To attempt understanding the demands on a watchmaker requires looking at the scale of a watch and imagining how many components could possibly be inside—and how those technical attributes inform the design of the timepiece. Now, imagine holding the title of master watchmaker (or equivalent) across three very different brands at the exact same time. That’s what Pim Koeslag does for the classic maison Frederique Constant, the sporty but finessed Alpina brand and the haute horlogerie house Ateliers deMonaco, of which he is a co-founder. Koeslag shifts between high volume and handmade, mechanical and electronic, niche and mass market. And this balancing act is something he was meant to do.
From 1999 to 2003, Koeslag attended the Zadkine Vakschool in Amsterdam. “I wanted to do jewelry-making so I went to a school for it in Holland,” he tells us. “It was a jewelry-making/watchmaking and hand-engraving school. It was a lot of things at the same time, in the first year. We learned silversmithing—everything to create precise pieces of metal. One week after I started school I knew for sure that I wanted to be a watchmaker because watchmaking is this very exceptional experience of technique combined with design and craftsmanship.”
During his time studying, Koeslag won the prize for the best watchmaker in the school—and his successes led to internships at Patek Philippe and Grönefeld. Inspired by a conversation he had with Frederique Constant founder and CEO, Peter Stas, Koeslag began to work on the brand’s FC-910 movement (a mechanical entity that powers automatic watches), the first the brand developed entirely in-house. Two years later, he’s employed at the brand’s manufacture full-time.
In an industry with very few innovations, Koeslag has gone on to develop many patented inventions and he’s refreshed some of the most extraordinary watch mechanisms. This is the result of his approach. “Watchmaking has existed for more than 400 years already,” he says. “Most people ask, ‘Because it exists for such a long time, how can anyone develop more innovations? Is there still anything left to be invented?’ I am very much of the opinion that we can go on for hundreds more years. Every time we make something we improve it. We learn from that and improve it again.”
During his tenure, Koeslag has tackled two of the most captivating watch components: the tourbillon and the minute repeater. By repairing tourbillon watches, Koeslag learned how to make them himself. “I told our founder that I am sure we can make a tourbillon better than the one we were purchasing. He said, ‘OK, go for it!’” Seven years later, Koeslag had a tourbillon in a watch on the market. One with a cage that itself comprised roughly 100 components; one where some screws are only 0.3 millimeter in diameter. As for his efforts on a minute repeater (a mechanism that chimes), Koeslag says the challenge was more personal. “Minute repeaters are not designed to be created in high volume,” he says. Rather, success is “about the sound, the clarity, its rhythm. It’s more about your own feelings and how you relate to the watch.”
Unlike these developments drawn from features of the past, the future according to Koeslag will address the new information a watch can convey. “Now, we can add features, alongside the older mechanical functions, like a pressure-sensor, Bluetooth or GPS. These weren’t possible before, these electronic components.” Still, he insists, the essence remains the same: “a watch is made to teach you something, be that as a strategy or through a function. It gives you a little bit of the future.”
Koeslag says they maintain different strategies for the three brands and that’s a rather interesting position to be in as a watchmaker. One story that he shares captures the essence of it all.
“In 2016, for Baselworld, we introduced the first connected Swiss watch,” he begins. “I had prototypes before the fair that were connecting to our phones quite well, but only up to a certain distance, then they’d disconnect. I realized I couldn’t present them like that.” Stas said they needed to find a solution and proceed as planned. An electrical engineer at Frederique Constant found a more powerful antenna but their circuit supplier said it couldn’t be done in time.
“So I bought a soldering tool and I refined the process and under the watchmaking microscope I soldered all 50 pieces,” Koeslag says. “It worked fine! But that same evening, when I was so devoted to the process, someone alerted me that my appointment was there—a customer for Ateliers deMonaco. I took their completed watch from the safe. It was like $150,000. I was still in my watchmaking outfit, in a different frame of mind, but I took an elevator to the second floor and presented the watch to the assistant of a president of a country. That’s the contrast I work in.”
Hero image courtesy of Alpina