ANGUS DAVIES INTERVIEWS SØREN JENRY PETERSEN, URBAN JÜRGENSEN. THE PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE HIGH-END WATCH BRAND DISCUSSES WHAT MAKES THE COMPANY’S PRODUCTS EXCEPTIONAL, WORKING WITH SPECIALIST SUPPLIERS AND THE RELATIVE SCARCITY OF WATCHES BEARING THE URBAN JÜRGENSEN NAME.
This detailed feature about Søren Jenry Petersen, Urban Jürgensen also includes his thoughts about Baselworld and his belief that the annual fair will continue for a long time.
The Urban Jürgensen brand, can trace its origins to the birth of Jürgen Jürgensen in 1745. He established a watchmaking business in Copenhagen and the family surname became indelibly associated with high-end horology.
However, it was Jürgen’s son, Urban, who was responsible for the family name ascending to new heights. He was apprenticed to Abraham Louis Breguet in Paris and also Breguet’s friend, the Englishman, John Arnold. Jürgen, a son of Denmark, was commissioned to supply the Danish Royal Court with watches and the country’s navy with marine chronometers.
Subsequently, the responsibility for running the firm passed to Urban’s sons, Jules-Frederik and Louis Urban. While Louis remained in Copenhagen, Jules-Frederik travelled to Switzerland where he studied watchmaking, prior to settling down in Le Locle. While Urban Jürgensen’s headquarters are now based in Biel / Bienne, a town in the Swiss canton of Bern, the company continues to have close ties with the city of Copenhagen.
Today, Urban Jürgensen watches are revered by the cognoscenti. The company’s timepieces are imbued with timeless aesthetics, artisanal crafts, such as guilloché dials, and movements finished to exacting standards.
An endearing virtue of Urban Jürgensen is that it shuns mass production techniques, employs age-old methods and practises horological probity at all times. Naturally, this punctilious approach precludes volume sales, granting a degree of exclusivity, much appreciated by connoisseurs.
Interview with Søren Jenry Petersen, Urban Jürgensen (SJP) by Angus Davies (AD)
AD: What makes Urban Jürgensen special?
SJP: Urban Jürgensen is one of the few, truly old companies which has been in continuous operation since its inception in 1773. We celebrated 245 years of operations last year, and this is not commonplace within the watch industry. Secondly, we have a distinct product culture we feel honour-bound to perpetuate. Urban Jürgensen himself was a scientist and a mathematician, as such he had a very pragmatic approach to creating timepieces. Something he laid out in his seminal reference work from 1804 “how to measure time accurately by use of clocks”. You see this carried forward today with our no-nonsense classical designs and persistent use of traditional craft methods. Thirdly our pieces are rare. Truly rare. In 2019, we will sell a watch with number 1000 on its case. This rarity explains the lack of grey market watches and knock down pricing. Those clients that finally acquire an Urban Jürgensen timepiece, tend to hold on to it!
AD: Many of your models feature guilloché dials, hands and hour markers intricately formed by hand as well as cases endowed with exquisite teardrop lugs. How difficult was it to find the necessary skills to create these specification details?
SJP: Very. However, we are lucky in the sense that the company has been working with the same trusted case supplier for the last two generations. This makes it easier, as they truly know the secret to getting our cases done. On dial side we work closely with the few suppliers who can actually still do the delicate work we require. We actually try to pool the volume with some of our competitors to make sure the crafts stay alive.
AD: Urban Jürgensen is based in Biel / Bienne. How important is it to be based in this location? Does the location of the company influence the final products?
SJP: Not at all. Bienne is just a central location between Zürich and Geneva. It is practical for reaching what I lovingly refer to as “The Mountains”, meaning La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle, an area where many suppliers are based.
AD: Many watch companies talk of vertical integration. Urban Jürgensen adopts a different approach, procuring components from industry specialists. Was this decision influenced by your former career working for Nokia?
SJP: I guess it’s all a matter of strategic perspective. The previous drive for consolidation was born out of Mr. Hayek’s (Swatch Group) need to consolidate and save the industry, and I guess this religion spread from there. However, I believe there is far and away enough capacity and drive in Switzerland to enable healthy competition. With our volumes we can be careful with whom we choose to work with. My belief is that there is truth to the concept of core competence. If you try to be an expert at everything, you will become average at most things.
