Independent Watchmaker Kaj Korpela
Realizes Dream of Creating His Own Watch
By Donna Hardy
Kaj Korpela, a Swedish independent watchmaker working in Berne, Switzerland, has completed the prototype for his first wristwatch, the Timepiece No. 1. Korpela, who was educated at the Watchmaking School in Borensberg and took the WOSTEP refresher course, gained watchmaking experience working for Ulysse Nardin and Vianney Halter. Since 2008, Korpela has been working as an independent watchmaker in his own atelier.
Beginning in August 2015, Korpela took a year off to pursue his dream of creating his own watch. His goal was to make a fully functional watch in a traditional way but also to make it as reliable and precise as any modern high-end watch. He also wanted it to reflect his skill and taste as a craftsman and independent watchmaker.
His influences were his brother Henrik Korpela, principal of K&H Watchmaking Competence Centre in Le Locle, Switzerland, and George Daniels’s writings. His brother cautioned him that it would take a huge investment of his time to accomplish this goal. Korpela says, “Forget about weekends, holidays, and any time off. You have to focus singularly on this.” It took 2,300 hours to make his prototype watch, which included some rough finishing. The photos on his website, www.korpela.ch, do not portray how the watch will be aesthetically finished in its final iteration. He is currently working on the dial, which will be made of silver.
For the movement, Korpela decided to start from scratch and design every part of the movement. Korpela says, “In this way, not only would my own influence on the final product be greater, but it would grant me the possibility to fine-tune critical components such as the escapement.” Korpela had never before made, or been trained to make, many of the parts that he had to make to go into his watch—for example, the escapement and winding system. The watch tells time only and also has a tourbillon that is visible from the front and the back of the watch.
Korpela also designed and made the rectangular case himself. He was inspired by Art Deco style and early 20th-century watches like Rolex Prince models, the Patek Philippe Gondolo, and also the modern Cabaret from Lange & Söhne.
“The big challenge, I must say, was to always stay confident and remind myself that I am doing this just for myself,” says Korpela. When he started the project and told colleagues and people from the trade what he was doing, most of them thought his watch would not be interesting to collectors and would be difficult to sell. He cites three reasons for their skepticism: Almost all watches are round, because that is what most people prefer. The simple tourbillon is becoming passé, and prices are dropping for watches with that complication. The fact that Korpela was going to make all parts himself was considered unreasonable, since it would never pay off. Korpela says, “I understand why people reacted with skepticism. If your target is to sell watches, you have to make sure that the product looks good, is interesting, and affordable. My only aim with this project was to learn and go much deeper into watchmaking by making a watch, as that had been my dream for a long time. It was only when my brother convinced me that I should try to contact some collectors and try to sell one or several pieces, that I understood that it might be possible to make a living out of this kind of work.”
Korpela thinks he will need only five collectors who are willing to buy his watch, since he will only be making that many watches based on his prototype. He has not settled on a price yet, as he would like to discuss this with the collectors in person to determine a price that is comfortable for both Korpela and the collectors.
Donna Hardy is managing editor of Horological Times.