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INTERVIEW: Atelier Holgur's Matthew de Bakker on starting a microbrand

Atelier Holgur Frømand in grade 5 titanium

The intercontinentally founded brand discusses utility watches, social consciousness, and finding the right partners for success.

Mechanical watches have been a part of Matthew de Bakker's life since he was quite young. "I started with Seikos when I wasn't earning a lot. My most expensive watch at the time was a TAG Heuer from my father for my 18th birthday," he explains. "It was the design of the watches or their movements that sparked my curiosity. Now, I'm more into independent watchmakers. Not necessarily the expensive ones, but just brands that offer an interesting design or mechanics."

AtelierMatthew de Bakker & Asbjørn Simonen-Andersen.
Atelier Holgur's co-founders Matthew de Bakker (left) and Asbjørn Simonen-Andersen.

This is partly how he ended up starting his own microbrand, Atelier Holgur, with a friend from his youth, Asbjørn Simonen-Andersen, and his father, Ferdinand. "Asbjørn and I met when we were in high school in France, and we stayed in touch regularly. He didn't know I was a watch collector, but one day he suddenly reached out to me to ask if I knew anything about watches. He was thinking of making a watch, and it was also something that I had been considering, so it just felt like things were aligned.”

How it began

Simonen-Andersen's family has a history in watchmaking, and his grandfather Holger's [or Holgur, hence Atelier Holgur] tools are still well preserved today. The family business skipped a generation, and he wanted to revive it in his way. But they differed on what to create. De Bakker explains, "Asbjørn wanted something more classic looking and elegant, and I wanted a dive watch. We were going to do both initially at the same time, so we drew up two concepts. And Asbjørn said he liked my concept; let's do that first."

Atelier Holgur's watchmaking legacy
Atelier Holgur pays tribute to co-founder Asbjørn Simonen-Andersen's great-grandfather and grandfather, whose watchmaking legacy dates back to the late 1890s.

It was also a realisation that producing two models at the start would be a financial challenge. "We wanted to bootstrap the entire thing ourselves at first, but very quickly, we realised that was impossible!" he laughs. "So we spoke with my father, who's an adjunct professor at NTU, for advice about our business plan. He ended up investing in it and connected us to other business and finance experts who gave us suggestions on how to proceed.”

The Frømand

'Frømand' (Danish) translates to 'frogman', which is Atelier Holgur's name for its debut timepiece. It's an ultra-thin, relatively compact diving watch with 300m water resistance. In fact, the design of the case middle, bezel, and strap makes the watch feel more compact than 40mm. The entire watch case, bezel, and crown are made in grade 5 titanium. The bezel is technically a dodecagonal (12-sided) design for easy gripping and unidirectional turning, but subtly, so it still looks round. It's treated in a black PVD coating, with luminous markings on the 15-minute diving timer for easy legibility underwater.

Atelier Holgur Frømand in grade 5 titanium
The design of the Frømand's case middle, bezel, and strap makes the watch feel more compact than 40mm.

De Bakker explains that "we chose grade 5 titanium because it's hypoallergenic, durable, and corrosion-resistant – everything you'd want in a diving watch. I had a clear idea of what it should be like in my mind – durable, reliable, something vintage-inspired, slim, and smaller. We want to make watches that people can wear, beat up a little, and still look good, with just a little something special to it."

Atelier Holgur Frømand in grade 5 titanium
The Frømand's Schwarz-Etienne ASE 200 calibre is a rare example of a micro-rotor movement winding a tool watch.

In the Frømand's case, that little special is the Schwarz-Etienne ASE 200 calibre that powers the watch. The ultra-thin, automatic movement is wound by a highly efficient micro-rotor and tailored to Atelier Holgur's requirements. It's a rare instance where we see a micro-rotor movement winding a utility watch.

He explains that they had approached several movement makers but settled on working with Schwarz Etienne because of the movement's aesthetics and performance as well as the company's openness to develop something unique with Atelier Holgur. "The ASE 200 calibre was meant to be used in Schwarz Etienne's elegant dress watches, and I think they were surprised that we wanted to use it in a diving watch. But that meant we could marry some of the aspects we usually see in dress watches in a tool watch, and it would be great to wear all the time."

Atelier Holgur Frømand in grade 5 titanium
The Frømand's Schwarz-Etienne ASE 200 is customised according to Atelier Holgur's specifications.

The look of the ASE 200 calibre, however, is very different from Schwarz Etienne's designs. The mainplate is fully sandblasted, with a matte grey coating to match it with the case, which has polished and sandblasted surfaces. The case, as well as integrated lugs that are merged into the case middle, create a monobloc look that's very rugged. Atelier Holgur designed a fastener-style strap to go with the watch, as well as a Velcro loop band for use during diving. De Bakker notes that he frequently takes his watch diving, and it still looks pristine.

Next steps

While there are still some available pieces for the Q1 2023 delivery (you can order yours online), there're already some ideas for upcoming variations; each will probably be a limited run. Atelier Holgur is also looking into developing new models and what to incorporate into them. But beyond that, the Frømand and its future sibling models will also be socially conscious products. For example, the straps of the Frømand are made from recycled plastic recovered from the oceans, sourced from Tide Ocean.

Atelier Holgur Frømand in grade 5 titanium
Atelier Holgur is just as passionate about watchmaking as it is about supporting ocean conservation efforts.

Being an avid diver who's participated in several clean-ups in Singapore's waters, de Bakker is highly cognizant of the importance of protecting marine ecosystems. In fact, buyers of the first Frømand will be invited to take part in an upcoming clean-up dive by the company during Q1 of this year to discover the incredible rate at which Singapore's protected waters are recovering. Remember to bring your Frømands along for the dive!  



Darren has been writing about, and admiring the craft of watchmaking for over a dozen years. He considers himself lucky to live in a golden age of horology, and firmly believes that the most difficult watches to design are the simplest and the most intriguing to discover.