Urban Jürgensen: A Master's Legacy
With mechanical precision and traditional hand crafts, Urban Jürgensen upholds the high standards set by the innovative Danish watchmaker for whom the company is named.
Over four generations, the Jürgensen watchmaking dynasty’s mix of practical inventions and forward-thinking ideas helped change the way that clocks and watches were made, not only in the family’s native Denmark, but also in Switzerland.
More than two centuries later, the objective remains the same for the modern incarnation of Urban Jürgensen, which emerged in the 1980s. In 2014 the company took a huge stride toward that goal when it won the “Men’s Watch” prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) for its Reference 1142C CS.
The prestigious accolade recognized the watch’s historic P8 movement — the first wristwatch caliber to use a detent escapement. Prior to that, the design — which is known for its high level of precision — was only found in marine chronometers. More than just an horological triumph, the movement also brought the company full circle by drawing a direct line back to the maritime clocks Urban Jürgensen produced in the 19th century.
SHOW OF HANDS
Urban Jürgensen produces watches numbered in the hundreds annually and its collection focuses on classic time-only pieces, as well as high complications like perpetual calendars and minute repeaters. These modern works of micro-engineering are then combined with centuries-old craftsmanship to create timepieces that are stunning both technically and visually.
One aspect that stands out most is the adherence to handcrafted processes for parts outside the movement. Most notably perhaps are the distinctive observatory-style hands found on every watch the company makes. While other companies rely on industrial manufacturing to produce watch hands, Urban Jürgensen uses a team of artisans to craft them in-house entirely by hand.
Company president Soren Petersen says that decision was more of a necessity than a choice due to the labor-intensive nature of the process. “We would gladly source our hands to an elite craftsman if we could just find one,” he says. “Like our moon discs and a few other parts, no one has the skill or ability to turn this into a profitable manufacturing series due to a combination of high difficulty and low volume.”
This is the essence of how the company chooses what to do, Petersen adds. “Today anything can be made with machinery and modern materials — but the result lacks the depth of emotional response you can get from something handcrafted,” he said.
It takes a skilled craftsperson a full day to complete a single set of hands. To produce the two-tone version of the hands, the process begins with the shafts and arrow-shaped tips. These pieces are mirror polished and blued using heat instead of chemicals, a modern-day shortcut employed by some brands. “It is harrowingly difficult finesse work,” Petersen explains. “The slightest flaw in the mirror polish, or a micron-size piece of dirt will reveal itself fully when the bluing is done.”
Next, the “eye” on the hour hand is polished to perfection. What’s especially impressive is how all of these individual segments are connected. Because the parts are made so precisely, they simply lock into place without needing any kind of adhesive. The results are worth the extraordinary effort, Petersen says. “It is, by comparison, fully another level of workmanship that’s palpably visible when they’re compared directly to other hands,” he says.
TEARS OF JOY
Urban Jürgensen distinguishes itself further aesthetically with its teardrop-shaped lugs, a hallmark of the Jürgensen 1745 Collection. To achieve their voluptuous shape, the lugs are forged separately from the case and built up slowly in 8-10 rounds in a painstaking process that can take two days to complete. After that, they’re finished and polished by hand to ensure the integrity of the shape.
“It is impossible to make our teardrop-lugged cases in any other way because the finish and fit needs to be perfect and delicate and strong at the same time. This gets expensive and is not suited for mass manufacturing, which is why you see almost no one doing these cases anymore,” Petersen says.
For the final step, the lugs must be soldered onto the case. The challenge, Petersen explains, is to avoid leaving behind any trace of the process. “Our criterion is that you should not be able to see the soldering line even with a loupe,” he says. “I have pictures on posters and slides that are magnified enormously, and even then, the soldering line isn’t visible. This is the standard of quality that we strive for.”
IMPOSSIBLE MADE POSSIBLE
Another vital part of the Urban Jürgensen design code is characterized by the dials the company uses in their watches. Although bespoke grand feu enamel dials are available on request, the collection primarily features two dial styles.
The first is grenage, a finishing technique that originated in the late 1800s. It’s rarely — if ever — used today. Petersen says rediscovering the technique in 2014 and perfecting it was an exhilarating challenge. “I liked the idea of embracing a nearly forgotten craft that was supposed to be ‘impossible to manufacture,’” he says. “Ultimately, I decided to revive this art because it lends itself entirely to what we do already — make individual timepieces and not clones.”
It begins with a solid-silver plate on which all the graphic dial content is engraved into the metal and manually inlayed with lacquer. The grenage is then built up carefully using a mix of silver, salts and other ingredients that are brushed onto the plate. The mixture fuses to the metal electrochemically and leaves behind a frosty finish consisting of millions of small silver pearls. Petersen says: “It’s been interesting to see a few brands trying to reproduce the finish by sandblasting — but nothing beats the original."
DRAWING THE LINE
In addition to grenage, Urban Jürgensen also uses guilloché to decorate its dials. The intricate and beautiful patterns are made using traditional hand-operated rose engine machines that were built more than 100 years ago.
Once again, the company starts with a solid-silver base for the dial. This, Petersen points out, makes the delicate process even harder. “It’s a daunting exercise to draw the 700 to 1,400 traces on crisp silver and finish with zero flaws. Because it’s so difficult, some use a gold base, which is much softer and more forgiving to work with, and then silver coat it in the end. But if you compare the two, you will see the difference.”
One of the most striking examples is the Reference 10. A paragon of perfect proportions, its balanced arrangement was directed by the late owner Peter Baumberger together with the late Derek Pratt. Today, Petersen manages all the watch designs. “There is a fine art in calibrating the use of patterns, their size and the dial formatting,” he explains. “I confess humbly that I do the watch designs myself to make sure we balance each design element according to the legacy of our restrained elegant design philosophy. It also means there is no one else to blame!”
Looking at the company as a whole, it’s clear to see that this tremendous passion for detail informs every step of the watchmaking process. For Urban Jürgensen, there are no shortcuts to making a watch that will stand the test of time.
Original article by SCOTT HICKEY