ThePurist178 inteviews Vincent Calabrese

ThePurist178 Interviews Vincent Calabrese

by Curtis Thomson, Ei8htohms and ThomasM
V.1a - © 10-20-2001

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An Introduction

Vincent Calabrese is a true maverick. As much artist as artisan, he is also a gifted designer with strong opinions and a wry wit. He has no formal watchmaking training but has somehow managed to create a name for himself not only as an independent creator of both haute horlogerie and more affordable timepieces bearing his name, but also as the unsung genius behind landmark designs from other manufacturers.

In his Spatiale line he is best known for his breathtaking minimalism and his flying tourbillons.

His more affordable Ludique and Technique lines offer a host of useful features (including power reserve, dual timezones and week of the year displays) or unusual time displays (many uniquely conceived and created by the master himself) fitted artfully onto an ETA 2892 automatic ebauche. In this line, his commitment to simplicity is demonstrated by his unwillingness to increase the thickness of the movement, regardless of the level of complication added to it.

His most affordable line, the Philosophique, offers a sly wink to the watch industry itself. They feature quartz movements housed in gold plated cases with a variety of jumping indicator options displayed at 6 o'clock. The first of these was a "classic" jump hour, while later versions include a tastefully restrained Mona Lisa strip-tease and the Comedia Divina showing the opening line of Dante's Inferno as the hours pass.

It is perhaps Mr. Calabrese's never ending struggle as an outsider in the Swiss watchmaking industry (being self taught and Italian by birth) that led him to create the AHCI, or Academie Horlogere Des Createurs Independants, with fellow watchmaker/innovator Svend Anderson. Admission into the Academy gives younger or lesser known watchmakers some advantages that were simply not available when Mr. Calabrese was himself a journeyman, including the ability to show one's creations at Basel alongside the other Academy members.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Vincent Calabrese is ever striving for invention and innovation in his designs. His most recent triumph is a new addition to his Technique line: the first ever central jump hour watch. This mysterious mechanism is also featured in a 100 piece Limited Edition he created for the Goldpfeil collection, alongside designs from six other AHCI members.

Although he is also currently making a limited edition jump hour watch for Bell & Ross in his own workshop, he was kind enough to take a few hours out of his busy schedule to grant a visit to his workshop and an interview.

We would like to give our sincere thanks to Tina, Mr. Calabrese's daughter and bi-lingual affairs coordinator, for her tremendous help and patience with the interview.

Vincent Calabrese - An Interview

ThePurist178 (Curtis, Thomas and John, hereafter TP178): To what extent were you involved with Blancpain's tourbillon design?.

Vincent Calabrese (through Tina Calabrese - hereafter VC): Yes, my father did design the whole movement of the tourbillon Blanpain. He father tried to make them understand to put the tourbillon at mid-day (12 o'clock) because my father had the idea to put it on the automatic movement. So, if the pieces would have the tourbillon at 6 o'clock, with the rotor, it will be - have some problems with the window - displayed on the window they will have some problems if the tourbillon will be at 6 o'clock and not at mid-day. But, when Blancpain launched the tourbillon, it wasn't automatic, so people didn't understand why it was at mid-day

TP178: What is the philosophy behind your tourbillon and what guided you in stripping down the number of parts?

VC: The tourbillon was following the Golden Bridge (by Corum). He was on an exhibition and he saw a picture of a tourbillon and he didn't know about this mechanism. He saw it and he said, "Ok, it's a nice machine. I will make one."

What he didn't like was that everything was co-axial, all together, not very spacey. To follow the line of the Golden Bridge and to have something where everything can appear and you can see everything, he said it would be nice to have this mechanism, this movement, on a line. Because of the challenge to have space, he had this challenge to put as few components as possible to have something fit in the space he can use.

His first tourbillon was also with a bridge on it but, aesthetically, he didn't like it so he thought "I will take out this bridge and make a flying tourbillon." There wasn't any flying tourbillon that he could see or understand so he had to create this mechanism.

TP178: Had he seen the Helweg flying tourbillon at that point? The German one?

Blancpain's TourbillonVC: Ten years ago he saw it, but after. His luck was to make the escapement in line. But, all purists say this is not a tourbillon but a carousel. My father at this time proposed it to Piguet and Blancpain, and when they said yes, and offered it as a tourbillon, he felt vindicated. It's true that Blancpain was very important to him because if a brand like Blancpain, with a technical team, will buy an idea of a self-taught man, it was like a kind of diploma. And especially that Blancpain would accept that this was a tourbillon, it was a little wink to the purists.

