Newbies in the watch community may recognize L’Epée from the radical timepieces it produces in collaboration with indie darling MB&F, but L’Epée’s history dates all the way back to 1839 when it was set up by Auguste L’Epée near Besançon, France. It is today the only specialized manufacture in Switzerland dedicated to making high-end clocks.
By the turn of the 20th century, L’Epée was a well-known producer of ‘platform’ escapements and regulators for clocks; it would go on to win a number of gold awards at International Expos and would be granted numerous patents. L’Epée was perhaps best known for its carriage clocks – small spring clocks designed in the 19th century for travelers – which were often gifted by the French government to State guests. Fun fact for aviation geeks - in 1976, L’Epée wall clocks were used in the cabin of the Concorde supersonic aircraft when it entered commercial service.
However, under CEO Arnaud Nicolas, the brand made the choice to veer away from its traditional clockmaking image, in time for its 175th anniversary in 2014. “I wanted to do something with art, something new in order to shock and inspire people; not to toe the line,” recalled Nicolas. So in 2014, L’Epée unveiled its first collaboration with MB&F, the Starfleet Machine – a Star Wars-inspired table clock that resembled a spacecraft.
Apart from the hours and minutes, the clock has a double retrograde seconds and power reserve indicator. A limited edition of 175 pieces, it was priced just over $30,000 (AED110,175). Since then, the two brands have produced a clutch of products including Destination Moon, a rocket-shaped clock with an 8-day power reserve that looks straight out of Tintin comics.
Was there a risk of moving away from the brand’s traditional image? “I do not think that there is a risk of confusing people. The traditional image was the image of the clock itself, not the brand,” said Nicolas.
L’Epée’s product line follows three themes now. The Creative Art line features artistic pieces often developed in partnership with external designers. These clocks are meant to surprise, inspire and even shock the most seasoned collectors. Contemporary Timepieces are technical creations with a modern design incorporating complications such as retrograde seconds, power reserve indicators, moon-phases, tourbillons, chiming mechanisms or perpetual calendars.
The last line or the Classic line includes carriage clocks, historical pieces issued from the brand’s heritage that also feature their fair share of complications: chiming mechanisms, minute repeaters, calendars, moon phases, tourbillons and more. Nicolas’s decision to focus on kinetic sculptures has worked for the brand since in terms of revenue, the traditional Classic line now represents a much smaller chunk of L’Epée’s business.
While the brand’s unique pieces cost as high $500,000, the majority of their products fall around the $10,000 to $120,000 category.
L’Epée’s clocks are still much sought after as corporate gifts and at around $4,000 (AED14,690), these represent the lowest price points offered by the brand. While some of the brand’s unique pieces cost as high $500,000 (AED1.8 mn), the majority of their products fall around the $10,000 to $120,000 (AED37,000-445,000) category.
This year at Baselworld, L’Epée uveiled a bunch of new clocks that again showcased the brand’s quirky sense of design. Notable was the Hot Balloon, a mechanical clock in the form of, well, a hot air balloon. It comprises 207 components, all produced in-house and finished and assembled by hand. Every component of the mechanical clock is designed to resemble the parts of a hot air balloon: turning the basket winds the movement; the burners serve as the escapement; the flame indicates the hour and minutes; and finally, the envelope (the balloon), with its wide openings, lends the piece an imposing transparent, airy aspect.
The Gaz Derrick is another clock inspired by the architecture of a gas extraction platform. It uses a new horizontal movement with horizontal escapement paired with a central axis of nearly 200 mm in length that allows the display of hours and minutes in two separate dials. The attention to detail and the hand-finishing on this clock is a sight to behold. Nicolas says it takes the brand up to two years to conceive and produce a clock like the Hot Balloon.
How hard is it to be making mechanical clocks in an increasingly digital world? “The biggest challenge is to keep the aficionados surprised. And for those new to the ‘clocks game’, it is to let them know that something different like our kinetic sculptures exists,” said Nicolas.