4. Insights from an extraordinary watch project: Three years MIH Watch!
Interview with Beat Weinmann

On 9 September 2005, the MIH Watch saw the light of the day. It was a concept developed by Ludwig Oechslin and realised by Paul Gerber which is radically different from the mainstream trends of the watch industry – small, non-commercial and uncompromising. The watch showcased a completely new thinking of traditional complications. A sophisticated Annual Calender comprising of only 9 additional moving parts was unheared of so far. Produced not by a company, but by a group of friends. Pure in its aesthetic appeal. Packed in the current issue of the renowned Swiss newspaper „Neue Zürcher Zeitung“ (NZZ), according to Ludwig Oechslin „the best Swiss product since 225 years“. On top of that devised as a fund-raising excercise for a restauration project. Quite a provocative start!

Almost over night the watch became a pièce de resistance among watch aficionados – they either admire it or reject it, but it leaves no one cold. Whether they belong to this camp or the other, collectors agree on the intellectual stringency of the concept behind this watch. With now more than three years after its launch, the watch is still in greater demand than the production volumes would cater for. It seems, its is on its way to become a cult object. But as with newborn childs, the first steps into life are the most challenging ones. Not only for the kids, but often even more so for the parents. To learn more about the challenges that came along with this outstanding project I met with Beat Weinmann, manager of the Swiss watch retailer Embassy in Lucerne and the accoucheur of the MIH watch, in early December 2008 to chat about the first three years of the MIH watch. Much alike the infamous nightly sit-ins after the parties of our youth, we settled in his kitchen over a couple of excellent short espressi.

Magnus Bosse (MB): Beat, little more than three years have past since the presentation of the MIH watch. I think its a good time to look back, take stock and analyse the developments ex post Let's start with your expectations. What did you want to achieve back then, where did you succeed and what did not materialise
Beat Weinmann (BW): I have to confess we did not have any high-flying expectations. We startet with a certain couriosity and a certain naivity in respect to expectations. Our basis was a precise and clear technical framework defined by Ludwig 'Vico' Oechslin, from which we derived the aesthetic concept. We had three pillars in our mind to determine the realisation of the MIH watch: traceability, a streamlined mode of operation and no marketing:

  1. Traceability:
    I am personally an ardent supporter of local organically grown agricultural produce. I want to know the farmer who grows my lettuce and who feeds the hens which lay my eggs. We wanted to achieve the same transparency with the MIH watch. Concrete this means that the watch should be entirely 'Swiss-made' true to the word and not only to the extent required to fulfill the legal obligations for such a label. We name the partners which provide us with components and services.
  2. Mode of operation:
    We involve only as many partners as necessary. This reduces logistical complexity and physical distances. Furthermore, decisionmaking is streamlined and thus less compromises made. Practically, the core team consists of Ludwig Oechslin, Paul Gerber, Christian Gaffner and me. Each of us is responsible for certain sub-dossiers according to individual competence. Decisions are quickly taken over the phone or even by SMS.
    The team shares a common mindset and aimed at a very high technical quality in terms of materials and workmanship but without embellishments which would only translate into a higher price point. We found that this mode of operation is highly efficient and we certainly would continue on this path for future projects.
  3. No marketing:
    It was important to us to make a counterpoint to the common marketing hyperbole and the creation of articifical desires and subsequently production volumes. Thus we very consciously chose a 'no logo' approach. Common wisdom would procide for more than the two existing points of sale and for advertsisements. This could increase poduction volume and at one point would call for a formal distribution department. This would start a spiral of growth anew. It was clear to us that we would try to avoid this for the sake of the pureness of our project. A core element we want to preserve is the factual limitation of our annual output to the numbers the team is able to produce without compromising on any factor. Furthermore, we could only uphold the price of 5000 Swiss Franks by sticking to the above.

What we could not anticipate is how the customers would react to this concept. And I have to confess we were all quite nervous about it. In the beginning we even thought about a limited production of 30 to 50 pieces as some kind of opt-out strategy. But our concerns were futile. Already the first 10 prototypes which we had given to good friends caused so much excitement that the first production run of 100 watches was sold out even before the public presentation of the watch. The echo the watch got in the media following the presentation, e.g. in the NZZ, sold the second production run. We also were taken by surprise of the power of the internet. The stirr created internationally was immense. People from Newzealand ordered the watch sight-unseen just because of the reports published online. Thus, we started already with a huge backlog of orders and an overflow of emails! The customers seem to have understood and appreciated our very own way, so that our estimations on sales numbers were exceed by orders of magnitude.