Vincent's 'Tourbillon' Clock But it wasn't enough so he kept going with his two hands to make them really understand the little problem with the tourbillon. Since this little clock (motioning to an ingenious weight-driven clock with a tiny escapement dangling off the tail of the minute hand), the discussion is finished now.

TP178: What do you believe has helped you to realize your goals from when you first began working on watches to where you are now?

VC: The difficulty to be Italian in Switzerland, to be self-taught in a society where everyone is a graduate. And mainly, the difficulty he put with himself, always to be honest. When he was studying the history of watchmaking, he found out that a lot of the big watchmakers were not so honest. And so, he decided that tomorrow, he doesn't want anybody that can find something dishonest about him or about his work. (Vincent himself in English:) "And it is really a dream, it's wonderful."

TP178: Has there ever been a design or concept that was wonderful in your mind or on paper but when you went to make it, you couldn't complete it?

VC: He couldn't finalize it because he hasn't time. One of the watches that take the longer time was the Balladin (the wandering jump hour). From the day he had the idea of the Balladin until the day he had the key to make it, it took about five years.

The Balladin
This mechanism was existing from the year twenties but it wasn't perfect, it wasn't very good. And if he didn't make it before it was because he was searching for this perfect mechanism allowing him to have a reliable mechanism to have this function.

My father is not interested to make something because it's marketing or it's trend or something. He's interested to go as far as possible to find the perfect solution, to put the final point. And then someone can make a new watch but it will be so - it wouldn't be so... there are only three components so you cannot be more simple. The disk is as big as the dial so according to my father, we cannot be better (Tina laughs).

(Vincent in English:) "I think, perhaps tomorrow, a young Italian. . ."

(Tina:) And the story start again.

TP178: With the advent of new technology, spark erosion, etc., today, would you use that in your work or is there a conflict between your philosophy and the use of modern methods?

VC: What exactly do you mean by new technology, for example?

TP178: Spark erosion, electro-forming. Things that remove a lot of the watchmaking aspect and turn it into more of a machinist, mechanic type of...

VC: There are different ways to act and to think. (Much discussion in French.) There is a conflict. My father wants to create watches following the tradition. And following the tool you could have by the past. However, now he is using the computer.

(Vincent in English:) "And also the light (motioning to the fluorescent fixtures overhead)."

But yes there is a conflict. Now, if somebody come to him from another brand and say "OK, I would like to use this new technology, what can you do for me" he would do it, but it is not his philosophy. His philosophy is to make a watch following the tradition of watchmaking. Try to work like they would, like they have to.

(Vincent in English:) "Every challenge is different." If he speaks to watchmaker, he wouldn't use new technology, but if he speaks to public, yes he would use new technology.

TP178: In the whole process, from the initial conception to the practical bits, what is your most pleasurable aspect? Is it the creation, the mechanics, the art of it? What brings you the most pleasure out of the process?

VC: The most exciting period is the research.

(Vincent in English:) "After (the conception, the research, the designing), to produce is too long, is always too long. Because when you know (what you want to make), to make is too long. But when you don't know, it is very interesting."

TP178: What about watchmaking motivates or excites you?

VC: What is motivating my father about watchmaking is mainly the power of creation and the power of provocation. To provoke and to create new mechanism, something new - what brings today a lot of pleasure to my father is the research of something new. But watchmaking, he doesn't like watchmaking.

TP178: What do you feel is the importance of accuracy in mechanical watchmaking? Because a mechanical watch can never be as accurate as a quartz watch, what is now the role of accuracy in mechanical watchmaking?

VC: Do you play golf or do you work in the office? The context, and what you want from this accuracy (is important.) So he has a question for you about what makes for you the value of the watch. Is it the Cotes des Geneve, the anglage? What is it for you the value that you give to the watch?

(Much philosophizing follows on the part of ThePurists about the aesthetics of accuracy, after which we were asked to repeat the original question about the role of accuracy.)

VC: Today we have a criteria of 8 seconds a day for a chronometer. Two seconds for the big houses like Patek. But it has no sense because this accuracy is never constant. My father understands that this question is being asked by a layperson. But unfortunately it is a lot of professional guy who is asking about this accuracy as well. It is a shame for him.

