As a student watchmaker, Colin de Tonnac spent hours wandering around Parisian flea markets buying orphaned old watch movements. He would take these back to the work bench and use them to hone his watchmaking skills. Little did he know that years later this love for vintage movement would form the basis for his own fledgling watch company.
In 2018, Colin launched Semper & Adhuc, a micro-brand based out of Bordeaux, France with a unique selling proposition – the watches are powered by orphaned vintage movements. The three models the company produces now - Instantanée, Inopinée, and Immédiate - feature vintage AS1012 hand-wound movements. While Instantanée has a 37 mm round 316L steel case, Inopinée has an oval while Immédiate has a cushioned case. The vintage movements have been refurbished, decorated, and made visible via a tiny aperture on the caseback. The watches have a minimalist aesthetic but without the cold design flourishes sometimes associated with Scandinavian minimalism. Customers have the option to choose the side they want the winding crown on, so it works well for those who wear their watch on the right (or should we say, wrong) wrist.
"As a somewhat idealistic watchmaking student, I was fascinated by the idea of one day creating my own watch models. The transition from this dream to a full-scale brand project took place in the course of 2015, and the first watches were shown to the public in the autumn of 2018,” says the 32-year-old. "Vintage watches have the peculiarity of containing, in addition to their intrinsic value, in terms of design and mechanics, a history of their own. This extra soul gives a particular charm to each watch whatever its value on the market.”
Colin is a Metiers d’arts graduate from the College of Edgar Faure in the eastern French town of Morteau. The college is known for producing skilled artisans that go on to work for prestigious Swiss watch companies. Morteau itself is very close to the Swiss border and the watchmaking centers of Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fond are under an hour’s drive away. Having cut his teeth at the venerable Patek Philippe, Colin speaks of the two valuable lessons he learnt from this time there. "The level of quality demanded, both in the design and in the manufacture right down to the wearer's wrist, of a Patek Philippe is a rare requirement. Every step, every gesture reflects the importance Patek places on the customer's experience,” he says.
The second lesson is about sharing knowledge. "You need to have worked in a Swiss company to understand how much a watch as an object has heavy technical requirements and requires a multitude of skills. So the two lessons are: do not neglect any stage in the life of our product and surround yourself with people who have the right know-how,” says Colin.
Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of micro-brands that sell online - mostly set-up by watch enthusiasts - featuring mass-produced movements mostly assembled in the Far East and propelled by crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. Consequently, there is a level of saturation in this sector now, so it was important for Colin to chart a different course. “The idea then came to me to restore the movements I had collected since my days as a student and reintegrate them into a new casing. This was a way both to preserve a small part of our common watchmaking heritage while at the same time mitigating the growing difficulty for independents to supply themselves with movements. It would also differentiate our offer thanks to this idea of up-cycling."
With Semper & Adhuc, Colin has managed to give these orphaned movements a second life. This name encapsulates the brand vision: to restore old mechanisms in the rules of art and to offer them a brand new life. Semper in Latin means ‘always’ and Adhuc means ‘so far’ or ‘until this moment’. Each watch is designed, manufactured and assembled in France. The idea of using an orphaned movement sounds very romantic and idealistic. But is it that simple? Colin says he can confirm it's quite an adventure. He has to hunt down these movements and sort them for the ones he can use. Only about 10 percent of the movements he originally bought end up being used, the rest are save for spare parts and maintenance.
"Once sorted, I have to identify the movements from old watchmaking books and measure all the dimensions which will then be useful for fitting and casing. Once all the selection has been made, it is necessary to completely dismantle, clean, repair or change certain parts that are too damaged, reassemble, lubricate and adjust each movement, which will then undergo a series of tests and quality controls to ensure that they meet the criteria to become a Semper & Adhuc watch,” explains Colin. “The workshop is halfway between high craftsmanship and industrial process, as each movement suffers from different scars left by the years and the time spent repairing them is never the same. It is a double-edged sword; on the one hand it gives each watch a unique character but it becomes difficult to establish workshop organization.”
The workshop is halfway between high craftsmanship and industrial process.
The hand-cranked AS1012 movements were made by A. Schild S.A., a Grenchen-based movement maker that no longer exists. This particular movement was made between the 1930’s and until the end of the 70’s and were used at the time by different brands including Breitling and Jaeger-LeCoultre. They were produced in large quantities and are considered very reliable, making it an ideal choice for Colin. Another being advantage was its size - being a small movement (it was used in ladies watches), the AS1012 movement ensures that Sempher & Adhuc can use slim cases.
This year, Colin will start work on a ladies watch, trying to keep the sobriety that characterized the inaugural collection. He is also currently hunting down old mechanical movements manufactured by the French factory France Ébauches. If the cache of movements comes through, the next collection of watches will be made entirely in France.
What’s the toughest thing about being an independent micro-brand today? "Finding enough time to build strong partnerships with the right people while continuing to make watches every day and trying to reach an increasingly diverse audience. It's a perpetual race against time,” says Colin, who is currently the only employee of Sempher & Adhuc. He’s been helped along by inputs from his clients and other industry professionals; since he makes only about 150 watches a year Colin can afford to communicate directly with his clients. The timepieces are currently sold directly from the brand’s website. However, he is looking at feasible partnerships with a few retailers and also developing a VR tool that will allow people to try the watch at home.
You can learn more about Semper & Adhuc on their website.