With the expansion of the independent watch market, many small makers have emerged with new designs and novel takes on classic complications. We have discussed the modern approaches of AP and RM alongside others, but now we will move even further in that direction with Urwerk and MB&F, two significant players in this expanding market segment. Urwerk vs MB&F, which will be for you?
Founded by Felix and Thomas Baumgarter, alongside an artist, Martin Frei in 1997, Urwerk struggled for 6 years or so to gain popularity. In 2003, however, the brand trajectory changed when Harry Winston’s Maximilian Büsser took notice of the Urwerk UR-103. By 2005, Urwerk had created a Harry Winston Opus piece, and the rest is history. Since then, the brand has released several innovative models, each with unique aesthetics and special complications and displays.
MB&F was founded in 2005 by none other than Maximilian Büsser of Harry Winston. As you can see, the mutual respect the brands shared has reflected itself in their parallel design structures and focuses. MB&F allowed Büsser to explore his personal favorite designs without the restrictions and bureaucracy of Harry Winston oversight. One facet of the brand that MB&F openly discusses is that all watches begin with a design, often one that would be considered mechanically impossible to achieve. Then, Max works his development team into making it work. Thinking from a design standpoint first and foremost has allowed the brand to pursue case architectures that would have been considered unworkable at a traditional watchmaking house, where the limitations of mechanical movements necessitate a restriction of free creative exploration.
Both Urwerk and MB&F specialize in futuristic industrial designs. Almost every piece from the corresponding brands would fit into a category of either looking like a military tank or a spaceship/ UFO.
To start with Urwerk, the brand professes to have been largely inspired by vintage cars from the 60s and 70s. To this end, the brand often takes block-like cases and creates windows for the time indications in the slab. For wandering hours and other rounded displays, Urwerk often will create a windshield-like profile on its sapphire crystals. The designs of both brands are asymmetrical, a rebellion against the conventional presentation of the traditional wrist watch. The ultimate underlying look has always been an industrial vibe, one that is designed to accentuate unique timekeeping displays and complications. While these pieces are all mechanical, they are anything but traditional.
MB&F shares many of the same sources of inspiration with Urwerk. A focus on automotive, aviation, and aeronautical machines was the impetus for many of the designs that have been most popular. Unlike Urwerk which certainly feels that legibility is always a priority, MB&F doesn’t shy away from sacrificing the immediate readability of a piece if it means enhancing the aesthetics of a piece. It’s a classic battle of form and function. The MB&F pieces we have seen are never conventional, and that is what makes them most exciting. Often a movement will be a significant part of the design. For instance, a balance wheel may be isolated and moved to the top of a crystal for all to see as pictured. Usually with Urwerk, the movement is not given such a primal role in the design and aesthetics of a watch.
Urwerk has always focused on certain complications first and foremost. The wandering hours and barrel displays are by far the most popular for the brand. Usually, the movements follow the compilation, and Urwerk often will rework similar calibers to accommodate small changes in design across models. Although the brand has many automatics, some of their pieces require so much torque on the mainspring that the brand will incorporate a hand winding lever that tucks into the case. This “music box” winding system of sorts was quite unique and innovative and has since been used in rare cases by other makers as well.
MB&F pays a bit more attention to the movement side, with more diversity in their timekeeping methods than Urwerk. As mentioned previously, often the movement becomes a component of the design. MB&F pieces are all hand finished on the movements much like any other ultra high end watchmaker. Thus, the movements often look like what one would expect from a more traditional maker for some of their pieces. The level of attention paid to mirror polish and anglage rivals the best makers in the space. For some of the more elaborate case designs the movement will necessarily take a back seat in layout, but an equal number of watches choose to have the movement layout be the epicenter of artistic focus on the watch. It truly depends on the reference.
Urwerk is for the collector that doesn’t take watch collecting overly seriously. It’s a niche market of collectors that care about quality and innovation, but are not looking for traditionalist design. Urwerk watches tend to do quite well in the secondary market, both as a result of the boutique style production coming from the brand (its low output), and the ever increasing demand for the watches. If you have funky taste and want the most exclusive watches money can buy, Urwerk is the way to go.
While it is quite modern and distinctive in styling, next to Urwerk, MB&F looks almost traditional. Perhaps not from a design perspective, but from a watchmaking tilt, MB&F’s approach to movement finishing is quite special. When you pair this style of movement with the types of designs the brand uses, you wind up with a brilliant combination. Max Büsser’s work is the confluence of his appreciation for out of the box timepieces and simultaneous respect for watchmaking tradition. For most Urwerk collectors, this probably isn’t quite what they are looking for. Rather than being constructed from titanium (as is the case with many Urwerk creations), MB&F may use rose gold. This is one way of looking at the distinctions between the brands.
The truth is, while these companies certainly have different styles, they share more than they don’t. Both companies have created entirely new approaches to horology, catering to an assemblage of passionate collectors looking for something different. Whereas immediately following the quartz crisis most collectors were serious high horology enthusiasts looking at dress watches (this is what the data suggests), today, high end watchmaking appeals to a diverse crowd of collectors. With this diversification has come a new market to supply with watches. In have stepped Urwerk and MB&F and changed the industry forever.