When it comes to prestige watches, Switzerland – so the stereotype goes – has the market sewn up. But Bart Grönefeld has ambitions to change that. He and his brother Tim both trained at the prestigious Wostep watchmaking school in Switzerland and worked with Asprey and Renaud & Papi (a subsidiary of Audemars Piguet) before returning to their hometown of Oldenzaal in the Netherlands. There, in 2008, they launched their own watch company, Grönefeld.
‘I've been making magnificent watches since I was 20 for other companies but I always dreamed of having my own name on the dial,’ says Bart, who thinks that independent watch brands are currently flourishing. ‘Many are launching and all are offering something different, compared with the mainstream. But it’s true that for a lot of people the idea of prestige watches coming from Holland is strange. There is no big watch industry here.’ He points out that in the 18th century his country was one of the major players in the craft.
It is testament to the calibre of the growing Dutch watch industry that Grönefeld’s two collections to date feature some serious watches, including a tourbillon minute repeater, with prices from €30,000 up. These timepieces are characterised most notably by the shape of their bridges and Grönefeld’s pieces belong at the elite end of the market.
They sit alongside creations from the likes of Christiaan van der Klaauw, a maker of remarkable astronomical timepieces since 1974. Christiaan van der Klaauw is now a world leader in these types of watches which, as well as measuring time, keep track of some aspects of the sky. The range includes the world’s smallest mechanical planetarium watch which tracks the movement of the six planets in the solar system that are visible to the naked eye.
‘You have to wear the watch for 29.45 years to see a full orbit of Saturn around the Sun, for example,’ says Maurice Doppert, director of Christiaan van der Klaauw, whose watches cost up to €70,000. ‘Clocks today are viewed differently to how they were even 50 years ago, when clocks were important and every home had one prominently on display. The focus has shifted to watches. People still want to be able to tell a story about their watch, and astronomy is a good story. That’s astronomy, not astrology, which is something very different...’
But the Dutch industry is not all about mechanical masterworks for high-fliers. There are many more accessible brands including Van der Gang which was founded in 1990 off the back of a company that specialised in making super-accurate products for space travel and medical purposes, and Maastricht-based Steiner, whose officially certified chronometers are only released in limited editions.
And then there is Fromanteel in Amsterdam, with its graphically clean Johannes chronograph, which perhaps best reflects the Dutch design tradition of simplicity and warmth. Fromanteel’s best-selling Amsterdam range has pieces named after and inspired by the city, especially Dam Square.
The company takes its name from Ahasuerus Fromanteel, the famed 17th-century English clockmaker. He serves as a reminder, according to Bart Grönefeld that other European countries once had a world-leading reputation for clockmaking, ‘before somehow the Swiss took over’. ‘But we don’t put “made in Holland” on our watches – we want collectors to like the watches for themselves,’ he says.
It was, after all, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens who in 1656 made the first pendulum clock – up until this point clocks were accurate to only 10 minutes or so – and who in 1675 developed the balance wheel and spring assembly that remain fundamental parts of a watch mechanism.
Crafted to perfection
Huygens would surely have been amazed to find super-accurate watches accessible to so many today – through Dutch companies such as Quantuz and TW Steel – rather than the very few who could afford them in his time. He would probably have been more pleased still to find that, even in the age of the smartphone, young craftspeople are still fascinated by watches.
Take Dutchman Robbert Suurland, who grew up loving timepieces and developed a connoisseur’s knowledge. He has launched his first diving watch – a reissue – under his TWCO brand name, and a pilots’ watch of his own design will follow in 2014. ‘People are a bit surprised when they find out that the Netherlands has a small watch industry,’ he says. ‘But I think people find that it gives added interest to the watches. It means that the people who are in the industry here have a real passion for watches, as I do.’
Robbert Suurland is only 20 years old. There are clearly great things to come from Amsterdam’s watch connoisseurs.
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