Machiel Hulsman, the Dutchman who Builds his own Tourbillon from Scratch
Yes, literally every part is done by hand.
It takes a certain man to wear a tourbillon watch. A tourbillon says: I know what I’m doing. It differentiates you from let’s say the more common watches. But what exactly does it say about a man who decides to make his own? Completely from scratch? Without much useful education? Without CNC machines? Without Switzerland around? Without suppliers? Meet Machiel Hulsman, the Dutchman who embarked on one of the most outlandish adventures we’ve seen in a while.
From boredom to passion
I like the story of how it all began for Machiel Hulsman (42). The story of Hulsman watches started in 2013, while Machiel was standing outside the headquarters of the bank he used to work for at the time. “I’d had enough of it,” he says, still visibly frustrated by the single thought of that job. “The higher I climbed in the hierarchy, the worse the office politics became. I was in a high position, but it never really satisfied me. And that day, while I was standing outside that building, smoking a cigar, I felt empty. I looked at my watch, and suddenly thought: how difficult would it be to make that?”
“When I walked back in the building, this thought came alive in my head. Still, it took some time before I actually started making a watch. The questions I had to ask myself were much bigger than that. I had to make a career change. And so I drafted a couple of criteria my new job had to meet. I wanted to develop something, for example. I wanted to work with real materials. I wanted to do something with industrial design. And most of all, it had to be something I could do for the rest of my life. And watchmaking was exactly that.”
From passion to Hulsman Watches… From scratch
Hulsman went straight ahead with his newfound passion. “My initial idea was to make a movement myself, and then sometime later build a tourbillon. All by hand. Obviously, I had to learn a lot more before I even could start making a movement. So I enrolled in the Schoonhoven school of watchmaking in the Netherlands and started learning this craft. The first two years, I was doing my watchmaking as a hobby. After work, in my shed. But soon enough I realized there weren’t enough hours every evening to finish the job. I could only do small parts of work every evening. And… I guess my wife didn’t get enough attention either…”
“I was constantly walking around with watches on my mind. All the time, everywhere. When I was at a meeting at the bank, I was drawing up new ideas in my sketchbook. I could look forward the entire day to the delivery of one small chisel. And when I could not find the right tools anymore, I had to make my own. But most of all, I was thinking about it all the time. The calculations, the problems, the solutions… You’ll never know how much thinking there is to be done when you’re making your own movement. Until you’re actually doing it.”
It helps to have deep pockets as well if you’re going on an adventure like his. Machiel Hulsman tells me he had to sell his sailing boat and his Porsche, for example. Now that is not something that will generate a lot of pity, but it does tell you something about his dedication to this job. (Or the resentment to working at a bank, of course…)
The DIY-tourbillon watch
In 2015, he finally decided to start making watches full-time. Or, rather, make one watch. Three years later, he had finally finished his first real timepiece. Without resting on his laurels, he quickly switched to his next goal: create a self-designed, self-manufactured tourbillon for one of his clients. This particular man must have had some faith in Machiel and his endeavours because he paid a good portion of the watch in advance. A watch, that didn’t even exist on paper yet. The client gave his input, and Hulsman made the designs. A couple of them quite outlandish, others more restrained and in the style of Hulsman himself. Together, they made up a completely – literally completely – bespoke watch.
In May 2019, the client gave his final go, and after a couple of months of development work on the computer, Hulsman started making the first parts. “The initial calculations on the computer are actually the easy part. Then reality comes in…” He shows me the box where he stores all the components for the tourbillon cage. It looks like nothing impressive. “It took me months to make these parts,” he says. “The margins are so small, there are so many moving parts… it has to be done with the utmost precision. But the entire tourbillon escapement should be done before the end of this year.” (The interview was done in Q4 2019)
The most striking thing when talking to Machiel Hulsman is the accuracy of his language. Compared to his precision rocket words, most people talk like a 1960s American visiting Vietnam. Every detail is sharp, and every sentence is coherently connected to the other. It takes a certain man to become a watchmaker, and the DIY-tourbillon-maker is one of a hardcore version of that.
To show just how crazy the adventure is he embarked on, the facts speak for themselves. At the point when I visited him, he had been working on the movement production for about six months. He had all his designs ready, and he had started producing parts for the tourbillon cage. “It is not the number of parts that makes it difficult,” he says. “It is the extreme precision that’s the hardest.”
He wants to make all parts himself. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s going to catch the alligators for the leather strap, or make his own balance spring, but if he could, he would. Every screw, every wheel, every single part that can be made in Hilversum, the Netherlands, he makes in his humble workshop. That means a very strict schedule, and of course some frustrations. “Sometimes you really question your own sanity, to do all this,” Hulsman says. “I even do the polishing of the rubies myself. Every so often, I encounter a problem and I think to myself: what on earth is this problem now? One time I had worked on one part for days and just before it was finished, it dropped on the floor. And because it was so small, I just couldn’t find it anymore.”
One other problem with from-scratch-watchmaking is the fact that you have to do some things twice. “When I finally found a solution for one problem with the tourbillon cage, I noticed that one other part was in the way to make the cage move freely,” he says. “That means: taking the entire thing apart again, and start redesigning some parts.”
“Now, that doesn’t sound very efficient to me,” I say. “No, it isn’t,” he admits. “But this is the only possible way to do it if you really want to make it all by yourself.”
The big question obviously is: why would anyone want to reinvent everything by himself? So I asked him: “Will anyone ever see if you’re using pre-made parts?” Hulsman, dead serious: “No, I don’t think so. And believe me, the thought has crossed my mind. And for one specific piece, I was thinking about it. I was close to ordering that part… but then something stopped me. I told myself: get back to work. Do it yourself. And so I did. There is something addictive to it. After a little while, you’re so far in the process, that you just can’t go back. The only way is forward. Piece by piece.”
Every tiny little problem can set you back weeks, or even months, he says. “Sometimes you just don’t see the solution, and you start calling other people. Like the teachers I had in Schoonhoven. But because everything you’re doing is new, the answers aren’t all ready. These teachers, they love to help, because most things they know is the theory, and I’m working in reality. Really, no-one can ever know what it means to literally do everything yourself. Until you do it.”
When Machiel Hulsman was a young boy, he wanted to become an inventor. At age 10, he was drawing up new inventions, and he kept on doing that until halfway his teens. He had forgotten all of that, until, at a certain point he realised what he was doing. He was not only creating a movement, but he was also recreating his life. He had lived for far too long doing what was expected from him, and now he was finally living his own dreams. That of being an inventor. He really is doing something in the spirit of the watch inventors of the old days. “I think it can be done, but the deadlines are tough. I want to have the entire watch done by the end of July 2020. Oh, by the way, we also thought it would be nice if the movement has a double barrel power reserve…”
He smiles with an emotion I interpret as slightly maniacal. “Will that work out?” I ask. Hulsman laughs. “Well, yeah, of course,’ he says. “Yeah, these months are really going to be frantic. But I believe it is definitely possible. I know I can do it. So I will do it.”
If you’re interested in a 100% bespoke timepiece, you can contact Machiel through his website’s contact form, at Machiel Hulsman’s website.
Can’t wait to see the completed tourbillon movement and watch.