The Story of the MB&F HM1
Our thanks to Max Büsser for his time, and to The Hour Glass for facilitating the interview. All photos are from MB&F.
Mention independent horology, and the discussions usually centre around beautifully hand-polished and spaceship-like watches. For those who are nerdier, it’s the names on the dials, and the people behind these creations, that make independent watchmaking wonderful and unique.
It’s quite possible to connect these independent watchmakers with each other, with the links forming something of a web. Peter Speake-Marin’s name is one that pops up quite a bit in this realm. Peter is known for his namesake manufacture, Speake-Marin, his watch dissections on The Naked Watchmaker, and more recently, launched Stoic, his new line of affordable watches.
Like Kari Voutilainen and the LM1, Peter Speake-Marin managed the design of the finish applied to the movement, and the detailing of bridges and components of the HM1. Much less known is the story of Peter, almost single-handedly, made the HM1 happen, and saved MB&F from being a stillborn project for Max Busser.
After leaving Harry Winston in 2005, Max set out to turn his vision of the HM1 into reality, and engaged a specialised company to develop, manufacture, and assemble the movements of that watch.
Below is the story, in Max’s own words, of how the HM1 almost never came to be, and why, without Peter Speake-Marin, there would be no MB&F.
“Without Peter, there would be no MB&F”
Transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Peter had basically the same role as Kari on the LM1. He had the design of the finishing, the design and detailing of the bridges and all that, which we started in 2005. In May 2006, the company in charge of developing the movement, manufacturing the parts and assembling the movements was suddenly sold overnight to a brand; the intent behind the purchase was for the brand to further integrate the operations of the company into its own operations, and had no plans to supply to third parties. However, following the takeover, the brand assured existing customers that “nothing was going to change”.
Anyway, I didn’t have much choice, they were doing everything so, please make it happen. It became a total nightmare. On 8th January 2007 (because dates like that are ingrained in your memory), with production already being months behind schedule, and a sizeable portion of the components still missing, I go up to see them and the owner of that brand, only for them to tell me, “I have taken a decision, we’re not going to assemble any of your movements.”
I pleaded and begged; it was the only time in my entire life I grovelled.
Peter was with me, and he saw that the guy didn’t give a damn so he took my leg and he said “Let it go, we’ll take care of it”.
This is at the beginning of 2007, months before the GFC. Minute repeaters, tourbillons, and all manner of hyper-complications are flying out the door and watchmakers were not lacking work. There simply aren’t any watchmakers to assemble these movements.
“Don’t worry, we'll take care of it.”
As we leave, the owner of The Brand announces that they’ll start delivering the first 5 kits in 10 days but 50 out of the 376 components are missing and no assembly plans will be provided. leaving us with just trays and trays of components.
As they head back to the car for their drive home, Peter pulls out his phone and starts ringing people. Independent watchmakers, assembling movements for Rene Papi, Christophe Claret, Ulysse Nardin etc, are all called up. The drive lasted for over two hours, and for the entire duration Peter is working the phone.
“Hey dude, my friend Max is in trouble.”
“Who the heck is Max!?”
“Look, that’s not the problem. He’s in trouble and we have to help him assemble his movements”.
As those words are muttered a wave of refusals and excuses start coming in: “No no no”, “I’ve got way too much work on my hands”, “I can’t”. Peter says to each of these watchmakers, “You owe me”. Peter is going to pull all his personal favours with these people, to help me. Now I’ve got massive goosebumps.
By the end of the drive, Peter has found four recruits, all alumni of WOSTEP. Peter maps the mountain ahead: in ten days, the four of them and Laurent Besse will meet at Peter’s workshop we’ve got the 5 kits (that are missing 50 components) and there are no assembly plans and it was like mission impossible; the kits need need to become working HM1s or MB&F is over before it even gets started.
Every two weeks we would assemble, and I’d watch these four watchmakers ask “what is this?!” and “where does this go?” as they start placing tools to the kits. During these moments, one of them will excitedly reply “oh yeah that thing! I had a problem with that, it goes here with that”.
And the HM1 is no ordinary watch. Featuring 376 components, 4 mainspring barrels mounted in series and parallel, separate hour and minute displays that hover around a central tourbillon, the team had their work cut out for them.
Five months fly by, and we still don’t have a single assembled and working movement. In June we manage to deliver the first 2 pieces. I was a week away from filing for bankruptcy. It was brutal. Why? Because I had already taken one third in advance from those dealers and spent all that money. I never expected it to take so much time and have so many issues. So I never gave myself a salary. So every single piece with delivered in 2007 was without margin. We manage to deliver 125 pieces between the HM1 and HM2 in 2008. Then in September, Lehman Brothers goes down. We took 175 pieces to production for SIHH 2009, and only got 17 orders. We survived, thanks the HM3. Those early years were insane, which makes me all the more serene today, because we survived.
So who were these guys?
Stephen McDonnell - Stephen McDonnell is better known as the mastermind behind the monster of a Legacy Machine that is the LMP. Stephen completely re-thought how a perpetual calendar should be designed. The foolproof calendar of the LMP is based around a 28-day month, with any extra days added on, avoiding the need for dates to be skipped from month to month. The escape wheel and the balance are split by the dial and are on opposing sides of the watch.
At the time of this story, Stephen was working at WOSTEP as a lecturer and would work on the HM1 in the evenings. As some of the components made by The Company were not of standard, Stephen often had to re-make these components by hand. Prior to his role at WOSTEP, Stephen had no formal education in watchmaking. His brilliance in watchmaking showed through his role in the HM1 project, as he was the one who often took the lead in troubleshooting issues.
Stephen McGonigle - Those familiar with independent watchmaking will recognise Stephen McGonigle is one of the McGonigle Brothers . Like Peter Speake-Marin, Stephen also spent his early days of watchmaking restoring antique watches at Somlo, before working on extremely complicated pieces at Christophe Claret, Franck Muller, and Breguet.
Stewart Lesemann - Of an American background, Stewart’s work will be recognisable to be most, but perhaps not often directly associated with him. Stewart was the man behind the assembly of Vianney Halter’s legendary Antiqua perpetual calendar. Currently, Stewart is working with Ron DeCorte on the Derek Pratt Wristwatch: a design that traces its roots from a project started by Derek and Stewart in 2008 featuring a one-second remontoir and floating bridge-less barrels.
Marco Koskinen - Marco is probably a bit different to most independent watchmakers, and starting his journey in the industry at (what would seem to be) a late age of 20. He has worked at Omega, Christophe Claret, and more notably, been responsible for high complications at Ulysse Nardin towards the turn of the millennium. Of Finnish background, Marco has also taught at the Finnish watchmaking school Kelloseppäkoulu. Currently he is the master watchmaker at Speake-Marin.