Geneva Watch Days 2023 is the chosen event for the unveiling of a new watch from a new company. Haute-Rive’s pioneering Honoris I, is the inaugural timepiece from Stéphane von Gunten and boasts a record-breaking 1,000-hour power reserve, setting a world record for autonomy.
A third consecutive generation watchmaker, Mr von Gunten’s route into his career was via an engineering degree in micro techniques, for both the micro-electronics and watchmaking industries.
After graduating he worked at Patek Philippe where he was involved in research for micro technology focusing on the use of silicon fabrication.
“This was in 2005 and silicon was a big research topic in the watchmaking industry looking at its use for small components and the hairspring. My background in micro engineering and watchmaking was the right mix for Patek at that time.”
Despite his involvement in horology’s ‘silicon revolution’, Mr von Gunten is clear that he is not interested in change for change sake. “It is not always a case of there being a problem to solve,” he says.
“It is more about looking to improve what we have through new techniques and new technologies. I always try to respect the old traditions of watchmaking – I’m sure 18th-century watchmakers were looking to improve timekeeping. There is no point in change if it does not make things better.”
In 2007, Mr von Gunten moved to Ulysse Nardin where work was well underway on the silicon skunkworks project, The Freak.
While it seems logical that Ulysse Nardin may have come knocking on his door, Mr von Gunten says that this was not the case.
“The move was for purely personal reasons,” he says. “My wife had qualified as a midwife and there was no work for her in Geneva. We are both from La Chaux-de-Fonds so we decided to move closer to home and I looked for a job in the watchmaking industry there.
“It was a good time to move though. At the time Ulysse Nardin was looking for new suppliers and new ways to develop escapements because the Swatch Group was no longer providing components to the rest of the industry.
“I could bring some useful experience in silicon and the chance to work with pioneers like Rolf Schnyder and Pierre Gygax, who were super-motivated to find new techniques and alternatives to the Swatch Group supply, was amazing.”
Although the idea of making a watch from scratch was always in the back of his mind, it was – as for so many people – covid and lockdown that finally brought about the chance to put the plans into action.
“I was at home and I read an article about a watch that my great-great-grandfather Irénée Aubry had made, the Hebdomas. I remember thinking, ‘That’s really nice. I should do that again.’ And this is when I started to think about creating my own brand.”
The brand is named Haute-Rive (High Bank) after Irénée Aubry’s workshop, situated by Lake Neuchâtel. The first watch from the company is the Honoris I, which marks a deeply personal phase in Mr von Gunten’s watchmaking journey, crafting unique timepieces that unite traditional design and production with innovation and independence. The inspiration was Aubry’s eight-day pocket watch Hebdomas – a timepiece known to the von Gunten family as ‘The Pope’s Watch’.
“My great-great-grandfather was a very interesting watch developer and he created a watch for the Pope in 1888,” explains von Gunten. “Technically it was special because it had more than 40 days of power reserve – probably the only watch at that time to have such autonomy.
“This was the starting point. Of course, the original was a pocket watch and I wanted to see if I could make this more contemporary and incorporate it into a wristwatch.”
Mr von Gunten has built on his ancestor’s innovations, creating the first wearable and slim (less than 12mm) wristwatch with a 1,000-hour power reserve.
The HR01 calibre, featuring a single winding barrel and epitomises Mr von Gunten’s dedication to uniting form and function. With a polished gold case, a unique 60-facet bezel, and a grand feu enamel dial, the watch embodies technical mastery.
Mr von Gunten’s ambition to extend the power reserve led to the development of the HR01 calibre, featuring a single barrel with a three-metre-long mainspring.
The watch has definite echoes of The Freak, not least in that it is wound via the bezel, something that Mr von Gunten says is a mix between his background at Ulysse Nardin and technical necessities that mean it is more practical to wind it via the bezel rather than a crown.
“The mainspring is about three metres long and, when fully wound, is 35mm in diameter. There is just one spring rather than a series as it is more efficient that way. Multiple barrels mean wasted space within the movement,” he says.
“We have to rewind the spring, so the barrel has to move in two directions – one to run the watch, and one to rewind – and this required a differential system to reload the mainspring.
“This is the work that you see at 12 o’clock on the dial – the differential plus the big wheel that we call the ‘wheel of time’, the first wheel of the gear train. A normal winding crown would have proved problematic to link to the barrel shaft in the middle of the watch, so it was easier to use a differential and link it to the bezel.”
To indicate the state of winding, there is a huge power reserve indicator on the reverse. “At the beginning I wanted it to be on dial,” says Mr von Gunten. “But it would have needed to be much smaller and by placing it on the back we had more space so legibility is greatly improved.”
On the dial-side is a tourbillon with a different look. Because the energy comes from a pinion below the dial, the impression is that the flying tourbillon really comes from nowhere. At the launch, there are two versions of the Honoris I – one in white gold with a black enamel dial and one in yellow gold with white enamel dial.
For reasons of authenticity and sustainability, all of the components come from local makers. “I tried to work with local suppliers,” says Mr von Gunten. “I am a native of La Chaux-de-Fonds, so wanted to use suppliers based there. In fact, the only supplier not in Switzerland is Groupe SIS in France, which we used for the straps as they are a very high-quality maker.”
The project is backed by a group of investors, including industry stalwarts Patrick Hoffman and Suzanne Hurni, who Mr von Gunten has known since his early days at Ulysse Nardin.
Initial sales will be direct to consumer, but select retail partners are already lined up. In 2023, only three to five watches are expected to be made, with a maximum of 10 per year being produced thereafter. And going forward, Mr von Gunten says ‘Watch this space’.
“I have some ideas for new projects. One is already growing in my mind but not developed yet. Let’s launch this one first. But whatever I do, it will be complex and extremely limited.”
The Haute-Rive Honoris I will cost CHF148,000 + VAT. For more information visit www.haute-rive-watches.ch