Snake Charmer

Urwerk’s evolves its ‘King Cobra’ to re-imagine timekeeping and time-telling

Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei, the men who founded Urwerk in 1995 (along with Thomas Baumgartner, who left in 2004), don’t do watches conventionally—even a cursory glance at their body of work will prove this. For example, the brand’s UR-CC1 “King Cobra” of 2009, though apparently influenced by a 1958 prototype piece made by Louis Cottier for Patek Philippe (it never went into production), displayed jumping hours and retrograde minutes on two horizontal cylinders. It also had both digital and linear seconds readouts. To say this time-telling method is unorthodox is to call journalists “nosy”—it’s simply stating the obvious.

Urwerk’s newly released UR-111C, available in 50 examples only (25 in polished steel, 25 in gunmetal finish), evolves the King Cobra’s traits and capabilities.

Take the UR-111C’s digital second display, found on the right bottom part of the case. It uses two wheels, with the digits 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 appearing on one, and 5, 15, 25, 35, 45 and 55 on the other. As these numerals cascade beneath a rounded sapphire crystal window, their image is projected on the conical glass by means of a process called image conduit, which basically relies on fiber optic strands. Urwerk says this is a first in watch-making. Most likely it is.

Also different with the UR-111C is its winding system. In this piece, taking the place of a conventional crown is a roller that’s integrated into the top of the case, which connects to the winding stem placed beneath it. To wind it, the component (actually a fluted cylinder that’s about as wide as the case itself) simply needs to be rolled by one’s thumb, similar to how a smartphone’s function can be browsed by merely “swiping” on the device’s screen. Urwerk explains this system “requires miniature gearing, complex articulations and intermediate wheels to connect the controls to the winding stem.” Setting the watch’s time is just as unusual; a lever on the side of the case needs to be swung out, then turned in either direction, which then rotates the roller.

At the opposite side of the UR-111C’s sci-fi seconds display, on the left side of the watch, is the one for the digital jumping hours. In between the hours and seconds displays is the big window for the retrograde minutes. The readout is presented diagonally, with the 0 numeral at the bottom at left and 60 on top. The minute readout is indicated by a marker on a rotating cylinder, which would quickly return—thanks to a spring that gets coiled as the cylinder rotates—to 0 after it has reached the 60 marker.

It’s a more complex way to present the minutes readout when compared to that in the King Cobra, which was “simply” horizontal and, thus, could be placed in line with the rotating cylinder that carried the helix marker along the track of minutes. Frei says the shift to a diagonal display in the UR-111C “set an extra challenge to Urwerk’s construction engineers.”

This unique touch, along with all the others, is matched by a special way by which the Swiss-made, self-winding, 37-jewel movement itself is placed into the case—it is inserted through the side. To do this, a few panels and the time-setting lever must first be removed.

Needless to say, the case is as distinctive as the various components for the movement are, even if it is less angular and menacing as that which defined the King Cobra. The UR-111C is more detailed, receiving some decorative lines, and is marked by softer contours and rounded edges. Its elements are arranged symmetrically for better balance, and the case’s shape drapes over the wrist rather than sit on top of it. With relatively sedate dimensions—42 millimeters wide, 46 millimeters long, 15 millimeters thick—the UR-111C is sized just enough for it to be imposing, but not overbearing. It’s a charming piece, actually.