The Purist 178 Interviews Svend Andersen

The Purist 178 Interviews Svend Andersen

by Curtis Thomson, ei8htohms and ThomasM
© 11-12-2001

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An Introduction

It used to be every few years Svend Andersen would do something impossible. While working for Gubelin he gained widespread acclaim when he showed up on TV with a clock in a bottle. Then in the late '80s he made the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the world's smallest calendar watch and then again later for the world's first perpetual secular calendar. That's right, it takes into account the missing leap year every century as well as the fact that it reappears every four hundred years. Still later he distinguished himself (I think that's the right word) by creating erotic automaton wristwatches with more animated parts than ever before (up to seven). A whimsical line of these erotic watches was inspired by the escapades of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky; the animated scene evolving as details of the affair came out.

When he wasn't busy breaking world records or achieving the impossible, he took the time to establish the Academie Horlogere Des Createurs Independants with co-founder Vincent Calabrese. The Academy has given many independent horologists an opportunity to exhibit at Basel each year as part of the group as well as the recognition of being associated with other Master Watchmakers. The roster of Academy members reads like a who's who of watchmaking greats and Svend Andersen's name is all the more distinguished by his role in establishing the organization.

While many of Mr. Andersen's most interesting pieces never receive any press whatsoever (being commissioned, unique pieces), thankfully for the watchmaking fans of the world, he continues to create watches in series, and many of them make a bit of a splash with the horological media. During our visit we were lucky enough to see two uniquely commissioned pieces with alarm complications. One housed a retrograde perpetual calendar and alarm in a beautiful tantalum case while the other was a simple alarm watch that allowed all alarm and timekeeping functions to be manipulated through its one crown. His more recent serially produced pieces include a wristwatch with a very discrete way of telling time through an opening in between the case lugs (the Montre a Tact) and a very large and beautiful jump hour watch that displays the hours on a single hand decorated with a sun on one end for the daylight hours and a moon on the other for the night-time hours (the Grande Jour et Nuit). 

Most recently, he is one of seven Academy members who took up the challenge of creating some unique designs for the Goldpfeil collection. Andersen's offerings, while not featuring any impossible complications, are two of the more elegant pieces in the collection. The Mythos 7 (one-of-a-kind) has a rotating, hand engraved, red gold dial (with a Greek mythology theme) that displays the days of the week as they align with a solitary diamond at 12 o'clock. The Pupitre (limited edition) features a beautiful and unusual 24 hour dial with Arabic numerals from one to twelve, twice.

Mr. Andersen was gracious enough to allow us a visit to his workshop in Geneva and to grant us this exclusive interview.

Editor's note: Mr. Andersen was a most gracious host, and refreshingly candid, completely devoid of pretense.  Though English is not his mother tongue, there was no language barrier during the interview.  In fact, I found the idiosyncratic English so charming and clear that I deliberately kept as much of Mr. Andersen's comments verbatim as possible, to give readers the maximum "feel" of actually being in the presence of the Master. I hope you agree with my decision.



The Interview

The Grande Jour et Nuit TP178: Where did you go to school?

Svend Andersen: I am originally coming from Denmark and I was at the watchmaking school in Denmark. Indeed I was not only learning by school; I was learning with a Master Watchmaker and some of the time I went to school.

TP178: How old were you?

SA: Fifteen.


TP178: Would you ever consider making a rattrapante chronograph?

SA: To make it by myself? No. Because somebody else has already the experience to make them. When somebody asks me to make a split seconds chronograph with world time as it has been done in the past, I bought one chronograph movement with split seconds from a colleague and I put my world time mechanism on it and made the case and the design. I do not make tourbillon watches either because so many are making tourbillons so I prefer to take by them because they have years of experience. Why should I start now to make the experience the others have already done?

TP178: What is it that has helped you to achieve your goals? Was it the school or your mentor or some personal vision within you that's continued to help you reach the success that you have?

SA: It is to be open-minded. To discuss with everybody and not be afraid to ask somebody else what he thinks about your work or what he likes. To have success one must not be the master who knows everything. You should stop with this because when you know everything you are in the cemetery, you know? So be open and listen to everybody because everybody can bring you ideas or some suggestions. Because people are asking for something you try to think about it.

One of Mr. Andersen's assistants at the bench.TP178: You have a relationship with Franck Muller (who studied under Mr. Andersen) and you have a gentleman here (working with him now) so apparently it is a key philosophy of yours to impart what you know and give opportunities to other watchmakers. Can you discuss that a bit?

SA: I have no secrets. Well, I have some secrets I keep for myself because of the production facilities. Even for the erotic automaton watch, the way we cut out the parts for the automaton from a brass plate, nobody knows how it is done because really we have developed a technique that is exceptional. Somebody, who works with computers, they told us, "Well, to program to cut out these parts, one week must be necessary." I said, poor guy because we make one new model in one afternoon. So there we have a secret, but the day when I cannot continue I will offer this secret to somebody else.

