Urban Jürgensen, Then And Now

The brand in context, examining the collectability of the Baumberger and Pratt era – plus Kari Voutilainen on what comes next.

This article was originaly written by Rich Fordon, Hodinkee, November 28, 2023

Jürgensen has always felt like a dirty word to me.

All the time I spent over the past decade searching vintage watch listings on eBay has made it challenging to understand why any watch bearing this family name would be considered... "elegant," "refined," or "important" – the words auction houses tend to associate with Jürgensen. In my recollection, this name is found on the dials of, at best, decently attractive 1970s Valjoux-powered chronographsand, at worst, "gold tone," quartz-powered Rolex Day-Date knockoffs.

Yet, at the insistence of my former colleague and current Phillips employee Logan Baker, I spent some time reviewing the videos and accompanying articleproduced by Phillips in support of a special exhibition dedicated to Urban Jürgensen.

And now I'm here to tell you that I was wrong in my original take on the Jürgensen name.

First off, yes, I am conflating Jules Jürgensen and Urban Jürgensen here. That is not only for the effect of this article. For most of history, Jules and Urban were linked as brand names, and today they are linked again. So, am I wrong to conflate the two? To be clear, unlike some other family names that are conflated in watchmaking (Piguet, Meylan), the Jürgensens sprout from the same Danish family tree, with Jules Frederik Jürgensen being one of Urban Jürgensen's sons.

An Urban Jürgensen pocket watch

Urban Jürgensen serial number 11, 1821. Image: courtesy of Phillips

An Urban Jürgensen pocket watch

The Jürgensen family's rich history and the four-plus generations of watchmaking are where it is quite easy to get lost. Some of that history, especially the corporate structure during the early and mid-20th century, goes a long way in understanding why the brand identity cheapened, especially in America, over the years.

In partnership with Dr. Helmut Crott, the Phillips content does a great job of fully explaining the historical context, as does John M.R. Knudsen's The Jurgensen Dynasty – both recommended reading. Here, I provide the necessary context and will eventually focus on the latest generation of Jürgensen watches, those produced under the guidance of Peter Baumberger and Derek Pratt in the 1980s and 1990s. These are becoming increasingly collectible and offer the greatest opportunity for inspiration for Kari Voutilainen, Urban Jürgensen's new CEO, who has been tasked with bringing the brand back into the limelight.

A Necessary History Of Early Jürgensen Watchmaking

The story starts with Jørgen Jürgensen, an early Danish watchmaker, in 1773. To give a sense of what Danish watchmaking looked like in the late 1700s, around 20 craftsmen were registered to the trade in Copenhagen. Before Jørgen received Royal support for his business in 1781, the majority of watches in Denmark were imported and of low quality. He successfully made the case over many years that with the government's support, he could create a true domestic industry. As a result, Jørgen can be described as the father of Danish watchmaking. He trained apprentices and was given the right to run a manufacturer. This right was even extended to his sons... "if they possessed the necessary competence for the task."

Jørgen's eldest son, Urban Jürgensen, proved to possess more than the necessary competence. Born in 1776, Urban was incredibly intelligent, leaving Copenhagen at the age of 21 after Jørgen decided he had learned all that he could in his home country. His travels brought him to Le Locle, studying under Jacques-Frédéric Houriet; to Paris, to learn from Abraham-Louis Breguet and Ferdinand Berthoud; and then to London, apprenticing for John Arnold and John Brockbank.

An Urban Jürgensen deck watch chronometer, 1812

An Urban Jürgensen deck watch chronometer with Arnold's spring detent escapement, serial number 56, 1812. Image: courtesy of Phillips

An Urban Jürgensen deck watch chronometer

Urban Jürgensen was one of the best-trained watchmakers in the world by the time he returned to Copenhagen in 1801 – and he backed it up. Before his death in 1830, he produced over 700 watches, including 45 marine chronometers.

