Independent Watchmaking – In Conversation with Steffen Cornehl, Founder Of Cornehl Watches
by Tom Mulraney
Chances are, you’ve never heard the name Steffen Cornehl before. That’s because he is an independent watchmaker of the more obscure variety. He doesn’t come from one of the major brands, nor is he based in Switzerland. Instead, he works out of a small studio in Stuttgart, Germany, where he restores antique clocks and vintage watches, while slowly building a following of dedicated enthusiasts for his own watches. His customers appreciate his passion for handcrafting historically-inspired watches using traditional techniques, as well as the degree of customization he offers. Not to mention his exceedingly reasonable prices.
After coming across some of Steffen’s creations, we were curious to learn more, so we set up an interview. Here’s what he had to say.
CAN YOU TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?
I was born in a family of craftsmen. My father and my grandfather were master bakers and confectioners. They had their own family business. School was rather boring for me and I was not a good student. As a teenager, I wanted to study Biology, but my teachers told me: you are too lazy. When I look back at the time as a teenager it seems ridiculous to me now, because what drives me today is learning. As a watchmaker making my own watches, I learn something new every day, discovering the traditional methods of watchmaking. Working hard and learning really fuels me and gives me joy.
Ironically, it was only after school that I really started to learn, and I’ve never stopped. First, I made an apprenticeship in retail sales in a jeweller in Lueneburg, North Germany. After finishing that I continued at the watchmaking school in Hamburg. Then I started to work in after-sales service as a watchmaker, first at another jeweller and then later at Blancpain. I took the master class of watchmaking in Kalstein, Austria.
Later I studied Industrial Engineering and Management, worked as an engineer in product development and production before I worked in education for a Christian organization. Finally, I started my own watch business. I don’t care about the job titles. This list just shows I love to learn and love to pass it on.
YOU SAID YOUR FIRST JOB AS A WATCHMAKER WAS IN AFTER-SALES SERVICE. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
Yes, I worked in the after-sales service of a jeweller in Reutlingen, Germany. Here I learned how to service watches from Rolex, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, etc. It was also my first contact with the world of Haute Horlogerie. It was 1998. During that time, it was still possible for brand representatives with a good after-sales service to do adjustments on watches with complications like a perpetual calendar. I still remember my first AP perpetual calendar.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN REPAIRING ANTIQUE CLOCKS AND VINTAGE WATCHES?
For over 20 years now. After my apprenticeship to become a watchmaker (1997) I started to learn how to repair antique clocks and vintage watches. It was something that I did in my free time besides my job as a watchmaker. I would visit different master watchmakers and ask them to teach me. Things like turning a balance staff, making a verge for a verge escapement, making wheels and pinions for clocks and also for watches.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO MAKE YOUR OWN WATCHES, AND WHY?
Very early during my time at the watchmaking school in Hamburg, I was already dreaming of making my own watches. The first timekeeper I made was a PPC (Precision Pendulum Clock). Hamburg is a city with a harbour and a famous observatory and the school museum houses quite a few mother clocks, marine chronometers, and deck watches. During that time, I fell in love with the PPC’s from Strasser & Rode, Riefler, Kittel, and other great watchmakers. I wanted to own such a clock.
When my friend and I found out that you have to pay upwards of 20,000 bucks to own a pendulum clock, we said to each other “we’re studying to become watchmakers, so let’s just make our own PPC”. We started this project in parallel to the normal programme of apprenticeship at the school. The teachers supported us and were excited because of the passion they saw in the two of us.
HOW DOES YOUR WORK REPAIRING OLD CLOCKS AND WATCHES INFLUENCE THE DESIGN OF YOUR NEW WATCHES?
It is the ultimate source of information and inspiration for my new watches. I am always amazed when I see an old pocket watch from the likes of Lange & Söhne or Breguet and conclude: wow, that is a beautiful watch. Even after 100, 150 or even 200 years, the design is still considered beautiful. The masters at that time were able to create and design their watches according to some universal laws of aesthetics (I’m paraphrasing from George Daniels). I want to create my watches according to these laws as well. It is a quest to figure this out: what makes a watch still compelling, admirable and adorable after 150 years?
