When it comes to Watches, Germany does not have to hide from any other country, that is clear. However, it has so much more to offer than the usual suspects from Glashütte. Today, we turn our attention to Weifa, a small town near Bautzen and not too far from the Czech border. In Weifa, the watchmaker Stefan Kudoke realizes his watchmaking vision with fastidious handcraft and with the support of his wife Ev.
Stefan Kudoke became the first independent German watchmaker to be awarded the prestigious Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) – the Oscar of watchmaking – in the category “Petite Aiguille” at the beginning of November 2019. With his watch KUDOKE 2, he prevailed against industry heavyweights such as Zenith, IWC and Maurice Lacroix.
Mr. Kudoke, you know what it is like to work for big names, such as Breguet and Omega. What made you ultimately create your own watch brand one day? What was your biggest hurdle in retrospective?
Yes, I worked for several renowned watch brands and learned a lot there from good colleagues. I am a person though who likes to implement his own ideas. The structures of the enterprises were just becoming too narrow for me to develop myself. Even if you are sitting in the best departments, you are still just a small cog in a big machine. In addition, I could not satisfy my thirst for knowledge anymore, which is why I dropped out to study. During my studies, the thought or the idea of establishing an own brand grew. That is what I did then – KUDOKE was sort of born in my room in the student home.
Looking back, the biggest challenge were the missing funds. I built the company without an investor or bank loans back then, which is still the case until today. Certainly, wrong in terms of business management, but for me personally just right. The establishment of the company and the increase in brand awareness of course happen a lot faster with financial support. But I am still young and have time. Besides, my freedom is very important to me. I am just taking the term “independent watchmaking” literally.
Your watches show several attributes that are based on the watchmaking art from Glashütte, like the hand-engraved balance cock or the sun-brushed decoration. How much can this be understood as a deliberate homage to the German Mecca of watches, that is just a stone’s throw away from you?
Admittedly, there are some attributes of movement finishing that are based on the watchmaking art from Glashütte. If you worked in and with Glashütte for years, this leaves marks which are integrated into my creations more or less consciously. I would not describe it as a deliberate homage however, even though I highly appreciate the Glashütte watchmaking art. So I want to go on an own way with my watches. For the new model range HANDwerk for example, I got my inspiration from the movement architecture of historical English dive watches. Because there was a strong cooperation between the English and the Saxon watchmaker guild in the past, the wheel turns full circle here.
Which watch brands or trends have crystallized as sources of inspiration for your own creations during your long-lasting career over decades?
You may be surprised now, but actually I am not interested in most watch brands and their creations and especially not in any trends. I have specialized in skeleton watches during the last 15 years – a niche per definition – and I do not follow trends. I just build watches that I like.
I am interested in people, special personalities within the watch industry. That is what matters to me. The so-called “independent watchmakers” are among them for me, which are mostly unknown in the German watch market, but enjoy a great reputation in other countries. These personalities are characterized by their ability to construct watches themselves, to manufacture them and finally develop a watch brand out of this.
They are personalities who preserve the knowledge and the skills of the watchmaking craft, while the robots and the artificial intelligence take over the production in the industry. This value of the future already becomes apparent today. Look at the global auction prices of watch models from the independent watchmakers. Unfortunately, the field of independent watchmaking passes the German watch market up to now. But this can still change.
With which attributes would you describe the typical Kudoke customer from your perspective?
The typical Kudoke customer does not exist. He or she is as individual and different as every watch from KUDOKE. But one aspect unites them all: They wear the watch for themselves, a big brand name is not important to them. Therefore, the customers of KUDOKE are also “independent” in a sense.
The Baselworld has been criticized for some time now, but one could admire your newest creations there again this year. To what extent do you consider this a suitable way for smaller niche brands to make their mark in the future?
The Baselworld in its 10th year still represents a very good platform to me. Smaller producers like us can expand our popularity there and present ourselves to the visitors from all over the world. The big brands certainly do not need the Baselworld anymore these days. For us smaller ones, the discontinuation of the exhibition would be very detrimental though.
In the KUNSTwerk collection, you show all your skill with elaborate skeleton and engraving works or a tourbillon. What can you tell us about your in-house production depth and the production time?
Unfortunately, as a small family business we cannot produce everything by ourselves. For some parts this is also not reasonable at all, because there are specialists – just think of the topic of balance springs – which can produce them in a much higher quality than we could. Nevertheless, we purchase almost all of our parts absolutely unprocessed. The complete revision and adjustment of the parts, the finishing, all the way to the final assembly, takes place in our house. Beyond that, we produce some parts of our movements, as well as some hands and dials, with conventional methods in our house. And of course, I design and develop the individual models, also the custom-made ones, by myself.
Because of the high degree of manual production, we produce around 50 exclusive watches per year. The waiting time for orders is currently about 6 months, but we always try to not make our customers wait too long.
With your HANDwerk collection, appreciators of unpretentious designs get their money’s worth as well. In which regard did HABRING² help you on this way?
We have been good friends with Maria and Richard Habring for many years now. Some time ago, I had the thought in my head to expand my art watches with a new model line. I did not want to buy a finished movement for this, but it had to be something of my own, with my handwriting. During the exchange with HABRING² on this topic, the idea emerged to cooperate on some parts and let them be produced collectively from the particular suppliers, which is beneficial for both sides in the end.
In this respect, Maria and Richard were an important support for me on the way. Through these collaborations of smaller producers, it is possible to manufacture original watches independently from big and established Swiss corporations and ultimately offer them for a fair price. The exchange with other watchmakers on the topics of engineering, craft and production techniques, and suppliers is especially important to me. Cooperation instead of competition – that is what distinguishes this small circle of creative watchmakers.
Coming to an end: Where are you headed with KUDOKE?
For the time being, I am satisfied how things are. So, we will continue to go our way as a family business, maybe expand our small team a bit, but not grow too big. What tempts me in the future is to refine my handcraft, learn and amplify almost forgotten handcraft techniques, and implement them in upcoming models. I regard it as one of my main tasks to save the knowledge of watchmaking and transfer it to my kids, so that it does not get lost and dies out in the age of digitization.