Association Horlogère d'Alsace, Thierry Schebath's interview: try another way to live your passion for watches!
The AHA (Association Horlogère d'Alsace) is an association managed by matches fans, proposing to its members original watches, very well done, at a rather low cost.
Here is an interview of Thierry Schebath, designer and president of the association, to talk about the history of this association, its realisations, its projects... Let's be taken away by the horological merry-go-round!
Monde et Montres : HelloThierry.
Thierry Schebath : Hello!
M&M : Let's start from the begining... When was born the AHA, and what led to this creation?
T.S. : In fact, we didn't create AHA on purpose, it is like an "accident". If we come back to the origins, I was used, during dinners that we were making at Strasbourg with other watch fans, that we call usually TFH (Tarte Flambée Horlogère = Horological Flammenkuche, The flammenkuche is a typical Alsatian dish), to present some watches that I was making on my own. From the first meeting, I received compliments, so I was used, at each dinner, even for smallest ones, with only 2 or 3 persons, to come with a watch that I had imagined, but made with components available on the market, so with some limits. But creativity was not there yet, and I was limited by the available components, and it began to turn round and round: at the end, fellows found that it was nice, yes, but not that nice!
But one day, and I think it is were it all began, I went with a single-hand watch to a dinner with Guy, his spouse, Manu, and 2 or 3 other persons. And Guy had a flash. He told me :" Taht, this is terrific!". I had used asian components, so it was not possible that I use some for Guy... He told me: "Do as you want, no matter costs, I want something like that but with swiss quality". With his green light, I told myself that if I had to do one, with the difficulty to find the components, I could another one for myself, and Manu told me that he would also come with us! So e had the opportunity, instead of asian components, to find a good swiss movement, with nice finish... I found some Dials, hands, cases, movements, ... It takes time! You have to negotiate, I wasn't sure to be able to make the modifications on my own, I contacted professionals, ... So it had been long!
And where we had some luck, a good for a bad, Guy had a health problem and had to go to the hospital, just when I was finishing the first of the three watches. I said to myself: "bad luck!" He's going to forget our project of course, and I will have three watches left, that I won't know what to do with! At teh last moment I change the crown, to replace a cylinder one not so easy to handle by a bigger one telling myself: "he is weak at the hospital, it will be easier to wid the watch". I bring the watch to the hospital, and there, Guy is totally delighted! I had found a top quality swiss movement with chronometer finish, eighteen Geneva's cotes, ... He told me: "As soon as I leave the hospital, I make a review!". Some days later, Guy was out, take some photos, publish in the "Friday's Watch" [on FAM = Forum à Montre, french watch forum] a first picture, receive many messages, and told me: "Tomorow I post the review at 7:00, I publish your pseudo for the messages, and you deal with it... I think your are going to be sollicitated!". Indeed, as soon as the review was publiched, I received hundred of messages on saturday, another hundred on sunday... I had to react! So I proposed to make 10 watches, for the 10 fastest persons to send account. I received 20 accounts between monday and wedenesday, I was a little fuzzy... Finally after ten, I made ten more, another ten, to Thirty at the end... That all everything began!
During a trip to Baselworld 2011 with friends, we were discussing about it. We decided to create an association. So I wrote soem status, with 2 or 3 persons we validated them, we made a founding meeting in Strasbourg restaurant, declared the association to the administration, and just after, we made Thirty more watches of the original model. On my side during the whole summer, I drew watches, dials, that had become all the afterwards models: the Abraham-Louis, the mono California, the 24H, ... and everything was launched!
Original Single-hand model
M&M : So everything has been very quick, so?
T.S. : Yes! Another motivation that pushed us to create the association, was to be able to allow pepole to have acces to watches with a quality/cost ratio as good as possible, and to participate to a horological adventure.
M&M : And after, it is the realisation that took time? Because the Abraham-Louis has not been delivered in 2011!
T.S. : No, indeed! I drew the dials in 2011, and in fact I started from the begining to ask for accounts to peolle to finance the projects. because the asociation had no money, even if I paid myself a lot to buy first components to make prototypes. We set quickly the way of acting with subscription. Once dials designed, we made prototypes, we presented them, we present almost everything on FAM, we went thtough polls, it took time! Then we asked for subscriptions, it took time also. After that we had to make the dials, it is very long. At Baselworld 2011, as we had decided in the morning to create the association, I went to visit dial-makers to order some parts, I also succed to have an agreement with SOPROD who accepted to supply movements that they were finishing based on UNITAS, which they were buying to SWATCH GROUP, as they were not already part of FESTINA Group. Then, the realisation of a project takes time because there are some small companies who doesn't accept to deliver small amounts, so you you have to find those who accept to play the game, and even when they do, sometimes, they change their mind in the middle of the project, so you have to renegociate again, it can be very tough sometimes!
