A Venerable Watch Brand That’s Once Again a Family Affair

In November, Urban Jürgensen, a luxury watch brand founded in 1773, was sold by one set of investors to another. Most of its new owners have chosen to remain anonymous, with a notable exception: Kari Voutilainen, a respected Finnish watchmaker who now is Urban Jürgensen’s chief executive yet continues to run his own brand, Voutilainen.

“There are a lot of elements that were making the decision very easy,” Mr. Voutilainen (pronounced voo-till-EYE-nen) said in a phone interview from Urban Jürgensen’s headquarters in Bienne, Switzerland.

Those factors, he said, included “the style of the watches and the history of the company.”

“My personal taste,” he added, “is not far away at all from what we are doing today at Urban Jürgensen.”

Stylistically, the brands do feel like kindred spirits. The watches by Urban Jürgensen (pronounced OOR-ben YOOR-gen-sen), are traditional and typically cost around 50,000 Swiss francs ($54,800). The current collection ranges from a round 40-millimeter stainless steel watch that retails for about 16,000 francs to a one-off minute repeater tourbillon that is around 300,000 francs. The Jürgensen One, a sporty model with a stainless steel bracelet introduced in 2019, has a starting price of around 40,000 francs.

Voutilainen, founded in 2002, produces watches that sometimes have a refined touch of flash — guilloché patterns in bright colors or elaborate decorations on their dials — but still look quite conventional. One current piece that is more restrained, for example, is a round white gold 39-millimeter watch with a black grand feu enamel dial; it retails for around 86,000 francs.

“Both appeal to, more or less, a conservative, quieter kind of collector as opposed to somebody who wants something so noticeable on their wrist,” said Leon Black, owner of Cellini, a luxury watch dealer in Midtown Manhattan that carries both brands.

As it begins to plan the first watches conceived under the new ownership, Urban Jürgensen has just four employees, including Mr. Voutilainen and his daughter, Venla. At 22, she came to the position with notable professional experience: She apprenticed for four years at Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier, a Swiss company that makes movements for luxury watch brands; and worked in Singapore in the after-sales department of the high-end watch retailer The Hour Glass. In 2019, she also made a timepiece with her father: a one-off 42-millimeter white gold pocket watch for Only Watch, a biannual charity auction held in Monaco.

She returned home to Switzerland several months ago, and joining Urban Jürgensen rather than Voutilanen was “her wish and choice,” her father said — as was, he added, her decision to become a watchmaker.

Ms. Voutilainen said she became interested in watchmaking as a career after attending a school job fair when she was 14 or 15. “It wasn’t really because of my father,” she said, adding that, as a watchmaking student, people sometimes treated her differently because of her well-known family name. “You need to learn to deal with it,” she said, so “it doesn’t hurt you or doesn’t touch you.”

Ms. Voutilainen works full time at Urban Jürgensen; her father divides his time between its headquarters and the Voutilainen workshop in Môtiers, a Swiss town that is about an hour’s drive away. He also owns Comblémine, a company in St.-Sulpice, Switzerland, that makes watch dials for luxury brands, and is an owner of Voutilainen & Cattin, in Saignelégier, Switzerland, which makes cases for watch brands.

Urban Jürgensen has had numerous owners since it was founded as Larpent & Jürgensen in Copenhagen. (Urban Jürgensen was the co-founder’s son, and one of many family members who worked at the brand over the years.) By the mid-1800s, the brand had begun manufacturing in Switzerland, and ultimately moved its operations there.

About a hundred years later, the last members of the Jürgensen family participating in the company had died and its ownership began to change, including, in the 1980s, Peter Baumberger. He shifted the company’s focus to wristwatches — for most of its history, it had produced only pocket watches.

Mr. Voutilainen, 59, began working with Mr. Baumberger in 1996, handling some technical duties at Urban Jürgensen like assembling movements and prototypes as a side project while working at Parmigiani Fleurier. He continued in that role for quite a few years, even after he started his own brand in 2002.

Mr. Voutilainen said his dealings with Mr. Baumberger, who died in 2010, were “like a friendship, but he had a huge respect for the work. I have the same values with my staff.”

Over the past six to nine months, demand for watches from niche brands like Urban Jürgensen and Voutilainen — which produced just 67 watches last year — has been growing, due in part to the high prices that other independent brands, like F.P. Journe, can command in the resale market. “A lot of astute watch collectors said, ‘If an independent can finally get to this level, what’s going to happen to the independents who manufacture significantly less?,’” Mr. Black from Cellini said. “All of a sudden, there was a great surge by collectors to want to truly have something that was rare and unique and super-limited.”

Insiders have started theorizing about how Urban Jürgensen, which plans to unveil its new watches next year, might change. “There’s a fair bit of buzz around about that fact that what Kari’s actually doing strategically is creating a Rolex and Tudor,” Andrew McUtchen, founder of the website Time+Tide Watches, said, alluding to the relationship between Rolex and the smaller, less expensive brand it owns.

That hypothetical plan, he said, would be that “you can entice people in with an Urban Jürgensen and then work them up to a Kari.”

Mr. Voutilanen says he is considering changing some of the retailers that carry Urban Jürgensen watches, but does not plan to alter their design drastically.

“An Urban Jürgensen watch has a distinctive style,” he said. “I mean, either you like it or you don’t like it, but it has its own style.”

“There won’t be,” he added, “big revolutions.”

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