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Custom Watches by Jochen Benzinger

by C. Bradley Jacobs
Originally published in International Wristwatch
Number 73, November 2003

Jochen Benzinger in his Pforzheim workshopThe realm of watch collecting fosters aesthetic appreciation. Who among us can look through the display back of a Lange Datograph and not find himself overcome by the mastery of design and craftsmanship exhibited within? Certainly, many of us have been struck by the economy of line seen in the tonneau shape of an Elgin 624 or a Hamilton 982. Some of us have even been struck by the simple pleasure of perlage on the dial side of a Patek 17-ligne movement. But how many can envision the breathtaking possibilities of a blank canvas? How many can hand-carve a thriving landscape from the barren terrain of a simple ebauche? Whose passion is matched by his ability to create?
Jochen Benzinger is such a man.
Mr. Benzinger, of Pforzheim, Germany, is one of a few master engravers whose services and talents are in demand within the watch industry. His firm, BENZINGER Meister-Werkstatt für Gravieren und Guillochieren, specialists in engraving and engine-turning (guilloché), provides these services for several well-known watchmakers and produces spectacularly-decorated watches itself.

Hand engraved chronograph movement with dragon motifEngraving is as old as mankind itself. Through the ages people have used cutting tools to decorate jewelry and other utensils. In the 15th and 16th centuries the art of engraving became popular for the decoration of armor and weapons. Albrecht Dürer furthered the evolution of the craft in the 16th century when he used similar tools for cutting his famous prints. BENZINGER still uses such tools in their workshop today.
Jochen Benzinger, a fan of mechanical watches, has always been impressed by the diverse decorations that the old masters used on their movements. With the understanding that fine, hand-engraved ornamental elements can still make a timepiece a true work of art today, Mr. Benzinger has recently diversified his company’s offerings to include hand-engraved, skeletonized, and engine turned watches and movements, offering completely unique timepieces made to customers’ specifications. The firm offers a vast array of options to those who order a custom-built timepiece. Cases of many styles are available in various metals; dials can be custom designed; and the combination of available decorative elements is limited only by the imagination. Red gold Unitas ¾-plate movement decorated by BenzingerBENZINGER will work with a favorite movement supplied by the customer or supply a new movement, such as the ¾-plate version of the ETA/Unitas 6498, a movement which is often seen decorated in the typical Glashütte style, but which also can be skeletonized or engine turned with stunning effect.
In order to decorate a watch movement, it must first be completely disassembled. The pieces of the dismantled movement are placed one by one on specially prepared cement rods and secured there with black engraving resin before the rod is clamped on an engraver’s ball. This is positioned on a leather cushion, making possible its regular, even turning in every desired direction. The rough divisions of the decoration to be engraved are traced with a pencil and then cut into the metal stroke for stroke with a hand graver. Step by step, the decoration begins to take shape, filled out with any of an interesting and wide array of subjects. The train bridge of a vintage movement is prepared for engraving
On an automatic movement the rotor’s heavy oscillating weight may be complemented with a hand-guilloché pattern. Upon customer request it may also be skeletonized, perhaps with a personal monogram or with two-tone gold plating. A BENZINGER master watchmaker inspects and reassembles the movement before it is mounted into the case once again, completing one of just a dozen or so unique pieces created in the workshop annually. Such watches are truly works of art, giving a glimpse of a bygone age to those who experience them. But the traditional decorative elements—blued screws, hand-engraved balance cocks, etc.—do not make some of the modern touches—sapphire dials, gold electro-plated movement parts, contemporary case styles--seem out of place. The artist’s touch ensures that each element contributes to the overall harmony of the design.
A custom-decorated vintage Omega automatic

Some of Benzinger’s antique Rose EnginesJochen Benzinger had a good teacher in the guild master of Pforzheim where he did his apprenticeship in engraving, finishing by receiving a diploma and an award for being especially talented. Looking for a new challenge he taught himself the craft of engine turning, today no longer offered as an apprenticeship. He was aided in his endeavors by some older specialists still active in Pforzheim.
Among BENZINGER’s many machines count some very old pieces, rescued from companies that went bankrupt; machines that seemed destined to be removed and destroyed. Some of these made their way to the Technical Museum and others to Jochen Benzinger, who has carefully restored them and now uses them in his daily work. With such machines, Mr. Benzinger engine turns many items, including dials, rotors, plates and other parts of fine watches that issue from his workshop.

