This story is slightly different from what you might expect from MONOCHROME. For example, we won’t mention any movement in the first 1,000 words. But then again, Michiel Holthinrichs isn’t your normal watchmaker. Somewhere close to a canal in the Dutch city of Delft, this man is making watches in a way the big Swiss brands won’t even dream of: one watch at a time, and not a second alike. Meet the man who spent years making his own 3D-printed watch. And who got into watchmaking because of… ornaments?
The first time I met Michiel Holthinrichs, about two years ago, I thought he was quite a peculiar guy. A sort of creative nutty professor gone chic. His long hair was all over the place, his corduroy jacket a bit raffled around the edges and his eyes had a constantly curious presence. But after having spoken to him for about 45 minutes (and, admittedly, a couple of beers), I realized something: this guy is either crazy or brilliant. There’s no way in between. As I don’t want to tell you what to think, I will give you the opportunity to make up your mind yourself.
From architecture to watches
Michiel Holthinrichs first studied architecture, and during that time he became slightly obsessed with ornaments. “Ornaments?” I asked that first time, “you mean those decorations on buildings?” “Yes,” he answered. “Those ornaments.” At this point, I really wasn’t quite sure whether this guy was actually a little bit soft in the head. But it all started to make sense to me later. ‘I worked with an architect who specialized in early-modern architecture, and so my focus started changing: from the very large to very small scale.’ He adds later “I discovered the importance of ornaments in designs. In the ornament, all elements of design, symbolism, technique and craft are combined with the personal, artistic expression of the architect.”
And so his love for watches grew in parallel. “In horology, the same values apply. Craftsmanship, technique, timeless quality and beauty. Plus, a watch is a great way to express your own personal values, style and character. And so I started to collect watches quite obsessively. I had a really big watch collection at the time,’ he said. ‘Literally hundreds of vintage watches. Not all of them worked, but I was obsessed with all these things. I started repairing them as well.”
Not only did he start to repair them, but he also started designing some pieces. He began “a personal journey to beauty and aesthetics”, and his guiding light was, of course, the ornament. At this point in the article, I sincerely hope that you felt the same as I did at this point in our conversation: an immense curiosity to what this watch looked like. And here it is, the Ornament 1:
The first thing I noticed, is how modern yet elegant the watch is. Not only are the openworked, dauphine-style hands and straight indices very thought over, the watch is also incredibly detailed and clean at the same time. Especially the case, which has quite a lot of different edges, angles and notches, some of them rarely seen in watches. This is not a coincidence – the cases are made with a groundbreaking technique: 3D-printing. Holthinrichs’ stories about finding the perfect printer, the right materials and maintaining the needed strength, are as entertaining as they are intriguing. He finally settled for a Belgium-based company that specializes in 3D printing of steel. In England, he found a company for all the precious metals; gold and platinum. “I really needed to find a party that was just as curious and focussed on details as I was. This wasn’t just an economic opportunity for them either,” he explains. “Normally, 3D-printing is used for prototypes only because the results aren’t as constant as they should be. In this case, we needed results that were good enough for serial production. We really had to look for the boundaries and push the limits of precision and technology.” One can’t help but thinking he, indeed, is a 20th-century Nutty Professor gone chic.
It took Michiel Holthinrichs about five years to finally come up with a design that ticked all the boxes he strived for. Not only is the case 3D-printed, but also the crown and buckle are made with the same technologies. And all those pieces show why 3D-printing indeed is a fantastic addition to watchmaking. The main differences are angles. 3D-printers can make notches that can hardly (or not) be made with traditional machines. A fine example of this is the name Holthinrichs, that is written on the side of the watch. It is much deeper, more sculptured that would have been possible with, for example, laser engraving.
