The Swiss are well-known for their watches and take a lot of pride in their art, but when it comes to others mastering 'their' art, they do not even recognise them, as Vincent Calabrese, an Italian watchmaker discovered to his dismay when he was struggling to make a name for himself.

By Blessing Johnson

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Published: Thu 28 Apr 2005, 12:35 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 2:50 PM

A maverick and gifted designer, he never had any formal training in watchmaking but his experience with the Swiss watch makers only made him even more determined to prove himself — and prove he did and is today one of the top watchmakers in the world today. City Times catches up with this dextrous horologist who has made it a habit to surprise people with complicated time pieces which become conversation pieces. His designs take a snook at traditional watch design and 'do' things traditional watches are not supposed to — some of them don't have hands, some others 'jump' hours while yet others appear to function on five wheels and a few screws. The maverick watchmaker was recently in Dubai to show off his exquisite collection of watches which defy description. Vincent, who speaks only in French, speaks through his business partner and CEO of Nouvelle Horologerie Calabrese (NHC), Herbert Gautschi.

When did you start your career? I understand you did not have a formal education?

I started when I was around thirteen or fourteen, when I was thrown out of school. I did not want to be 'imposed' upon by someone — not a rebel — more revolutionary. If I do the same things others do, what's special about me? I went to a local watch shop and liked what I was doing but not repairing old watches. I then went to Switzerland but they made it very difficult for me, they said 'If you're Italian, you're not a watchmaker'. I wanted to prove it on my own strength. I now do everything myself. I make every part of my watches.

What do you like about designing these watches?

I love the dialogue I make with the wearers through my watches. They are like an artists sculpture or painting.

Are you talking about not telling the time but packing many functions into it?

No. I never made a chronograph, why do I need to make a chronograph when everyone makes it. I'd rather make an emotional piece than packing five thousand functions into it. But I do make watches with as many complications for myself and at the same time simple for you. Take a look at my Speciale line — You will wonder how it can function as the see-through watch will reveal only three wheels and a few screws.

Why is it that people stick to the traditional round shaped watch with two hands?

You don't really buy a watch these to tell the time, those days are gone. It's a status symbol, a message, an emotion. Of course, they still tell the time. I've made watches which so far nobody has managed to make. I've made the watch movements in platinum, which everyone said was not possible. Everyone does not like to experiment with shapes but I have made watches without hands. I like to tell tales with my time pieces. The first one was the classic jump hour, while another had Mona Lisa doing a strip-tease, taking off clothes with each passing hour.

Why have you tied up with NHS to make your watches?

The Vincent Calabrese brand are top of the line — I make them all by hand, whereas the NHS brands are my designs but made by expert watchmakers. So it's an extension of my watch making philosophy.

There are hundreds of designers who make one-off watches, why do you think people buy your watches?

Probably because I'm not a designer but a creator. Everything I make is in harmony and I think people who buy these understand that there is a message. I have no intention to bring out a watch with two hands, a dial and some diamonds. Of course, there are a few of my watches which are in the traditional mould but have certain elements which make them different.

How many of each design do you make?

The NHC range is limited to nearly 700 but the tailor-made ones are one-off. The beauty of these pieces is the simplicity they portray and hide a complicated process, which is my headache ... I do not want these complications to give you a headache, as very often technology does. The jumping hour technique was one, all my watches go back and forth, and do not damage the mechanism when you wind them either way. The women's watch has a rose which changes colour every hour — a rose means different things to different women — and it brings memories associated with that coloured rose. In the day and night watch, the dial changes to a darker shade at midnight instantly. All these are intended to surprise the wearer and become conversation pieces.

How long does it take for you to make a watch?

It's difficult to answer that. There were ideas that were born overnight and some much longer but to tell you the truth, in one year I created five new styles.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

From dialogue, from talking to people.

Does that mean that anyone can come to you and commission a piece with their ideas?

No, that's not what I do. I want to surprise people, if I can't surprise myself than it's not worth it. If I make someone else's idea, where's the challenge in it for me? I want to give shape to my ideas and dreams.

But if someone gives you a complicated piece which challenges you, would you do it?

Let me put it this way, if you go to a painter or sculptor and ask him to paint in a certain style, would they do it? Definitely not. My work is like an art, it comes from my heart, so there's no question of my giving in to a buyers whims.

People in the industry call you an outrageous inventor, why is it so?

Probably because whatever I make goes in the opposite direction of established principles. Every watch is a surprise, I refuse to be pinned down by anything, hence people have call me names like Rebel, Revolutionary, Provocateur, Genius etc. But this is what people perceive me as, I always tell people that I'm a simple man from Napoli and am one metre sixty-six, I'm just another person in this world. It's just that I just want to prove that things, which are often labelled as impossible, can be done.

How expensive are these watches?

The top of the line start $30,000 and the upper range cannot be fixed. The NHC range is the commercial range and cost around $2000-10,000, while gold ones start at $9000.

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