January 16, 2020

DO I KNOW YOU? Finnish watchmaker Stepan Sarpaneva: “Watches are not jewellery”

A time and a place for everything. Stepan Sarpaneva draws inspiration from his surroundings to make watches that transcend being a piece of jewellery.
A time and a place for everything. Stepan Sarpaneva draws inspiration from his surroundings to make watches that transcend being a piece of jewellery.
Julia Bushueva

With moonfaces and motorcycle legends, watchmaker Stepan Sarpaneva channels Finnish melancholy and darkness into his timely work.

One of the most renowned Finnish watchmakers of all time, Stepan Sarpaneva makes watches that bear the slogan “Not for everyone”. Clearly, he wants to make timepieces for those who appreciate them. This goes some way to explain why they carry a hefty price tag and distinguish themselves from the pack. These watches are unique pieces of functional art, which more often than not are worn on the wrists of those with deep pockets.

Given the complexity of his output, it is no surprise that finding his workshop is also less than straightforward. Downstairs, the building directory contains no information as to his whereabouts and the people at the reception desk are also at a loss.

The search for Sarpaneva is not lost, however, and once his location has been deduced and the interview has commenced it becomes clear why his workshop is less than prominent: it is not a showroom, nor a storefront; it is purely for him and his workers. The space is decorated with Finnish design and mementos from throughout his career. It is a place of tranquillity that feels like a home where masters can practice their craft. Located in the artistic hub of Helsinki amidst like-minded creatives, this is the place where he puts on his loupe and immerses himself in the microcosm that is the watch he is working on.

You are the son of Pentti Sarpaneva and nephew of Timo Sarpaneva. Craftsmanship and design run through your veins. How did you first discover your love for watchmaking?

I did terribly in high school, so my mother suggested I’d follow my father’s footsteps and become a jewellery designer. Watchmaking was actually my second choice, so when I wasn’t accepted to study jewellery design, I thought I’d study watchmaking for a year and then apply again. I never did. But looking back I have always been fascinated with mechanical devices, so maybe becoming a jeweller would have been a mistake. I fell in love with the process of making something that possesses a specific function and is not just easy on the eyes.

But in a way, through watchmaking you’re able to combine both function and aesthetics.

In a way yes, but watches are not jewellery! I hate when people talk about a watch being a piece of jewellery for men. It is not. A watch is, in a way, the iPhone of its era. It is a device containing fine mechanics and top-of-the-line technology. Watches played a big part in the discovery of new worlds, as well as the industrial revolution. People were able to estimate their location at sea better than ever before when watches became more precise. Napoléon won wars with the help of watches. He gave Breguet watches to his officers so that they knew exactly when the cannons would stop firing and the troops would charge. So no, it is not a piece of jewellery for men, it is a measurement of excellence and manliness.

Has your father or uncle influenced your own work?

I used to hate my father’s work when I was younger. He left when I was four years old and died when I was eight, so I don’t have any real memories of him. Our home was filled with his works and I grew to resent them. But now, when I make or design something and then go through his stuff or jewellery, I see a lot of the same shapes and artistic style that he used in his work. So, I believe the continuum is somehow embedded in my DNA. Timo, on the other hand, saw everything very differently and personally I don’t see any connections between his work and my own. Neither of them ever made watches, which was good. It gave me more freedom in my own work.

A word that is often seen alongside watch brands is “timeless”. How do you create a timeless brand?

There is no such thing as timeless. You can set out to build a brand according to some prerequisites and the final product can be crap. Nowadays, watch brands are born today and then they die the day after tomorrow. It requires much more than just a plan to build something timeless; it requires credibility and, quite frankly, time. And nowadays people don’t have time or patience in the same way they used to, which means that brands don’t have the time to mature. Also, how do you sell a watch that looks like you and reflects who you are, worth tens of thousands of euros, to a complete stranger? That is the real skill, and no one really knows how it’s done.

