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Urban Jürgensen, a history of talent, passion and dedication

2014 was a very important year for the Urban Jürgensen watch manufacture.

At the end of October, the haute horlogerie brand was the winner of the award for Best Watch in the category ‘Men’s Watches’ at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genêve with its 1142C model featuring a patented chronometer escapement.

On November 14th, it was announced that, after 30 years of foreign ownership, a Danish Private Investment Group took over the company bringing it back in Danish hands, a remarkable event for a brand that, founded in Copenaghen in 1773, is the symbol of fine watchmaking in Denmark.

Among the world's greatest watchmakers of the 18th and 19th centuries, members of the Jürgensen family, in particular Urban and Jules, worked alongside horological geniuses such as Jacques-Frédéric Houriet, Abraham-Louis Breguet and John Arnold, greatly contributing to the development of watchmaking.

But let's now step back in time to discover the roots of the Jürgensen dynasty. The connection between this Danish family and the world of watchmaking started in 1759 when the 14-year old Jörgen Jörgensen (note the "ö" in place of the "ü") become the apprentice of a respected Copenhagen watchmaker, Johan Jacob Lincke.

After working for Lincke for seven years and travelling through Germany and Switzerland, Jörgen stopped in the Swiss town of Le Locle where he was employed by Jacques-Frédéric Houriet, later to become Switzerland's leading chronometer maker and considered by many the founder of Swiss chronometry.

Having greatly developed his watchmaking skills during these 14 years, Jörgensen returned to his native Copenhagen in 1773 and, after changing his name to Jürgen Jürgensen (replacing the "ö" with the "ü"), started his own business in partnership with Isaac Larpent, under the name of "Larpent & Jürgensen" (the two remained partners until Jürgen's death in 1811). The business grew rapidly and twelve years later he was appointed watchmaker to the Danish court.

Larpent & Jürgensen pocket watch - 1781

Jürgen’s first son, Urban Jürgensen (1776 - 1830), followed in his father’s footsteps. Extremely talented, at the age of 13 he was already following university lectures and completed the regular course of studies at 15. At the age of 21, he was sent to Le Locle, in Switzerland, to continue his training as an employee of his father's friend, Jacques-Frédéric Houriet.

But Urban didn't stop in Le Locle and travelled to Paris where, thanks to excellent recommendations, he was apprenticed to Abraham Louis Breguet and Ferdinand Berthoud, two of the most important watchmakers of his time, for twelve months. He then moved to London for six months to work with John Arnold in London and perfect his knowledge on the design of marine chronometers.

During this time, he received an annual grant of 800 thalers from the Danish government for his merits.

From London he travelled back to Le Locle and married Sophie-Henriette, one of the daughters of long-time family friend Jacques-Frédéric Houriet. He then spent some time in Geneva and Neuchatel before returning to Denmark in 1801 to enter into partnership with his father.

The talented Dane was responsible for many inventions and innovations during this time. As an example, in 1798 he replaced brass with hardened steel in a cylinder escape wheel (consisting of an escapement wheel and a balance wheel without a pallet fork) as a solution to the excessive wear caused by the constant contact between the two wheels. This greatly enhanced performances and reliability of watches.

Urban Jürgensen, a portrait

His book on horology, "Principes Généraux de l'Exacte Mesure du temps par les Horloges", was translated into several languages and remains to this day a standard reference work.

King Frederick VI of Denmark granted him a Royal Appointment to supply the Court with watches and the Danish Admiralty with chronometers, and in 1815 Urban was even admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Science, the first craftsman to be honoured in this way. His inventions won several prizes. In 1824 he was appointed Knight of the Dannebrog Order.

Between 1811 and 1830 around 700 watches, 45 marine chronometers and 6 astronomical pendulum clocks were created in the Urban Jürgensen workshops.

A Urban Jürgensen marine chronometer - circa 1820 

Urban's two sons - Louis Urban (1800-1867) and Jules Frederik (1808-1877) - learnt from their talented father and developed equally exceptional watchmaking skills.

Unfortunately, weakened by the hard work and seriously ill, Urban Jurgensen died at just 54 years in 1830. The death of one of the most eminent men of science in Denmark was announced by black-rimmed newspapers.

Upon their father's death, the two brothers took over the company renaming it Urban Jürgensen & Sønner.

Louis Urban managed the company in Copenhagen while Jules Frederik moved to Switzerland and opened a factory in Le Locle (1835) dedicated to the production of high-end watches. Just like his father, Jules Frederik also married a Swiss lady - the daughter of a Geneva clockmaker - so reinforcing the already strong ties with Switzerland.

Louis Urban (on the left) and Jules Frederik (on the right) Jurgensen: the first managed the company in Copenhagen while second moved to Le Locle in Switzerland

Jules Frederik's reputation as a watchmaker kept growing over the years and he won several Gold Medals for his timepieces in the 1860s and 1870s. His work as a horologist was recognised with the titles of Knight of the Legion d'Honneur in France and Knight of the Order of Danebrog in his native Denmark.

Among the others, he was awarded a patent for his method of setting the hands of the watch by means of a bending bow, with guard rings to prevent the clutch from engaging unless the front or back of the case was open. This case style became largely imitated known as the "Jurgensen style".