Urban experimented with various escapement technologies he had encountered during his travels, working with various ébauches, but he certainly preferred the chronometer or detent escapement. He even improved upon the work of Thomas Earnshaw and John Arnold in England by developing the detached double-wheel chronometer escapement toward the end of his career.

Jørgen established the idea of Danish watchmaking, and Urban ran with it – particularly with an eye for scientific precision and accuracy.

An Urban Jürgensen marine chronometer deck watch, 1821

Urban's magnum opus – a marine chronometer deck watch with Arnold spring detent escapement ordered by Danish King Frederik VI and subsequently gifted to Russian naval officer and geographer Baron von Krusenstern, serial number 11, 1821. Image: courtesy of Phillips

A Necessary History Of Jules Jürgensen

So, if all sounds good with Jørgen and Urban in the first 60 years of Jürgensen watchmaking, How did I come to view the name as standing for cheap eBay watches? Part of the reason is because I didn't know the work of these two men well enough, and part of it is because of what occurred over the next 150 years.

Following Urban's death, the story of the Jürgensen dynasty begins to devolve. While some special watches were produced, the subsequent Jürgensen generations lacked a truly groundbreaking watchmaker. The Danish company was Urban Jürgensen & Sønner by 1891; then, Urban Jürgensen & Sønner Eftf in 1886. Meanwhile, one of Urban's sons, Jules Frederik, moved to Switzerland and established a subsidiary branch. Jules (I) had two sons, Jules (II) and Jacques Alfred, the latter of which created his own brand under Jacques Alfred Jürgensen Locle in 1865, the first full break away from the family business.

A Jaques Alfred Jürgensen splits second pocket watch, 1884

A Jaques Alfred Jürgensen splits second pocket watch with flying fifths of a second, serial number 1197, 1884. Image: courtesy of Christie's

See how it gets messy?

By 1919, Ed. Heuer & Co. (right, that same Heuer) purchased the Swiss Jürgensen operation. The idea of Heuer purchasing Jürgensen piqued my interest. Dr. Helmut Crott, a preeminent expert, collector, and one-time owner of the brand, positions the move as an early attempt by Heuer to sell into the burgeoning U.S. market. The Jules(es) focused on thinner Art Deco-styled watches around the turn of the 20th century, finding massive success.

"The name of Jürgensen was, especially in America, so famous," says Crott. "When Americans came to Europe, and they went into a watch shop of high quality they said, I want a Jürgensen." To me, a lover of vintage sports watches, Heuer using the Jürgensen name to market high-quality watches is mind-blowing. Considering what we know now and how much success Heuer had in the U.S. under Jack Heuer in the 1960s, this move 40 years earlier is all the more intriguing.

Heuer handled the regulation and assembly of Jules Jürgensen watches using ébauches from LeCoultre and Victorin Piguet – the same suppliers as Patek Philippe. Specifically, by utilizing a distributor in the U.S., the purchase proved to be a fruitful venture.

A Jules Jürgensen digital pocket watch, 1930

A Jules Jürgensen digital pocket watch with American calendar, serial number 17620, 1930. Image: courtesy of Antiquorum

Okay, but where did all this go wrong, leaving this American thinking the Jürgensen brand name was more synonymous with, say, Caravelle or Wyler than Patek? For some reason, I can't quite hear 2 Chainz name-checking Jules Jürgensen.

The Heuer ownership was ultimately short-lived. Due to macroeconomic headwinds resulting from World War I and the Great Depression, the Jules Jürgensen name was sold in 1936 to an American company. This began a chain of American ownership that resulted in many of the cheap and low-quality watches I knew.

Leave it to the Americans to take a great brand name and commercialize it to death. Ultimately, from 1936 into the 2000s, Jules Jurgensen was sold stateside four times – with seemingly cheaper watches produced after each sale – until fizzling out entirely.

The First Revival - Urban Jürgensen & Baumberger & Pratt?

Back in Denmark, Urban Jürgensen existed for much of the 20th century as a small distributor of Swiss watches (including those from Jules), a repair center, and a museum.

