Founded in Norway nearly two centuries ago, Alf Lie 1836 creates a small number of exquisite timepieces for its elite international clientele
Not many companies are proud of how few items they’ve sold. But for watchmakers Alf Lie 1836, it’s a badge of honour and a symbol of exclusivity. “We have sold just 125,000 watches during our history,” says CEO Steinar Alvaer. “You’ll never find them for sale. I’ve tried to buy back Alf Lie watches and it’s impossible. That tells our story.”
It’s a story that stretches back over 180 years. Michael Paulsen founded the company in Oslo in 1836 and evidence of the enduring nature of his craftsmanship can be seen to this day – a clock he provided to the city’s university in 1853 is still in use. After Paulsen’s death, the company eventually transferred to the ownership of another Norwegian called Alf Lie, who spent some time in America – fulfilling personal orders for luminaries including Henry Ford – before returning to Norway, a master of his art. The Alf Lie brand became effectively the national timekeeper, providing clocks and watches to Norway’s royal family and providing the time signal for the Norwegian National Broadcasting Service.
This rigorous accuracy is only half the story. Expansion might be the goal of most businesses but, for Alf Lie, it has never been a priority. Instead, the brand is a byword for an aesthetic and even philosophical commitment to the marriage of form and function. This approach is evident in the company’s designs, which combine modernity and classicism to striking effect.
“All the parts we use are handmade by our team,” says Steinar. “The process from idea to finished watch can take up to two years.” While the company is now based in Geneva, the Grand Nor collection pays tribute to its Norwegian heritage; all sleek, clean lines and iconoclastic individuality. Another collection, Tribute To Life, is based on a famous design that Alf Lie used in the 1960s. “Our watches are part of a concept,” explains Steinar. “We are doing things that no other brands are doing. You don’t choose Alf Lie, Alf Lie chooses you. Our watches are worn by people who we like to think of as ambassadors. And we choose our clients accordingly.”
So how does this process work? Word of mouth is important. Alf Lie watches are acquired via Club Suites, an exclusive network of private events that are hosted in major cities including London, Geneva and Dubai. Invitees can handle watches and familiarize themselves with Alf Lie’s range. The firm’s watchmakers are on hand to explain the design and construction of their timepieces and answer questions. And, once a purchase is made, the finished watch will be delivered, by hand, to any destination in the world. “At this point,” says Steinar, “you are becoming part of a family.”
Alf Lie relies on the certainty that, in an era of disposability and mass production, the brand’s values of quality, craftsmanship and individuality are more resonant than ever. “Our clients are people who are looking for something special,” says Steinar.
“They want a real watch, just like they want a real car to drive or real art on their wall. Alf Lie has been out in front throughout its history. And we are still there. We have been asked to make cheaper watches but we’ve turned it down because it would kill the brand.”
However, Alf Lie will collaborate if the match feels appropriate and their unique approach to their craft isn’t compromised. This, of course, limits the field – not many companies work to such exacting standards. However, last year, Alf Lie were approached by the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club (RREC) to create a timepiece which is a celebration of the quality embodied by both Alf Lie and Rolls-Royce.
“This is an anniversary watch for the RREC,” says Steinar. “The dial we are creating for them is unique. Every dial is hand-crafted so no two watches will be identical. It’s like the Rolls-Royce itself.” The Tourbillon Automatic watch will be exclusively available to RREC members. Handmade in Geneva and consisting of 221 purpose-crafted parts, the watch itself will exemplify the traditional Alf Lie elegance.
Its design and finish, however, represent something new for the company. The craft of straw marquetry was pioneered in 17th century Europe but will represent the visual heart of this collaboration. The technique is every bit as painstaking as the construction of a perfect watch. Tiny slices of straw are tinted with dyes and then split, blade by blade. They are then flattened, cut to size and assembled, with extraordinary precision, onto a surface. The result is a decoration that requires no additional treatment as its texture is resistant to the ravishes of time. Straw marquetry retains an intense natural radiance, is incredibly light (which means that it can easily be accommodated within a watch) and, in the hands of a master, adaptable to multiple design possibilities.
In the context of the craftsmanship inherent in an Alf Lie watch, the marquetry brings an organic feel; a sense of a balance being found between the natural and the mechanical. It’s rare for Alf Lie to move outside of its small, trusted team. But this special edition watch represents a collaboration between artisans working at the highest level imaginable to produce a striking demonstration that innovation can be combined with timeless values of quality.
Each of these watches will be a testimony to both the craft of their creators and the personal values of their eventual owners. Still, an Alf Lie watch remains a mark of taste and authenticity. “We produce our watches in limited editions, maybe four, maybe 9, or 18,” confirms Steinar. “And this watch will be no different. We make something worth having.”