SINGAPORE (Oct 1): Like every other Urwerk timepiece, the UR-111C took a total of about three years to build, assemble and develop before it was finally launched in 2018. But co-founder and chief designer Martin Frei says the idea for this model can be traced back to as early as his childhood, specifically one of his earliest memories of a traditional light meter owned by his late father, who worked as an engineer. A light meter is an electronic measuring device that is often used by photographers to generate and control exposure.
“In this light meter was a cylinder. You had to turn the spiral until the hand met the line on the cylinder for the separating of light, so that you could set the camera up with the right light. I don’t know if this was an influence but later on down the road when I looked at the watch, I thought — hey, I’ve seen this before as a child at some point,” he recalls in an exclusive interview with Options during his visit to Singapore in September for the launch of the UR-111C, Urwerk’s latest release under its Special Projects line.
Frei is referring to the model’s unique celebration of the seconds indicator, which has both digital and linear displays. Its digital seconds are mounted alternately on two tiny openwork wheels with miniature lacework in the metal. After passing across a circular window, the numerals are transported into the wearer’s view, thanks to a cluster of optical fibres known as an image conduit, which is positioned ever so slightly (a tenth of a millimetre) above the numerals. This results in a display of running seconds meandered across a cluster of optical fibres; a world’s first in the watchmaking universe.
The hours and two versions of the minutes are displayed under glass sapphire covers along the side of the case
Like its predecessor, the UR-CC1 “King Cobra” watch, the UR-111C sports jumping hours and two versions of the minutes, both digital and linear. What is markedly different, however, is the new model’s longer and slanted linear track that runs diagonally across its aperture, instead of horizontally in line with the rotating cylinder like in the UR-CC1.
The idea of a linear display of minutes first came to Frei after seeing a similarly fashioned speedometer of a 1950s Volvo car model; in fact, Frei submitted early prototype sketches to Patek Philippe, although it was never produced by the watch manufacturer as it was deemed “too avant-garde”, he says. As such, you could also say that the birth of the UR-111C started from Frei’s initial sketches — or not. After all, it was only after these designs made their way to the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva that the concept of the linear display finally came to fruition in the form of the UR-CC1.
Notably, the UR-111C sports possibly the longest-ever watch crown to be made in the form of a fluted cylinder roller that spans more than half the width of the case itself. Integrated into the case’s top and running parallel to the winding stem, the roller crown is unlocked by the action of swinging a lever out from the side of the case such that the wearer can adjust the time by thumbing the roller in either direction.
The case is also a remarkable engineering feat on its own. Available in polished steel or with a gunmetal finish, it has been manufactured to precisely slide the watch’s movement, complicated transmission systems and self-winding gear in from the side of the case, which Frei likens to putting on a sleeve. In place of the conventional caseback is an entirely continuous loop of metal with an inwardly curved underside, such that the watch can sit against the wearer’s wrist more comfortably.
All of these aspects continue to embody Frei’s long-running exploration of the complex relationship between what he calls “man and machine”, a recurring theme that has taken on several manifestations in Frei’s futuristic designs that are so characteristic of Urwerk. This one, shares Frei, has been fondly nicknamed “Blade Runner” for the love of the 1982 sci-fi cult film of the same name as well as its 2017 sequel. Through this hybrid of analog and digital displays and functions along with the watch’s sheer manufacturing complexity, Frei says he wants to emphasise the relationship between timepiece and wearer and, hence, man and machine.
“All things are connected to how we experience things with our body, like our fingers, minds and our eyes. And [the watch] is another object you need for your sensation of things… It has to sit comfortably on the wrist. It has to tell the time. It can tell you about the history of watchmaking, it can tell you about the future, it can tell you different types of information about time. But it can also be so much more,” he elaborates.
“Even if we think about time, it is a very different thing for us than it is for, let’s say, animals. [The concept of time] is something that only humans do. Humans created machines, and they also created time. You can ask this question: Does time really exist? It really depends on your perspective.”
This article appeared in Issue 850 (Oct 1) of The Edge Singapore.