M&M : So, at the begining, you were making watches on your own... From where is coming this taste? Because, the birth of the AHA come from there in fact!
T.S. : Yes, before AHA I was already making watches... When I was between 10 and 14, I was repairing clocks because my father's god-father was a clock-maker, on his own, a small clock shop in a small village, Eauze in Dordogne, and quickly, I had been passionate by those clock wheels, ... Even if I didn't know how to manipulate them, I wanted to become also a clockmaker. But I was 14, the quartz was already very present. I was wearing mechanical watches because in my family we use to do so, but the god-father told me "No, No... Your professional path can't be clockmaker,this kind of job is dead. You would only change batteries, it is non-sense". My own god-father told me the the future was data-processing, so I went through studies in this domain.
In my passion, there was sport, that I practiced a lot, but also motocycling that I was also practicing as sport, and doing the mechanic on my own...
M&M : we come back to mechanic!
T.S. : Yes! At a time, I created a web-site, begining of 2000 years, to show to moto-riders how to change a wheel, how to decorate the moto in another way, ... I proposed designs, parts, ...
M&M : You were already in the mood of creativity and sharing!
T.S. : Right! And it worked rather well, it was funny... Begining of 2007, I had a severe accident. After that I had no right to move during more than six monthes. Afer one month and a half, I asked desparatly to get out of the hospital, because I was begining to turn mad. THey accepted at the condition that I stay at home, doing nothing. Then, I remembered that horology was not a violent activity... Immediatly, I bought some old watches on e-bay, that I began to tinker. I broke more than I repaired, but it was a start.
I had to start to understand, to start to tinker watches by myself. And quickly, after first reparations, I started to make pilt-watches... And for many years, I almost made only pilot-watches! Why, I don't know, I have no rational explanation: it is a design that talked to me from the very begining. I wasn't specially found of military stories, even if I read books like everybody, about red-baron, Hitler fall, but ot a passion for those domains!
M&M : but the design was great!
T.S. : yes..
M&M : and the single-hand idea, where does it come from?
T.S. : One day during a meeting, we talked about MEISTERSINGER, and and return of the single-hand concept.... I found it interesting, but was disliking some details in MEISTERSINGER: I had to do MINE! And the fact that sun-dials, first clocks on bell-towerss were single-hands, that the first subscription watch by Breguet was single-hand, all of that pushed me in this path. And the famous prototype which pleased Guy launched everythin afterward...
M&M : … so you started with single-hand, with some good ideas of what would come next?
T.S. : When we decided in Baselworld, the morning, in the car, we planned to create a "law 1908" association. It is a particularity of Alsace and Moselle, which is a little bit more interesting than "law 1901" [Laws managing the creation and ruling of associations in France]. And it directly motivated me... I began to have some ideas, but I had first to fiish the first thirty classical original single-hand watches, and we were going to do them within the association. So we had to settle many thing at the same time: book-keeping, ... It had been monthes of administrative works, but since the summer when I got a litte time, I started to draw some models I had in my mind. And as soon as I have a model, I think about variants, something more modern or old looking, ...
M&M : A little like the Abraham-Louis with a manometer hand for example?
T.S. : Exactly! The contemporary Abraham-Louis is a mix between the hommage, in the noble way of the word, and a modern version.
M&M : And how was organized the association?
T.S. : Me I was a lot on the creation field. Now, Julien (alias Scooter) helps me because I can't deal alone with all that comes to my mind. So I often make him some sketch, I give hime instructions, and when he has time, he makes nice draws, we meet again and discuss together.
Paul, is the book-keeper, he has a crazy work load! Nobody imagined when we were in Baselworld that we would reach more that 250 members today, that we would have so much work for subscriptions. " OK, you can pay un five times..." ... But he has to deal with it afterward, claim for paiments, and then you have to stick everything together... For two years, we had problems because we were not prepared.. So Paul has a big work-load!
On horology field, we have Antoine who is my clock master! this guy is around 75, and learnt clock-making from 14, when he was apprentice. He has 60 years of know-how, it is runinng in his veins, it is impressive, and he is still so passionate! When I say "So, we are going to make a 24H watch", he starts to wonder how to do that, I propose some ideas and he finds tricks to solve problems, to make tools, ... he is excited like a child, and he's going to work a whole week-end to solve a problem! Without Antoine, many projects wouldn't have exist. Because I am not a clock-maker, just a little tinker who knows how to do some little things, but I am missing most of the knwo-how of a real professional. To suppress the second hand, at the beginning I didn't knew how to do, to make something clean, I found a supplier, but he quitted, and today we are doing ourselves, by hand! We cut shafts, polish them on the stone, like were doing clock-makers sixty years ago! Because it is how Antoine learnt! With those tools. A little bit, if we can compare, like Philippe Dufour, who is still using traditionnal tools. I don't have mill, numerical command... Without Antoine, I wouldn't have succeed to to all of this.