MB: You realised a new watch concept from scratch. Could you explain the specific degrees of freedom, but also the limitations you experienced?
BW: Personally, the freedom we realised by far exceeded the constraints. Firstly and most importantly, the MIH watch is a true expression of the people behind. There was no board we had to report to, no marketing committee which would decide on the final product and no financial department requesting cost cuts. We did not have to orientate ourselves along established benchmarks set by competing brands. Those benchmarks are in my opinion largely responsible for the current widespread egalitarianism in watchmaking industry. There are only few differences today in technology, packaging, advertisement and distribution. With the MIH watch, we approached these fundamentals as cultural elements. Reliance of our own financial means was both the means to preserve our independance as well as the pathmaker for our mindsets: to be dependent only on oneself.
Secondly, we could exploit the immense technical know-how and creativity of the team. Our design was not determined by the technology. As an example, the company Ventura could express its creativity in terms of truly unique products only after they switched to in-house electronic movements. Having the chance to exploit one's personal creative potential is one of the most touching experiences one can make. The creativity grows with the opportunities, particularly if group dynamics invigourate the process.

Thirdly, our independence allowed us to play a bit with the 'kitsch-element' of the MIH watch: The 9 parts let us decide to set the date for the presentation on 9 September. And in German 'MIH' could be read for 'Heute mit Mehr InHalt' (today with more content), the sticker we paste on the actual issue of the NZZ which we use as packaging for the watch.

As to the constraints, we are of course aware that the watch is not fully integrated in-house. The base movement Valjoux 7750 was selected because of the power it can provide. Also, with such a small production run you face difficulties in obtaining parts from specialist companies. Remember, in 2005 and 2006 the watch industry was savouring a historic boom period, and suppliers were running at their production maxima. There is only that much leeway for them to accommodate special requests in low quantities like our cases. Thus we had to wait not only once!

MB: Independent horologists hold a special place in your heart since a long time. Now, with the MIH watch you made your personal transition from the retail to the production side. How did this change your perception of watchmaking, particularly small-scale independent watchmaking
BW: I have to confess that this exercise came with a huge personal learning curve. First of all, I gained deeper understanding into the technical challenges of watchmaking. I learned that the modern computer-aided design tools caused a phenomenon that I would call the „CAD-hype“: advanced mechanisms are created in silico, but too often they prove to be unrealistic concepts and not applicable in watchmaking reality. Or, to put it in different words: the quest for a 'blockbuster watch' lost ground with watchmaking know-how. This dominance of marketing over technology, a sad development. Did anyone count how many complicated watches are presented at the watch fairs in Basel and Geneva but ultimately never delivered, or only after several years?

The MIH control wheel: Layer 1 couples the weekday disk with the month disk, layer 2 is driven by a stud plate on the hours wheel, and layer 3 advances the date under certain conditions - in months with only 30 days. At the end of these months, the date is advanced by the conventional date mechanisms of the base movement and by the hours wheel via weekday and months switch.

Furthermore, I learnt that for independent watchmakers the important decision is the determination of the size of the company: A as big as possible or as small as viable? The key determinant is the distribution. Let me explain to you why: Even AHCI watchmakers distribute their watches through similar channels as the large players: there is the watch, its packaging, the documentation, the authorised retailers and the advertisement (as rudimentary as it might be). And there is the dilemma: if you are very small, the above very likely will pose a huge burden on both your financial and human resources. Which events to attend? Does the Baselworld provide any benefits as presenting platform? Who is my customer, the retailer or the collector? I might resort to personal communication, but the question is what efforts can I spend on the former and which on the latter?

A large watchmaking conglomerate on the other hand certainly has the necessary resources to entertain the whole chain, but it comes with all the implications associated with large entities I alluded to in my previous answer. And how is the situation for a medium-sized company? Well, you can neither go the one or the other way. You face a real challenge in your distribution and communication decisions. Let me give you an example: Volker Vyskocil. As far as I know he only delivered one watch so far, after all these year. This is because Volker is such a perfectionist, he cannot just let go until he is completely satisfied with even the tiniest detail. His emotional involvement is exceptional, he does not stop until he gets it 'right' for his standards. This watch is a mirror of his inner consitution, is imbued with his soul. I don't know of a more radical watch out there! It will be a true master's piece – nothing less! Just imagine the immense degree of freedom he affords for himself to achieve just that!

