on the movements.
In some societies, it is considered as rude to consult one's watch in company as to stifle a yawn. In the old days, the truly diplomatic would get a so-called "tact" watch with which you could tell the time by touch without hauling your watch out of your pocket. Andersen has adapted the concept to the wrist with an extraordinary, thick, drum-shaped piece that tells the time through a window on the dial and through the caseband between the bottom lugs. That means you can tell the time without flicking your wrist over.
For the courteously correct, or those too lazy to move their wrists to tell the time. An hours band within the caseband shows the time between the lower lugs. Dials are engine-turned or engraved to order. The 9.8mm thick automatic watch cannot be wound manually. It is delivered with a winder. If it's any recommendation, Italian Prime Minister, Sylvio Berlusconi, ordered a dozen of these watches with his portrait.
The notable feature of the tact wristwatch is that it provides the medium for the engraving of your choice, either by hand or engine turned in blue gold. This is an alloy of gold and iron with the iron molecules oxidized on the surface. The process is exclusive to Ludwig Muller of Geneva.
Andersen likes to introduce mechanisms, indications or decorations nobody else has. His most elegant piece shows the day and night hours on two semicircular 12 hour scales. The minutes are on a small dial at 6 o'clock. In his moon watch, the moon-phases travel around the dial.
The watches he has on display are demonstration models. He encourages his clients to determine the look of their watch. His watches are therefore difficult to classify and cannot easily be compared with a branded watch. He doesn't, for example, make minute-repeaters or tourbillons.
Jumping hours on a 24-hour day and night dial in a large (42mm) case. The movement is the elegant manually wound Piguet 15 (1.9mm), visible though the caseback.
As the father of the AHCI one of Andersen's biggest achievements has been to improve the status of the watchmaker in Switzerland.
Unlike any other watchmaking country of the past, Switzerland has never honoured its watchmakers. A plumber has more glamour in Swiss eyes. On a book, the author's name is generally in bigger letters than the publisher's; on Broadway, the performer is in brighter lights than the producer; the artist signs the work, not the gallery; the singer is the celebrity, not the head of the record company. In the Swiss watch brands it's the other way around. The watchmaker is anonymous. He doesn't invent or create; he executes.
In the eighties, Andersen saw that the brands were taking all the credit and the profits from the high-margin complications that were ushering the watch industry into a new golden age. These complications were devised and constructed by independent watchmakers, but the consumer was being led to believe that only the brands were capable of making complicated watches.
The Swiss watchmaking cartel was suffocating the independent watchmakers it depended on by withholding public recognition of their skills.
Andersen's initiative in bringing the independent watchmakers into an association has done much to save the watchmaker as an artist and inventor in his own right. Two brands - Goldpfeil and Harry Winston - have set a new trend by giving the artist his due. The other major brands are beginning to name their top watchmakers, but they still don't identify the creators of their watches.
Andersen's one-off watch made for Goldpfeil has a revolving dial for the days, but doesn't show the date. Andersen has secured the services of one of Switzerland's top engravers to decorate his watches.
If the mechanical watch has become one of the most popular modern art forms, the AHCI watchmakers are ahead of the movement, and their work must surely represent the watchmaking of this era to the future generations.
High kitsch. Andersen can make automata with up to 11 different movements. Most of his erotic watches are fairly simple with a choice of highly coloured scenes involving such diverse personages as gondoliers, fishermen, motorists and a variety of ecstatic females. Roland Carrera, erotic-watch expert and author of "Hours of Love" had this to say about one of his watches: "I have never seen in a pocket watch and even less in wristwatches known until this day such a high perfection of figurine automatons like the ones you have developed. Indeed, there are 10 parts or members of the figurines in the movement - not counting the little dog who is moving his tongue and his tail - which produces a very lively scenery."
Svend Andersen. Still dancing faster than the music
How to order a watch.
Copyright© Alan Downing May 2003