Peter Baumberger

Peter Baumberger holding Derek Pratt's masterpiece, "The Oval", and wearing a ref. 3. Image: courtesy of Europa Star

That is until a Swiss entrepreneur and watchmaker named Peter Baumberger happened to be in Copenhagen in 1976. Baumberger was visiting friends and wandered into an exhibit celebrating the greatest Danish watchmaker to ever live. Floored by what he saw and after years of persuasion, he purchased the rights to Urban Jürgensen in 1979. Much of this persuasion involved leveraging a friend, the heralded Derek Pratt. It was only after showing the representatives of Jürgensen a watch that Pratt had been working on for five years that Baumberger was allowed to finally purchase the brand.

Much can be read about Derek Pratt, but to put it simply, he was old school – making watches entirely by hand, the same way that we now praise some of the biggest names in watchmaking for, before it was cool. Born in England and spending most of his life in Switzerland, Pratt developed his own movements (oftentimes making every component, down to the screws, by hand) and was well known around the industry for his mastery of hand guillochéd dials – not dissimilar to Jürgensen's current CEO.

Derek Pratt

Derek Pratt applies a hand-guilloché finish. Image courtesy of Peter Baumberger in Derek Pratt: Watchmaker.

Being English and obsessed with handmade watches, it should come as no surprise that he was close with George Daniels. The two spoke weekly, and rumor has it that Pratt machined the small pinion needed to create the thin co-axial escapement. Pratt also served as somewhat of a spokesman for Daniels in Switzerland, as he spoke Swiss-German and French. It was Pratt who shopped the co-axial escapement technology around Geneva first, unsuccessfully, to Patek and then, successfully, to Omega.

Baumberger and Pratt built a relationship thanks to Baumberger collecting antique pocket watches, which were so complex that Pratt was among the few people in the world who could fix them. In 1982, Pratt was hired as Urban Jürgensen's Technical Director, and the two were off and running.

A skeletonized twin-barrel one-minute tourbillion by Derek Pratt for Urban Jürgensen, 1987

A skeletonized twin-barrel one-minute tourbillion by Derek Pratt for Urban Jürgensen, serial number 3055, 1987. Image: courtesy of Christie's

A perpetual calendar with moon phase and minute repeater pocket watch by Derek Pratt for Urban Jürgensen, 1983

A perpetual calendar with moon phase and minute repeater pocket watch by Derek Pratt for Urban Jürgensen, serial number 3024, 1983. Image: courtesy of Phillips

Between 1982 and 2010, Urban Jürgensen introduced and produced 11 wristwatch references, numbered ref. 1 through ref. 11. I like the straightforwardness of these guys. Some were serially made, others were not (like the Dali-esque ref. 7 Diaplago), but the three that are most collectible today, in my opinion, are the ref. 1, 2, and 3.

Urban Jürgensen - Reference 1

An Urban Jürgensen ref. 1 in yellow gold

An Urban Jürgensen ref. 1 in yellow gold, 1982. Image: courtesy of Phillips

After Pratt was brought on board in 1982, production of the ref. 1 started immediately. There was another side of the brand at this time dedicated to creating masterpiece pocket watches, much of that handled by Pratt, but to really make a splash, they needed a wristwatch. Don't breeze by the decade we are in without context; we're talking about the tail end of the "Quartz Crisis" here. Urban Jürgensen was doing things the old way, extremely by hand, when it certainly was not the smartest business plan.

Of course, to Baumberger and Pratt, there was no other way.

The first major splash came with the ref. 1. Featuring a triple calendar, moon-phase, and chronograph, the self-winding watch had a unique case with a stepped bezel and small teardrop lugs. The case is very reminiscent of 19th-century pocket watches; the crown, pushers, and lugs all feel like they're trying to stay out of the way visually. The lugs are expertly soldered to the main case, showing no signs of this separate construction.

