Genus appeared on the independent watchmaking scene in 2019 with the GNS 1.2 WG. A watch in a class of its own, the GNS 1.2 is technically complex and features one of the most fascinating time displays we have seen recently. This radical creation received a well-deserved industry accolade with the 2019 Mechanical Exception Prize at the prestigious Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. We hit the road to meet the co-founders of the brand, Catherine Henry and Sébastien Billières.
No hands, no dial… time has a different face at Genus. Twelve satellites rotating at the periphery of the watch show the hours, orienting themselves in an upright position as they travel and get ever-closer to the fixed hour pointer at 9 o’clock. The tens-of-minutes are shown by a mechanical centipede crawling over and around two 30-minute circulating wheels. Last, the precise minutes are displayed at 3 o’clock thanks to a fixed index and rotating disk. Independent watchmaking as we like it: radical, creative, finely crafted and technically complex! Read on to find out about the brand and its founders.
Xavier Markl, MONOCHROME – What was your background, before creating Genus?
Sébastien Billières – My father is a watchmaker, my mother is a watchmaking operator, I graduated from the Geneva watchmaking school. I am a purebred watchmaker. I worked for several brands at a time of intense creativity for mechanical watchmaking. When I joined Mr Roger Dubuis, we were 10 people in the company; three years later we were 120! This daring creativity was extremely inspiring. This was the case with Roger Dubuis, Felix Baumgartner or Frank Muller where I also worked for a short period of time. This inspired me to believe in my dreams. I was lucky that professional opportunities led me to be independent. When I worked for Sven Andersen I had to rent my workplace. Sven Andersen is also a superb example of watchmaking ingenuity. He is a pure artisan. All this inspired me to create something, to believe in my dreams. I have been independent since 2007 and then created GMTI in 2011. Initially, I was assembling watches for brands, mainly prototypes and complex watches, or projects under development. I also worked as a restorer, which was really instructive. At GMTI we assemble movements and we develop concepts for brands. Here, I really started to develop a structure, with specialists and the appropriate organization. I am also involved in training activities. It is important that watchmaking heritage is passed on in full to the next generation.
Catherine Henry – I started my career in multinationals, in pharmaceuticals, insurance and finance. I worked in Zurich, among others and I really appreciated the experience of working in German-speaking Switzerland. I have an eclectic work experience and have been involved in multiple entrepreneurial projects. Entrepreneurial spirit plays an integral part of me. For instance, in 2011 by setting up a concept in a niche market and I won the “Swiss Woman Entrepreneur of the Year” Award in 2011. At 40, I graduated from Business Studies from the University of Geneva and in Management Sciences from the University of Savoie Mont-Blanc. Top graduate, I am in addition involved in the Career Center at the Geneva University as a Mentor. I met Sébastien during a headhunting process; we had both been identified to become part of the new Executive Management Team of a company. The project was frozen, but somehow it turned out to be a blessed encounter. We thought, ‘why don’t we create our company rather than work for a large brand?’ And here we are.
My job has been to launch and drive the development of the brand and all that surrounds the watchmaker. We are extremely complementary co-founders. The healthy emulation between us stimulates our creativity and our development. We believe in the power of shared decision-making.
What defines Genus Watches?
Sébastien Billières – We are classical, modern and radically innovative at the same time. Modern art takes cues from classical painting and this is how we see independent watchmaking today. We have a deep respect for the watchmaking tradition. Our roots are solid. Take for example the GNS 1.2. The movement is based on a traditional design with a large 18,000vph balance wheel and artisanal hand-finishing. But when you turn the watch over, our display is unprecedented.
We have the deepest respect for the watchmaking tradition. I teach watchmaking every week. This gives us the freedom to innovate. But I would not have created a brand to produce watches that would be modern takes on past watches. Every day you reinvent yourself and come up with something different. In this respect, making choices is difficult, but creativity is a matter of choice. This is creative freedom.
Catherine Henry – This is fundamental. We are a hard-working, passion-driven team. We are developing projects, but we don’t want for us to tell you “we are going to launch this new product at a given date.” You know, when you take part in each step at this level of Haute Horlogerie, I thing to push will kill ideas, creativity, freedom and perfection. We are not marketing-driven. We promote true values. It takes time to create. For example, when we had the idea of setting precious stones on the free-circulating elements, it proved to be a genuine technical challenge. It took us weeks to refine the concept and to get it working perfectly before we could produce a piece that matched our expectations. Being independent is a challenge, but in many respects, it is an opportunity.
What have been the main challenges in the development of GNS-1?
Sébastien Billières – The main challenge was to chart unknown territory. We filed two patents for our movement. Our movement comprises hundreds of parts and it required months of development! In particular, managing energy consumption to drive the free-circulating element of the movement was critical. We are a small, self-financed company, we have limited resources and we cannot trial dozens of prototypes. But the result matched our expectations with outstanding performance, capabilities and opportunities.
How do you deal with manufacturing?
Sébastien Billières – We develop our movement and watches in-house. Although the parts are manufactured by partners, we decorate these in our workshop. My sister, who is also a watchmaker, and I, assemble the movements and watches. We even craft our balance wheels in-house.
You’ve also innovated in the field of habillage, for instance with your damascene titanium cases?
Sébastien Billières – The technique is ancestral but, to our knowledge, it is a unique application to titanium and watchmaking. We work with a metalsmith to create it. The stacking of material gives the metal its unique aspect. Most importantly, we offer our clients the option of attending the ‘colour revelation’ process, which we do by heating the metal with an open flame in our Geneva workshop. There, they can decide on the colour, which can range from yellow, orange, blue or grey. It is fascinating, a kind of horological alchemy!
What can we expect from Genus in the future?
Sébastien Billières – We have a lot of ideas… one of our priorities is to make full use of the potential of our concept and introduce further complexities.
For more information, please visit genuswatches.swiss.