Details of an engine-turned Benzinger dialThe craft of engine turning, which is today practiced by only a few specialists, has its origins in the “royal craft” of wood turning. From the 16th until the 18th centuries, nearly the entire high aristocracy – from counts to emperors– were trained in this craft. Out of these royal turning machines, watchmakers of the 18th and 19th centuries developed beautiful engine turning machines with which, for example, the typically beautiful dials of Breguet were cut.
At the beginning of the 20th century Fabergé, the court jeweler to the Russian czar, made the craft of engine turning more popular than ever before. He used this technique as a base for his enamel work, today best known by the famous Fabergé eggs that bear his name. Thanks to the renaissance of mechanical watches some high-quality manufactures currently use hand engine-turned dials for their products to give them an elegant and classic style.
Jochen Benzinger decorates a movement plate with GuillochéWith this grand history in mind, Benzinger’s firm uses hand-operated rose engine machines to decorate components of watches both modern and vintage. Not only are they used to engine turn dials and movement parts; the rose engines are also useful for the restoration of decorated pocket watch cases. In fact, numerous collectible timepieces, such as vintage pieces by Lange and Jürgensen, have been able to regain their sharp, original case patterns—leaving the workshop of Benzinger looking much the way they did when they left the original manufactory. For such projects, the watches are removed from their cases, which are then filled with hot resin giving the case the necessary amount of stability, after hardening, for precise work. The remains of the old pattern are carefully removed and the metal is smoothed. The case is clamped to a rose engine (guilloché) machine, the matching grain pattern is set, and the respective contact piece and a sharp steel cutting tip on a diamond wheel are clamped in. Finally, the “half moon,” used to determine the position of the cutting tool, and the push piece for the correct staggering of the threads are set.
Precisely centered on the case, the first guilloché cut needs to be just the right depth. From outside to inside and thread for thread (this is how the guilloché cut is called) the craftsman works by respectively staggering the pattern. According to the client’s wishes he can leave an “eye” in the middle of the case or guilloché it all the way to the last point. The last step comprises reheating the hard resin, removing it, and cleaning the case.
A Benzinger watch with engine-turned movement plate and sapphire crystal dialAs mentioned above, Benzinger offers engine turning of dials and movement plates and other parts. Some of the lovely unique creations his workshop has produced feature engine turning on the backside of the pillar plate that is visible through the skeletonized bridges of the movement. Engine-turned bridges and cocks are also used effectively with gold plating; particularly striking are the watches with transparent dial and engine-turned movement plate. The vast array of options Mr. Benzinger’s talents afford make selecting the design elements for a custom-decorated watch almost too much to bear. It is probably best left to the master to decide, lest the customer fall victim to design gluttony and forget that less is often more. The Benzinger firm will, however, undertake projects under contract for watchmaking houses or individuals with specific ideas about the finished product. Photo courtesy jochenbenzinger.deTake, for example, the fantastic celestial designs of Christiaan van der Klaauw. Benzinger has decorated movements for Van der Klaauw that have featured multiple colors of gold-plating, engine-turned patterns, skeletonized rotors and hand engraved designs. These miniature works of art are perhaps the distillation of several key facets of Mr. Benzinger’s craft:

Although they represent fine examples of timeless artistry, they are mostly hidden from public view, only revealed though the rear glass of a gentleman’s wristwatch.
Although the personal timepiece is a commodity familiar to most of the world’s population, only those with discriminating taste and an enlightened sense of its value will endure the effort and expense to obtain a watch that is the result of such vision.
Although the crafts and their tools have been around for hundreds of years, only a select few craftsmen in this modern age have uncovered their secrets.

How wonderful it is that we are able to lose ourselves in this landscape.

A Benzinger watch, all components of which were made in PforzheimThe front of the previous watchA Perpetual Calendar watch in 18k gold

Click here to visit Jochen Benzinger's website

Please also read my account of the making of a custom Benzinger watch

For more watch articles by C. Bradley Jacobs, visit:

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Text and images: ©2008 C. Bradley Jacobs and, unless otherwise credited

An Interview with Jochen Benzinger

by C. Bradley Jacobs

The following is the second part of a feature on Jochen Benzinger that was published in International Wristwatch Issue Number 73, November 2003

CBJ: I suspect that many aficionados of fine watches have seen your work without knowing it, could you tell me some of the watch brands for whom you have done engraving?

JB: Glashütte Original, Martin Braun, Jörg Schauer, Christiaan van der Klaauw, Nivrel, RGM, TWC (Towson Watch Company), BLU (Bernd Lederer Uhren)

What other sorts of engraving work do you do, besides timepieces?

Jewelry, lockets, silver cutlery, fine pens, cufflinks, silverwar, picture frames,
“Fabergé” eggs (engine turned)…

How many “unique watches” does your workshop produce annually?

The quantity [of watch output] depends on the size of the companies’ special series; about 200 pcs. per annum. Complete unique watches total 1-2 per month.

What regions represent your largest markets?

Europe (France, Netherlands, UK), Asia (Japan, Taiwan, China) and the USA to an increasing degree.

Do you have a signature style you employ on your unique pieces?

The typical style of my work is the combination of movement parts being engraved and engine turned by hand. You won't find this kind of combination anywhere else. And also the combination of hand engine-turned, hand-skeletonized and hand-engraved parts/movements--all being done by one man with his own old machines--is offered by nobody else in the world.

Do most customers have strong ideas about how they want their piece decorated, or do they generally defer to you?

Very few customers have their own or at least just vague ideas, most of them want us to create something suitable for the movement/watch for them.

You’ve indicated in our previous correspondence that a watch movement’s original design is important to consider when deciding upon appropriate decorations, Can you elaborate on the ways you find inspiration?

Most of my work depends on the form of the bridge that is different in many watches. It also depends on the degree of skeletonizing a customer wants or the style and the form of the movement itself.