TP178: Do you still maintain a relationship with those who've apprenticed under you?

SA: Of course. Franck Muller is so busy but we see (each other) sometimes every year. We have a good relationship.

TP178: Regarding Franck Muller, some people see the path he has now isn't exactly the same as the other Academy members.

SA: Franck Muller started to exhibit with the Academy and he is even still a member of the Academy but not really an active member as we are. But we take him as a good example, a model of what can arrive to (in a commercial sense.) 

We have Francois Paul Journe also. Journe is also turning out now with investors and all this. Maybe one day he will be also a kind of Franck Muller. I don't think so but . . . Other people so as myself, I never want to be in the pocket of investors. Because you are not more independent in this way. They will come to see "When do you deliver the watch? I want to have my cash back." You have to select; you have to make your choice.

Hand frabricated levers.TP178: Was that an issue for you from the beginning? Investors wanted to buy in?

SA: Not from the beginning but in the last five years I have many investors that will sing serenades from my door here. But I make sometimes kind of a joint venture for one program (with a particular partner)...the last example was when we were making for Cartier. We made three series of fifty ebauches for them. They were investing all the money for these watches but when this program was finished, it's finished. I prefer this kind of program as it is with Goldpfeil now, something similar.

TP178: What are your feelings about the current state of the watchmaking industry? Are the standards what they once were?

SA: They have three big groups now and these groups will probably one day split up again because they are too heavy to get running. If you have a big train, you can't turn, you can't stop, you can't go in another direction so easy. And also, we saw that in Basel and Geneva this spring. The creativity of these big groups is really slowing down. They have one or two models, which they have developed and they try with this big marketing machine to get people interested and try to sell in this way.

TP178: Have you ever thought of an idea or design that when you went to the practical aspect you couldn't execute it?

The unassuming front of a very naughty watch (click to view the back).SA: Of course. (But) with my experience now, when somebody presents the design to me, I have to examine this and not to go too fast. 

One example of this was the erotic automaton watch. One customer came to me and asked me, "Could you make an erotic automaton on a wristwatch in this dimension?" He had made one very cheap model of wristwatch. You had to push the button and it ran for three seconds and then you had to push it again so it was not very good. I thought maybe. 

Then I was trying to design a kind of model very thin which you put together with the movement but it will get a really thick watch so it was not very elegant. Also, you did not have enough power to get moving more than one or two parts so it was too primitive for me, too simple for me. Then one morning I went to work and I thought, "Some years ago I bought three hundred movements with two barrels." So then I start to develop this. So sometimes you need time to see that (to let the mind connect the dots.)

A unique secular calendar alarm watch in tantalum (click to view the back) But you have also people presenting to you ideas that are not possible to do. You must understand people and you must have time for them. Their idea is not possible to make so you have to explain to them in a way that you propose to them something else. Something else, which is possible to realize but it's not really the thing that he was asking for. But when he closes the door, when he went out from here, he must leave with in his mind, "My idea will be realized". Indeed it is not really his idea but he will get something very special. 

[Editor's note: I smile at this last comment.  Mr. Andersen has a certain charming mischievous air about him, very endearing.]

TP178: With the advent of all this new technology that is at the disposal of watchmakers, spark erosion machines, etc., do you feel that it is a benefit to use this modern technology for you and your philosophy?

SA: We are working together with people that are using spark erosion machines to cut out parts. When we have to make more than between ten and twenty pieces we have different people working for us. But when we are in the higher numbers of pieces then we have (use for) modern technology. But modern technology does not exclude the hand finishing and the assembly and the touch of the master, you know?

TP178: What is the most pleasurable part of the process to you? Is it the design or the manufacture or is there one particular complication that you enjoy?

One of his Wordl Record certificates.SA: Well when you have the pleasure of one thing it is the world's smallest calendar watch. I came into the first time in the Guinness book with this and also the secular calendar. Because indeed I was and I am still the maker of calendars. Between '83 and '95 I made not less than ten calendar constructions which you find somewhere. The Hebraic calendar by Silberstein or the rectangular calendar for Ulysse Nardin and you have a lot of calendars I was developing.

Now I am turning more to a kind of decorative watches, very aesthetic watches. So as the Grande Jour et Nuit, the Montre a Tact and now the Goldpfeil we are doing very big studies to marry the aesthetic and the technical, to get elegant and exceptional watches.

TP178: What is your overall philosophy of watchmaking? Do you have a particular ethic that you must follow or is it flexible with time and trends?

SA: One must follow the trends and all but one can also impose something as I impose the other way of telling time, of indicating time, with the Montre a Tact or the Jour et Nuit. You can try to be different. When I was in Tokyo and Hong Kong, the journalist asked me, "What is the key of your success?" I said, "To be different." And that is the way.