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO CUSTOMIZE EACH MOVEMENT?
Right now, my watches are based on a pocket watch movement from the 1970s: the Unitas 6498. This movement is very reliable, and its design is very robust. On average, I spend around 35-40 hours on each movement, including making the hands. For the regulator, this is typically a bit longer.
DO YOU DO ALL THE WORK YOURSELF OR DO HAVE OTHER PEOPLE/COMPANIES HELPING YOU?
I do most of the work myself, principally because I want to learn how to do it. I have started to build up a small team of enthusiasts (people and companies) and we are developing the watchmaking and the craftsmanship further. I realized it’s much more fun to work in a team. Of course, as a watchmaker, you need to be able to work alone. You regularly sit for hours at your bench, crafting the components of the watch piece by piece.
WHY DO YOU THINK YOUR CLIENTS CHOOSE TO BUY A CORNEHL WATCH?
There are various reasons. Usually, they love mechanical watches and have already some significant pieces from the big brands on the wrist or at home. Now they have started to search for more individual and unique watches. They are adventurous enough to buy from a rather unknown independent watchmaker.
Some see the face of my watches and think: “wait a minute, that looks interesting!”. Then they try to figure out what it is and fall in love with it. Some see the movement first and get hooked. Looking through the sapphire glass on the back of my watches is like looking into history viewing a German watch from 120 years ago. The real enthusiasts of craftsmanship see the hand finishing, then the price and they just order because they know this level of hand finishing has a higher value. But because I am still building my expertise and my reputation, I chose to start low and develop from there as my watches become better and better piece by piece as I hone my craft.
Usually, in watchmaking, people look for perfection. But if a product is perfect, it is dead. In life, everything is a process. Of course, my goal is perfection but I will be always on the way towards it. No matter how good something is, it’s always possible to make it a bit better the next time. Therefore, my philosophy is: people can see and observe my process of improving. When you see pictures of my early watches, they are horrible. But being able to see the process of learning and improving the craft is wonderful.
In the end, I believe people don’t buy a watch, they buy the watchmaker and his reasons for making watches. As of now, my WHY is threefold:
- TIME – watches and making watches helps me to think and value the most precious resource that I have, my lifetime. The time that I have in my life is a gift and with my watches, I pass on this gift. In every watch, I give a little bit of my time, my love and my passion. Hopefully, it helps its owner to be reminded of his or her lifetime.
- LEARNING – I love to learn, to develop my skills to try out new things. It is the same with children (I have two of them so far), they learn the new things every day with a speed that is just incredible and a joy to observe. I want to inspire people to be bold and create their own environment in which they can learn, develop skills, attitude, character, and personality. My learning environment is my watchmaking studio and my family.
- UNIQUENESS – You are unique, your life is unique. Life is too short to just wear a watch that millions of other people wear as well. Every CORNEHL watch is unique.
APPROXIMATELY HOW MANY WATCHES DO YOU MAKE EACH YEAR?
This is still developing. Right now, 20-30 pieces a year. My goal is not to make as many as possible though, but rather to make each watch as good as possible. I am developing a new in-house movement right now. It is a huge project for me that is taking many, many hours. I could use the time to sell more watches, but I’d rather choose to create something new.
THAT SOUNDS INTERESTING, IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU CAN TELL US ABOUT THE IN-HOUSE MOVEMENT?
Ha ha, yes. At the moment, I am still in the design stage. It will be a very simple movement. As Mr Stern (Patek Philippe) puts it though: “To develop a simple movement is a very difficult task.” I think he is right, and I think we can agree he is a man who knows what he is talking about. With that in mind, all I can say so far is that the movement will be between 30mm and 32mm in diameter.
All photos by Billy Simon.