In 2022, I had the great pleasure of meeting Ondřej Berkus in person and spending a day at his workshop. The experience was like nothing I had ever experienced, and I decided to write about it here as my way of remembering every detail of the visit. Nearly exactly one year later, I had the opportunity to drive with him to Prague to attend the Salon of Exceptional Watches (SEW). This piece is a follow-up to the first conversation – a lot has changed in this span of time, but even more hasn’t. Come take a look.
Special thanks to Ondřej and @jirivratislav for supplying the photos for this article.
We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of… Ostrava?
I hadn’t intended to go to the Salon of Exceptional Watches (SEW), the annual watch fair in Prague, which, the organizers were quick to tell me, is unique in its geographic focus, since no other event caters so exclusively to the Central and Eastern European market.
I had been chatting with Ondřej Berkus on Instagram (@hodinkyberkus) for a bit on an entirely different topic (more on that later), and he mentioned to me that he had agreed to exhibit his watches at the fair. If I visited the show, his offer went, I would have the chance to see his latest creations and hang out with him.
When it comes to these kinds of things things, I tend to waffle around quite a bit and, more often than not, don’t end up going.
All it took? Two messages from Ondřej on October 5, 2023: “Hey man, you’re on the guest list for SEW”. That one was followed up by the next one, shortly after that: “That being said, if you can get to Brno Friday morning I can pick you up on my way there.”
And with that, I again found myself on a train much too early for my liking. I look at the windows of the train as we cross the Austrian border to Czechia. It’s a dreary day – a thick and oppressive cloud cover hangs in the sky and sheets of rain pour down. The parallels are striking. Same fantasy feeling, same nervous excitement as last time, same rubbish weather. I exit the Brno train station and keep a lookout for the flaming red car I’ve seen on Ondřej’s Instagram. Oh, there it is, red, muscular, sensuous, and oh-so Alfa.
Those of you who read the piece I wrote after my visit to Ondřej’s workshop might remember that he told me that he dreams of treating himself to an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. But here I am, face-to-face with a Stelvio Quadrifoglio.
Don’t worry, he treated himself to the Giulia, alright, but decided he needed something a little less crazy in addition. Cue the Stelvio. Right, less crazy. Ondřej walks over to me and gives me a bear hug, grinning, as friendly and welcoming as ever. His t-shirt catches my eye. “Fuck off”, it reads. Some things indeed never change!
Someone else is in the car – I finally have the chance to meet @jirivratislav, who is the mastermind behind the photos and videos on Ondřej’s Instagram that showcase the uniqueness of the pieces so well.
I step into the Stelvio, admiring the carbon fibre trim, knowing full well what is awaiting me. The engine roars to life, and I grin. I look over, and Ondřej behind the wheel is grinning even more broadly than I am. Ondřej likes visceral things, things that elicit emotion. It could be the hypnotic spinning and loud heartbeat of a tourbillon, it could be a magnificent engine note. It has to be special – life’s too short for it not to be.
The last time he gave me a lift, I was sitting in a souped-up Touareg. Now, it’s an Alfa. In passing, Ondřej mentions he’s thinking about a Ferrari next. He’s a petrolhead in the purest sense of the world and his enthusiasm is addictive. He seems to know two speeds when driving: fast and faster, and the pouring rain doesn’t seem to make him want to hold back a bit.
“Seems like you always bring this weather with you,” he says wryly, glancing over at me. It seems the parallels to our first meeting are also clear to him.
Then and now
If there’s one thing that strikes me about the time I spent with Ondřej this year, it’s how much has changed in so little time, and yet, how much hasn’t. I try to put myself in his shoes, but I cannot. Everything about this must still feel surreal to him. All of us should be so fortunate that we have a backlog of work for the next 20+ years and close to no financial pressure to ever have to work again! He has poured blood, sweat, and tears into his business and, finally, it’s paying dividends. It’s an inspiring story.
During our chat, I sensed in Ondřej pride and self-confidence, which either he didn’t fully display during my last visit or I was too slow to pick up on. This is a new Ondřej, one who realizes just how good he is at what he does. His exhibition booth will feature a watch with a case made of meteorite, the Minion 2 tourbillon, a futuristic jump-hour, a central tourbillon with a toroidal ring made out of mammoth tooth around the regulator assembly, and the Black Hole Tourbillon. Nothing else at the show will come even close to capturing the breadth of complications, materials, and “wow” factor. No, this isn’t me fanboying, hoping to be allocated something in the future – I know I have absolutely no shot at one of his high-end watches. I am writing this from a place of pure wonderment. The watches are so singularly unique in their vision – some share a basic case form, and Ondřej is more and more developing a set of styling cues that reflect his house style, but the breadth of his creations is staggering.
His watches are concept art come to life. Central tourbillons, sonnerie à passage, jump hours: you name it, and Ondřej can most certainly make it. The question isn’t one of “if”, it’s rather one of “when”. As I wrote above, the waitlist is indeed a thing and if you thought Rolex is bad, you’re in for a shock. It’s the success that leads to this greater self-confidence. In his words: “I’m a cocky bastard”.
