Interview: Urban Jürgensen’s New CEO Kari Voutilainen Tells Us What’s Next For The Brand
The renowned Finnish watchmaker Kari Voutilainen sits down with Watchonista and reveals his plans for reinvigorating the historic Danish brand.
There was exciting news for fans of high-end, classical watchmaking last month when it was announced that Kari Voutilainen had led a team of investors to acquire historic Danish watch brand Urban Jürgensen, with Voutilainen appointed as its new CEO.
We sat down with the acclaimed Finnish watchmaker – who has built up his own revered independent workshop Voutilainen over the past two decades – and asked him what his plans are for returning Urban Jürgensen to its heyday, as the company gears up for its 250th anniversary in 2023.
Firstly, many congratulations, Kari. Though it’s not by chance that, with investor backing, you have acquired Urban Jürgensen and become CEO of it: You have a longstanding personal connection with the brand. When did it start and what has it entailed over the years?
My connection to Urban Jürgensen began in 1996 when Peter Baumberger, the watchmaker who revived the Urban Jürgensen name in the 1980s, saw my pocket watch at an exhibition in La Chaux-de-Fonds. He phoned my house to see if he could buy it. My wife answered and told him I probably wouldn’t want to sell it. As it turned out, I didn’t sell the watch to him, but I started doing work for him.
Over the next 14 years, until Mr Baumberger passed away, I worked on a number of complicated pieces for Urban Jürgensen, mainly at the prototyping stage, so it involved a lot of testing, analyzing and giving technical inputs.
I notably worked on Derek Pratt’s Oval pocket watch with flying tourbillon, remontoire, detent escapement, jumping seconds, thermometer and power reserve indicator. I also collaborated with Chronode to develop the P8 chronometer with pivoted detent escapement, the first such escapement made for a wristwatch. And I made engine-turned dials and cases, and did finishing of the hands for Mr Baumberger, and made dials for Dr Helmut Crott, who succeeded him as owner of Urban Jürgensen.
My relationship with Mr Baumberger was not a typical supplier-customer relationship – it was a friendship and meant far more than just doing business with someone.
What did you know about Urban Jürgensen the watchmaker?
When you’re a Scandinavian watchmaker, like I am, you quickly become aware of the Scandinavian watchmakers who existed in previous centuries. There aren’t that many well-known ones: The Jürgensen family in Denmark – Jürgen Jürgensen, his son Urban and then his sons Jules-Frederik and Louis Urban. Then there is also Victor Kullberg, from Sweden, who worked with Louis Urban Jürgensen.
What Urban Jürgensen did at the turn of the 19th century was admirable. He went to Switzerland, made connections and apprenticed with the likes of Abraham-Louis Breguet. The quality of the work of Urban Jürgensen and his sons is very impressive, they made very beautiful creations. And there is a clean, pure design to their watches that is typically Scandinavian, and that speaks to me.
Did your experience with the modern-day Urban Jürgensen brand or your knowledge of the historical watchmaker influence your own work at all?
I would say it’s more a case that we share the same influences from the past: Abraham-Louis Breguet and English watchmakers like John Arnold. You can see that in our dials – they are not exactly the same, but there is a feeling about them that is similar – and our preference for rounded casebands and bezels.
Tell us how you and your team of investors, who are all longtime collectors of independent horology, came to acquire Urban Jürgensen?
In life, sometimes things just happen. It’s like a train that comes into the station. You either decide to get on it or you don’t and then you see it set off again and you can no longer catch it. I chose to get on the train. After two decades of running my own company Voutilainen, I felt I was ready for this challenge.
Acquiring the company was the relatively easy part. Now we have to take care of the practical aspect of taking over a business, and that is always more challenging than when you grow your own company. With your own company, you have an intimate knowledge of how things work, but when you take over another business, you have to work all those things out.
What is your vision for Urban Jürgensen?
The appeal of Urban Jürgensen for me is that it stands for classical watchmaking, and as you can imagine I think there is a place for such watchmaking today. I like classically styled creations that are well made and look good. Making such watches is what I do. So, this is the direction I want to take Urban Jürgensen in, making classical watches in terms of look, but also in terms of the materials used. Of course, you can incorporate contemporary touches, but still retain the classicism.
The important thing is to give the brand some glory and put Urban Jürgensen at the place it deserves to be in the world of watchmaking, what with all its incredible history. Hopefully, I will be able to surprise our customers along the way.
How will that play out on a production level? You have said that you will stop making existing Urban Jürgensen models and bring in a new collection to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the brand in 2023…
There are decisions to be made about what is the best way forward in the long term and hopefully that is where my expertise as a watchmaker and someone who has been running a watch company for the past 20 years will help.
Urban Jürgensen has recently been making nearly 200 pieces a year. While there is always potential to grow, growth should be healthy and organic and not too fast, otherwise you end up with after-sales issues, and that’s to be avoided.
First, we need to set up a workshop that works efficiently. There was already a small team working at Urban Jürgensen’s beautiful Bienne headquarters to which we have added my daughter Venla, myself and a few other people. We will need to further expand by hiring more watchmakers and decoration specialists. Venla will be in charge of after sales and that includes all Urban Jürgensen models sold until now. If you’re an Urban Jürgensen customer, rest assured that we will take care of you.
Another thing is the movements. Over the years, Urban Jürgensen timepieces have featured in-house developed movements, but also outsourced movements, some of which were readily available 20 years ago but less so now. Is it wise to carry on using such outsourced movements, or find or develop an alternative? These are the types of questions we’ll be addressing.
So, you won’t be doing any of the work for Urban Jürgensen at Voutilainen’s new workshop in Val-de-Travers?
No, my team at Voutilianen is focusing solely on our timepieces, and they are working flat out to meet demand.
Urban Jürgensen and Voutilainen already share some points of sale. At the same time, you are known for bespoke pieces bought directly through your workshop. What will your sales and distribution strategy be for Urban Jürgensen?
That is another subject which is under consideration. The same with fairs and events. Should we do them? If so, how will we do them? What I do know is that I have a good relationship with customers and retailers to whom I have been loyal. Some of my customers are also customers of Urban Jürgensen and for me this is positive.
From my experience at Voutilainen, I know that the connection with the watchmaker is as important as the watch itself. It’s about the experience of interacting with the brand and meeting the people behind the creation. It gives the customer a story to tell their friends, or their children. And if the watch is passed down to their children, the story is passed down with it. So, at Urban Jürgensen, it will be important to fuel these connections with our customers.
It sounds like 2022 will be a busy year for you with your work for Urban Jürgensen and your collaborations with other brands, plus Voutilainen will be celebrating its 20th anniversary. How will you manage your time?!
The next year will definitely go by quickly, and I have a lot of work ahead that is exciting, interesting but also challenging. I will just do what I need to do. At the moment I am working like a fireball. Yesterday, I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning, went to work and returned home at 9 o’clock in the evening. The nights are pretty short now, and I don’t have much free time to do my running and cross-country skiing. But I love the challenge of it all!
At Voutilainen, we are focusing on delivering our current orders – and we have a lot of them – so we will keep our 20th anniversary celebrations simple by launching one or two unique pieces.