The Watchmaker of the impossible

Svend Andersen is a living legend among watchmakers. Two watches in our museum illustrate his virtuoso playfulness.

It’s hard to imagine Svend Andersen without his glasses with the flip-up loupe, so wedded is Danish-born Svend to watchmaking. Even now, when we pay him a visit on the last day of his holiday in his country house in Fort l’Écluse near Geneva, the octogenarian is already thinking about his work again: “I’m sure I’ll have a lot of work waiting for me in the studio again tomorrow. But today I’m looking forward to picking vegetables – I guess that’s a holdover from my rural origins.”

Born in 1942, Svend Andersen grew up on a farm in southern Denmark, where he discovered a passion for mechanics at an early age. “To begin with, it was mainly bicycles that were always in need of repair,” he smiles. After school, he applied for an apprenticeship with a company that built precision maritime instruments. He would have got the position, but the chamber of commerce advised his father against it: “They said the company could go bust the next year.” So he applied to a watchmaker near the German border, where he pursued and completed his apprenticeship.

But then he wanted to know how the watches he had taken apart and repaired so often were made, so he travelled to Switzerland in September 1963. “The job offers from the watch factories were half as well paid as those of the watch shops, and they were even more pleased to have a watchmaker who also spoke English. That’s why I first went to work for a watchmaker in Valais – I had never seen real mountains before in my life.”


This was followed by five years at Gübelin in Lucerne and Geneva, a phase in which Andersen began to work more and more on his own projects in his spare time. He soon presented his first creation to the public: a bottle with a clock inside instead of the more common ship-ina- bottle he knew from his home country. He had manoeuvred the components of the movement and the dial, which was cut into strips, through the 18-millimetre neck of the bottle with the help of specially made tools, and assembled them inside. Within a short time, the bottle clock made it onto front pages around the world. From then on, Andersen was known as the “Watchmaker of the Impossible”.


The publicity earned him his next post, every watchmaker’s dream: he was allowed to work at Patek Philippe in the “Atelier des grandes complications”, where he contributed his inventive talent for nine years. In 1979, he went self-employed and founded his own workshop, making pocket watches for collectors and increasingly wristwatches with custom complications. In 1985, he founded an international association of independent watchmakers, the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, or AHCI for short (see box). It is still the leading platform for freelance watchmakers today.

“One of my most important clients from the founding of my own atelier was Theodor Beyer. He sold four of my bottle clocks and also helped me with my naturalisation application,” Andersen recalls. The bottle clock in the Beyer Museum is already a further development made of double-walled glass – this time the clock was inserted through an opening in the bottom of the bottle: “It’s kind of a bottle within a bottle. That lets you fill the bottle with a liquid, without drowning the watch. I don’t know what kind of schnapps is in there, though: I gave Theodor Beyer the bottle empty, he filled it himself.”


Andersen reflects briefly before telling the story of the smallest wristwatch with a calendar, which is part of the Beyer collection: “One day I heard from a French collector that a safe in Paris, which had been locked since 1939, had been opened and contained, among other things, 15 tiny LeCoultre movements. The collector asked if I was interested in the movements.” Andersen jumped at the chance, although he did not yet have any idea what he would do with the movements.

“I saw a fountain pen with a built-in mechanical calendar in an auction house, and suddenly the idea struck me.” In 1989, the world’s smallest watch with a mechanical calendar was finished; it even made it into the Guinness Book of Records. After Beyer Chronometrie had managed to sell four of them, Theodor Beyer asked the genius watchmaker whether he might have another one for the museum. “But all that was left was the prototype, and it was in pieces,” Andersen says, becoming pensive: “Of course, it was an honour for us to reassemble this prototype for the Beyer Clock Museum. We had it photographed, created a documentation, but just when we had everything neatly finished, Teddy Beyer passed away.” In 2013, René Beyer took reception of the valuable gift to the Beyer Clock Museum from Svend Andersen.


At 80, a still-sprightly Svend Andersen runs a watchmaker’s workshop, where he makes even the seemingly impossible possible:

In the independent watchmaking scene, Svend Andersen is an anchor. Together with Vincent Calabrese, famous for his baguette-shaped movements, he founded the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI) in 1985 to offer a platform for independent watchmakers that would enable them to be better recognised at shared stands at watch exhibitions, for example, at the same time as keeping costs down. Today, the international association has 34 members: the AHCI has been a launch pad for watch brands such as Franck Muller, Urwerk and F.P.Journe, among others.

Beyer Chronometrie