Simpler times

    30 November 2013

    The first time I saw an Ochs und Junior watch was on the wrist of my Swiss friend Fabian. It was unlike any wristwatch I’d ever seen. Bold but understated, it looked like a piece of machinery rather than a piece of jewellery. I asked him where he’d bought it. ‘Lucerne,’ he said. ‘A shop called the Oxloft on Zurichstrasse. It’s the only place that sells them.’ I was intrigued. I find most designer watches far too flashy, and the fact that you can buy them almost anywhere makes them seem a lot less special. I loved the idea of a Swiss watch that you can only buy in one shop in Switzerland. And I loved the minimalist look of Fabian’s Ochs und Junior. Lucerne is one of my favourite cities. I’m always glad of an excuse to go. The next time I was passing through, I made an arrangement to drop in.

    The Oxloft is on a busy boulevard a short walk from Lucerne’s waterfront. From the street, it scarcely looks like a shop at all, more like an artist’s studio. The firm’s fresh-faced managing director, Beat Weinmann, sits at a trestle table, drawing designs with a new customer. His wife Bea is a photographer. Her studio is round the back. Their American colleague Cail Pearce went to Stanford and worked at Google. He fixes me a coffee from the Oxloft’s vintage espresso machine, a 1966 Gaggia. Like his beloved Gaggia, the watches he shows me seem timeless, a beguiling blend of old and new. ‘All numbers and figures have been removed from the dial,’ he says. ‘They’re simpler on the inside, too.’ Simplicity is the watchword of the man who makes them, Ludwig Oechslin. ‘Most watchmakers use springs and levers,’ Cail tells me. ‘Ludwig uses gears.’

    The result of this innovation is a watch with far fewer movable (and breakable) components. ‘Instead of doing complications, we’re doing intelligent reductions,’ explains Weinmann, who co-founded the company with Oechslin seven years ago. One of Oechslin’s watches will cost you upwards of 6,000 Swiss francs, but that’s a lot less than a lot of Swiss watches. And when you buy an Ochs und Junior you’re buying bespoke, not prêt-a-porter. They aim to sell about 250 watches a year.

    Ludwig Oechslin comes from Lucerne, but he doesn’t live here any more. To meet him, you have to travel to La Chaux-de-Fonds, an industrial town in the Swiss Jura, where he runs the International Museum of Horology (MIH). La Chaux-de-Fonds is the birthplace of Swiss watchmaking. In 1678, an English traveller asked a local blacksmith to repair his pocketwatch. The blacksmith fixed it, copied it, and started making watches of his own. That’s the story, anyway. True or false, by 1900, La Chaux-de-Fonds was making more than half the watches in the world.

    Market share has shrunk since then, but quality has replaced quantity, and today big names like Patek Philippe, Tag Heuer, Cartier and Tissot are all based here, alongside lots of smaller watchmakers, like Ludwig Oechslin. Doktor Oechslin meets me at the museum and shows me round. Housed in a subterranean building, beside the Musée des Beaux Arts, his is a wonderful collection, a brief history of time. In his early sixties, tall and bald, with dark penetrating eyes that peer at you over pince-nez, he has the intense, distracted air of a brilliant, absent-minded professor, He’s been the curator here since 2001. In 2005, he designed a stark, arresting watch, the MIH, as a fundraiser for the museum. At 6,000 Swiss francs, it wasn’t cheap, but it became a bestseller. In 2006 he teamed up with Beat Weinmann to form Ochs und Junior (it’s part owned by Ulysse Nardin, Oechslin’s employer for half a lifetime, but no one has a controlling share).

    Ludwig Oechslin is that rare thing, a genuine renaissance man. He studied history and archaeology at Basel University. He did postgraduate studies in philosophy. He’s a qualified astronomer. He has a doctorate in physics. He’s driven by a love of learning. He has a passion for solving puzzles. He went to Rome to restore an ancient astronomical clock in the Vatican. ‘It was an autodidactic apprenticeship in itself,’ he says, with relish.

    Oechslin isn’t all that bothered about what his watches look like. He’s far more interested in the way they work. ‘It’s not the goal to have a beautiful watch,’ he says. ‘The goal is to have a watch that is useful and functional.’ It’s a principle that goes back to the Bauhaus. Form follows function. Beauty is a natural by-product of good design. In a normal watch, an annual calendar uses as many as 40 moving parts. When he made the MIH, Oechslin did it with nine. In some of his more recent models, he’s got it down to three.

    Less clutter on the inside means less clutter on the outside. His watches are attractive because they’re practical, rather than the other way around. They bear no brand name. They don’t need to. You can spot an Ochs und Junior straight away.

    Ludwig lives in a lovely art nouveau house a short walk from the museum. A kaleidoscope of stained glass, it’s an artwork in its own right. After we’ve toured the museum he takes me back there. I chat with his young daughter in broken German while he rustles up some lunch. After we’ve eaten, he shows me his basement workshop. I’m amazed how basic it seems, how small and rudimentary. It’s remarkable to think that every Ochs und Junior watch starts here. ‘This work is intellectual,’ he says. ‘I think first. Then I produce.’ The hard graft is all done beforehand, inside his head.

    Back in Lucerne, at the Oxloft, Beat Weinmann seals the deal with another buyer. ‘We know every single customer,’ he says. ‘We know what they want.’ Apart from their website, Ochs und Junior do no marketing. The motor for their business is word of mouth, and their unique selling point is Ludwig Oechslin. ‘For him, it’s important that he has a challenge to solve, and he’s happy if he solves it in the most elegant way,’ says Weinmann, as we say goodbye. ‘He can spend an evening in the cellar, make a prototype, and come upstairs the next morning with the prototype on his wrist.’