How often does a truly original watch design come along? Not just a mishmash of rare complications. Not just an intriguing new case or dial material. How often are we watch lovers offered a new form factor coupled with an ingenious way of displaying the time? Even amongst lauded independents, doing something new is uncommon. More often, watches with novel case designs will display the time conventionally, or watches using novel ways of indicating the time will have a more traditional case shape or profile. Within this space, the brands that first come to mind are MB&F, Vianney Halter, and Urwerk. Of these three, Urwerk’s offerings stand out in its own right. The brand’s ultramodern design codes combine sleek, unconventional case designs and innovative, unorthodox means of telling time. Typifying the brand is the Urwerk AlTiN UR-202, with a bold black case and one of the brand’s trademark wandering hour movements.
Urwerk is the brainchild of renowned AHCI watchmaker Felix Baumgartner and industrial designer Martin Frei, founded in 1997 after a meeting of the minds two years prior. Urwerk’s first watches, the UR-101 and UR-102 featured somewhat traditional cases (in that they were round), and a slender arced window along which the hour numeral would wander. It wasn’t until 2003 that the brand hit its stride, launching the UR-103. The reference featured a space-age case and, in its second iteration, showed off it’s four-armed, four-disc wandering hour mechanism—similar to (though more refined than) the original wandering hour mechanism invented in the 1600s. In 2008, though, Urwerk debuted its iconic revolving satellite display in the short-lived UR-201. The UR-201 featured a manual wind mechanism and only 10 pieces were made (the base movement’s discontinuation presented immediate issues for servicing the watches). Just one year later, the UR-202 was introduced, with a new automatic base movement and offered in a variety of materials—plus a bracelet option.
The Urwerk UR-202 AlTiN shows well the germ of an idea. Its space age case design is consistent with Urwerk’s design language while clearly being a starting point. It’s decidedly blockier than any of its siblings, and this is felt in full with its 43.5mm diameter and 15mm height. However, the 46.5mm case length helps it remain manageable on the wrist, an impressive feat for a watch that one would expect to sit like a brick. The steel case features a proprietary all-black coating, made of an alloy of aluminum, titanium, and nitride, with a satin finish throughout for a matte appearance. The coating is applied in a similar fashion to DLC (diamond-like carbon, for those less familiar) and provides exceptional resistance to scratches. Despite the uniform finishing, the edges and lines of the Urwerk UR-202 are well-defined with a nice blend of rounded edges and sharper turns. An enormous rubber-coated crown is positioned at 12 o’clock, facilitating on-the-wrist operation and maintaining symmetry.
On the reverse side, the watch features the unique turbine system. Through two sapphire crystal apertures show the turbines and holes that open or close to moderate the rotation of the movement’s rotor. Depending on the position of the adjacent selector, the rotor will spin more or less freely: Select ‘Free’ for days at the office, ‘Sport’ for your morning jog, and ‘Stop’ for your evening match in The Octagon or playing in the finals at Wimbledon. You can also see the lugs—a sort of hyper-sleek Vendôme style—connecting the alligator leather which has an AlTiN coated clasp. A bracelet offered with some UR-202 models is a simple, chunky affair which has been criticized as a bit plain in design.
Let’s get to the main attraction: the dial and associated mechanism. Seen through a custom sapphire crystal is the mind-blowing revolving satellite display. Here’s how it works: three rotating cubes are mounted on arms on the bladed carousel in the center of the dial. Each cube features four hour markers, and is brought around by three “transport” arms concealed under the dial. As the hour changes, a cube spins to the correct numeral, which then traces the retrograde minute track at the bottom of the dial. What’s even more impressive is that the pointer on which each cube is mounted telescopes to ensure it always perfectly extends to the minute track. At the lower left is a moonphase, mirrored on the right by a day-night indicator (on the UR-201, a power reserve indicator stood in the moonphase’s place). The cherry on top? Everything that was just mentioned is fully lumed, which makes for quite the spectacle when the lights go out.
The Urwerk UR-202 features the brand’s UR-7.02 caliber, which is built on a Zenith Elite base (though reducing this movement to its base is tantamount to reducing Picasso to oil and canvas). The automatic mechanism uses 34 jewels, carries a beat rate of 28,800 vph, and delivers a power reserve of 39 hours. Seen through sapphire glass cut out on the caseback is a world’s first: the aforementioned turbine system allowing the wearer to adjust the air flow to the rotor, changing the rotor from free spinning to completely stopped. This allows for fine tuning of the winding apparatus to an individual’s activity level. The turbines also provide additional shock protection.
Versus the Competition
While Urwerk has certainly established dominance in the futuristic avant garde niche of haute horlogerie, other offerings exist, and the closest contemporary is without a doubt MB&F. In 2015, the brand celebrated its 10th anniversary with the HMX Black Horological Machine. Featuring a similar but sleeker case shape with similar dimensions, the HMX Black has a unique display: top-side rotating discs are reflected vertically and magnified by prisms to display jumping hours and trailing minutes head-on, mimicking a supercar’s dashboard.
Although no brand has invested itself more than Urwerk in the wandering hour display, Audemars Piguet is credited with bringing the mechanism to the wristwatch, introducing the Star Wheel in 1991. The solid gold timepiece puts its namesake star wheels on display by using sapphire hour discs. The styling is very traditional and in addition to being historically relevant, it offers a strong counterpoint to the Urwerk UR-202’s aesthetic while still providing the same core display mechanism
At the end of the day, though, only Urwerk can do what Urwerk does. The brand’s first watch had a round case, though, and it wasn’t until its sophomore effort that the space-age case that has come to typify its aesthetic. That watch was the UR-103, which made quite the splash when revealed in 2003. Just two years later, the second generation was revealed, revealing the mechanics of the wandering hour under a unique U-shaped sapphire crystal. If that weren’t spectacular enough, the reverse of the watch features a 15-minute dial and a seconds dial, for precise time setting.
Black, angular, and inscrutable from afar, the Urwerk UR-202 AlTiN is a true statement piece that embodies a fascination with the unknown and embraces the boundless possibilities of whatever lies ahead. This is a watch for the aspirational futurist, the unconstrained creative. Plus, it’ll look killer with those new Yeezys.
Since the brand’s inception in 1997, Baumgartner and Frei have used Urwerk to challenge conventional design and innovate with displays and novel mechanics. With its twin turbines, revolving satellite display, and futuristic black case, the Urwerk UR-202 AlTiN is an exemplar of Urwerk’s commitment to the cutting edge.