Gold Dust: The MIH Watch – A Purist’s delight, a Milestone and a Pacemaker of the rarest sort
We revisit the watch after a 'relaunch' of the MIH Watch is iminent, but the 'dream team' of Ludwig Oechslin, Paul Gerber – and even the namesake and beneficiary MIH distance themselves
*** Article updated to include the letter by the MIH, Ludwig Oechslin and Paul Gerber on the launch of the Mechanik2 ***
Every once in a while, we see a watch and we instantly know it: this is a milestone and a future classic. One such example is the legendary MIH Watch, created by a dream team of eminently skilled people, as a fundraiser project for the namesake watch museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds. A complication stripped down to its bare essentials in an intellectually very intense way like never before, a reduced design and a quite affordable price tag – this was a winner. The watch quickly developed into a collector’s treasure and became an instant classic. The last watch was sold in April 2020, an impressive 15 year product life cycle!
Recently we noted a new initiative for a relaunch, there are frequent social media posts, and the relaunch was also published on the MIH Watch webpage. As you probably can imagine, this got our attention and we tried to get some more information – with mixed results, giving us no clear indication as to how serious the relaunch initiative is.
More on this later, because before we would like to look in the past of the first one.
It was on 9 September 2005 (a day clearly chosen for the nice symmetry it created on the calendar indication ;-)), when the MIH Watch was presented at the Musée International d’Horlogerie (short, well, MIH) in La Chaux-de-Fonds by an eclectic team to say the least. Preceding that was an intellectual and constructional tour-de-force masterminded by polymath and exceptional horological thinker Ludwig Oechslin, back then conservator at the MIH, and translated into a form viable in production and produced by AHCI member and equally acclaimed watchmaker Paul Gerber from Zurich. A reduced, clean and no-frills design originally conceived by Ludwig Oechslin and then refined to form by Christian Gafner complemented the constructional stringency in a congenial way. The entire project was managed and communicated to the outside by Beat Weinmann, which in hindsight (and particularly if we look at the most recent development, see below) was a crucial element in its success.
(The ‘Dream Team’ behind the MIH Watch (during its presentation on 09 September 2005 at the MIH, from left): Beat Weinmann, Christian Gafner, Paul Gerber and Ludwig Oechslin)
In summary: it was this compelling blend of technical intellectualism, design and the caché of its makers which laid the foundation for the appeal of the MIH Watch.
A Purist’s delight: a holistic approach to aesthetical and technological simplication
On the technical side it comes with a rare complication, an Annual Calendar, but what a sophistication:
- Annual Calendar complication by Ludwig Oechslin, using only 9 additional moving parts, and with its indications all combined in a single window
- Monopusher chronograph modification by Paul Gerber added to the original Valjoux 7750 chronograph movement, with a minute counter on the backside
The reduced-to-the-max approach to the calendar was only possible because Oechslin cleverly integrated both the base movement’s date and hour gears as drivers for the calendar, resorted to using only gears, but not springs and levers for the construction, thereby enabling even backwards time-setting across the date change.
(Mechanical sophistication: (top, middle) the 9 moving parts of the Annual Calendar by Ludwig Oechslin; (bottom) the chronograph cam wheel modified by Paul Gerber (right) vs. the original Valjoux 7750 one (left))
The design recalls elements of tool watches, such as pilot’s watches, technical instruments and the straightforwardness of the Bauhaus school of aesthetics. It is not only merely reduced, but it is also timeless and refined up to the smallest detail: take for example all the inner and outer horizontal radii of the case, the lugs, the crown and the pusher: they are all centred on the main axis.
The MIH Watch is also witness of an important milestone in consumerism: it was conceived shortly after the time Naomi Klein published her ground-breaking book ‘No Logo’, and the issues discussed in her book certainly influenced the makers of the MIH Watch as well: the MIH logo is subtly integrated into the dial, as the 9 o’clock index.
((top) MIH logo masked as 9 o’clock index; (bottom) chronograph minute counter on the back)
Paul Gerber was not only tasked with translating Oechslin’s ideas into something which would work on the bench (Oechslin is famous for not considering the technically necessary production tolerances in his constructions), he also ‘sneaked’ the monopusher chronograph into the watch and was overall responsible for producing the watch. All parts came from Swiss or European suppliers (again a nod to the blooming criticism towards globalisation), which were transparently listed on the MIH Watch homepage – a novelty for the usually very secretive Swiss industry.
A Milestone and a Pacemaker
In our view the MIH Watch has everything which makes a gamechanger, as its influence on the watch industry cannot be underestimated: it introduced what at first view seems to the contradictory: the ‘simplification of complications’. But if you look at it, you’ll find that there is a lot of truth in that characterisation: the ‘complication’ is an intellectual one that mostly takes place in the mind (of Ludwig Oechslin, in this case), through an intense process called synergy which then leads to unorthodox, magnificently intellectual approaches to astronomical functions. Sure, this needs some efforts on the side of the collector as well to slowly grasp the beauty and complexity (sic!) that lies in such constructions – that’s certainly not as easy as taking note of a mind-blowingly high component count.
The second dent the MIH Watch made in the watch industry is related to the former: simplification was a thing that worked – the subsequent establishment of ochs und junior as a brand serving as an outlet for the creativity of Ludwig Oechslin can be directly attributed to the success of the MIH Watch. Again, Beat Weinmann acted as congenial project managing partner.