The dial of an Urban Jürgensen ref. 1

The dial of an Urban Jürgensen ref. 1, 1982. Image: courtesy of A Collected Man

Hand guilloché work is featured on the dial in two different patterns for the center section and sub-registers. Many presume this to be the direct work of Pratt as is the case with all dials of the first three references, though Jürgensen operated three workshops at this time. The finishing is next level, and the watch-nerd details are seemingly endless, like the blued hands for those pertaining to the chronograph and gold Breguet-style hands for time-telling, or even the blue day and month discs.

The movement inside is a Zenith El Primero ébauche, old stock from the '60s that Baumberger ordered in 1978 and 1979 – years before Ebel and Rolex.

186 examples of the ref. 1 were produced between 1982 and 1986.

Urban Jürgensen - Reference 2

An Urban Jürgensen ref. 2 in yellow gold

An Urban Jürgensen ref. 2 in yellow gold, 1986. Image: courtesy of Phillips

If the ref. 1 was a splash, then the ref. 2 symbolized Baumberger and Pratt diving into the deep end. As opposed to a more commercially viable and repeatable product, the new-look Urban Jürgensen moved in the other direction. If there is a fault in the first wristwatch, it is certainly the somewhat "regular" ébauche base. Such is not the case for the Frédéric Piguet caliber 71 inside the ref. 2 – the same base was used by Breguet, Daniel Roth, and Blancpain in this era. Most obviously, the second wristwatch from the brand drops a chronograph function while upgrading the triple calendar to a full-blown perpetual calendar. The perpetual calendar module sitting atop the Piguet base was developed by Lemania – Baumberger secured the rights to this module for the ref. 2.

The case aesthetic is similar to the first yet is more refined overall with a smaller diameter (38mm) and a thinner stepped bezel. The bezel in particular is far more elegant on the ref. 2 – more in line with the grace and class of the rest of the watch. The soldered teardrop lugs are still small but not quite as tiny relative to the package when compared to its older brother – an improvement in my eyes.

An Urban Jurgensen ref. 2 in platinum

An Urban Jurgensen ref. 2 in platinum. Image: courtesy of @Bazamu

Technical Director Pratt once again flaunts his prowess with a dual patterned, hand-guillochéd dial, and we have the first appearance of observatoire hands. This is a shape that takes hold at UJ, one that I am sure we are going to see from the brand going forward. Separate cartouches carry the brand name and the watch's unique serial number placed in arcs of different degrees, mimicking the curvature of the moon-phase cutout and Moon on the disc, respectively – a tiny detail that balances out the top portion of the dial and reminds me of contextual architecture. Speaking of the moon-phase disc, it is handmade. A polished and blued steel base has the moon and stars individually punched in and inlaid with solid gold.

175 examples of the ref. 2 were produced starting in 1986. 50 pieces are believed to have been made in platinum, with the rest in gold.

Urban Jürgensen - Reference 3

An Urban Jürgensen ref. 3 in yellow gold

An Urban Jürgensen ref. 3 in yellow gold. Image courtesy of Phillips.

There is one obvious "flaw" with the ref. 2; it is a perpetual calendar function that, while self-winding, does not feature a power reserve indicator. This is especially important for a perpetual that opts to not display a leap year indicator, as was the decision by Baumberger and Pratt for these two references. You can see what I am getting at here: the ref. 3 solves that "flaw" and adds a power reserve indicator at 12 o'clock. This was no simple fix. The development of this updated module was a long, grueling, and expensive process – so much so that Dr. Crott describes that it led to "financial difficulties" at Urban Jürgensen for the first time since the two friends took over.

Other than the power reserve hand, the ref. 3 is beautiful, handmade, and identical to the reference prior. While it may seem like a trivial difference, this addition goes a long way in making the dial layout more symmetrical and complete in my eyes. The result is what I think is the ultimate Urban Jürgensen wristwatch to be serially produced in the Baumberger and Pratt era.

