Unbuckle your trusty timepiece, suspend your belief, and imagine — for just a brief moment — a world without watches. A world without chronographs or chronometers, without intricately-ticking tourbillons or the digital displays of more modern models. It’s an odd thought; an atypical hypothetical. But it’s exactly where Belgian designer Benoît Mintiens began when starting-up his revolutionary watch brand; Ressence.
Mintiens originally trained as an industrial designer — and had already turned his keen, creative eye to everything from luxury cars to fine furniture. But, around a decade ago, a friend asked him to design a wristwatch, and he took his first step into the meticulous world of watchmaking.
It was here and then that Mintiens discovered a perplexing, peculiar truth; that almost every luxury watch brand designs and develops its timepieces in an almost identical way.
This, Mintiens considered, was an opportunity. It struck the designer as strange that the small-scale art of horology should be so uniformly approached across the board — and so he set about reinventing the wristwatch. He blended the words ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Essence’ to create a thoroughly modern mission statement and, after winding his imagination back to a world without watches, created a new way to tell time. So how did he do it?
“By allowing myself the freedom to start with the function of the watch,” Mintiens tells Gentleman’s Journal, “rather than its movement. By setting free the two or three centrally-mounted hands. By literally starting with a blank sheet and saying; ‘Okay, how can I express time using the tool a watch should be?’”.
The answer, Mintiens adds, was surprisingly simple. Instead of creating a dial design that sets its hands, face and subdials on separate — if incrementally different — levels, the Ressence founder would display every function on the same face; one flush to the dial itself. There would be no floating hands, no obstructed indices and no difficulty reading the time. And, whether it be seconds or days, each unit of time would get its own dedicated subdial.
“Putting one piece of information per subdial affords simplicity,” says Mintiens, “mimicking the perpetual evolution of time by presenting the wearer with a dial in perpetual movement. It’s called the ‘Ressence Orbital Convex System’, or ‘ROCS’. And, by placing everything on the same level, and separating the information, it makes for an easier read for your eyes. On any Ressence, the dial will be different every time you look at it — just like time itself”.
Over the years, the Antwerp-based brand has launched a selection of similarly-designed watches — all pivoting around the iconic, innovative ‘ROCS’ dial design. The first prototypes launched at the BaselWorld watch fair in 2010; where Mintiens, armed with just a display table and a trio of prototypes, arrived to explain his vision to the wider watchmaking world.
“And, as is often the case with innovators,” Mintiens recalls, “many admired the research and complexity of the watchmaking — but fewer were convinced that it could work, either technically or within the watch market. But I was convinced it would — and so I kept on improving my designs and the technology”.
“The dial will be different every time you look at it…”
And improve the watches did. During the course of the last decade, Ressence watches have revolutionised the world of modern luxury watchmaking. The single-level ‘ROCS’ dial was just the beginning of Mintiens crusade; subsequent models have made use of hydraulic shock absorbers, dual time zone indicators and even oil.
That’s right; oil. The ‘Type 3’ and ‘Type 5’ models from the brand both feature an oil-filled upper half that affords the wearer incredible levels of legibility from every angle. The jet black liquid absorbs any light, counters errant reflections — and even makes the watches perfectly readable when deep underwater (the ‘Type 5’ has an impressive water resistance rating of 10 ATM; safe to depths of 330 feet).
But oil expands with temperature — which forced Mintiens to get even more mechanical. To facilitate the already groundbreaking addition of oil to his timepieces, the industrial designer had to develop an intricate series of seven minuscule bellows; the jewel in the crown of Ressence’s elaborate self-equilibrating pressure-balance system.
If that weren’t already impressive enough, there are also magnets in play. To prevent oil leaking into the movements, the ‘Type 3’ and ‘Type 5’ models are split into two independent chambers, and utilise advanced micro magnetic transmission to allow each half to ‘speak’ to the other. It’s excruciatingly complex, and almost impossible to believe that this — like every other element in these pioneering watches — is purely mechanical.
And yet, Mintiens tells us, this endless problem-solving and constant technical trailblazing is necessary to deliver the best product possible to the ‘user’.
“We design fine watches for the 21st century,” says the designer, “and indeed, we place the user at the core of everything we do. We strongly believe that the product must be adapted to the user, and not the inverse. Because, with the technology available today, and the development of knowledge, I feel it shouldn’t anymore be the user’s responsibility to learn how to use a product.
“It should be clear, and intuitive,” he says. And every model Ressence has ever revealed is steeped in this selfless ideology. From the ‘Type 1’, revealed in 2014, to this year’s stripped-back, pared-down ‘Type 8’, every single one of Mintiens’ designs was created to be as instinctual and inherently easy-to-use as possible.
Setting the time is a typically tactile, practical affair. Customers control Ressence’s crown-less watches using an innovative rotating sapphire case-back; yet another user-friendly flourish to add to the brand’s lengthy and sector-subverting list of innovations. Because, as Mintiens is keen to reiterate, everything is driven by the wants and needs of the ‘user’ — with nothing constrained by tradition or trends.
Even the brand’s release schedule doesn’t resemble that of other watchmakers. Instead of working towards specific, market-led launch dates for its new models, Ressence only unveils a new ‘Type’ when it’s innovated a watch worth sharing. And, even if that means you have to wait a little longer for the next chapter in the brand’s state-of-the-art story, Mintiens stands by his merit-based business plan.
“While we regularly unveil new watches, sometimes new colours, collaborations and special editions, there’s no rule. New ‘Types’ have approximately been released every two years, give or take. But we only unveil when the innovation is needed, useful — and, most importantly, functional”.
But don’t panic that you might miss then next reveal from Ressence. Gentleman’s Journal will be on hand (or should that be wrist?) to keep you updated with the latest, most gripping inventions and innovations from the Belgian brand. So watch this space, broaden your mind — and prepare yourself for the future of watchmaking…
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