(The buckle of the MIH Watch proudly presents the geographical location of the MIH in La Chaux-de-Fonds)
Finally, with the MIH Watch transparency of production chains somehow gained acceptance, not only for ochs und junior, but also other manufactures followed suit, like Habring2, recently Czapek, MING and other mainly smaller brands.
And all this at the original price of only CHF 5,000.
The MIH Watch was sold directly at the MIH as well as Lucerne-based retailer Embassy, between September 2005 and April 2020, an impressively long period for a watch that has seen no apparent design or technology change nor price increase.
Side note Ornatus Mundi: It was a milestone also for me personally, I had the honour of test-driving a pre-production prototype for some time, accompanied the launch events and have remained friends to many of the original team behind.
It was a watch that on my return flight from the presentation was noticed by a fellow passenger, and we had an interesting conversation about it.
It was a watch of which friends report that it was left on the table at a robbery where thieves took all the OMEGAs and other watches from well-known brands, but left the real marvel untouched.
It was also a watch which taught me more about the long way between idea and product in the watch industry, with a number of fascinating lessons learnt from which I profit immensely until today.
A new start: serious revival or just milking the cow?
More recently, Christian Gafner, designer behind the original MIH, tried to ‘revive’ the watch. What caught our eyes were two things: first, we were a bit puzzled that shortly after presentation of the successor to the original MIH watch, the MIH Gaia, the old one would be relaunched, and second, a certain ‘ad hoc’ character of the communication, something that never happened during the time leading to the inauguration of the MIH Watch (when public relations were driven by Beat Weinmann).
(The current MIH Gaïa Watch)
We dug deeper, talked to the people behind the first (original!) MIH Watch and noticed a lot of confusion and irritation on the side of many of the core ‘dream team’ members. Time went by slowly, with little updates except that a few weeks ago the @mih-watch IG account (sic!) announced something new: the Mechanik2 annual calendar watch:
(face to face: left, Mechanik2 by Christian Gafner; right, the original MIH Watch. Montage: Handelszeitung)
Looking almost exactly like the original, the new watch differs subtly be the use of less colours (i.e., the day/night indicator dots are now white) and more visibly through the relocation/redesign of the chronograph minute counter: it is now – in a typical ochs und junior fashion – implemented on the frontside readable through a circle of holes (how that should work given same case and the calendar mechanism under the dial would be interesting to learn; counting the minutes seems possible, but resetting the counter to 0?). Everything else looks same, and Mr Gafner made sure that the ‘MII’ logo at 9 o’clock looks confusingly like the one on the original MIH Watch…
The price increased by about 38%, which is not that much given the long time (and thus inflation kicking in) and the current economic climate, but then again, bear in mind that the original charity aspect of the watch is no longer there with the Mechanik2 – effectively the real price hike is over 60%!
We always were eager to learn how the rest of the MIH team would think about this. Some sentiments were known through privately communication, but the big shock came in early September with a rather unusual and strongly worded joint press release by the MIH as well as Paul Gerber and Ludwig Oechslin:
(Joint press release by the MIH, Ludwig Oechslin as well as Paul Gerber on the Mechanik2)
We’d like to take out the essential phrase here:
“[…] the Musée international d’horlogerie, Dr Ludwig Oechslin and Mr Paul Gerber wish to distance themselves formally from the Mechanik2 watch. They consider that only the originally MIH watch adheres to their ethical principles and with to remind you that its primary purpose was the provide financial support to the MIH. […]”
Well, we have rarely read such a frank press release in the watchmaking industry. Hence, we think that the frustration on the side of the signatories must be immense: consider for a moment that you had developed an icon which stood the test of time, and then one of your former colleagues takes the lot and tries to reap the benefits alone, not working together with former colleagues is one thing (and may have many undisclosed reasons), but not considering the original charitable and namesake intent of the project while sticking to the design, almost to the point that original and ‘homage’ are easily mixed up, is another thing.
(Makes a strong point that only the original is *the’ original: Paul Gerber)
After all, it was not only the immensely clever design of the complications, the famous watchmakers involved in conception, design and execution, or the charitable cause – it was original from whatever angle you look at it. Even the original design idea is not Mr Gafner’s own but of Ludwig Oechslin’s impetus (Mr Gafner says he own the rights to the final design though):
(The MIH Watch protoypes, from left: original functional prototype made by Ludwig Oechslin, second pre-serial prototype made by Paul Gerber upon Oechslin’s design, and the final watch refined by Christian Gafner)
So what is left? The Mechanik2 is certainly not a bad watch – impossible if it is that close to an acclaimed original? – but we cannot overlook that it is merely just a remake from the outside – a shell missing all those important intrinsic ‘soft’ values to made the MIH Watch special, lovable and ultimately desirable. Moreover, the newest developments around the MIH Watch give us a sad taste. Our wish would have been that the Mechanik2 would not have been a ‘homage’, but a continuation to an outstanding and unique piece, true to its original spirit and at best with the involvement of the ‘Dream Team’, or at least with their endorsement!
Certainly, this is to the collectors to decide, as each of us has his or her own preferences. As Oscar Wilde so aptly wrote (full sentence purposely cut):
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery […]”
This article was originally published on 09 December 2021, and amended on 07 December 2022 to update on the Mechanik2 status and to include the joint statement by MIH, Mr Oechslin and Mr Gerber.