Just imagine seeing this watch at the Baselworld fair in 2003. It would have been almost unrecognizable as a watch altogether. Urwerk started in 1996, but its UR-101 and UR-102 watches were still relatively small, round-cased pieces that, to the untrained eye, still functioned as “traditional” watches. F.P. Journe’s Chronomètre à Résonance and Vianney Halter’s Antiqua were only a few years old; Richard Mille, De Bethune, and the Harry Winston Opus program had just launched; MB&F was still a few years away. The watch world was a much more conservative place, and the UR-103 made it clear that a new generation had arrived – and they were here to play.
But the UR-103 we have here isn’t one of many iterations of production watches produced over the ensuing seven years in a variety of precious metals and with a variety of ornate case finishes. No, this is much more special than that. This is UR-103 Prototype #1, and it’s the very watch shown to prospective retailers at Baselworld 2003 to convince them to take a flyer on Urwerk’s wild new creation. There were three total prototypes, two shown at Baselworld 2003 and one produced later ahead of the full production. The former are in stainless steel, as the brand didn’t have the capital to make gold watches before order deposits came in, and the latter is in gold and was basically a quality control check ahead of the final case manufacturing. Watch number two sits in the Urwerk archive, but this one is in the private collection of watch dealer and collector Steve Hallock, who kindly shared the news with me a few weeks ago when he acquired it. You can see his personal musings on the watch here. And no, the watch is not for sale. Don’t even ask.
How did the watch make its way from the AHCI booth in Basel to Steve’s collection in LA? It’s pretty simple, actually. The watch was originally sold to the owner of one of Urwerk’s earliest retailers, Westime, also in Los Angeles, likely as a show of appreciation for their early support. Years later, Westime sold the watch on to a client, and it made its way from there to Steve earlier this year. There’s no funny business here, and Urwerk happily confirmed with me that this is in fact watch number one and that it’s been in good hands the whole time. Often with watches that fall into the “lore” category, that’s not the case, so it’s good to see a clean paper trail here so we know what we’re dealing with.
“The UR-103 is perhaps the most important modern independent watch, both to me in my personal journey in this industry and to the subsequent history of what I like to call ‘contemporary Horology,'” says Hallock. “It could only have come from outsiders to the traditional system, which is generally how great innovation happens in society. Creating it necessitated extreme persistence, industriousness, and creativity to sneak through. Its creators did whatever it took to create what they believed in. Also, it is extremely uncommon for brands to make prototypes like this. That it exists at all is a product of the unique Urwerk story and historical timing. Usually, this spirit of ingenuity is abstractly distributed throughout a brand or a model, but in this case, it is all concentrated in this one watch.”
The basic bones and guts of the UR-103 are all here and accounted for. The case shape is as it should be, albeit in stainless steel and with slightly raw, industrial-style finishing to it; the movement is as it should be; the displays are all there, from the rotating satellite discs up front to the earliest “control board” display on the reverse of the watch. But there are a few little quirks that further set this prototype apart.
There are two extremely charming idiosyncrasies on the back of this UR-103. First, the hands on the minutes and seconds displays don’t match. One is gold-plated, one is not. The day before Baselworld, Urwerk’s supplier failed to deliver the last gold hand needed for the control board, and co-founder Felix Baumgartner had to improvise. He pulled a hand off a standard ETA movement, cut it down to size himself, and fitted it to the watch. There was neither the time nor the resources to plate it to match its companion. But that’s not the only unusual hand on the back of the watch. The power reserve indicator uses a red seconds hand. There was no money to pay for a supplier to make one red hand, so they used Baumgartner’s brother’s girlfriend’s nail polish to paint a standard hand red. The hand isn’t even metal – it’s plastic. Unconventional? Sure. But it got the job done.
Making this watch presented the ambitious young company with a number of challenges. This watch was the first Urwerk that utilized a more three-dimensional, architectural case construction. The UR-101 and 102 cases were originally hand-lathed by Baumgartner’s brother, but that was impossible with the UR-103. This meant they had to bring CNC machines and 3-D design tools into the mix, which came with their own set of challenges and benefits. Martin Frei, Baumgartner’s co-founder and the one largely responsible for the UR-103’s design, was living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time, and this meant he needed a computer to plan out this new case. Frei ordered a computer from the legendary camera and electronics store B&H and waited patiently, but it never showed up. As it turned out, it had accidentally been delivered to a sketchy workshop somewhere else in the warehouse complex and his landlord never bothered to tell him. Luckily, he found it before someone else scooped it up. Could you imagine if Urwerk had gone down due to a simple lost package?
With a design figured out, then came making the actual cases and components themselves. That wasn’t seamless either, but there were some happy accidents. “On the sides, where one looks at the polished, wing-profiled surfaces, you see the shape of the round main body stand out just a tiny little bit,” says Frei. “The extending lugs are slightly less wide. This detail stems from a mistake, an imprecise construction. I liked that accidentally occurring mistake immediately and decided to use it for the piece. In my opinion, it’s important to allow chance to be a part of design.”
But pushing boundaries and dealing with these ups and downs became a key part of Urwerk’s approach. “I just loved to explore the limits of horology,” says Baumgartner. “And, by the way, I still do.”
While this watch obviously had a huge impact on the watchmaking landscape at large, it was also an extremely personal project for Baumgartner and Frei. They started working on the UR-103 in earnest in early 2002, after nearly shuttering the company altogether. Independent watchmaking is a tough business, and a few rough storms had hit them all at once. But they decided to give it one more try, and the UR-103 was make-or-break for Urwerk. It’s also worth noting that this is already more than five years after the founding of the company. They were already in pretty deep. So when the doors opened at Baselworld 2003, you’d forgive them for holding their breath a bit. Luckily, things worked out, and they had orders rolling in by that afternoon (4:00 PM was the first handshake deal, according to the pair), and the rest is, as they say, history.
I asked both Baumgartner and Frei about their memories of the watch, and it still holds a special place for both. “I love it still,” says Frei, who was largely responsible for the watch’s design. “It contains the time in which we created it, and all its aspects tell me that story and its meaning all over again. Life is captured in it.” Baumgartner feels much the same way. “Just put it on your wrist – you immediately get a new feel for what a watch can be,” he says. “The UR-103 is a milestone in today’s approach to haute horlogerie. It’s surely not the only one, but it’s a pretty cool one.”
I couldn’t agree more.
For more on the history of Urwerk, visit urwerk.com.