He can afford to be picky with what he makes. The more difficult the project, the more you will capture his attention. At the moment, tourbillon watches are his jam. He confesses to me that he just enjoys making them and loves seeing them come to life. Ondřej still loves a good challenge, it seems. He lets slip a potential project, an uber-complication, that should be several years in the making. I ask him the price and instantly regret it. Suffice to say, it’s a piece that is going to an incredibly fortunate person.
In fact, he now wears one of his own creations as his personal timepiece. The Minion 2, as he calls it, because of the size and position of the various indications, features flame-blued hour and minutes hands displaying the time on two white-lacquered subdials in a regulator layout, tourbillon at 9 o’clock, over a hand-frosted nickel silver front plate…
We pick up Veronika from watchmaking school. Cue another thing that has changed – Ondřej’s team now has one more member. That takes me back to something he told me during my first visit: “The one thing I would love is a finisseur. My true passion lies in machining. Finishing a watch movement – sure it’s fun – but you’re performing the same motions over and over for several days at a time.”
“You know, I don’t know if I could ever deal with the responsibility of having an employee. With horses we say that you can stay hungry, but a horse has to eat. I, as the owner of the company, I rely only on myself. An employee, however, relies on me. And that makes me responsible not just for myself and my family, but also for the employee and his family. I’d only take up employees if I have the financial cushion to do so.”
Salon of Exceptional Watches
Veronika is the finisseur that Ondřej could only dream of having last year. A jeweller by trade, she has already spent some time training under Philippe Narbel and from what Ondřej tells me, not only is she passionate about what she does but she’s also incredibly good at it. I get to witness V doing her thing at SEW: during the evening’s VIP event (plenty of tuxedos and ball gowns around, but don’t worry, Ondřej was still wearing his “F**k Off” t-shirt), there is a live exhibition of hand-finishing tools and techniques. V deftly takes a seat at the watchmaker’s bench and examines the movement in front of her. She chats away animatedly with the exhibitors – I wish I could understand Czech to be able to follow along. Instead, I glance over at Ondřej. He’s beaming with pride.
SEW was a great success for Ondřej. I don’t even want to think about how often he had to repeat the phrase “I’m not taking any more orders, because I have a waitlist that’s [enter huge number] years long”. The interest in his watches was staggering – I know this because I was always loitering around his stand, staring at his watches, visiting neighbouring stands to chat with other watch enthusiasts, before doubling back and going to the Ondřej Berkus show. His Black Hole Tourbillon won the public’s “2023 Watch of the Year Award” awarded at SEW.
I can only think of how things have come full circle. When I first met Ondřej, the Black Hole Tourbillon was nearing completion. The crystal still hadn’t been sealed into place and the caseback engraving had just been completed. Now, slightly one year later, not only is it complete, but it’s found a new home and is off winning awards. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to have a chat with the owner of this beauty and grab a wristshot at SEW.
Back to the road on the way to Prague – we are talking about the most recent development in Ondřej’s business. At the beginning of October, Ondřej floated the idea in an Instagram story of a mid-spec, time-only watch with a moderate degree of customization, his usual house style in terms of movement finish and dial layout, in a 3D printed titanium case that would be printed by lathe (Oh, and Ondřej? They better have “Mi Scusi!” engraved on them!). Ondřej was honest that, in achieving his price target of EUR 6,000, there would be some compromises: the movement would be a donor 6498 calibre with some modifications. Bridges would be machined by DK Precision in Glashütte. In the biggest departure from the way he usually does things, this piece would actually be a series of ten.
I ask Ondřej what led him to reconsider – I remember chatting about Kurono Tokyo during our first chat and if he would ever consider a similar model. Back then, he had considered that such a move would dilute his brand. But now, with his brand having achieved the level of stability and fame it has, I suppose it allows him more flexibility and space to try new things. The most important thing about this series: “how much of a headache it’s going to be, or not”. Ondřej hates headaches. He’s built his business on a model of self-sufficiency in almost all areas. The thought of relying on suppliers to send him movement bridges must gall him. But a move like this opens the door for customers who don’t have the budget or patience for his one-off creations. The series of ten is a test of supply chains, of his own manufacturing and finishing efficiency, a test of how customers might react. Suffice to say, all ten were gone in a very short space of time. He tells me that if this first series is successful, he might reconsider doing another one in a couple of years. Not the same watch, but a slightly different take – maybe with a complication, even. Only time will tell!
I remember seeing the story of the idea and replying something along the lines of “fuck yeah”, thinking nothing of it. Little would I have guessed that I would actually have the luck of landing one of them. And no, I’m not writing this piece as a way of saying “thanks” – it’s more about capturing some amazing things I’ve been fortunate to experience on this weird watch-collecting journey.
The second there’s a bit of open road, Ondřej downshifts and lets the turbocharged engine roar to life. I watch the speedometer climb and climb. He’s grinning again, and so am I. Ondřej, thanks for the invitation to SEW, thanks for driving me there, and thanks for the memories. It was great to meet the team and to hang out with you and your wife.