Voutilainen: The Flying Finn Of Fine Watchmaking, Running Circles Round The Swiss
Five and a half million people and 77 billion trees. This rather bizarre ratio is actually one particularly good reason why Finland has produced more Formula 1 and World Rally champions per capita than any other country. Its densely forested back country, threaded with gravelly roads shrouded in snow and darkness for half the year, combined with the Finnish people’s stoic grit all explain Mika “Flying Finn” Hakkinen, Keke Rosberg, his son Nico, and Kimi Raikkonen’s success on the track.
So what could possibly explain Finland’s other disproportionately profligate populace, watchmakers? That stoic grit certainly helps, but a reckless boyhood tearing around forest tracks in a rusty Renault 5 can hardly be conducive to so many northern Scandinavians sitting, tweezers in hand, at the workbenches of so many top ateliers throughout Switzerland. Well, it comes down to a rather more prosaic reason, and that is Helsinki’s famed Kelloseppäkoulu watchmaking school. And its most famous and decorated alumnus – the Mika Hakkinen of watchmaking you could say – is Kari Voutilainen.
Since 2002 this softly spoken man in his mid-fifties has been turning out a highly limited number of purebred, hand-crafted future classics, deep in the heart of the Swiss Jura mountains. Every single Voutilainen watch is a lesson in exacting horology, beautiful and distinctive design and unsurpassed, flawless hand finish. Indeed, turning a Voutilainen over to look through the sapphire caseback is to gasp in disbelief – it’s actually difficult to think something so perfect could come from the hand of man. (It’s actually 15 men these days, not counting the artisans at his Comblémine dial-making facility, which counts the likes of Richard Mille, MB&F, and Fiona Kruger among its clients.)
It doesn’t happen overnight of course. With that stubborn, Finnish focus, Kari has steadily worked up to this level of craftsmanship. Leaving Kelloseppäkoulu with honours, he first came to Switzerland in 1989 to attend the International Watchmaking School, where he completed the WOSTEP complicated watch course. He was quickly spotted by Parmigiani, where over the following ten years he headed up the restoration work of some of the world’s rarest pieces as well as the creation of new and original ‘one-off’ pieces. It’s here that he recruited another promising young Finn, Stepan Sarpaneva, whose own eponymous brand back in Helsinki is beloved by collectors.
It was also during this Parmigiani period that, at the insistence of a 70 year old Claude Meylan, he began on his first watch, working on it every evening for a total of 2,000 hours. This beautiful tourbillon pocket watch got Kari the break he needed, being exhibited in 1996 and securing the interest of Urban Jürgensen –an indie brand he would go on to “ghost” for in the early Noughties, realising the notoriously tricky detent escapement in a wristwatch for the first time in history.
Giving back to others as the best teachers do, as well as securing centuries-old knowledge, Kari taught for the next three years at WOSTEP as head of complicated watchmaking, before making that final, courageous leap into the independent watchmaking scene as “Voutilainen”.
Based in a beautiful old mansion in the village of Môtiers, using a combination of antique 19th-century tools and modern CNC machinery, Kari has certainly come far. There’s a decimal minute repeater to his name (chiming the time in declensions of hours, 10-minute intervals and remaining minutes), a chronograph, four Grand Prix d’Horlogerie prizes, and now the Holy Grail: totally independent in-house manufacture. All self-invested, never sold out. And never more than 55 pieces per year.
Unlike a racing driver whose pace is as short-lived as their youth, Kari Voutilainen simply seems to be gathering more and more momentum. Swiss independent watchmaking has its very own Flying Finn.