If you think about what my brand is, it’s nothing yet and that’s why you’re writing this story about me titled “Do I Know You?”. A few people know my brand and even fewer know me. Stop someone downstairs in the lobby and ask if they know me; 99 out of 100 don’t have a clue. And that is why my brand isn’t anything yet, because it hasn’t matured enough.

One watch that I think stands out from your selection is Paroni (The Baron). What is the story behind the watch?

Paroni was made as an homage to Jarno Saarinen, who is the only Finn to ever have won a motorcycle road racing world championship. Motorcycles have always occupied a large part of my heart and, when I was younger, I used to read a lot of motorcycle magazines. They often spoke about Saarinen, who at that time had already died. Saarinen died doing what he loved and that made him a legend. Also, the fact that we had an understanding that a Finn was able to reach such a pinnacle and be the best in the world at something is why his story really spoke to me. The watch is my way of reminding people of him because I don’t want people to forget. The design of the watch face is inspired by Saarinen’s helmet, as is the colour scheme: red and white. Like Saarinen’s story, the watch has been able to stand the test of time, at least for now.

These days the time can be found everywhere. Why hasn’t our reliance on devices eradicated the popularity of the wristwatch?

It is true that we don’t need wristwatches to tell us the time, which is probably why many people consider them to be of pieces of jewellery. You can check the time from your smartphone, computer, car, subway – basically you see it everywhere. Wristwatches are more about feeling, which is why they haven’t gone anywhere and some people still solely rely on their wristwatches to tell the time. I always check my own wrist for the time, but it’s always the wrong time because someone always takes a look at it and fiddles with the buttons or the crown. If you buy an expensive wristwatch just for it to tell the time, you are buying it for the wrong reasons.

What is the prefect watch for you?

There is no such thing as a perfect watch, but there are really nice ones that have remained popular thanks to their timeless shape. More often than not, these are designed by Gérald Genta. Genta is without a doubt the best designer of watches that fit the picture of our fixed world. Even today, his designs, such as the Royal Oak and Nautilus, are watches that people dream of owning – there is just something appealing about them. Still, I don’t think that there is such a thing as a perfect watch. I often think about what I could have done differently on a watch that I have finished. Striving for perfection is an endless battle.

What is your process like? Where do your ideas come from?

I always carry ideas around in my back pocket and they come and go. Sometimes we try to think very commercially about our designs, and seeing that men wear more watches than women most of our watches play to that demographic. There are watches that for example relate to sports such as diving. Making strictly dress watches seems a bit far-fetched, even though we sometimes make those as well. For me it is about materials and combing two or more elements. Nature hasn’t been a source of inspiration for me. Often it is about finding a colour, material or surface that releases the process that has been in the back of my head for decades.

The watch face of the Korona series is actually derived from the cast iron structures that surround trees. I guess I walk weirdly. My eyes wander low and I notice that I discover amazing things. For example, if you go to New York you’ll notice that mundane industrial elements such as manhole covers are very different from the ones, say, in Paris. It is amazing to think that these elements have remained the same or similar for hundreds of years.

Considering your involvement with time as a concept, do you think daylight savings should be abolished?

I think that summertime and wintertime could be one and the same. If we look at the seasons, then an eternal summer is something that we will never have in Finland, and actually the darkness in the winter is something that inspires me deeply. The darkness and the traditional Finnish melancholy are things that I want my watches to show. A lot of my watches glow in the dark and for a reason too.

What is your favourite food during the long Finnish winter?

In the winter I like to eat something that is a bit heavier. I know that we shouldn’t eat as much meat as we do, and I try to cut down my consumption. However, I do love myself a good reindeer fillet, it’s just so damn tasty!

How do you want to be remembered?

I think I will be remembered for the moonface I use on my watches not only because it is a very central element in most of my work, but also because someone once said it looks like me, which is not on purpose, by the way. Ironically, it feels like I am running out of time if I want to be remembered for something else, even though I am only 49 and watchmakers usually work until their hands don’t work anymore. I hope that people see the passion we watchmakers have for the profession and that it is more than just a job that pays the bills.

Interview and text: Jonathan Öller

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