When it comes to unrestrained, unconstrained watchmaking, MB&F and Urwerk have few peers. However, when MB&F partners Maximilian Büsser and Serge Kriknoff, and Urwerk founders Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei, decided to work together, they felt a 'third way' would offer more creative freedom than their existing brands and they concocted 'C3H5N3O9'. The first fruit of this collaboration is Experiment ZR012.
Max Büsser and Felix Baumgartner first worked together in 2004-2005 when Urwerk developed the Opus 5 for Harry Winston. Büsser, then head of Harry Winston Timepieces, launched the highly successful Opus series in 2000 and the widely acclaimed Opus 5 was his swansong as he left Harry Winston later that year to create MB&F.
The Experiment ZR012 will be available in two editions of 12 pieces and will retail for SFr.110,000 (approximately £73,000).
Büsser and Baumgartner became good friends and, as they both live and work in fairly close proximity in Geneva, many expected that Baumgartner's name would soon appear on the back of a wild MB&F Horological Machine. However, the Opus 5 helped launch Urwerk onto the world stage and Baumgartner − with his business partner, designer Martin Frei − had his hands full developing models for his own growing brand.
Although neither MB&F nor Urwerk have slowed down since then, over a convivial lunch a few years ago, Büsser and Baumgartner started talking once again about collaborating. And, as they began kicking ideas around, they decided that they would have more creative freedom and a lot less business pressure (less pressure, meaning more enjoyment) if they worked outside the structures of their respective brands.
One of the ideas Baumgartner and Frei proposed was a complication based on the Wankel orbital engine. They hadn't yet developed the concept as they were focusing on satellite indications for Urwerk. Büsser and Kriknoff (MB&F partner and COO) liked the idea and it was decided that Urwerk would develop and produce the movement and MB&F would design and produce the case. Urwerk's constructor Cyrano Devanthey got to work developing the complication and award-winning designer and long-time MB&F 'friend', Eric Giroud, was called on to assist with the case. By 2010 the Experiment had well and truly begun.
This eye-catching watch is the first offering from the project C3H5N309 - also the chemical formula for the explosive nitroglycerine.
Here I feel it is only right to announce that I am managing the C3H5N3O9 project. By coincidence, the Opus 5 also brought me into contact with Büsser and Baumgartner when I interviewed them for an article and I have remained close to both Urwerk and MB&F since. While happy to be transparent about their new creation, Baumgartner and Büsser had (and have) full-time jobs running Urwerk and MB&F respectively and they didn't want to be involved in the day-to-day activities of their new micro-platform. 'Would I be interested in managing it for them?' they asked. 'Does a bear…?' - or words to that effect - was my reply. And while my responsibilities regarding C3H5N3O9 are part-time, I am not on the payroll and I will do my utmost to be as objective and balanced as possible in this article, please take into account that this gamekeeper has turned poacher, or vice versa, depending on your regard for journalists.
Now for those without a degree in chemistry or a penchant for volatile explosives, C3H5N3O9 is the molecular formula for nitroglycerine. So it is likely to surprise absolutely nobody that the unpronounceable piece is generally referred to as 'Nitro'. This difficult-to-articulate-and-remember moniker was deliberate: C3H5N3O9 is not a new brand. It is a non-commercial, non-marketing distribution platform. 'Non-commercial' in the sense that timepieces will be developed for the sheer pleasure of it, not for profit.
At SFr.110,000 (plus tax and shipping) - that's approximately £73,000 - Experiment ZR012 is certainly expensive. The first Experiment will be available in just two editions of 12 pieces, one zirconium and one in red gold, and that's all. Basta. 24 watches and that's it, onto the next Experiment. But if the 24 pieces all sell - and that's not a given considering there will be no active marketing - the revenue will not cover development, production and administration. C3H5N3O9 is a 'platform' in the sense that there is no aim to build a coherent brand with a thread of continuity. There will be no 'brand DNA' (the ultimate expression in marketing-ese). C3H5N3O9 is a platform for MB&F and Urwerk to try things together that they couldn't, or wouldn't, do themselves.
While Experiment ZR012 looks like just the sort of lovechild MB&F and Urwerk might have, the complication at first glance doesn't look that… well, it doesn't really look that complicated. There appear to be two superimposed rotating triangles, the bottom indicating hours, the top indicating minutes and… that's it. But it is really more complicated than that. A lot more complicated.
The distinctive oval-like epitrochoid shape of the watch takes its cues from the idiosyncratic Wankel engine.
Now for the science…
The indications are inspired and based on the rotor in the orbital engine developed by German engineer Felix Wankel. The story goes that the idea for the engine came to Wankel in a dream when he was just 17 years old (that was 1919). However, despite dedicating his life and career to realising his dream, it took nearly four more decades before the first working prototype was realised (in 1957) for NSU Motorenwerke (NSU was eventually bought by VW and evolved into Audi).
Wankel was a smart, hard-working engineer. It didn't take him nearly 40 years to develop his orbital engine because he was lazy or incompetent; it was because the mathematics and mechanics of the movement of the rotor are complicated. Very complicated. First there is the rotor itself. While it looks like, and is, a triangle with curved sides, it is actually a very special shape called a Reuleaux triangle, which has the specific particularity of having curves of constant width. To be precise, the Wankel rotor is actually a slightly flattened Reuleaux triangle.
But the tricky bit - for both Wankel and C3N3H5O9 - was in rotating the Reuleaux triangle in a very special epitrochoid curve.An epitrochoid curve is a line drawn by a point (a roulette) on the diameter of a circle as that circle rolls around the diameter of another circle. If anyone reading this is old enough to remember playing with a Spirograph, the designs created by those wheels were hypotrochoids (roulette rolling inside the diameter of a circle) and epitrochoids (roulette rolling outside the diameter of a circle). By changing the diameters of the inner and outer circles, epitrochoids can generate an infinite array of complex shapes, many of which are non-repeating.
But one specific 2:3 ratio of diameters produces a slightly squashed oval and it is this exact epitrochoid that Wankel found was perfect for his revolutionary new orbital motor. To generate the shape though, the bearing supporting the Reuleaux triangle rotor (in both engine and watch) does not rotate in a central axis, but rotates eccentrically around the outside of another bearing. The mathematics and precision required in production are considerable.
The Wankel indications of Experiment ZR012 are housed in an otherworldly case that looks from some angles - especially side on - like an alien giant insect. While at 44mm wide by 59mm long, the zirconium case is large by anyone's standards, visually it looks much smaller as the eye is drawn to, and focuses on, the smaller dark section of the complication. And on the wrist, the articulated titanium rear lug wraps snugly around and holds the watch securely in position (even on the smaller wrist - I, for one, often have larger watches trying to rotate around my wrist). While not quite as light as titanium, zirconium is not much heavier and Experiment ZR012 wears like a much smaller watch - a smaller watch with a big presence.
A 39-hour power reserve indicator on the back lets you know when to start, and when to stop, winding the massive screw-down Urwerk-style crown. As I said earlier, there will be 12 Experiment ZR012s in zirconium and 12 in red gold next year. No black versions, no derivatives. That's it. And if you would like to see one for yourself, I should have one on my wrist at SalonQP in November. Hope to see you there.
Further information: www.c3h5n3o9.com