I first read about Ressence Watches last year, in an article highlighting new brands at Baselworld 2010. It described an intriguing piece from an industrial designer, Benoît Mintiens, who had come at contemporary watchmaking from a new and potentially revolutionary angle. Rather than design a watch with a conventional dial and handset, Benoît instead looked at time in a completely different way, espousing the norm in order to create a revolving series of modules, each displaying an element of time. Like a planet orbiting a horological sun, the large white minute hand is in fact a plate, that turns beneath the sapphire crystal, while the subsidiary plates / dials also rotate , remaining in an upright position regardless of the position of the minute plate, all powered by a highly modified Swiss movement. It's an hypnotic effect, as this animation shows**.
However, the piece was clearly a prototype, and, while intriguing, there were elements of the design which looked slightly out of place: the case, while beautifully polished, appeared to be just a little too large on the wrist, and the indicators and plates only appeared to move in the rendered video. I was therefore extremely excited to see that Ressence was exhibiting at SalonQP 2011, which would finally give me a chance to get my hands on the watch. I emailed Benoît ahead of time, and asked whether he could spend a few minutes talking to me about the concept and the changes to the 2011 model: luckily, he said yes. The lugs are probably the most visibly noticeable difference, and have been angled downwards away from the case, so that the watch sits more naturally on the wrist. At the same time, the lugs have been widened slightly to 22mm.
Secondly, the screws that held the sapphire caseback in place were impinging on the water-resistance, and have been replaced by "banana-shaped" inserts which are actually glued, rather than screwed, to the 3D sapphire case. This has increased water-resistance while adding another element to the design. To see the suspended movement rotate is, in itself, a thing of beauty. In fact, from whatever angle one admires the Ressence Series One watches, more interesting details emerge: for example, the seemingly "fixed" wire lugs are, in fact, removable using the star-shaped "hex" screws. This allows the leather straps to be changed with relative ease using the bespoke tool supplied with the watch.
Or perhaps you noticed the relatively unusual crown? While the crown sits equidistance from the crystal and caseback, the movement itself does not. The thickness of the platform plates means that the ETA movement actually sits lower in the case than one might imagine. By pulling out the U-shaped crown-within-a-crown, the stem is aligned, and one can wind the watch and advance the plates. And while we're on the movement, I've seen plenty of people complaining about the use of an ETA 2824 movement to power the redesigned module. While the prototype used ceramic bearings to allow the plates to move around the dial, the new version uses geared plates. These plates require a great deal of torque to power them. Benoît therefore chose a true workhouse movement to drive the module, and focused on making the watch work. I applaud this choice. Yes, this is an expensive timepiece - retailing at a shade under Euro10k - but it is a unique design, available in limited numbers, that offers a truly different view of time. If the cost of powering this module is using the barrel and mainspring of an ETA movement, then that appears to me to be a decent trade-off. There are very few mechanical watches currently offering this degree of technical brilliance at this price point: it feels more like a piece that MB&F or even HW might have mooted - not a one-man band in Belgium.
And this is where I must declare an interest: like many others who visited SalonQP, I appear to have fallen almost completely for this watch. This is probably in no small measure due to its charming creator, but also to the concept of Ressence - a new way to tell time. And isn't that what advances in horology should be about? Pushing the boundaries and challenging preconceptions? Who knows. All I know, is that it made me smile at QP, and still makes me smile to think of it.
**Download a free Ressence App from iTunes here, and practice telling the time