The Volker Vykocil V-30/49-01-A watch (pre-production version!)

This is why we adopted a radical approach for the MIH watch: We wanted to keep our freedom and operate without compromises on the concept. We aim to stay true to our own ideals (this is not a moralistic statement and does not imply that I think others don't do!). This only works (i) if we keep our team (there is no such company behind that watch) as small as possible, (ii) if we limit our production to the capacities of our team and (iii) if we focus on one product at the time only instead of diluting our energy by creating a broad collection of watches which would include some 'bulking agents', watches which serve only to gain market share, e.g. limited editions.

MB: Based on the above, what would you consider the essential factors for the success of independent watchmakers?
BW: On the operational level, I think financial independence and correct and prudent calculation are the main elements. The basis for this is the efficient use of time (and thus human resources). On the emotional level, I believe that personal satisfaction should be the driving force. Financial gain alone certainly is the wrong motivation.

MB: Let us come back to the MIH watch: could you describe the your customers, and what does attract them?
BW: Generally, they are well educated and are self-confident enough. This gives them a high degree of personal independence. Other than that, we have a highly diverse group attracted to this watch: We have CEOs of mulitnational companies wearing our watch, even CEOs from other watch manufacturers, but also physicians, artists, designers, even a test pilot for the Eurofighter. These are people who value individuality higher then status symbols. Among these groups is a surprisingly high percentage of women who bought the MIH watch. And, as I said above, most of the watches are ordered through the internet by customers who have never seen it 'in the metal'.

There are the people who did not yet find the 'right' watch for them. Usually, these are not the typical watch buyers, but they are attracted by the 'no logo' concept, the emphasis on functionality, the aesthetics or the lack of decorative elements. Those customers are currently not addressed by the industry.

There are people who possess impressive collections of complicated watches and look for an unassuming everyday watch. I remember a client from Holland who collects Tourbillons. One night buglars entered his house and stole everything, jewelry, wallet and the mobile phone. But they left the MIH watch on the table!

Our watch was bought by the Swiss Federal Office for Culture as an exhibit in the Swiss museum for design.

Then there are the gamblers who buy the watch as investment to cash in from the value on the collector's market.Particularly in some Asian countries the watch sells above our retail price.

Finally, there are of course the committed Paul and Vico fans who just want to own everything created by these two master watchmakers!

MB: How crisis-proof is the MIH watch? Consider what I would term 'internal crises': How do customers react to eventually occuring problems, either of technical or logistical nature? And how is the watch affected by 'external crises' like the current turbulences in the global economy?
BW: I would like to start with the last aspect. In respect to economic turmoils my general impression is that content-deprived concepts aimed at large and quick sales are identified by the collects as such and avoided. Sustainable watch concepts however will survive.

Overall, the MIH watch has proven to be quite resilient to external influences. Certainly, a small number of orders have been cancelled recently, particulary from the USA. You have to keep in mind that customers had to wait roughly a year between order and delivery, so some people simply may have lost interest. We had a huge backlog of order to entertain, and also new order are constantly coming in. The net effect is the delivery time shortened a bit. For us it will be interesting to see how the watch will fare if one we would have it on stock and could present it to the customer in direct competition to, for example, an IWC.

People appreciate the idiosyncracies of the MIH's unique calender construction: Due to the exclusive use of gears in the calender mechanism, the date disks do not always align perfectly linear as with mixed gear-/lever mechanisms. The benefit is that the weekday can be set backwards even across the date shift (but not across the month-shift, also neither the date nor the month can be set back).

Regarding problems with the watch itself I would like to make clear that we certainly do not dispose of the prototyping and testing capacities the large manufacturers have. On the other hand, the technical production know-how of our team exceeds in may ways the standard of the industry. Furthermore, there is the aspect of emotional concernment in case a problem occurs. Issues with any MIH watch will be dealed with priority, so that usually a watch is returned to the customer fully checked and regulated within two weeks. If technical improvements are necessary, existing watches that are returned for service or repair will be updated accordingly. This dedication to the customer and to the watch results in a high satisfaction coefficient amongst the owners.

MB: This directly calls for the next question: What are the major improvements and modifications you introduced over time?
BW: I already mentioned earlier that there is a considerable difference between the construction and the working mechanism. One also has to keep in mind that Ludwig creates his mechanisms without any tolerances. Quite naturally some shortcomings or problems only face up after a significant time of usage has passed.

