Martin Pauli is Owner and Founder of the small, defiantly independent atelier Angular Momentum and Manu Propria. His hand-made bespoke and limited edition watches are quietly perfected from his base in Bern, Switzerland, and all his commissions come from word of mouth. In addition to watches, Martin has also recently begun to specialise in Japanese influenced hand-made pens employing elaborate urushi lacquer techniques. In an informative, frank and educational interview, Martin talks about pen making, watch making and his fears for the way he sees the watch industry is headed. If you care about independent watchmaking and hand-made craftsmanship, this interview is a must read.
If you want to know how Martin makes his pens, he has produced a step by step pictorial PDF, just PM me if you want a copy.
1) Manu Propria has already established an excellent reputation for entirely hand-made watches. Please tell us about your decision to create hand-made pens.
MP: Thank you for your kind words. I started watchmaking respectively founded Angular Momentum watch brand 15 years ago in 1998. These 15 years were very interesting, rich on experience and incredibly turbulent. Where I am today, is the result of the many events and changes of the global market and the watch industry. When I started, China and Russia were still behind the iron curtain and terms of delivery for mechanical movement from ETA around 3 to 4 weeks. As we all know this is over.
However, besides watchmaking I have various other interest and among them working with Urushi, Japanese lacquer. Years ago, long before VC and Chopard launched their urushi maki-e collections I was working with urushi lacquer on dials. As a lover of fountain pens I was thinking of making my own pen since a long time. Finally last year I ordered original ebonite material in Japan and nibs and cartridges in Germany and started to make fountain pens. Since I have strong relations to Japan and Japanese art & craft my pens follow the concept of the original Japanese fountain pen, which is called in Japan “mannenhitsu” which means “10’000-year-brush”. Japanese pens are of large size and originally without a clip. The dimensions offer a fantastic platform for lacquer applications. Though of large dimension, the ebonite enables a large pen to be not heavier than 35 grams.
If you look up the collections of Japanese pen manufacturers like Danitrio or Namiki you will see, that almost all pens are either simply lacquered with urushi lacquer but often decorated in “maki-e” sprinkled pictures technique. Some pens can reach prices up to USD 30’000.- and more.
Interestingly, maki-e pens are not very much appreciated in Japan and by Japanese customers. They rather prefer simple and well-balanced beautiful things and consider maki-e as “kitschy”. Maki-e is made for export to Europe, USA and Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia or Hong Kong. Also the maki-e watches of VC, Chopard and other brands find their owners mostly in these countries. However, in urushi craft there are hundreds of traditional surface and decorative techniques known. And my challenge is to focus on these rather unknown techniques, which can be applied on pens excellently.
2) Do you feel there is a correlation between hand-made watches and hand-made pens?
MP: One of my urushi dial watch collections was made to target the fountain pen collector with quite a success. The new pen collection shall be an independent diversification, a second leg on one hand and on the other hand it offers the options to make a set of watch and pen featuring the same lacquer technique on pen body and watch dial. The difference between pens and watches is, that fountain pen connoisseurs can carry the pen with them and often use it for beautiful writing or if only to sign an important contract, while watch collectors only wear the product, sometimes show it off and read the time, which can also be done on a phone.
3) Please explain about Urushi lacquer and the techniques involved in its application
MP: In Japan urushi is derived from the Rhus vernicifera tree. Urushi differs from other varnishes and paint media in that it sets much harder and is resistant to abrasion, all common solvents and even high concentrations of acid. These properties have led to its use as a decorative and protective coating on a wide range of artistic and utilitarian objects, as well as on architectural structures. Only 150g of sap can be collected from each mature lacquer tree over ten years old. In comparison to the world’s annual yield of diamonds, which is about 30 tons, only 1.5 tons of the internationally recognized highest quality Japanese urushi can be obtained in a year.
Urushi is very robust. A urushi-coated bowl can withstand the extreme temperatures of being used for hot soup every day. Its chemical resistance is also so high that even aqua regalis (nitro hydrochloric acid), which melts gold, cannot erode it. Urushi has a hardness of 6 on the Mohs scale, which is the same as that of glass. Lacquer ware pieces have been found that date back 7000 years. The fact that they survived shows how durable urushi is.
It can be successfully applied to a variety of substrates, including wood, metal, basketry, leather and textiles, and can be built up into layers of sufficient thickness for carving. Urushi is not drying in the air as other lacquers do but hardens under moist warm conditions. Therefore urushi artists use a drying chamber „furô“, with a constant temperature of 25 to 28°C and constant humidity of 65 to 80%. A wide variety of techniques and materials are utilized in the manufacture of urushi ware, but since the majority differ only in final finish, they are usually treated in major groups: carved, incised, inlaid, sprinkled, painted, dry and gilt. Two or more techniques may be used on the same object. To lacquer an urushi pen or a watch dial at least 17 working steps are needed and every step including the hardening time per layer of 24 to 72 hours
4) You state that your pens are hand-made on demand, does this mean each pen is uniquely customized?
MP: I have built up a representative basic collection, including 15 different shapes and a palette of lacquer surface finishes which will be extended frequently. The shapes or designs are described in the catalogue but on demand any of the designs can be altered, being made shorter or longer thinner or wider. But every pen is unique and differs from the other. The collection also includes a so called „Kazari Section“ kazari translated means „Decoration“ These pens are made by myself as an experimental work, as a unique pieces or custom made with any kind of decorative applications among them „bori“ or „chinkin“ engravings or „takamaki-e“ high relief works, of course always in urushi lacquer.
5) The nibs are supplied by Bock in Germany. Can the customer specify which type of nib they prefer?
