Interview: Watchmaker Kari Voutilainen

Talking complications, creativity and the future of design in horlogerie with one of its masters

Kari Voutilainen made his first watch in 1994. In 2002, he would launch his eponymous watch brand for which nearly every component is made in-house. A brand that over the years would release firsts, from complications to finishes and beyond. Voutilainen—who hails from Lapland, Finland but resides in Môtiers, Switzerland—continues to impress with his vision and execution—his finishing is among the best in the industry. A perfectionist who creates desirable and collectible watches—around 50 per year (ranging in price from around $80 – $300,000) with his 15 employees—his work never disappoints and always inspires. We sat down with him at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), where we got hands on with his new GMT-6 and spoke about what it’s like to be an independent maker in a competitive world dominated by large, well known brands.

How is watchmaking different for you as a small independent in a sea of larger brands?

I would say that, for me, we are facing the same problems and challenges as everyone else—even bigger brands. We are either making our own movements or having to find movements. We all have to create all these drawings. But, we are small so I do not have the commercial pressures to make more, more, more. We have more liberty of creation and as we are independent I do not have any investors. I build everything by myself. No one is telling me what to do. I can build what I think is nice through my own eyes. That’s a very big difference.

What do you gain by avoiding market trends?

I do not have to listen to the market and see the consumer tendencies. I can think, “That’s beautiful, I will do it like that.” Bigger brands, when appealing to a bigger mass audience, have to follow the trends and you have to make bigger watches because the masses are buying bigger watches right now. They are in that market. We are not in that market. I can do things after my personal choices only.

What does authenticity mean in today’s watch world?

Today, more and more people are looking at where and how watchmaking is done, who is doing it, and where it is coming from. Today, customers, they can come to visit me and see where we are. Visiting us is seeing watchmakers [making watches]. And they see I am the person behind it. My name is on the dial, but I am also making the watch. People coming to visit the workshop then have a big story for their family to tell. The watch itself has a story. During this time and through the years I’ve met many of my customers, and they’ve become friends. A watch is one item but it connects people and their stories.

You could still be independent but buy a lot of pieces or movements for your watches, while making them your own. Instead, you choose to make most of your components yourself. Why?

If you buy a movement, you do not have the full know-how. I understood from the very beginning that to be able to continue this for a long time you have to do it by yourself. I do not know if I will be able to buy the same movement 10 years from now, but I know I can make it myself in 10 years from now. That’s why I do not buy from outside companies. I see in the longterm, from today to 20 years from now. I can live by my ambitions and pursue what we want to do. It’s better than finding or skipping suppliers.

You’re known for the elaborate finishing of your watches, for customizing them for your clients, and for your handiwork with techniques such as guilloché.

That comes because, for me, the watch is not only the movement. I am a watchmaker and I love the movement but also the watch must be looked at altogether; it’s also the dial and hands and case and, in my opinion, it all has to be beautiful. What is beautiful is personal. All objects are subjective. But it’s like a car, it could have a beautiful engine but if it doesn’t look good, people might not buy it and they might not take pleasure from driving it. I am not a designer, but I do know how to make designs after my own taste.

What part of making a watch is your favorite?

I like the full creation. When you start with an idea and then the whole process form beginning to end, from the rough stuff to finalization. It’s all enjoyable. I would say that this process and evolution I like most. I also love the technical stuff, the inventions that occur after the ideas and sketches.

Explore all of Kari Voutilainen’s work on his site.

Portrait by Evan Orensten, all other images courtesy of Kari Voutilainen