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Highlights from the Kari Voutilainen HSNY Lecture

This week, it was my distinct pleasure to attend a lecture delivered by legendary watchmaker Kari Voutilainen at the Horological Society of New York.
Kari Voutilainen, center facing, lecturing at the Horological Society of New York on February 13, 2023.
I was on the fence about whether I would attend, but I still have regrets about missing Fran├žois-Paul Journe's lecture a few summers ago. If there is a pantheon of present-day traditional, independent, artisanal watchmakers, both Journe and Voutilainen are almost definitely members. Moreover, I've been priviledged to see Voutilainen's work "in the metal" more often than almost any other living master independent watchmaker. So, after lecturing four hours in the morning, I made the trip to Manhattan. I wasn't going to regret missing this one.

The Zenith X Voutalainen X Phillips watch. Dial side (top) caseback (bottom).
The room was packed. Earlier in the day, an email request went out: 60 people were on the waiting list to attend, so those with a last minute cancellation should notify the society. I arrived early in order to get a decent seat and this gave me a chance to catch up with a few members of the community. Looking around, I recognized the US CEO of a major watch brand in attendance, which erased any doubt that this was an important moment for many.

Only a few minutes into M. Voutilainen's delivery, I took out my phone and spontaneously began typing notes. The lecture will be available on YouTube in the not-too-distant future, so I will not offer an exhaustive recap of those notes. Rather, I would like to share a few points that I found particularly important and offer some reflections on those points. So, let's get to it.

Guilloche Bottleneck A number of collectors I highly respect have started bemoaning the proliferation of stamped guilloche dials. In short, this practice involves taking the hand out of handcrafting and raises the question "does a dial manufactured at high speed by a Bruder Swiss metal press (for example) really justify a five figure price tag?" Voutilainen offered some insights into why hand guilloche is in retreat.

A Voutilainen "28Pi Proto" at a Phillips auction preview. Dial side (top) caseback (bottom).
He shared that, of late, there are only two independent workshops that offer handmade guilloche meeting his standards. That is a pretty slender reed carrying the weight of an industry (in fact, Voutilainen related the story of an intermidable and problematic delay in dial delivery). Any time Voutilainen went to buy a rose engine so that he could produce dials "in house," he was outbid by the Swatch group. It is likely that Swatch purchases these machines for one of its brands, Breguet, who produces a fairly large volume of watches with traditional guilloche dials. Fortunately, Voutilainen purchased one of the two aforementioned guilloche workshops when it closed down. Let's hope many brands will be able to place dial orders with a Voutilainen workshop in the near future.

Cash Capital is Best Capital Voutilainen shared observations, made throughout his career, on the fate of other independent watchmakers who borrowed financial capital in order to fund their brand. He also shared that he witnessed watchmakers struggle and perhaps fail as a consequence of this decision. Voutilainen never specifically said that he funded his machinery and equipment with his own personal savings, but I was left with this impression. Borrowing comes with strings, and that means someone is at the end of those strings and that person may pull you about. Without "liberty of the creation," in his words, an independent watchmaker might struggle to reach their full potention. Self-financing is no easy feat, though. Voutilainen shared that he worked long, long hours in order to get his businesses underway. In addition to his full-time watchmaking job for other brands, such as Urban Jurgensen and Parmigiani Fleurier, he operated his own workshop "after hours" in order to independently craft watches. Freedom from borrowing that Voutilainen enjoyed came with a price.

Two Voutilainen watches that were on display for Watchtime 2022.
Less is More For collectors, scarcity is never a straightforward situation. Its byproduct is often lengthy, or perhaps closed, waitlists. Voutilainen made it clear, though, that he does not intend to increase production volume from its present 40-70 watches per year. The reality is that traditional artisinal craftwork does not scale well. It typically requires costly expansion of a workshop, hiring more watchmakers with exceptional skills, and acquiring more machinery. For Voutilainen, there is the added complication that he recently assumed the role of CEO for a second brand: Urban Jurgensen. From this perspective, his workload has already increased significantly despite the fact that workflow from his eponymous brand is in a steady state.

The upside to pegging production at its current volume is that Voutilainen's watches can continue to deliver high craftsmanship without cutting corners. For example, he shared that many "blue label" brands polish the ends of pivots using a ceramic disk. Such work is effective, but burnishing the end of the pivot involves working the metal more and strengthening it. Using a more time-consuming technique provides an end result which will last longer. Indeed, Voutilainen shared that he regularly delivers watches and doesn't see them return for service or adjustment for many, many years.

In summary, Kari Voutilainen's career accomplishments are the product of passion and tireless dedication to craft. It is due to watchmakers with his ethos that traditional watchmaking techniques survive and, from a certain perspective, thrive today. In my next post, I will share the story of another watchmaker who is, in many ways, a "kindred spirit" to Voutilainen. He was actually in the audience during Voutilainen's lecture and shared that he appreciated some "encouraging points" from the discussion. Keep an eye out, I will share that story in the next day or two.
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