M&M : You deal with purchasing, yourself?
T.S. : orders and purchasings... I didn't succeeed to delegate this activity, because it is closely linked to the project, and sometimes you have to adapt the project to the technic! It is too much linked to creation, so. And most of the time it is a daily job, we have to do mails almost everyday, delegating this I don't see how. For example Julien whose help is precious for drawing dials, or conceive hand-books, is not available sometimes during weeks, he has a job, a family, he has less time for the association. It is normal, I can understand that! But I need to have things go forward, or it would be much too long...
M&M : Finally, what are the biggest difficulties you are meeting compared with biggest structures, more established?
T.S. : the biggest difficulty, it is supplies, because we always have small volumes. One year ago we had a problem with our case supplier who was fed-up with delivering 20 cases one day, 10 another day, ... He said that under 100 parts, he wont deliver anymore! So we had to put together some projects, to reach the required quantity. We had to anticipate the "Shadow-second" versions, and the Fliegersr Central second, that would be launched only nine monthes later. I spent some nights to manipulate figures, invalidate them, do it agin, ... ceaselessly!
M&M : That's where creation and purchasing must come together!
T.S. : Yes! Because something coherent must get out of that! And wondering how people from the association will react, how will they accept the project, with which quantity? This is not obvious at all! Will we reach fifteen "shadow-second", six Fliegers like that, will all models meet enough custommers? There is a lot of estimations, and we can fail at any time... And this I can't delegate, it is impossible.
M&M : something else?
T.S. : yes, absolutly... Another convenience is that we can't deal with VAT. We have to pay our suppliers with VAT, that we can't recover, and it is around 15 or 20 percent more costs. And when we have to go through borders between Swiss and France, we pay taxes and swiss knows how to charge transport, administration, ... All of that because we have small volumes and we can't recover VAT, we pay components at a higher cost than other societies because they have bigger volumes and other financials conditions.
M&M : At the opposite, being a small structure can be interesting sometimes?
T.S. : Yes! (enthousiastic) We have a direct link between reation and watch delivery! I see everything, I deals with 20 differents tasks that would be managed by 20 different persons in a watch company, this is great! Then I always share my ideas the the association board (Guy and Paul). We created this board to take decisions together, but it is not obvious! When I proposed the first prototype of the Abraham-Louis, Guy and Paul told me that it wasn't a ggood idea, that nobody would want it, it was useless to propose it... the California, each time I showed it, everybody told me that it was going to be a success. When we launched the subscriptions, the most wanted model had been the Abraham-Louis, and the one the less was the California... So there is no truth! And strangely for the California, as I had ordered all the dials at the same time at the supplier, I said that I was going to do all the California dials, I was founding this design too great! I insisted, I made it, and today, except the original Single-Hand the best seller is the California Small Second!
M&M : At one moment, a blocking point disappeared!
T.S. : I think that first real pictures helped. On sketches and prototypes, it is difficult to appreciate, it is may be a little bit easier on white dials... For example on the 24H Gradient Dial, it is hard to see it! The first prototype had been made with a printed paper, not event a draft! And may be the California was not perceived as powerful as it was on the paper. But once with a real dial, with a good coat of Luminova, it had muscle, it was more impressive. A California Dial is not easy to catch at first glance. The first time you see one, you find it strage, I think it took time for people to become use to it. And our California is much more "body-built" than a California Dial from ROLEX or PANERAI. Figures are more stocky, with "muscle", and so it add force. This makes this watch very particulliar, with a real personality, that people don't get at first glance.
M&M : In parallele with single-hands, you have also more classical three-hands.
T.S. : We started also with three hands, yes. We had the Marine, we had the Hamilton-Art-Deco. I went back to more classical design, already made on Second-life, which was one engine of the association also, we had the "B-Uhr", any series also, it is true that coming back to central swipping second was coming back to my idea of what was real "Fliegers". I wanted Fliegers with martial cases, kind of matte, with plexi glass like were old watches, that neither Archimede, Stowa or Steinhart had wondered in this way yet. And so I wanted also a nice movement, and I really think that it is extraordinary, even if the design was a little put aside because everybody made PIlot A-Type or B-Type one day, I wanted somethin in accordance with history.
3 aiguilles Marine Hamilton Art Déco Hamilton Art Déco (Mouvement)
M&M : And now you are starting to talk about a regulator?
