Vianney Halter: The Independent Watchmaker From The Future
We sat down with the legendary Vianney Halter at the Wristcheck boutique for a conversation that ranged from time travel to his need for solitude and the future of independent watchmaking
Best known as the unrivaled "King of Steampunk" in horology, Vianney Halter has always been way ahead of his contemporaries. His powerful design language ushered in a new era in mechanical watchmaking in the late 20th century and has since inspired several independent watchmakers like Urwerk, MB&F and Richard Mille. It all started with Halter’s retro-futuristic ode to marine chronometers, the Antiqua, introduced at the Baselworld watch and jewelry fair in 1998 and over the last 25 years, the maverick watchmaker has continued to defy conventional norms in horology with kinetic sculptures born out of his obsession with science fiction and space exploration.
In January, Wristcheck got a rare opportunity to host Halter at its boutique in Hong Kong for an exclusive exhibition of his upcoming releases. We sat down with Halter to talk about his unique watchmaking philosophy, love for science fiction and the future of independent watchmaking.
Excerpts from the interview:
The Antiqua, your retro-futuristic ode to marine chronometers, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. Do you think the understanding of watchmaking over the last two decades, especially with regard to your timepieces, has changed drastically?
One can’t say if it has been drastic, as I’m not in a position where I can easily articulate what has happened. One thing I do know is that in 1998 when the Antiqua made its debut in this world, nobody wanted to believe it would be the future of watchmaking. It was considered too outrageous or unconventional for many individuals walking through the corridors where watchmaking is revered as a classic art, the very essence of what we have practiced for decades, perhaps even centuries. But now, after 25 years, Antiqua has brought about substantial changes in the perspectives of numerous people, particularly in the context of watchmaking. I believe it opened a window during that time, and yet no one understood that there was something profound behind it – something that compelled people to peek into this new world, drawing inspiration to witness and imagine another realm. And now, when I have conversations with others about the Antiqua, it feels like it has become an iconic watch for everyone.
I believe it can be said that there was a time before Antiqua and a time after it, it was extraordinary for that era. I think the Antiqua has not only changed my perception of watchmaking but has also impacted many others.
You often define your timepieces as tools to travel in time. Do you find it challenging to explain your concepts to discerning watch enthusiasts?
It's challenging to provide an exact explanation since I didn't create sci-fi watches. However, I may have drawn inspiration from various sci-fi stories and imaginative concepts, but that isn't the sole foundation of my creativity. It stems from my cultural background, as I have dedicated a significant amount of time to exploring and enjoying science fiction. I read books, watch series and movies, and visit museums or events related to the genre.
Now, regarding the Antiqua and the Future Antérieur collection, they were not directly derived from sci-fi, although the Future Antérieur does exhibit a Victorian style. It harks back to the late 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution gained momentum. During that era, people wrote sci-fi stories that envisioned a world like the one depicted in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. While it was a captivating and intriguing tale, it was considered purely science fiction at the time. Ultimately, I embark on a journey through time to gather inspiration and explore profound stories of humanity. The resulting creations in my watches may encompass elements of science fiction or convey a sense of imaginative adventure, but they can also manifest in various other forms that defy expectations. It's uncertain and open to interpretation. I have delved into other temporal journeys, venturing into the future with the concept of Deep Space. I travel to the past to collect artifacts, and now I contemplate traveling to the future to bring back futuristic elements. While this notion may be associated with time travel, it doesn't automatically classify as sci-fi. Consider the communicator from Star Trek in the 1960s—it was undoubtedly science fiction back then, but now, everyone possesses a similar device, making it a reality. So, yes and no, my customers aren't automatically fascinated by sci-fi, but I believe they are captivated by something different, something unique.
Over the last three decades you have experimented with a wide range of concepts – seen in the Antiqua, Classic, Trio, Moon and Sun, Le Resonance – what do you think defines your watchmaking philosophy the best?
I have never had a plan to work and prepare for my career. I follow my instincts and I follow my skill because my life has not always been the same. I had skills when I was young, but I have improved those skills over the years and also my approach to technicalities regarding finishing and design. And yes, I did start with a crazy watch – the Antiqua – but it was only by chance. I didn't want to create a brand. I only wanted to sell my skill and my work.
You have always been futuristic and way ahead of your contemporaries. How do you envision the future of watchmaking over the next two decades?
It’s gratifying to have machines that assist us in various aspects of our lives and even in the development of vaccines. However, in the end, it is only a machine-based connection. The true connection lies between humans and their work, their connection with ancestors and descendants. I believe that the next generation of independent watchmakers entering this world will be similar to me, as I am akin to the watchmakers from a century ago. We share many similarities.
Who do you look up to in the independent watchmaking space today?
I like Kari (Voutilainen), of course, because he's a very close friend. I also like Silvain Pinaud, as I have known him for years.
You have always seemed disillusioned by the traditional ways of the Swiss watch industry. You were brought back into the fold by other independents like Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilanen and Max Busser at various occasions. Do you think of yourself as someone who doesn’t fit in the traditional set-ups?
I don't want to be consumed by external matters, and I also don't want my entire life to revolve around the realm of watchmaking. It's not only detrimental to one's physical well-being but also to spiritual well-being. While I do spend a significant amount of time with fellow watchmakers, as we work in this field and understand these worlds intimately, it is important to share experiences beyond the boundaries of watchmaking. But I'm also unique in my style, and I don't want to be influenced or hindered by others’ perspectives.
Let’s talk about your trademark porthole design for watches? Is it functionality or aesthetics that drives you to use this layout for your timepieces every now and then?
The porthole design forms the base of my creations. Even if I create something like the “La Résonance”, which may seem quite classical and conventional in terms of the case, the case itself posed a challenge because it deviated from the traditional norms of watchmaking. It wasn't about conforming to customer expectations; rather, my focus was on the essence of the piece through its design, not only on creating something eccentric.
In the end, I adjusted my perspective to develop the technical aspects and made the design to be as unconventional as possible, while holding on to my vision. If you examine closely, you will discover numerous intricate details that are absent from other watch cases. Specifically, for projects like "Beyond" or "Deep Space," the design drove the construction. I saw something and I yearned to pursue it, placing greater emphasis on the design itself rather than the techniques. However, in the subsequent stages, the techniques converged with my design, adapting and aligning to achieve the desired outcome. Ultimately, both elements, design and technology, are always in my sight. I can’t envision creating a watch where any aspect, be it technology, technique, or design, is overlooked. I must merge them harmoniously to attain my objective.
You showcased the Antiqua diamonds and sapphires – a unique piece – at Wristcheck. Do you make customized timepieces quite often?
No, no. I think my customers didn't want this. It's a unique piece for me. I have never adapted my work to my clients’ requests. I make watches and if clients like them, they buy them. I have made very few unique pieces. And this piece is very unique – it involved a lot of work, a lot more than my older pieces.
Do you think the Deep Space Resonance encompasses everything you have innovated and achieved over the last two decades?
Of course. It's a very complicated piece and if you look around the world, you will never find a watch like this.