Will you tell me about some projects you have completed that were especially satisfying?

I am proud of every project that is completed to the customer’s satisfaction. I personally like the dragon movement we have done for a Chinese customer. We also developed a special movement with 200 diamonds for a German gem trader which looks very special.

Have you engraved any rare, historical movements of which you are especially proud?

No. Most pieces we do are favourite pieces of my customers, to them very special, but not historical.

How does being located in Pforzheim reinforce the historical perspective of your art? Do you gain inspiration from working in a traditional center of renowned craftsmanship?

The whole work I do was only possible in Pforzheim. Pforzheim was an important center of the jewelry industry since the 17th century. Here, all machines and tools were traditionally available. Nowadays most of the important supplier companies are still located in Pforzheim.
Although Switzerland is famous for its watch industry – you wouldn’t find that many century-old machines as easily as you will in Pforzheim.

Early in your career you associated yourself with the firm Kollmar, what was Kollmar involved in before you took over the firm?

Kollmar was a pure engine turning company. They had no sons or any other family successor who wanted their workshop. Kollmar was a customer of the company where I made my professional training and I was offered it at the age of 24. I did not even have a master craftsman diploma, which is needed in Germany to lead a company. I needed a special permission and obtained my diploma about a year after taking over Kollmar’s company with most of their machines. Among others it was they who taught me their craft.

Your workshop includes many old machines. Can you tell me a little about the process of rescuing and restoring such a tool?

I got many of my machines from companies who didn’t want them any more or who put their money on more modern technologies. I also got some directly from the museum. A friend of mine is specialised in restoring old machines and he is helping me for years now. Many of the machines were in a very desolate and poor condition. We first need to completely undo them, clean and replace the parts (if necessary; very often we use quite simple constructions that are normally used in a completely different context, just because we cannot get original parts any more) and re-assemble the machine again.

You engrave by hand and without the aid of a microscope. To me this seems especially remarkable considering that many of the pieces on which you work are so small that even trained watchmakers use a loupe to assemble them. Do you take extra pride in your ability to work in the manner of the old masters of your craft?

You cannot say I’m especially proud of that. It actually comes by chance that a gold engraver is not trained using a loupe, whereas watchmakers are. They use it already during their training to be a watchmaker, engravers don’t. In the meantime I use glasses that double what I need to see, at least for the very tiny pieces.

With all of the effort and dedication you have displayed in reviving these crafts, I imagine you would hate to see the practices lost. Are you active in teaching the arts of engraving and engine-turning to another generation?

At present we do not have a trainee (mainly because of lack of time), but we did so in the past. Some of them have also been awarded prizes for what they have learned during their 3-years-training in our workshop. I myself have functioned as a member of the board of examiners for many years, being responsible for holding exams and practical tests of the trainees.

You mentioned that Kollmar had no heirs willing to continue the business. Do you have offspring or other family members who are involved in your work?

We are a real family company... My dad (a real handyman!) who is already retired is doing lots of the engravings done by a machine, helps keeping the machinery working and runs most of all errands such as taking and bringing stuff to the photographer, to the watchmaker (for undoing and rebuilding the movements) or to the goldsmith who does all kinds of galvanizing, parts of the skeletonizing and so on, he takes parcels to the post office - he is the "good soul" behind my job.

My wife is doing all the office stuff. She responds to most e-mails, is doing the translations, takes care of the internet in connection with an advertising agency and does the marketing (as long as she's got the time..., being a mum and pregnant again! My son is only 18 months old and already shows interest in my machines - however not in the way I always want him to! He loves all kind of buttons, levers and everything that can be moved in some way! I will for sure never urge him into something, who knows how our industry is developing in the future...

What sorts of hobbies do you enjoy?

Luckily, my work is one of my hobbies but doesn't leave me with a lot of spare time. I enjoy collecting and restoring old engine turn machines, designing and building watches. When I still had more time I had an ultra-light plane (a trike), but I have given up as I had hardly time left. Nowadays I rather go biking, play squash once a week, am part of a music band (preferably playing old Stones songs...), I read a lot, collect old cookery books and enjoy cooking myself - going along with a good old bottle of French wine (we get them more often than Californian wines but I also like those). Last not least I should say that my family doesn't see me a lot ([on workdays] I leave the house at 7 am and only return home at around 7.30 pm) and so I spend most of my time with them.

Would you care to make any comments about yourself or your work?

Something that makes our watches really special are the hand engine-turned dials in Sterling silver. In contrast to many big and renowned companies whose dials are not engine turned by hand but only good pressings with a good finish, we engine turn all our dials ourselves using old original engine turn machines. Their watches look more and more like "being fallen out of a machine", meaning one looks like the other, always a bit too perfect, without a "soul" and its very own character of a hand-made unique watch.

I hope your image of me and my work is now clearer to you. Maybe I put a bit too much stress on all the hand work we do, but this is in the end what makes our watches a BENZINGER, not a copy of some brand watch. This is very important to me.

For more watch articles by C. Bradley Jacobs, visit:

Click here to return to the index of articles at

Text and images: ©2008 C. Bradley Jacobs and, unless otherwise credited