T.S. : The regulator is a project I have been working on for more than two years. The first sketch is from autumn 2012, but I stopped to work on it because I was needing a logo frozen. The first dials had been signed "TS", just to put something on. We were not finding a logo, nobody had satisfying proposal. The "TS" was not satisfaying neither, but at least, there was something, a kind of signature, it was not an anonymous dial. We worked on it during monthes, some fellows from FAM Forum made some proposals, that pushed us to find a solution... And finally we found something satisfying, and overall something that could be adapted easilly. At the beginning it was to have an easy solution to wonder one logo per model, but it would have be endless: easier because it would have been adapted to the design , but would have had to create so many, that it would have been to much time-feeding. So we spent time find a more adaptative logo, that can be adapted to all the desings. And it seems that it works well!
M&M : Indeed! we can feel horology with this wheel shape...
T.S. : One thing that unblocked me was I woke up a morning at 4:00 like sometimes it happens to me, and I told to myself: "No... We have to put a central wheel above, that will be our logo!". We started from this idea, and insted of classivcal beams, we put letters A.H.A.
M&M : May be one day we will have a real balance wheel with "AHA"?
T.S. : We could think about it, true!
M&M : Finally, is there any guiding line in the sequence of your proposals?
T.S. : In fact, each time I have another idea, I note it in a kind of short list... which is gettin glonger and longer, quicker than I realise projects! I try to calm down, but even when I work on a project, regulator for example to come back to it, at eh beginning I wanted something "Sport-Chic". So I focused on it, and two years after I still like the design, that is what I imagined with some details I've never seen anywhere else. Then arrives the constraints. Now, I know them well, to say quantities. We went to see some companies producing movements (ISOPROG, BERTHET): the person says that under of 20 or 50 parts he won't do. Even smallest companies say so. And with only one design, as we saw with the Central-Second, you can't find 50 custommers. But with many designs using the same movement, you can meet the minimum quantity required bu the suppliers. The first time I launched the Central-Sceodn in 2011 (there also it was a 4:00 wake-up thinking that nobody made it before), I found 10 volounteers, it was impossible. The year after, I re-launched the project and I found 7, but it was still not enough. At the third launch, I added the Shadow-Second, white and black, all the Central-Second Fliegers as it was strcitly the same movement! With some different cases adn dials, but it is easier to deal with. And for the regulator, I am going to use the same trick: the "Sport-Chic" is the starting project, the one people will claim for, I hpe at least, and after that we will have number of small limited series, on usual AHA themes: Single-Hand in a regulator, because it is something we really like, which is the core of AHA existence, and also Fleigers, to carry on with designs we are used to.
M&M : Is there any limit to AHA imagination, and to re-use a classical expression, what is your DNA?
T.S. : This is a good question, that I often ask myself, thinking that I must carry on with sigle-hands, even if we could consider that we made almost everything in this field. I am sure that we designe much more single-hand than any other companies, including MEISTERSINGER! And there are so many singl-hand ideas I drew that I didn't even presented! Military Single Hand with small second at 9, integral bi-color single-hand, ... Some are planned, because everytime I think to a new design I think to its single-hand variant... We could have retrograd Minute Single-Hand, Moon-Phase Single Hand, Enamel Dial Single-Hand, ... But if tomorow a Big-Date Single hand has no success but that the flieger Central Second works well we will do what our adherents wants, of coursse!
M&M : How do you see the AHA in the future? Get a little bigger, or remain in a small structure more friendly?
T.S. : We will not get bigger, more, we are going to calm down a little! It needs a lot of energy, more than a full-time job those last years for me... Getting bigger is impossible.
M&M : Get bigger, but not necessarily alone!
T.S. : Regularily, people propose to help... I use to think a bout it, but it is difficult to propose them to integrate the process, because supplies are closely linked to purchases management, themselves closely linked to Adherents commands, with all the impacts on the initial creation process! And I didn't find a solution, I don't know I will find one, and in the meantime, we will do a little less watches, less projects. May be later we will find another organisation, as today we have a good way of working with the book-keeper and me who deals with supplies. At the begining it had been hard to find a good way to work together, but we found how settle tools to hold accunting information as rigourous as a big company.
M&M : So, remain in a small friendly structure...
T.S. : For today, yes. The board always finds that there are to many projects at the same time. It is a matter of energy and availability. We are only an association with volunteers, who have other occupations. And me, in my professional life, I will have less time for the AHA, so we will have to speed down a little bit.
M&M : Thierry, Thank You.
T.S. : Thank You too!
To learn more (websites in french):
- AHA Website: //www.ashoda.fr/
- Follow the edventure on ForumAMontres: L'aventure des Monos de l'AHA
A découvrir aussi
- Watches in Space - 3 : Beginning of the adventure, on US side.
- One-Hand Watch Abraham_Louis, by AHA.
- TAG HEUER reduces the speed in Chevenez.