Extract from a patent granted to Jules Jurgensen patent in 1867  

Production of watches between 1850 and 18880 seems to have been about 300 a year, mostly marine chronometers, chronometers and astronomical pendulum clocks.

Jules Jürgensen five minute chronograph pocketwatch with white enamel dial housed in a 53 mm gold hunting case - circa 1880

When the two brothers died, members of the Jürgensen family continued to be involved in the business until 1912 when the last Jürgensen, Jacques Alfred, also passed away. The firm began to produce wristwatches in 1919 and maintained the tradition of producing timepieces of the highest quality until the Great Depression.

In the following years, the company went through several changes of ownership which limited long-term planning and strategy definition.

Things changed in 1979 when Peter Baumberger, a passionate watchmaker and collector, started the acquisition of the Urban Jürgensen & Sonner brand (later completed in 1985) with the goal to produce small series of complicated wristwatches and pocketwatches with a small but skilled team of master watchmakers and pluri-awarded Derek Pratt, one of the most respected watchmakers of his generation, as technical director.

In 1981 Derek built the Urban Jürgensen & Sonner Pocket Watch N. 01, an extraordinary one minute tourbillon pocket watch with carriage-mounted remontoire, constant force escapement, jumping dead beat seconds, twin barrel and power reserve. It was the first timepiece in which the remontoir assembly was integrated into the rotating tourbillon. This unique piece will be later sold at a Christie’s auction in Geneva for Swiss Francs 315,000 (2008).

The Urban Jürgensen & Sonner Pocket Watch N. 01

In 1982, the brand introduced the Reference 1 wristwatch, an automatic winding perpetual calendar chronograph with an engine-turned silver dial with blued-steel hands framed by a classic gold case with teardrop lugs. Reference 1 was produced as a limited series of 186 watches between 1982 and 1986. In 2001 a small series of 15 pieces in platinum was produced.

Urban Jürgensen & Sonner Reference 1 -1982

Baumberger's main goal was the development of the world's first wristwatch to feature a detent escapement within it. Highly considered for its extreme precision thanks to the fact that impulse is given directly to the balance by the escape wheel with no forked lever in between (like in the lever escapement), the detent escapement appeared during the 18th century and was mostly used in marine chronometers, mounted on gimbals with the dial facing upwards to protect it from shocks, its main weak point.

Bringing it inside a wristwatch, so exposed to shocks and continuous changes of positions, was a huge challenge that Baumberger decided to take. At the beginning of the new century, plans were defined. With the cooperation of other master watchmakers like Jean-Francois Mojon, responsible for the development of the calibre, and Kari Voutilainen, responsible for the production and finish of the calibre, the project started.

Unfortunately, Derek Pratt died in 2009 and Mr. Baumberger in 2010 so they could not see the new calibre on the market but for sure they had realized that the challenge was won. In fact, it was just a matter of few years and in 2012, under the helm of Dr. Helmut Crott, a friend of Peter Baumberger and renowned watch and clock auctioneer, the new in-house calibre, the automatic UJS-P8, was ready for launch.

The Urban Jurgensen P8 Chronometer Reference 11C, with its typical hand engine-turned silver dial and teardrop lugs, was the first model to house it.

Urban Jurgensen P8 Chronometer Reference 11C - 2012

Crott was also responsible for identifying new partners sharing the long-term vision of Baumberger and his great respect for the long history and traditions of the brand.

Thanks to a lucky encounter with Soren Petersen, a Danish watch collector and business man, at the end of 2014 a Danish Private Investment Group composed of Petersen and five other investors took over the company after 30 years of foreign ownership.

While maintaining its headquarter in the Swiss town of Biel/Bienne, a tradition since 1835, the brand Urban Jürgensen was back again in Danish hands, with Soren Petersen as President and CEO and Dr. Helmut Crott as COO.

That same year, as narrated at the beginning of this story, the Urban Jürgensen 1142C CS (where CS stands for Central Seconds) chronometer model featuring the patented detent escapement was awarded as the best watch in the ‘Men’s Watches’ category Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genêve, a perfect way to honour all the men involved this beautiful story of talent, passion and dedication.

In the following years, Urban Jürgensen has continued to develop timepieces in line with its centuries-old tradition while also introducing new models characterized by a sportier look like the Alfred or the ONE Collection that marked the entry of the brand in the luxury steel watch category.

The Urban Jurgensen Alfred and, below the ONE Reference 5541 GMT

By Alessandro Mazzardo.
First published on March 2, 2016. Latest revision June 1, 2020 
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Time and Watches | The watch blog: Urban Jürgensen, a history of talent, passion and dedication
Urban Jürgensen, a history of talent, passion and dedication
History of Urban Jurgensen. History of Urban Jürgensen. The history of the haute horlogerie brand Urban Jurgensen. In 2014, Urban Jurgensen was the winner of the award for Best Watch in the category ‘Men’s Watches’ at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genêve with its 1142C model featuring a detent escapement. In the same yeart, a Danish Private Investment Group took over the company bringing it back in Danish hands, a remarkable event for a brand that, founded in Copenaghen in 1773, is the symbol of fine watchmaking in Denmark.
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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