TP178: Do you have any guiding principles such as it must have the ultimate finish or it must be very reliable or it must have the best aesthetics?

SA: My philosophy is to marry the aesthetic and the technical.

TP178: So the harmony and the balance between the two are very important?

The movement of the Grande Jour et Nuit (click here to see the jump hour mechanism under the dial).SA: Yes. You see these watches are very big (motioning to the Jour et Nuit and a large unique piece alarm perpetual in Tantalum) and they have a big movement also. Because you have big watches today with a small movement in the center and a lot of plastic around it. But this watch is very wearable also; it has a slim line. It's not a watch which is high, to take as an example the Silberstein, which you have to enlarge your . . .

TP178: Muscles? 

(we grin, but Mr. Andersen deadpans...)

SA: Jackets, you know? And also, the erotic automaton, you see the case here? The crown is in the center of the band of the case. It is very well calibrated. You have the back and the front are mostly the same height, the same distance from the crown. You have sometimes complicated watches, you have the crown very near to the back or very near to the glass and it's not calibrated, it's not harmony. But this is the way that I prefer to do watchmaking, to make something harmonious.

TP178: For a lot of current manufacturers, especially because of the trend to display backs for example, they tend to have a lot of flourish and a lot of cosmetic finish to their movements. Sometimes the functional aspects of it, the design or the conception or the finish of the teeth, and so on, is not to the same level as the aesthetics . . .

SA: I try to be calibrated in this. Sometimes my movements are not the very . . . they are well finished, a high-grade finish you could say. But it's not put up with excessive finish, you know? Just finished as a good Swiss movement. Not to be excessive in gilding or . . . Maybe now I will try to get my . . . a kind of tapisserie (?) as they call that now, on my winding rotor for one automatic we are trying to get out now. To be a little different again. Not to have just the Cotes de Geneve. We will try this now. Cartier has movements with their logo; it's all decorated. In this way, we will try now to get my logo, but only on the automatic winding rotor.

TP178: Is there a particular member within the Academy or (a watchmaker) in the industry that you really admire the work of?

SA: They are all doing very well because they are in the Academy. (laughs) You know I mostly appreciate them because of their human aspects more than their professional aspects. Of course it's very important in the Academy also to be correct to the outside world, you know? One must not be closed up; one must have the communication. And this is also the apprenticeship that we put them through in the Academy. Some of the new and old members, they come to the Academy a little suspect. But indeed they are finding out the melodies, always dancing in the same way.

TP178: What do you think the importance of accuracy is in modern mechanical horology? Is it still one of the primary objectives when making a watch or because quartz watches are so much more accurate, has it become secondary?

. . . and a sense of humor.SA: A mechanical watch can never be one hundred percent perfect. You have to wind it, you have to wear it or you have to do something with it. It's an error (related) to the human being (laughing). 

A quartz watch, you put it into your drawer, you take it out, it's still running so it's something static; it's no tick-tock, you know? 

Tick-tock does your heart, you know? It's something special with the watch. It's a mechanism who makes tick-tock all the day, all the night as your heart does. It's another attachment to the mechanical watch. As the human being, it is not very exact. It's different.

TP178: What do you view as possible important future advancements in horology?

SA: The new escapement from George Daniels by Omega is anyway a thing, which I don't think it will be the escapement for the future. I don't think so. It will be an escapement for people who want something else. Before they come to Andersen to ask for something very special they can always buy this because it's something different from the others. I don't think that one day Patek Philippe or Rolex or even others will make this kind of escapement. Why not ETA put it into a movement, which is available to everybody? It's certainly not the case.

TP178: (Moving now to a more purely technical issue) How do you feel about the different tooth forms now being used in gear trains? While traditionally we use epicycloidal teeth, now ETA and some other companies are using triangular teeth.

SA: That's depending on the power you have. When you have a barrel, a very strong barrel, I think when they make now watches with eight day power reserves or even ten days, they must be very careful about the wheels and pinions and all this. Because you have more power, so you have to have a smooth running tooth. When you have a quartz movement where you have no power, you can make the toes of the wheel as you want them; it's no matter. So it's still very important.

TP178: Is there an advantage to the triangular cut tooth form as opposed to the epicycloidal tooth?

SA: I don't think so. It's depending on your machine, on your application.

TP178: So with more power you need the triangular tooth?

SA: No, not the triangular tooth for more power, no. You have to have a smooth running tooth to the pinion and wheel; you cannot have a triangular tooth there. Where you have no power or not very much power you can do it but not in the other.

TP178: So the triangular teeth would be more appropriate for low torque situations.

SA: Yes, but the old way to make the wheels and pinions are still the best. It's the proven way to do that. It's the elementary physical laws, you know? You cannot go against them.

