: Highlights from the Phillips HK Watch Auction XII – Part 1
Text Blackbird Watch Manual
Photos Francis Cheung

Our friends at Phillips have, once again, prepared an outstanding catalogue for their upcoming Hong Kong Watch Auction XII, taking place on June 5-6. You can peruse the full catalogue here: Phillips HKWAXII

A few lots have caught our eye though, those that we feel deserve some more attention, being off the beaten path of the usual auction high flyers. We will highlight them over the course of the next few days, with the first three being presented here.

Lot 808 – Harry Winston Opus 1

With the meteoric rise in demand for François-Paul Journe’s timepieces in recent years, both at retail and on the secondary market, it would be easy to forget that Journe, although a watchmaker with considerable experience under his belt, only started his brand just over 20 years ago. That’s a blink of an eye in an industry that likes to put forward brands with histories that span a century or two. Although Journe had worked with some of these established maisons, he was a movement conceptor, helping his clients realize their visions, and his name was not yet well-known outside a rather small circle of aficionados. He was friends though with Maximilian Büsser, who stood out amongst brands CEOs for his youth and, it must be said, daring, taking on the challenge of putting a historic jeweler, Harry Winston, on the map of the world’s finest watchmakers. Finding suppliers for the various elements that would elevate Harry Winston to the status of a watchmaker wouldn’t be too difficult; numerous companies were already in place who were more than happy to design bespoke movements, and case and dial suppliers were also plentiful. Büsser felt that something different was needed, with his brainchild, the Opus series, building a foundation for not only Harry Winston, but also for when he launched his own brand, Maximilian Büsser and Friends, or MB&F. The idea would be that these conceptors and collaborators would no longer take their bows behind the curtain of the main stage (if they ever became known at all), they would be brought to the fore and be in the spotlight, in the same vein as the brand itself. For François-Paul Journe, this would provide an invaluable stepping stone, especially in international markets, where he did not yet have the clout to open doors with the key retailers.

The Opus One series is remarkable because it genuinely contains the DNA of both Harry Winston and François-Paul Journe. The case design bears the signature arch design on the lugs, inspired by the entrance of the maison’s famous Fifth Avenue boutique, while the tourbillon with remontoir d’égalité, or constant force device, is undoubtedly one of Journe’s best known movements, paying tribute to the masters such as Abraham Louis Breguet that inspired Journe throughout his formative years. The Opus One genuinely achieved its goal and more, of an object being considerably greater than the sum of its parts, or, in this instance, the fruit of an ingenious collaborative effort.

Lot 809 – Alain Silberstein Marine Tourbillon Black Sea

Although an Alain Silberstein watch collaboration is now instantly recognizable, we must go back to when the former interior designer was first bitten by the watchmaking bug, and turned his attention to the wonderful but challenging world of horology in the 1980s. The landscape was considerably different, with many still fearing that the quartz crisis of the ‘70s had rung the death knoll for traditional watchmaking. Watches had become functional items rather than examples of craftsmanship and design. A relatively small number of brands saw much future in mechanical watches, especially given that the industry’s core strength was not in design, but rather in the ability to produce movements at reasonable prices on an industrial level. Indeed, there was a time where Switzerland had been favored due to the low cost of producing watch mechanisms there. A spark occurred when the original Swatch watch (perhaps not the most creative name, being a concatenation of “Swiss Watch”) made its appearance in the mid 80s, and the Swiss watch had found an opening through design and making the watches desirable and collectable through the fashion aspect. This is what inspired Alain Silberstein, and his wife Sylvie, to turn their attention to watchmaking, where he found an avenue to express his Bauhaus sensibilities and establish what would become his trademark aesthetic. The Silbersteins had established themselves in Besançon, which was coincidentally one of the key historic centers for watchmaking in France. Having already opened an interior design agency, they were called upon to work on a watch design project and were so enamored with that world that it became their sole focus. In 1987, Silberstein would present his first three prototypes in Baselworld. Just three years later, their interior design agency would close so that they could concentrate solely on their horological ventures.

Silberstein would be one of those who broke the traditional molds of watchmaking; he didn’t believe in shapes having to be just round or rectangular. Watch hands did not need to be straight, crowns could be triangular, and mechanisms such as the tourbillon should not be solely reserved for precious materials and classical interpretations. In a way, these are concepts that we almost take for granted today, but two decades ago, they were truly revolutionary. Although the Alain Silberstein brand was ultimately overtaken by the incredible growth that the watchmaking industry experienced from the late ‘90s onwards, he has collaborated on watch designs with MB&F, Romain Jerome, and Louis Erard. This has brought a new awareness to his name and signature aesthetic, with growing interest in watches that he crafted under his own brand, as they have undoubtedly had an impact on some of the today’s creative watchmakers and designers.

Lot 810 – Roger Dubuis / Hommage H40 Monopusher

The story of the late Roger Dubuis, the watchmaker who was a co-founder of the eponymous brand that is now within the Richemont stable, is fascinating for its twists and turns. Dubuis, born in 1938 in Corbeyrier, Switzerland, a town near the eastern side of Lake Geneva. From a very young age he was bitten by the horological bug, spending much of his free time in the workshop of a local watchmaker. Upon graduating from the prestigious École d’Horlogerie de Genève, the oldest one in Switzerland, he first worked at Longines, but his fascination with high complications brought him to Patek Philippe, where he would work for 14 years in the complications department. Not unlike a few other reputed watchmakers, he would leave to start his own workshop in the 1980s, but it wouldn’t be until 1995, at the prompting of Portuguese entrepreneur Carlos Dias, that Dubuis would put his own name on a watch, a somewhat unusual move given that he was already in his late 50s. Nevertheless, his horological genius and appreciation for the traditional aspects of watchmaking finishing and artistry set the tone and guidelines for the brand, namely that it would only produce very limited series’ of watches, and they would all ascribe to the acclaimed Poinçon de Genève, or Geneva Seal, which dictates very specific criteria for the finishing and assembly of timepieces.

The early days brought two key collections to the fore, the Sympathie and the Hommage. The former was more flamboyant, with a very distinctive case shape, while the latter was a tribute to the watchmaking codes that inspired Dubuis through his formative years and much of his professional life. In particular, these H40 monopusher chronographs have become highly sought after, as representations of the skill and dedication to the craft that Roger Dubuis exhibited. The RD caliber 65 is based on a well-known Lemania movement, and was worked on by Dubuis himself, again to the standards required by the Geneva Seal. The Bulletin d’Observatoire designation refers to a chronometric certification performed at the Observatory of Besançon, in France, which also has deep roots as one of the first such testing centers for the industry, and to this day has much stricter rate variation and accuracy  requirements, resulting in only a small number of movements being submitted each year.

The appeal in the H40 lies in this very classical treatment, coming across as a piece coming from an esteemed independent watchmaker rather than a “brand” per se. Its restrained design belies the extravagant designs that would characterize how the brand evolved from then on, before Dubuis took a step back and worked on other projects, ultimately returning to the brand as a mentor a few years later. It will likely draw considerable attention though from knowledgeable collectors who will immediately recognize and be drawn to it due to its rarity and impeccable design.