Who is Richard Habring?
An Interview With an Austrian Watchmaker Who Makes Tourbillons In His Spare Time
Richard Habring is a talented watchmaker who, while working at International Watch Company, developed their rattrapante mechanism, worked on their tourbillons and later designed their mechanical depthmeter. Until recently he also worked for A. Lange & Söhne and now is independent. In this exclusive TimeZone interview, he relays the inside story of the development of these complications and his special work on tourbillons.
MF: Could you tell us when you first became interested in watches and watchmaking?
RH: I grew up among watches and clocks although Im the first watchmaker in my entire family. My mother, as a trained saleswoman, opened a little watch and jewelry shop in my home village, which was in a remote Austrian province. My father had his own company that distributed watch bracelets and represented a German wholesaler that carried “everything for a watchmaker’s needs” – tools and machinery.
My initial “spark” began at the workshop of a friend of my father, in nearby Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia. That company was more than 100 years old, and had a workshop 5 times larger than the shop. Probably I was 5 or 6 years old then, and just reaching the table to look at those interesting technical things going on there. So it was quite clear very early that “I will become a watchmaker”!
MF: What training did you have?
RH: After regular school I attended the only Austrian watchmaking school in Karlstein/Thaya, which is in lower Austria. It took 4 years – fulltime – to graduate as a watchmaker. After that school I went to Tyrol to work for a company in Kufstein which specialized in restoration and repair of antique watches and clocks.
After repairing a lot of antique movements that always had some “bugs”, I started to ask myself “aren’t there better solutions in designing movements?” So I started to design mechanisms in my spare time – mainly tourbillons. After only one year I went back to Karlstein to graduate as a “master watchmaker”
MF: When did you start working for IWC? What did you do initially for them?
RH: I started in 1990 in the movement development department as a member of a two-person team that tried to improve the existing IWC calibre 375, the well-known ETA 2892-2. The service department had encountered problems with the automatic winding system, and we tried to find some better solutions. Afterwards, ETA adopted our ideas when they switched to the 2892-A2.
MF: Tell us a little about the Doppelchronograph. How did that project develop?
RH: After we finished the 2892-project – remember this was the time when IWC launched the “Grande Complication” – Gnter Blmlein came once and told us, the “youngsters”, about the difficulties of that project. He stated that he would have liked to integrate more functions into that project, but the technicians who were responsible for the project said: “Impossible!” Mr. Blmlein had been talking about a tourbillon and a rattrapante, so we started to investigate the possibilities of doing this.
My colleague first chose to work on the rattrapante; I remained with the tourbillon, where I already had some experience. In six months. I finished the first prototype of the tourbillon, which then was cased into a regular “Da Vinci” for testing. I didn’t like the design of the Da Vinci – my ideal is the pilots line – so the test model was wound daily but not worn. It remained in the kitchen of my little flat near Schaffhausen where I used it once a week at weekend to time the breakfast eggs –probably the most unique and expensive watch for this job ever!
My colleague had finished design for the rattrapante but the problem that it was not compatible to the other complications – it did not fit the Grande Complication. So we started one more time from scratch and we found a way to mount the whole mechanism onto the top of movement side, where it could be combined with the minute repeater and perpetual calendar.
Our solution first involved investigating the technical solutions from the past. I went to my former boss, Kurt Kerber in Tyrol, which is a winter sports area where he serviced many sophisticated sports-timing rattrapantes We disassembled them all and figured out the problems. We found, in several steps, the cam-based rattrapante mechanism.
MF: I personally consider that your rattrapante design changed the market. Before, almost all were incredibly expensive. Now they are almost affordable and very popular. Was this a design goal?
RH: The design goal was to provide a module that could be assembled onto all existing chrono-movements at IWC – without any modification by shaping the parts, just to put together and to set easily. We also had to consider the production side. The most difficult piece was the chronocenter wheel with a tube of 0.50mm in diameter, that was over 8mm long but with an inside hole of 0.35mm inside. Straight – in polished quality! We did not find anybody with the know-how to drill a whole like this! So we had to do it on our own, and to find a way to make the impossible possible. I got the raw tubes for the prototypes at the pharmacist – a hypodermic needle.
MF: What other models did you work on that IWC has made?
RH: From this rattrapante module came the “Doppelchrono”, the “Portugieser split second”, the “Da Vinci split second” and of course the “Il Destriero” which featured both of ” my” complications – the tourbillon and rattrapante together on top of the “Grande Complication”. Afterwards, I improved my experience with repeaters (Portugieser minute repeater), perpetual calendars (Romana Ref. 2050) and finally one of my dreams, the mechanical depth meter (although I don’t like the name “Deep One”!).
MF: I see some special one-off tourbillons lately at auction with the IWC name on their dials, but which were made by you. Can you tell us something about them?
RH: As I mentioned, I started to make single-piece tourbillons before I joined IWC. Probably those impressed Mr. Blmlein enough to give me a chance. I had some friends who asked me to modify their existing watches – IWC’s, as well as others – with tourbillons.