Mr. Andersen was at the milling machine when we interrupted him.TP178: How do you feel about the use (or lack thereof) of overcoils or terminal curves, like a Breguet overcoil or a Phillips overcoil, in hairsprings today? Is it an advantage or . . .?

SA: It's an advantage when you have the space to make it well. When you have a very small hairspring, and you make an overcoil, it's not worth making. Also, I think for the very fast running movements, with an alternance of 28,800 or so, the overcoil is not good.

TP178: Not good?

SA: I think so. That's my opinion but I'm not an expert in this. I think it's maybe not good but even not necessary. Because the reaction of the hairspring is not fast enough that it can be adapted to this very fast moving device.

TP178: How do you feel about free-sprung balances? Is it necessary for haute horlogerie or high end watches to have a free sprung balance or is a regulator still an acceptable means of adjusting the timekeeping?

SA: They are better. They are better but they are always more expensive also so they are only useful for very expensive watches. The results of the accuracy, of keeping time, that's depending on the whole machine, but it is better of course. The development is better.

TP178: So as an element by itself it's better but it still needs to be taken into consideration as part of the whole execution.

A curious painting on the wall of the workshop (yes, that is a quartz crystal at top right).SA: Of the whole machine. So, as the co-axial escapement, you need no oil for the co-axial escapement. It can run for eight or ten years. OK, but when you have to wind it every day, your spring barrel, your center wheel and the whole wheel train, it needs oil. And when your wheel train has no oil or is getting dirty in five years, your escapement will not work perfect because the power will not arrive in a regular way.

TP178: (very interesting technical comments, thank you.) What are your hopes for the future of the Academy? Who would be most exciting for you to include as new members? Would it be interesting to you to include women, or people from other countries like Japan or America?

SA: We are open to everybody. We are not making the selection out of nationalities or women or men or black or white or yellow. We really have no selection of this kind.

TP178: They just need to bring a passion for making . . .

The Master overlooking the benches.SA: Yes, they must have passion, they must have the capacity. As you saw on the paper I gave you here (the list of requirements for consideration for acceptance into the Academy), they must be able to fill these criteria, this is what we ask them for.

TP178: Do you feel that if you had say, a watchmaker from Japan, they could bring a different cultural context, a different conception of solving problems?

SA: Of course, of course, I would like to have . . . Because they have a really other way of thinking. Because I am coming from Denmark, I have another approach to the aesthetic and the way of doing. This was also mentioned when I was sitting together with Silberstein in (one day) at noon. We were taking lunch together and we were discussing watches. Just behind me, I didn't see him, was Mr. Carrera. A very big journalist before, he's old now but he's still one of my best friends. And he was sitting behind, "Ah, Mr. Andersen, you are here. It's very good to see you."

I said, "Do you know Mr. Silberstein?"

"Ah, no, no I don't know him. Very glad to meet you. You two together, that's very explosive. Because you have not the narrow jacket of the Swiss watchmaker." You know? We are more liberated. We can think in another way. That was very nice I thought.


I have been in the business now for a long time. Starting in the '80s I was very famous in Italy. I got well known in Italy within one year. Within one year people come to me I had to sign my picture and all. I was the Artist there because of the magazines they had. They started with Orologi, and Anzolo (?) and Technimedia (?). They brought very technical articles, explaining the difference to the customers. They were the very first to do that. Then the Germans started two or three years later with Uhren magazine and Chronos to explain, to give technical details, to tell about the watchmakers. And I have seen now they are highly developed countries in horological culture, if we could say so. When you go to France, they only know Cartier makes watches and sometimes Rolex also. Because they have only these articles telling about the outside look of the watches, you have a real a difference. They are countries and cultures that have to be developed now. In English, it's a mix. You have now this magazine Hr, this one (pointing to a copy of Hr on hand). Could be good, but it's not so good because they are too superficial. They are not going enough in details.

Of course as I've explained before, you cannot explain to an Englishman or to an American as you can to a German. You have to select (the message to the audience.)

TP178: If there is one sentence, your strength, is it in calendar watches or automatons or . . . ?

SA: Well, it was, my strength was in calendar watches, but now I am making all kinds of watches. I'm not really still staying on just calendar watches, you know? I was making calendar watches until I started with the erotic automaton watches. Because the erotic automatons were turning around the world, I am the only person who makes these kind of erotic automatons with so animated automatons (so many moving parts) and I'm also the only person who makes the secular calendar wristwatch so I'm still one of a kind in these specialties.

(At this point, we realized the time had really flown while we were engaged in this fascinating interview with a true craftsman with the heart of an artist.  Since we had an appointment with Mr. Vincent Calabrese next, an hour away in  Lausanne, we thanked Mr. Andersen for his thoughts and very refreshingly straightforward views, and continued our horological journey...) 


Mr. Andersen's daily wear watch.

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