Those not attuned to the watch world – and particularly the slice of it where the high-end independent brands reside – may not know who Vianney Halter is. This is nothing short of being a shame, as his debut in 1998 heralded a wave of innovative designs and independent watchmakers. That freshman effort was an overachiever, and is known as the Vianney Halter Antiqua Perpetual Calendar.
As we mentioned at the outset, the Vianney Halter Antiqua debuted in 1998, and was produced through 2016. Of course, there was a course to charge before that year at the end of the millenium. In 1989, after working on vintage clocks for a few years, Halter headed to Sainte-Croix, to work with none other than François-Paul Journe (of the eponymous F.P. Journe). That endeavor was known as Techniques Horlogères Appliquées, with a mission of creating new and modern takes on horology.
In the early 1990s, Halter began working with Frank Muller, creating very complicated pieces. This led to even more big-name clients, but the 1996 financial crisis in Asia caused the work to slow down. Halter realized he didn’t have anything truly his own that could showcase what he was able to do, which then led to the Vianney Halter Antiqua being created, ushering in a new era of wildly imaginative independent watch designs.
Ostensibly, the Vianney Halter Antiqua has as its foundation a 40mm round case made of platinum. Viewed from the front, you would be hard-pressed to call the watch a round one. This is due to the subdials that jut out from the case giving it that 40mm measurement. The largest is the main time indication; moving counterclockwise we have the day-of-week, month (including leap year indication) and date displays.
While each of these ports into the case are sized differently, they present a unified front, design-wise. Each one looks like it is a porthole into the case, complete with polished rivets holding them in place. Peer more closely, and you see an elegance in the finishing. The main surfaces are brushed (as is the case) while the beveled edges at the case and the rivets are highly polished. It should go without saying, but bringing together these alternating finishes on each of these components is a compelling demonstration of skill mastery.
The dials continue the unified design language of the Vianney Halter Antiqua. The font used for both the numerals and letters are the same, standing out crisply with a black-on-bronze monochromatic scheme (the bronze is the nod to the marine chronometers that helped inspire the piece). To ensure that you can properly pick out the time and calendar elements, Halter created his own handset style, which is a cross of sword and needle hands. These are colored by heat treatment to a rich navy blue that stand out sharply against the warmth of the dials.
Taking a step back from the dials, you will note that there are other interesting and unique elements living in the case of the Vianney Halter Antiqua. The crown, for instance, is highly polished and relies on the rivet motif rather than machining to give you a surface to grip with your fingertips. Chase the polishing over to the lugs and you’ll see that these are not traditional lugs. Hemispherical lobes project out from the case, acting as the base for a T-connection to the strap. In our opinion, this lets the watch “float” more freely from the strap when on the wrist.
Turning over the Vianney Halter Antiqua, we clearly see that this is indeed a round case. What you see through the relatively large exhibition window is a nicely decorated and finished movement plate, into which the balance wheel is set. In many ways, this gives it the appearance of a hand-wound watch. Do not be misguided, however – this watch is very definitely housing an automatic movement. So, where is the rotor? It’s there in plain sight! Look to the center, and you can see what is obviously the bearing of the rotor, with five polished rivets set into it.
Attached to that bearing is a slice of sapphire crystal, which is cleverly weighted so that it can spin with the slightest movement. Put into simple words, it makes a deceptively simple reduction of what is going on here. Halter had to work out the physics here so that a slice of glass could efficiently work as our regular metal rotors work, and what he accomplished is just pure artistry. It allows the movement to get the job done, while still showcasing the work that went into the over 300 components. For all of the artistic endeavors in it, the VH198 movement runs at 28,800 vph and provides a 35-hour power reserve.
Versus The Competition
To look for comparables to a watch like the Vianney Halter Antiqua is to set a course to fantastical worlds. By that, we mean you will be looking for – and looking at – watches that look like nothing else you are likely to have owned before. The first obvious disembarkation point would be a watch known as the MB&F Horological Machine No. 2. Like the Vianney Halter, there is a unique case design (here, it reminds us of a cassette tape) with twin portals set into it. These, per Max Büsser, were inspired by the domed space colonies that showed up in science fiction comics of the 1950’s and 1960’s. So, rather than setting off below the seas with the Vianney Halter, you’d be rocketing off into a Jetsons future.
On the other hand, if you’d rather have the spaceship on your wrist that got you to that domed colony, the perfect vehicle is known as the Urwerk UR-202 AlTiN. This particular model saw a new automatic movement being introduced, with a wandering hours time indication set into a case design that is both blocky and futuristic. Both of these are wildly different interpretations of what a watch can look like, and undoubtedly owe a debt to the Vianney Halter Antiqua showing up back in 1998.
Viewing the Vianney Halter Antiqua, I’m put in mind of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. I encountered this book in my early teens, and it encapsulates — for me — the idea of what steampunk seeks to capture. There is a forward-looking element to it, while remaining firmly rooted in a very industrial past. To marry this very modern artistic license while still producing one of the more complex movements that is a perpetual calendar showcases a very special sort of capability. Not only are the mechanical elements superbly built, they meld into the artistry that is present on the front of the watch.
To put it another way — just about anyone could toss on a top hat, smoking jacket, and some welding goggles and be ready for the costume party. What Halter has done here, well, this is more akin to Tony Stark crafting the Iron Man suit — by hand — than it is someone raiding the closet and garage to put an outfit together.
At the end of the day, the Vianney Halter Antiqua is a very unique and distinctive watch. When you realize that it’s the very first watch produced by Halter under his own name, it is all the more impressive. These are watches that are both industrial and luxurious at the same time, produced in small quantities that verge on being “piece unique”. Truly an iconic watch for the collector who always dreamt of exploring the fourth dimension and landing in the worlds inhabited by the Eloi and Morlocks. Just as H.G. Wells made the concept of time travel a popular sci-fi trope, this is a watch that opened the world of independent watches and makers that we are blessed with today.