Modern-day watch artistry
When I visited Michiel at his workshop in the Dutch town of Delft, it really struck me how little he had changed. I even think he was wearing the exact same jacket. He still hadn’t combed his hair. But what had changed was the look of his entire business. His workshop is wonderfully located on one of the oldest canals of Delft (not only Amsterdam has canals!). Through a huge panorama shopping window, passers-by can see him or one of his employees working behind one of his desks. Some vintage watches from his old private collection are on sale there (some beautiful pieces, such as a Universal Tri-Compax).
And then again, it stokes me how incredibly bright this guy is. He shows me pictures of his new car, a vintage, Pininfarina-designed Peugeot 504 coupé from 1974. Pointing at the bodywork of the Peugeot, he says, “you can actually picture the Italian designer stroking that line over the paper, probably right after lunch with a glass of wine or two. So organic, so smooth. Now, that is an inspiration to me. I want to give my products the same feeling.”
By now, you might have noticed that probably for the first time in the 12 years of existence of MONOCHROME, we haven’t mentioned the movement in the first 1,000 words of an article. Now, this isn’t because the movement in itself is uninteresting, it’s just that the rest is such an amazing story.
And truth to be told, the only part of the watch that wasn’t tailor-made by Holthinrichs, is, indeed, the movement. It is, however, very consciously chosen because of its reliability, classic layout and size, and, of course, its architecture. “It had to be a hand-wound,” says Holthinrichs, “because it makes the wearer more conscious of the fact that this is a mechanical watch.”
So the Ornament 1 is equipped with the hand-wound Swiss-made ETA/Peseux calibre 7001, one of the simplest, and therefore, in some ways most charming classic Swiss movements. Its rate is 21,600vph and the power reserve is 42 hours. Holthinrichs reworks every movement of the Raw Ornament and bespoke models and disassembles it before he decorates it. He also offers options like the addition of a handmade click spring and bridges. He offers a broad range of decoration options, such as handmade anglage, Côtes de Genève, frosting, and other traditional finishes.
At the moment, he is also developing his own movement, which will include some interesting productions techniques you might be able to guess, but he can’t tell too much about yet.
Some more quick facts on the Ornament 1: it has a 38mm case which can be 3D-printed in either surgical stainless steel 316L, solid 18k rose gold, yellow gold, white gold or even solid platinum for bespoke orders. The case thickness is 10mm.
It has a perfectly domed acrylic glass. And that, professor Holthinrichs adds, needs some explanation. “This was a very conscious design decision, not a concession. By using acrylic, I could make the case 1.5mm thinner, and acrylic has the best the refractive index. The backside does have a sapphire glass.” Prices are starting at EUR 4,100 incl. taxes (3,389 excl. taxes) for the Ornament 1 in either Ruthenium steel or Satin Silver.
In the last couple of years, Holthinrichs has done some really crazy stuff that would take me ages to tell about, so I won’t do that, but I want to point out the creations that really tell the scope of his creativity: his bespoke watches.
These unique pieces are really the pinnacle of what Michiel Holthinrichs does. “That is something I really like about the way I’m working,” he says. “Create special, personal watches. In my designs, I am always searching for harmony and balance in proportions. But I am also fascinated by the kind of beauty and spontaneity the human brain can never reproduce: natural beauty. We can never fully control nature, and we will never surpass its beauty.”
Depending on your wishes (and wallet obviously) you can get all sorts of engravings and decorations. But there is more. Lots more. Because of the 3D-printing techniques, different materials are also possible. Even a platinum case is possible. All of this is combined with ancient techniques Holthinrichs has learned. All dials are also bespoke handmade for Holthinrichs, most of them actually by Holthinrichs himself. He even owns a 120-year old pad-printer that allows him to decorate dials in the old-fashioned way as well. “Of course, some wishes are a bit outbounds, but generally speaking, I can make pretty much every wish come true,” he says. “I want to take people on that watchmaking journey with me.” And that is the magic of this all. You can actually think with him, you can pick his brain and start creating your own watch, made by an artist. And that really is the dream of every watch lover, isn’t it?