MP: Yes of course, I can offer the pens with steel or 14 kt. Gold nibs in all available sizes
6) Are you also using the Bock ink feeding systems for your pen cartridges? Or if not, which brand are you using?
MP: At the moment I am also using the feeding system and cartridges of Bock put am looking also for eyedropper systems in Japan.
7) What type of ink do you recommend with these pens?
MP: I leave this over to the customer. There are so many variations of manufacturers and colors that I cannot make any recommendations. I personally use black ink distributed by Montblanc
8) You feel your main market is in Singapore, Hong Kong and other Asian markets, but is there a growing market for luxury fountain pens in Europe?
MP: In Europe there is a market as well, though PC is more and more replacing handwriting but far less than in the 1990s. In England much more letters and post cards are written and sent by post than in any other country of the world and there are many fountain pen clubs around. As it is with my watches, I don’t like to do “commercial” respectively commercially successful things sold in large numbers nor am I looking after successful products and copy them. I try to follow my own design and style and there are people all over the world that like my style and products, not many but enough to keep me busy.
9) How much time does it take to create each pen?
MP: I am a very fast working person. If I make a new fountain pen I am not doing any drawings in advance. I just work on the lathe and shape the pen body like a potter is throwing a bowl. I don’t want to set myself borders by following plans and drawings. Once the pen is built and I am happy with the shape, I take the measurement and put it on paper. But the lacquering process that follows is very time consuming and takes three to four weeks. Maybe also to be mentioned that urushi is a very aggressive substance. It is saud, that 80% of the people react allergic against it and develop a more or less strong rash. Once completely dry urushi is free of any poison and therefore preferably used for tableware. It is recommended, that we allow a pen a drying period of 4 weeks before it is delivered to prevent any such problems
10) Finally, it’s your feeling that the watch industry is going to change for the worse in the near future, what are the reasons behind this assertion?
MP: When I started making watches 15 years ago, the exports numbers of the industry were around CHF 8 Billion. In 2012 the export figures reached 22 Billion respectively around 40’000’000 watches of which directly or indirectly 70% finally land in China. In the past 10 years three major groups have taken over the control of the Swiss watch industry and the International market and the media. Richemont, Swatch Group and LVMH, these three big groups have acquired almost all of the high quality suppliers in Switzerland, dial makers, hand makers, case makers and so on. For small and independent watch brands and watchmakers it has become very difficult to work. But the biggest problem lies in the mechanical movement. But to explain better I have to start some 200 years ago at the beginning of industrialized movement manufacturing.
In 1793 a factory was set up in Fontainemelon a small hamlet in the Swiss Jura. The founders were dedicated to industrialized manufacturing of movement blanks and started to develop production ways and machines to produce high quality mechanical movements with interchangeable parts in large numbers.
The factory was mechanized and powered initially by oxen, then by steam and finally by electricity. In 1911, the company, which was later named Fabrique d’Horlogerie Fontainemelon FHF, registered the patent for winding and setting of a movement by crown, the “keyless” mechanism. In 1913 their production quantity had already reached 1’000’000 movements per year. Beside FHF many other “Ébauche companies appeared on the scene among them A. Schild, Eterna, ETA and others and all of them specialized in specific type of movements.
In the 1950s also called the “Golden Era of Watchmaking” the perfect mechanical movement was produced. Over the years and up till now nothing spectacular was developed or improved except that movements are automatically assembled today, which was not te case in the 1950s. At that time many families earned additional money by assembling movements at home on their kitchen table. They picked up the movement parts at the “Fabrique and brought them back after assembly. In 1950 around 30% of the Swiss population lived directly or indirectly from the watch industry. However, in 1950 there were around 36 such Ébauch companies who manufactured and supplied millions of high quality movements to Swiss and German watch companies, they supplied Rolex, Patek Philippe and Girard Perregaux as well as Fortis, Gruen, Tissot, Longines and hundreds of other watch companies.
Then in the 1980s during the so called “quartz crisis” thousands of watchmakers lost their jobs and it became just about the worst economic crisis in Switzerland. The government took the largest and most important Ébauch companies and united them into one large conglomerate with the name Ébauche SA, which later became the Swatch Group.
The remaining small companies went bankrupt and simply dumped their tools and machines in the nearby lakes. However, the entire know how and experience of 200 years of industrialized movement production has been collected in one single company, the Swatch Group. They have supplied 80% of all movements used in Swiss watches and in 2019 they will completely stop selling movements to companies outside the Swatch Group.
Meanwhile Richemont and LMVH have invested a fortune in their own production plants and today they develop and produce high quality movements for all the companies inside their groups.
Today the CNC machining has become so advanced that handicraft executed by skilled artisans and watchmakers is almost not necessary anymore. As a result the watchmaking crafts are disappearing one by one.
What I dislike the most is how the big brands act. They do whatever they can to keep control of everything. They hold shares in the large retail group’s around the world to make sure only those brands that are listed are accepted. They own the major specialized suppliers and though they claim they stay independent, they are not. While the advertising budgets 15 years ago were around 7 to 10 % they are 45% and more today and they control the media.
The big brands cover every luxury, lifestyle and watch magazine including blogs and websites as well and there is a black list the media receives from the big brands in which they are listed brand names they are not allowed to write about. And they always advertise with the old watchmaker in a cosy workshop on a wooden bench but if you visit their factory you will find clean, dust free snow white rooms with CNC machines and workers (not watchmakers) in blue coveralls producing perfectly machined and robot finished products, one after one, one just like the other.
To make a long story short, within a few years we will have in the watch business the same situation as in the car industry and many other industries. Same design, same manufacturer, bigger and bigger advertising budgets, finally ending in a self-destroying discount policy. Such a great shame.
Martin, thanks for talking to us.
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