I want to give you some examples: in some watches the seconds hand did not return to zero after the chronograph pusher had been pressed the third time. It turned out that the tube fixing the hand on the second pinion was just to short, although technically is was within the limits required by the construction. We changed this and all existing watches will be updated once they come in for service.

The seconds hand of the MIH watch. Left, old version, right, current version.

Another example are the movement holding screws. We had some cases where such screws broke after the watch was subjected to heavy shocks. In the first batches we used the original screws supplied with the ETA Valjoux 7750 movement. Most likely, those screws were designed for different forces and do not withstand the specific forces occuring in the MIH watch case. Thus, Paul constructed new screws to solve the problem. The new screw features a thicker screw-head. Also, note the conical shape on its underside. This causes the pressing forces to act on the center of the screw and not, like with the old screw, on the outer side of the screw-head. This eliminates the forces acting on the brink of the head and prevents it from breaking.

The movement holding screws of the MIH watch. Left, old version, right, current version.

MB: : How would you describe the role of Ludwig Oechslin and Paul Gerber in the MIH adventure?
BW: Well, the project would never have started without these two. Vico is the unstoppable creative element, the pacemaker, unpredictable, capricious, but always very true to his way of thinking. He disposes of a wealth of experience and knowledge of historic clocks and watches. He has a stringent sense for aesthetics. He has unique mental capabilities and knows how to exploit these skills for exemplary constructions without precedence. „Synthesis“ is the key word for his philosophy. Ludwig understands complexity as the intellectual challenge to distill the essence of a mechanism into a conceptually clear product. The resulting gear systems often are of strikingly simple construction, but endowed with a transcendent, ethereal elegance. Complexity with actually fewer (!) components means that those have to fulfill multiple tasks at the same time (see MIH calender control wheel discussed above). And that is indeed a challenge. As much as he is chaotic in his creative work, he is very straightforward when it comes to the implementation. He communicates in a very direct manner and is quite efficient to make decisions.

Paul is absolutely essential for the realisation of the MIH watch. He understands how Ludwig's brain works and is able to interpret his constructions for production purposes. He is the inwards-looking artisan who can make a mechanism work. Paul has a crucial ability to anticipate problems an to tackle them proactively. And he would not sleep before he solved a problem. More than once I approached him to report on a problem a customer had, and he just said, "I know, of course, and here is the solution!" This again is a unique quality which contributed tremendously to the success of the entire operation.

With these two I would say we have the yin and the yang elements in our cooperative. Or, in other words, composer and musician working together in one team!

MB: Finally what are your personal conclusions?What would still be tempting for you?
BW: I am very happy that the MIH watch achieved its objective to raise funds for the restauration of the monumental clock the MIH acquired several years ago. The clock is currently nearing completion. In respect to the watch itself I have to confess that I am curious whether the MIH watch will enjoy cult status one day. Will it become a classic?

The experiences I made are entirely positive for me and wet my appetite for future projects. We will of course further optimise the MIH watch and its production processes, but we also gained confidence as to future, more ambitious projects: you have certainly heard about our new Ochs und Junior platform. With this we would like to shift the overall quality to another level in aspects where we actually have and control the capacities. But the key always will be sustainability in terms of eco-friendliness, transparity but also scope: instead of big dreams which never really take off we will restrict ourselves to increase the degree of in-house integration. This is the common denominator and confession of our team. Last but not least we discovered emotionality as an additional challenge: While the concept of the MIH watch was rather firmly cast in stone as security measure, we will allow ourselves much more emotional leeway with the new project(s)!

MB: Dear Beat, thank you very much for taking your time! I am sure this conversation will stirr some discussions among the watch aficionados!
BW: I am grateful to be given the opportunity to present some details from behind the scenery. That said, we are still flabbergasted about the resonance we got from the internet watch communities which we considered as a great encouragement. Thank you all for this!



I want to thank Paul Gerber for answering all my technical questions and providing the images of the improved parts.
Deep thanks also to Bea Weinmann for taking the images during the interview. Bea - you have a very subtle view!

Part 1 - Introduction and design
Part 2 - The Annual Calender and the Chronograph Monopusher
Part 3 - The Presentation of the Watch at the MIH 09.09.2005
Part 4 - Three years MIH Watch! The Interview with Beat Weinmann
Magnus Bosse © January 2009 Last update 10 January 2009
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