Urban Jürgensen is one of only a small handful of the very oldest watch companies that have operated uninterrupted since their founding,” says Søren Jenry Petersen, a former senior Nokia executive, in answer to my question as to the true origination of the watch brand he now owns and manages. It was in 1773 that the Jürgensen family’s horological progenitor, Jürgen Jürgensen, established his first business in Denmark. “And it’s due to the fundamental influence of four generations of the Jürgensen dynasty that Urban Jürgensen became synonymous with the very best in the field,” Petersen says.
He points out that Urban Jürgensen (as long-time QP readers will be aware) is a name that carries considerable clout within global collector circles, but is still relatively unfamiliar to a wider audience of watch enthusiasts. Petersen and his team intend to finally change that, drawing on both the highest quality of Swiss watchmaking practices and the extensive history of the Jürgensen dynasty.
The collection they displayed in Basel in March was both a continuation of the work of a small number of dedicated people – including celebrated watch world names like Kari Voutilainen, Derek Pratt and Helmut Crott – to maintain and develop that weighty legacy in the modern era; and an illustration of the strengthening forces being applied by Petersen, as Urban Jürgensen embarks on a new chapter.
The story so far
Born in Copenhagen, Jürgen Jürgensen relocated to Switzerland in the mid-18th century, working with Jacques-Frédéric Houriet in Le Locle first as a journeyman and then as a watchmaker.
Returning to Denmark, he opened a shop as the Scandinavian importer for Houriet’s watches, also importing English clocks and French and Swiss timepieces.
It was Jürgen’s son Urban (1776-1830) and grandson Jules (1808-1877) who were destined to become the most famous horologists of the family. Urban established a reputation as a watchmaking theoretician – “he wrote a landmark book in 1804, General Principles Concerning Timekeeping by Clocks, on how to measure time accurately using clocks,” notes Petersen – besides being a successful maker of marine chronometers and the odd pendulum clock.
He founded his eponymous company in Denmark in 1811, where his speciality was manufacturing marine chronometers for astronomical and navigational uses, and became royal clockmaker to the court of King Frederick VI of Denmark.
Much like the business of Abraham-Louis Breguet (with whom Urban studied for a short time), Jürgensen offered a wide spectrum of horological products, manufacturing aesthetically pleasing, quality timepieces with perfectly balanced hands, dials, and movements. “Our legacy is one of very restrained, classical, and functional designs with attention to detail in dial layout, guilloché patterns, and honesty in use of materials and craft,” Petersen explains.
Jürgensen died in 1830, but his sons, Jules and Louis Urban, continued the company under the name UJS, Jules moving to Le Locle in Switzerland and becoming established there as a watchmaker of considerable renown. He was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1874, and UJS eventually passed on to a further generation of Jürgensens.
Family ownership ended in 1912, and it was the “Jules Jürgensen” name that became more widely known as a brand in its own right for much of the 20th century. In 1936 the company went into American ownership; by the 1980s, its owners were capitalizing on the grand name by making gold watches powered by quartz movements.
The “Urban Jürgensen” name, however, eventually went to Peter Baumberger, a trained watchmaker and collector of vintage watches. With Dr Helmut Crott, founder of the eponymous German auction house, as shareholder, in 1982 he released the first watches under the brand name in a very under-the-radar manner, using exceptional craftsmen of the Jura region. Around 50 to 300 pieces per year were made, generally powered by ébauches sourced from Blancpain-owned Frédéric Piguet. Hardly publicised or marketed, the watches remained rare and sought after.
One of the independent craftsmen that Baumberger worked with was the late English watchmaker Derek Pratt, who had lived in Switzerland since 1965 and performed a great deal of restoration work for Baumberger. Another was Kari Voutilainen, now one of the most famous independent watchmakers of our time, who got to know Baumberger in 1994 and began to work with him as an independent contractor.
Baumberger, very strict in his expectation of mechanical aesthetics, had a dream to make both a new movement and a new escapement to honour Urban Jürgensen’s long history. In 2005 he became the first client of then-fledgling Chronode SA, now a powerhouse in the supply of complex bespoke movements, which over the next few years developed a movement based on Pratt’s ideas for improving rate, performance, and stability. The result was Caliber UJSP8, a large and aesthetic movement containing a patented world première: a pivoted detent escapement. Voutilainen was responsible for the prototyping, assembly, finishing, and regulation of what is now simply called Caliber P8.
Sadly, Baumberger died in 2010, shortly before the movement was launched, and Helmut Crott, who never planned to continue leading the brand, set about searching for appropriate buyers. Just after receiving the prize for best men’s watch at the 2014 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève for the Central Second model, Crott announced he would return the brand to Danish owners: a group comprising five private investors and passionate watch collectors under the leadership of Petersen, a former senior vice president at Nokia.
A new man at the top
Petersen became interested in Urban Jürgensen when, as a Rolex owner, he felt the need to acquire a proper dress watch. Intending to buy a Patek Philippe, he was introduced to the watches of Urban Jürgensen instead, and ended up buying a yellow gold Reference 2. With that, he had fallen hard for a brand that had a rare mix of history, beautiful design and clear horological eminence.
“The worldwide patent for the detent escapement and the other patents and rights the company had to its own movements of course played a major role in our acquisition,” Petersen says. “But Crott’s great fear was that the company would be bought just for the patents and the rest would be mothballed. He was therefore looking for investors with a genuine interest in continuing operations and building upon the historic legacy.”
Petersen undoubtedly means business, and proved the point by strongly tweaking the existing collection to produce five “new” models in the eleven weeks he had at his disposal after acquiring the brand, before Baselworld 2015. The collection has now been further refined, including the redesign – to a softer, more flowing aesthetic – of both the P8 caliber and Urban Jürgensen’s other in-house movement, the P4, which has a traditional Swiss lever escapement.
“Classically restrained elegance” is how Petersen describes the Urban Jürgensen style, which comes with a strong focus on true handcraft and artistic value: in particular, the brand is famous for the gorgeous teardrop lugs of its cases, its exquisite blue hands with a large gold ring on the hour hand, and the artful guillochage of many of its dials.
The established watches in cases with tear-drop lugs now go under the title of the 1745 Collection, and include a new perpetual calendar, Reference 1741 – the first Urban Jürgensen perpetual calendar with an in-house movement (based on the P4 with a QP module), and also the first to display the leap year.
At Basel Petersen also added a new range, called the Jules Collection, with a slightly more angular, less ornamental case shape and a refined new style of dial finishing for the brand, called grenage. This is based on a time-consuming hand-craft technique with its roots in 19th century watchmaking, resulting in a beautifully pure, frosted silvery surface.
With so much hand-craft involved, the Danes have additionally learned that working with suppliers can be frustrating, so Petersen and his team are in the process of bringing as much in-house as possible.
“We knew at the outset that we had to find a new atelier as the growth of the company could not be housed in the existing premises,” Petersen explains. “We will employ around 15 people by the end of the year, and we need space for everything from component production to assembly, testing, and logistics. We have found a traditional villa in Bienne with four floors; we just hope it can be finished in time to move in ahead of Baselworld 2017!”