When it comes to auctions it’s all about pedigree – and Urban Jürgensen is a purebred watchmaker whose stock is skyrocketing. CEO Søren Jenry Petersen reveals the secret to the Danish brand's success
At its most productive, Urban Jürgensen currently manufactures just two watches a day. The company has produced fewer than 600 timepieces since the 1970s. Few of the brand’s watches ever make their way to British shores. So, unless you’ve somewhere down the line acquired an invested interest in the loftier end of the Danish watch industry – and I’ll wager here that you haven’t – it’s probable that you’ve never heard of Urban Jürgensen. This isn’t the case for the rest of the world.
The company is particularly popular among the Japanese, says president and CEO Søren Jenry Petersen. In Japan, he explains, “people appreciate the similarities between handmade Urban Jürgensens, and the sort of skill required to make samurai swords.”
Other admirers include James Madison, the fourth President of the United States – the chap who drafted much of the U.S. Constitution, whose watch Petersen’s team is currently restoring – and at least one well-to-do aficionado at a Geneva auction last May.
There, eight months ago, an Urban Jürgensen pocket watch sold for just shy of half a million pounds – more than 12 times the catalogue estimate. It is thought to be only the third time a private collector has outbid the Patek Philippe museum.
“Everything connected with Urban Jürgensen has skyrocketed,” explains Petersen. “People no longer know how to value our watches – they go for 10 times the estimates.” So, why the sudden soar in stock?
In part, it has a lot to do with what happened in November 2014. Having entered its Ref 11 Chronometer Detent Escapement Central Second watch into Geneva’s Grand Prix d’ Horlogerie – more colloquially known as the ‘Oscars’ of the watch world – Urban Jürgensen’s timepiece scooped the award for ‘Best Man’s Watch’, which is just about the highest accolade a wristwatch can win. The prize propelled the watch manufacturer from relative obscurity into the collective consciousnesses of the wider watch community.
“You could argue that we did a good bit of business there,” laughs Petersen, an ex-Nokia director, who, along with four fellow Danish investors, had acquired the brand just a few weeks previous. “We certainly got a lot of marketing equity out of that little award.”
Having ridden out a tumultuous few decades, in which the company passed between various shareholders – including the celebrated watchmaker Peter Baumberger who revived the brand in the 1980s – Urban Jürgensen is now in full-blown resurgence.
“We’ve been managing this legendary company for almost two years,” says Petersen. “We brought out one new collection in 2015, the 1140 range, which was based on new cases and new dials on an already existing in-house movement. In 2016, we brought out a slightly more contemporary collection, the Jules, where each watch is equipped with an in-house perpetual calibre.
“We make our watches by hand so we can only do one or two a day. We aim to raise that number, but it’s not all about how quickly we can get to 400 retailers and 10,000 watches. We are not about what I call ‘Swatchification’.”
Urban Jürgensen’s entry-level watch, the Ref 1140L RG, will set you back CHF 27,900. That’s around £21,700. For that, you could get a yellow gold Patek Philippe Calatrava. Or a steel and everose gold Rolex Yacht-Master II, plus change. Surely you’d be mad to plump for the plucky Great Dane over the established Swiss industrialists?
“Patek and Rolex are marketing-type brands, they’re everywhere,” argues Petersen. “People who want something special look towards independent watchmakers – they understand the intrinsic value. For a lot of people, when they’re spending upwards of £10,000 on a watch, they want to know they are buying something that’s actually rare.”
It’s true, the likelihood of ever eyeing another Urban Jürgensen down the golf club is almost non-existent. But haute horology isn’t a space that’s short on maverick watchmakers pandering to the nonconformist. What separates Urban Jürgensen?
“We are a product company, not a marketing company,” says Petersen, gesturing, perhaps, towards certain avant-garde independents who invest heavily in sport sponsorship and celebratory ambassadors.
“There’s so much unconstrained product marketing these days, where you get these very forced stories: ‘We are working with this Formula 1 Racing Team, and we’ve taken a piece of titanium to produce this ultimate titanium Formula 1 watch’. It’s forced. People know that.”
You could buy an entire mechanical watch for less than it costs to make some of Urban Jürgensen’s dials. The brand is also nearly unique in manufacturing its own hands – a process which is so laborious, that any business that’s motivated purely by bottom line simply wouldn’t bother with.
“Most moon discs in the industry are gilded discs, or gold discs, with a template-printed blue sky and stars. We take a steel disc, drill out the holes for the moons, stamp the indentations for the stars, then melt gold into the star holes and press fit solid gold moons. Then the whole disc is thermally blued. After around 28 operations, you have an Urban Jürgensen moon disc.”
While Urban Jürgensen has been making watches almost continuously since 1773 – sandwiching the age of the brand between such esteemed watchmakers as Vacheron Constantin (1755) and Girard-Perregaux (1791) – Petersen only stumbled across the brand in 1993. He had entered a jewellers in Copenhagen with the view of purchasing a Patek Philippe – he left with an Urban Jürgensen. Twenty-one years later, when the opportunity arose, he purchased the watch company outright.
How, then, does Petersen hope to future-proof Urban Jürgensen for another two-and-a-half centuries? He uses Picasso to explain: “He never used a spray can, even though it was invented half way through his career. He was at the top of his game, he could have done whatever he wanted, but he never picked up a spray can. Urban Jürgensen shares this devotion. We are inspired by the old crafts, the original. We are dedicated to the honest way of doing things.”