An Urban Jürgensen ref. 3 in platinum

An Urban Jürgensen ref. 3 in platinum. Image: courtesy of A Collected Man

One criticism of the Jürgensen perpetual calendars such as the ref. 2 and 3, is the lack of a leap year indicator. While only possibly an annoyance once a year, if at all, it's worth noting that you don't quite know if the watch is set correctly. Voutilainen believes that Baumberger had an issue with the aesthetics of a leap-year indicator taking up space on the brand's expertly crafted dials. Even when Jürgensen did opt to show this detail on pocket watches, it did so in a very odd way by blending the leap year into an expanded month indicator. A full four years of months are displayed on the register with a simple red January to depict the leap year.

Fewer than 100 examples of the ref. 3 were produced starting in 1993 in both gold and platinum.

The Second Coming Revival - Urban Jürgensen Under Kari Voutilainen

Kari Voutilainen

Kari Voutilainen.

Sadly, Derek Pratt passed in 2009, and Peter Baumberger in 2010. Toward the end of their involvement with Urban Jürgensen, the two were working to present a wristwatch with a new patented pivoted detent chronometer escapement. That work was handed over to ​​Jean-Francois Mojon, who saw it to fruition with the in-house P8 caliber inside the ref. 11C SC, presented at Baselworld in 2011 and awarded the Men's Watch Prize at the 2014 GPHG.

In November of 2021, Kari Voutilainen led a group of investors to acquire Urban Jürgensen and announced himself as CEO – we spoke with him right after the news broke. Since then, the watch world has been waiting.

Voutilainen's involvement with Urban Jürgensen did not begin in 2021, he previously worked for Baumberger finishing dials for the brand in the 1990s and even finished work on an Oval pocket watch made by Derek Pratt, in 2006. His time working with Baumberger, Pratt, and the Jürgensen brand clearly influenced the aesthetics of Voutilainen's watchmaking.

Oval No. 1 or

Oval No. 1 or "The Oval" by Derek Pratt for Urban Jürgensen and finished by Kari Voutilainen in 2006. Image: courtesy of Phillips

This year is the 250th anniversary of Urban Jürgensen's founding. Since stepping in, Voutilainen has been planning what is next for the brand. While splitting time with his eponymous brand, much has been done to bolster Jürgensen's workshop of currently eight – and, by the end of the year, ten – watchmakers. The head of that Bienne workshop is Voutilainen's daughter, Venla – making the Urban Jürgensen brand, once again, a family affair.

When we last spoke to Voutilainen on the topic of his "new" venture, we heard that his initial work was focused on servicing older Jürgensen pieces, and new watches were to be expected this year, in 2023, to celebrate the big anniversary. While work is still progressing toward new models, the timeline, he says, is now "most probably next year." Anniversary years are important, but Voutilainen is prioritizing a finalized product at release.

"I think it's better to wait and do things properly and then present things when they are ready – and ready for the delivery," says Voutilainen.

After connecting with Voutilainen, his passion for Urban Jürgensen is abundantly clear, as is how careful he plans to be in handling a brand with such a rich history. As any watchmaker should be, he is a bit coy in terms of what is coming, but it is clear he has the utmost respect for the 250 years of watchmaking that came before his involvement. Voutilainen is especially interested in the watches produced by Urban Jürgensen, the man, and the later wristwatches from the Baumberger and Pratt era.

An Urban Jürgensen ref. 2 in platinum

The dial of an Urban Jurgensen ref. 2 in platinum. Image: courtesy of Bazamu

"Urban Jürgensen in the 19th century was a reference," he says. "This brand already existed for more than 100 years when Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet started their production." For wristwatches, Voutilainen calls out references one, two, and three as the highlights aesthetically.

"There's no need to invent new history at all because we have everything available, but it will be a new collection, new movements, and so on," Voutilainen says.

When asked if the distinct hands and lugs of the Baumberger and Pratt era will be featured prominently in what's next, Voutilainen simply responded: "Well, time will tell."