Look at Athletics. The decathlon Olympic Champion will lose every single individual competition against the specialists. For Urban Jürgensen, working with the best in the industry, for all selected parts, ensures we can promise our clients that our watches are truly world class. And as so many parts are hand crafted, they are by very nature all unique and not factory clones.
AD: Despite making high-end watches, Urban Jürgensen delivers exceptional value for money. For example, The Alfred retails for CHF 14,300 + VAT yet features a grenage dial and a beautifully finished hand-wound movement. What is your secret?
SJP: The Alfred is actually an exception. We wanted to create some brand awareness and thought by investing in marketing this way, it would create a win-win-win situation for all parties. The client gets a unique experience and excellent value. Urban Jürgensen gets brand awareness and ambassador clients around the world. And, finally, our retail partners win because the brand is better known, without even having to invest in a campaign. The difference here is we took all the work of managing the sales, the credit and invoicing and facilitating the delivery. The results have been fantastic and we may continue with a slight adjustment as we have had many specific requests we have not been able to fulfil. But more later!
AD: Urban Jürgensen has created several perpetual calendars and even a minute repeating tourbillon featuring a perpetual calendar. Are there any other complications you would like to offer in the future?
SJP: We will fulfil a major strategic goal in 2019 with a completely new launch at Basel. In addition, I have enormous amounts of requests from clients for a classic manual chronograph. This is high on my list, and I am looking for a suitable classic chronograph movement to build the pieces around.
AD: Currently there is much discussion about Baselworld. I believe you enjoyed success at the annual watch and jewellery fair in 2018. You mentioned that you are exhibiting at Baselworld 2019, can you explain your reasons for this decision?
SJP: At the end of the day, watches remain something to see and feel. I believe the two major fairs will eventually meld together – but politics will stand in the way for a while. It will be a natural evolution as the industry consolidates owing to smart watches eroding a huge chunk of the business. Baselworld will be around for a long time and so will we.
AD: Urban Jürgensen has its own movements, but it has also used movements from third parties. Are there any movements which you would like to work with in the future?
SJP: At present, I am searching for a classic chronograph movement. I see the movement as just one part of the watch, and Urban Jürgensen has used third party movements throughout its history, as has most of the industry up until just a few years ago. Some Brands are currently “integrating” acquired movement manufacturers and that just shows you how fluid things are.
AD: What are your aspirations for Urban Jürgensen?
SJP: I see myself as a custodian for a number of years. You become very humble in the face of 241 years of history, which was the position when I came to the company. You just try your best not to ruin anything! That said, we have grown over 50% in the last 3 years and I´d like for Urban Jürgensen to continue to grow. I want informed clients and retailers to think of Urban Jürgensen as the go-to brand for authentic, old school, handcrafted and unique timepieces that represent great value. This value is born out of incredible amounts of hand craftsmanship, the use of traditional materials and, lastly, unparalleled customer care.
Appraising the words of Søren Jenry Petersen, it is obvious that he is fully aware of his responsibility to uphold the exalted standards for which Urban Jürgensen is renown. It is clear the value of the Urban Jürgensen brand is underpinned with product excellence, timeless design and impressive levels of customer care.
The Maison places great emphasis on hand craftsmanship and playing its role in perpetuating age-old techniques, practised by a small number of talented artisans. Each element of an Urban Jürgensen timepiece is distilled to a pure conclusion, free of compromise. While Urban Jürgensen watches feature beautifully finished movements, the company does not neglect the other elements which help to make a timepiece, nor does it doggedly reject virtuous movements from third parties.
In a world where consumer goods are mass produced and cynically ‘lifed’ to fail at some predetermined point, Urban Jürgensen provides a refreshing alternative. In reality, assuming an Urban Jürgensen timepiece is cared for, it will outlive its owner. Moreover, its styling will remain untouched by changing fashions. It is these attributes which have attracted plaudits from those in the know and based on my discussions with Søren Jenry Petersen, I don’t envisage this changing any time soon.