Benoit Mintiens pulls no punches. He admits that he had never, ever thought about designing a watch until he visited a watch trade show one year. ‘I was amazed to see so many watches with such low levels of creativity,’ he says. Most watches, he continues, aren’t very interesting as objects, and that’s because of the maker’s agenda. Watch manufacturers are not selling watches, they’re selling brands, he explains. ‘Most people buy for the brand, too,’ Mintiens adds.
Being outside the mainstream watch industry gives Mintiens licence to say such things. He is, after all, Belgian, not Swiss. And he is not a watch designer but an industrial designer. One of some pedigree, too: he was involved in the design of Eurostar and of the new-generation TGV high-speed trains for France’s SNCF; he designed the first class interiors for Air France and has devised pushchairs for Maxi-Cosi and vacuum cleaners for LG. For the last few years he has designed watches, too, under his own brand, Ressence. ‘Creating a brand was not the idea,’ he notes. ‘As a non-Swiss, non-watchmaker it’s quite a mountain to climb.’
His Swiss-made Type 1 and Type 3 watches have introduced pioneering ideas such as a time display via a series of concentric discs, moving around each other like moons orbiting a planet. The designs have also re-calibrated watch aesthetics. The watches are curvy, pebble-like pieces with single-layer dials and wide, close-set crystals – the horological equivalent of large plasma screens. And, refreshingly, they reflect a rather unhorological way of thinking.
‘Most watchmakers start with the movement and build around it, while industrial designers start from the user experience,’ he says. ‘In fact, the very way we’re taught to read the time with a series of hands, isn’t – from a designer’s point of view – the best way. Yet, such a graphic device is better than a digital one because it can be read much faster. However it has to be explained and it’s not intuitive: only when it’s learned does it become the best way.’
Look at a Ressence watch and there isn’t even the usual crown. The function is still required but, Mintiens argues, to have the mechanism for that function protruding from the device on a 21st-century watch makes about as much sense as an engine winder would on a modern car.
‘For me, the crown was the last physical link to the idea that the watch is something mechanical,’ he says. ‘And I want the watch to be dematerialised, to be the purest expression of time. You have to have that final function. If you don’t have functionality you’re left with art. But it’s like vacuum cleaners. There was a time when we wanted them to clean but didn’t care about them much more than that. Now we have guys like James Dyson, who came up with a new philosophy for the vacuum cleaner.’
Some will regard Mintiens as unromantic, holding views counter to the high-end watch world’s emphasis on heritage, tradition, craft and classicism. Even his reasoning behind retaining a mechanical movement is intellectual. ‘The fact is that people have empathy for gears but they don’t have empathy for circuits. As humans we feel for the mechanical over the digital,’ he argues. ‘It’s why digital devices that don’t work any more go in the garbage. But we don’t do that with anything mechanical; we immediately imagine that there’s some little cog that could be made better, like a little animal.’
Mintiens has invested in the expensive patenting of his ideas. And he says that with his outsider, non-watchmaker perspective, he has more ideas for innovations in watch design that will allow him to launch a model a year up until 2022. Indeed, perhaps the only obstacle to his watchmaking is that, as the wider watch world might see it, he has the misfortune to be based in Antwerp and not Geneva.
He says that in the watch industry being Belgian is certainly more of a disadvantage than an advantage. ‘Mature markets might not care where Ressence is from,’ he adds, ‘but it matters to, say, customers in the Middle East. In fact, I can’t really even say my product is a Belgian watch in Switzerland – I have to emphasise that it’s made in Switzerland, even if Ressence is a Belgian brand. It’s kind of like Apple – designed in California but made in China.’
It is a telling analogy: the Steve Jobs of watches.