MF: Speaking of the Deep One for IWC, how did you get the idea?
RH: Over the Christmas holiday in 1995, I went on vacation to the Caribbean where I boarded a nice sailboat. The boat was small enough, with about ten passengers, to have some nice talks with different people. I got in contact with some divers – and finally started to dive as well, taught by the wheelman – a Dutch guy, who was a diving instructor. Once in the evening we were on deck drinking some Caribbean beer, and I asked him how should the perfect diving watch look. He described to me the watch – with all functions and indications. When I returned to Schaffhausen I developed the concept, made some sketches and went to Mr. Blmlein. Then it started!
MF: I’ve heard rumors that the depth gauge on the Deep One is difficult to produce. What were your design goals?
RH: The design goals were – already a few years after the Grande Complication and Il Destriero – to make another “piece to talk about”. A fully equipped redundancy system for divers, who usually dive today with deco-computers, in case the computer fails. “Trial and error” does not fit the requirements of a sport like diving. If my watch just stops – I may be too late, okay- but if my depthmeter fails – it may be my last dive!
It was always clear that this watch would never be something that would be easy to produce or assemble. This watch is more a diving instrument than just an automatic movement. In production, it requires a more technical, than only watchmaking, mentality.
MF: Could you tell us a little about your work at A. Lange & Shne?
RH: I worked for Lange from 1997 until now, the end of June 2002. First as a freelancer and then during the last year as an employee. Lange had at this time already had a very good design team so I focused onto the worldwide service network and the so-called “technical communication”. Also, I remained as a technical and design consultant for the LMH-group until the last month at Richemont under Gnter Blmlein.
MF: It seems that lately your interest has been working on your own tourbillons in your spare time. What fascinates you about creating a tourbillon on your own?
RH: First of all, of course, is the mystique about them. There’s this saying that “it’s the top of watchmaking” – and then to prove that it’s possible to do that! But in my special case it happened that when I finished one, I haven’t been completely satisfied with the result. It has been this particular 1% that was missing for maximum satisfaction. So I continued to improve the design. Each of my tourbillons is a link of a chain in general tourbillon development. After 14 years now I reached this level of 100% – now I am fine with the design of my tourbillon. They are technically solid enough to play golf with, and still the beauty is as it should be. Besides, they’re quite accurate!
MF: What does it take to make your own tourbillon?
RH: First of all it takes a lot of passion, some talent and a lot of time. I am sure that a lot of people could succeed but most of them give up too quickly. To produce a tourbillon on your own on regular watchmakers lathes, manual drilling and milling machines –that teaches you suffering! The first cage will never be okay; the second could be, but it still will not be good enough; with the third, you may not be concentrating enough — so the fourth one will be perfect! Not a lot of people can tolerate this.
My first tourbillon took me 800 hours. It was a completely conservative design similar to a “Corum-golden bridge” and is mentioned in Reinhard Meis’ book “Tourbillons”. Now with all my experience much less time is needed.
MF: I’ve heard that the real difficulty, and correspondingly time and cost, involves adjusting the mechanism. There’s a lot of trial and error in getting the movement to work just right. Why are tourbillons so expensive and so special?
RH: You are right – it takes an extremely long time to regulate a tourbillon really well. With some newer and more modern tourbillon designs it’s a little better – but the traditional ones are sometimes really weird.
It looks nice to have some diamond endstones on the cage bearings, but technically it’s the wrong way — the really good old observatory chronometer tourbillons, which were the “crme de la crme”, never had features like that. The main specialty is the look of the watch — to see and sometimes to feel the heartbeat of this little thing, especially if you spend a month to get to the point where it moves the very first time.
A lot of today’s wristwatch tourbillon designs are made “to look nice” and to reflect watchmaking art; they are not really made for excellent timekeeping. The general developments during the last 50 years (monometallic balances, Nivarox-hairsprings, better mainsprings, and so on) closed the gap between “normal” mechanical movements and tourbillons quite a lot. Sometimes today it’s even difficult to get the same results between a regular movement and the same parts inside a tourbillon due to the greater mass of the cage that needs to be driven all the time.
MF: Could you tell us about the one that you just finished -Number15?
RH: It’s a flying design using ball bearings and has an ETA 6498 chronometer base. It’s extremely solid, functional, relatively easy to produce and assemble, and with good timing results. And it’s a beauty – especially when compared to others at the lowest price level in the market. I call it the “sports tourbillon”; it features a diving watch case inspired by Italian examples from the 40s. This one closes 14 years of continuous tourbillon movement development – and I can’t do it any better!
MF: What are your plans for the future?
RH: Spending much more time on the workbench. There are still a lot of things to do for me. I am thinking about producing a small series of my latest and most perfect tourbillon. There also are still a few ideas about perpetual calendars and worldtimers and finally, as a Divemaster. I need a diving watch with depthmeter. I could not get one of the 500 that IWC produced.
MF: As you look to the future, is there any guiding principle?
RH: I’ve been fortunate to have great teachers. I will try to remember at all times what I’ve learned!
MF: Thank you and good luck.
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