So my father would like to give you an example. Three centuries ago, there was a competition organized by the English of course, about how to take the time - a guy who has crossed the ocean - a marine chronometer. You know the first marine chronometer from Harrison. It's a real beauty - masterpiece of complication. But it's not useful. And the third who won the prize, it is exactly the pocket watch of today. Two seconds of difference in six months.

If you are looking for accuracy, you should find it with exactly the same context as three centuries ago. But now, today, we don't search anymore about this accuracy because we have the quartz. So, people are not looking for this accuracy anymore today.

Now, today, if we want to reach a very accurate watch we have to make something very simple. One has to simplify. For my father, all the thing that you can see today, all complications and such, it's pure aberration.

(Tina to Vincent:) "No, don't say no more. Yes, you already have enough friends." (we all laugh)

TP178: Do you have any desire to use modern materials in your watchmaking? Like carbon composites or titanium or things that are not traditional watchmaking materials.

VC: It depends. My father always splits his collection. He has the Spatiale line which is very aesthetic and very artistic and which is rich enough. But in this collection (motioning to the Ludique, Technique and Philosophique watches), in this line, yes, why not, maybe one day. Titanium and carbon, about the specific weight, present a lot of advantage of interest. So maybe one day he will produce something with this material because it is very interesting for him. But today he is quite busy to have time to have pure research.

(Vincent in English:) "Today I make a joke. Perhaps tomorrow I will make seriously. It is also to let other people breathe."

TP178: To give the competition a chance to breathe?

VC: Yes. (Laughs)

TP178: You seem to be one of very few watchmakers who are continually coming up with something new. While other manufacturers are just adding complications on top of each other, you are always striving for something new. This should give you particular insight into some future advancement. What are the most interesting possibilities for the future of mechanical watches?

VC: About what he has in his mind, my father has a philosophy also. He will always speak about something that he made and that he can explain you and he can say, "See, I did it." This is for the future.

You saw last year "The Freak" of Nardin. Now a lot of people know that my father is going to make one like this. The only question is when because of the need of time.

Also my father said it is so innovative, what he is making, what he is doing, that there is no need to speak it before. (Laughing) He's saying that if (in) the past he used to say "I'm going to make a watch with a little dial turning around" and the people are saying "yes, OK, do it and then we speak." And after he said anyway, already when I make the watch the people tell me I'm crazy, so imagine if I don't make nothing and I said "I will do something."

TP178: I'm sure you're version of The Freak will not be so ugly.

VC: Yes, regarding the point of aesthetic I think it will be not so ugly, I hope. (we all laugh again) But, the point of view of mechanism of course it would not be with so aberration. Because it is pure aberration, The Freak, like the central tourbillon Omega. He said to have two crowns, one to set the time and one to wind it is really silly. If we make something, it is because we know how to make it.

TP178: There has been much excitement recently over the Daniels' co-axial escapement. Do you have a desire to experiment with escapement design?

VC: It is more than twenty years that he has created this escapement and everybody has always refuted it. And now Omega has it. Like he said before, everything that is complicated is not good. It has to be simple. (It) ask more energy, create more friction, more components to produce. It's more expensive. It's more delicate and more pieces to check.

It's an old dream of watchmakers. (In) the past, two things were really important for the watchmaker. The one was to create an escapement and the second was to make a tourbillon. And both are not useful and stupid. According to my father (laughing).

In the past, escapement was a necessity, was useful. But today it needs to be rethink again. It should be renewed totally. Now, today, when people make a creation, they make the same mistakes of the past. If my father make a watch without a balance which you cannot hear the sound tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, people are not going to recognize that as a watch.

TP178: (Thomas:) I would.

VC: The worst thing in the watch today is the spiral balance.

TP178: The hairspring and the balance.

VC: And as far as we will have this on the watch we cannot go out of this accuracy. There is a physical limit.

TP178: A mechanical watch without a balance!?!

VC: Sure. We have to replace the hairspring and the balance by something else. Something more reliable, more constant. But the problem is does the collector of watches recognize this as a watch. You say yes but it is not so obvious for someone else.

(At this point, much as we wanted to continue with this peek into the future with one of the most forward thinking watchmakers living, other appointments beckoned, so we had to bid adieu)

Click here to view more pictures from our visit with Vincent.

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