Finnish watchmaker Kari Voutilainen is a rare treat in the watchmaking world. Not a larger-than-life personality or ego in sight, the modest and thoughtful watchmaker never takes the spotlight the way we see from F.P. Journe, Max Busser, and others, even though he’s one of the most highly awarded makers of the last two decades. He’s racked up a dozen GPHG awards in the last 15 years—a feat only rivaled by Journe and Greubel Forsey. He has produced watches with all the complications one might expect of an independent haute horlogerie brand, but the Kari Voutilainen Vingt-8 ISO brings a new twist to Voutilainen’s classically designed watches while delivering the same exceptional craftsmanship.
If you’re still not convinced about Voutilainen, consider this: He started his watchmaking career while still in watchmaking school, working at night for three years to produce a tourbillon pocket watch, revealed in 1994. He set up his own brand in 2002, after nearly a decade restoring the finest watches ever made. Three years later, Voutilainen introduced his debut Masterpiece 6, a one-off decimal repeater using a fully rebuilt and hand-finished vintage ébauche. Just two years later, his Observatoire was awarded the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève Men’s Prize, his first of many GPHG honors. That same year—2007—he acquired his first CNC machine, which enabled him in 2011 to introduce his first in-house movement, the Caliber 28 (debuted in the aptly named Vingt-8). While the Caliber 28 and the Vingt-8 have seen multiple complications and iterations, perhaps the most peculiar is the Kari Voutilainen Vingt-8 ISO. Introduced in 2017, the ISO presents a new way of displaying the time, informed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s dual systems of thought formation.
As just mentioned, the dial and mechanism behind it are informed by psychologist Daniel Kahnmean’s contrasting systems of thought. System one covers effortless thinking, like telling time on a traditional watch. System 2 involves thinking that takes a bit of effort, that requires proper engagement. To read the time on the Vingt-8 ISO, the wearer is forced into system 2 thinking.
Instead of reading the hands as they relate to the dial—as you would a traditional watch—the time is told by reading the hands in relation to each other. At the top of each hour, both hands will point directly at the appropriate hour indicator, at :15 and :45 they will be 90 degrees apart, and at :30 they will be opposite each other. The peripheral minute track rotates with the hour hand, keeping it aligned to the 60, and giving the minute hand a 65 minutes rotation. Thus Voutilainen achieves his goal of forcing wearers into system two thinking, creating a deeper connection between watch and wearer. (Of course, you can always just look at where the hands are pointing—but that’s cheating.)
The dial and everything under the sapphire glass are marvelous. Three different guilloche patterns (all done manually on a traditional rose engine) adorn the brilliant blue dial, which is crafted from silver: hobnail for the hour track, cross hatch for the central dial, and mesmerizing spiral waves for the subsidiary seconds. The peripheral ring is slightly raised and has a brushed finish with white printing. A brushed nameplate above the center is complemented by applied Arabic numerals and a brushed seconds ring, all rendered in white gold. The hands stand out with polished rose gold shafts and tips, balanced with blued apertures—a sort of modernized Breguet handset. Down below, at six o’clock, and never minding country of origin and usage requirements, the dial simply reads “Hand Made.” Above all else Kari Voutilainen wants you to know the craftsmanship that went into this watch, and wants you to be able to let others know, too.
The case, made of 18k rose gold, features the same silhouette as nearly all of Voutilainen’s models. However, this model is the oversized version of the Vingt-8 ISO. Originally offered in 39mm, this Vingt-8 ISO case is a much larger 44mm (but modest in its 12.5mm height); keeping the lugs at 20mm makes it appear larger still. The case’s design is informed by Voutilainen’s time spent working on vintage and antique watches, as evidenced by the individually-attached teardrop lugs. The entirety is polished, with a slim caseband, a round bezel, and a low-profile crown. The watch is secured to the wrist by an alligator strap with branded tang buckle in rose gold.
Seen through the screwed-down sapphire caseback (marked with “Unique Piece,” like all of the brand’s bespoke creations) is the Voutilainen Caliber 28. Manufactured almost entirely in house (the springs and jewels are outsourced), the Caliber 28 featured here is doubly modified: once to allow for the unique display of time (a mechanism developed by an obscure Spanish clockmaker), and once to fit the larger ISO+ case. Neither of these changes meant sacrifice, though. The movement displays the pinnacle of hand-finishing, with anglage on every edge, perlage on the mainplate, Côtes de Genève on the German silver bridge, and snailing on the mainspring barrel. Even the screws are hand-polished.
Stealing the show are the oversized balance spring and unique escapement. The free sprung balance features a Breguet overcoil and a Grossman spiral and is secured by a massive balance bar. The escapement features a direct impulse design with two escapement wheels. By eliminating the lever seen on traditional Swiss movements and obviating the need for lubricating oils, the escapement drastically improves efficiency. The Caliber 28 in the Vingt-8 ISO has 33 jewels, beats at 2.5hz or 18,000 vph, and provides 65 hours of power.
Versus the Competition
While not finished to the degree of the Vingt-8 ISO, Breguet offers similar classical styling from a brand with decidedly more heritage. With a guilloche dial and day, date, and moonphase apertures, the Breguet 3330 Classique Moonphase has an engaging dial, though it certainly doesn’t do what the ISO—or any Voutilainen dial—does. The Breguet also features the brand’s eponymous hand style, which the ISO’s handset certainly resembles.
Offering a similar level of finishing and perhaps even more cache, the F.P. Journe Octa Automatique Reserve delivers everything one wants from a Journe, and might be considered by some to be superior to a Voutilainen timepiece (though this writer would suggest that’s due as much to the current hype for Journe as it is to anything else). While the Octa doesn’t offer any novel complications or display, the finishing is exquisite, it has Journe’s beautiful tapering handset, and also features hobnail on the central dial.
It would be remiss not to mention a brand that uses Voutilainen’s dials. While Grönefeld uses Voutilainen’s dials on bespoke orders of its 1941 Remontoire model, the brand’s 1941 Principia is only a slightly less stunning watch. Available in an array of dial colors, including Turqouise and Salmon, the Principia models are straightforward time-only watches with some of the finest and most engaging designing and finishing on the market. The movement alone, with a stunning list of finishing types, is enough on its own, but pair that with the dynamic case design and the simultaneously simple and bold dial, and you get a truly outstanding watch.
Here’s the thing about the Kari Voutilainen Vingt-8 ISO: despite all its beauty and its unassuming appearance, it is a novelty. Its quirky display makes it unlikely to serve as a daily wear, much less the only watch a person has (never mind that this is the type of watch purchased by watch collectors, not horological neophytes looking for a dress watch). As such, the Vingt-8 is best suited to the enthusiast who appreciates its idiosyncrasy, and may be a bit idiosyncratic themselves. Less pinstripe–cufflinks–John Lobb, more ascot–jeans–Stan Smiths.
True, the Kari Voutilainen Vingt-8 ISO affords the experience of one of the finest dials money can buy, from one of the most revered dial craftsmen working today. More than that, though, its innovative time-telling mechanism makes it the rare horological offering to do something different. This is not simply a watch with a new complication, it is a watch with a new way of displaying time. That’s something worth every watch lover’s while.