How do you write about someone you have known since your were a toddler? Someone you (and your older sister) made out with as a teenager? Someone whose brother you (but not your older sister) have also kissed? Whose sister happens to be a very dear friend? Whose mother was your teacher and whose father went to school with yours? You start by dishing the dirt, hoping to get him and his incredible talent the attention it deserves.
Benoît Mintiens who’s 40 this year is now happily married with two beautiful children. He is handsome – think Robert Redford – and, as far as I can remember, used to be a real pain in the neck. But I suppose that is something you put up with when you know you are dealing with genius. Not that it was always obvious back in the days when he had terrible spelling and had to redo three years of high school. But he was also witty and those who knew him believed in him. Did I mention he can also be disarmingly charming?
As a teenager, he used to build model sailing ships. Not the kind you buy in bits and glue together; no, he actually designed the ship itself, which for someone like me who had to resit nearly every mathematics and physics exam is a sheer wonder. I remember being present for the launch of one of the early models and the air of euphoria as it floated and then actually sailed. It came as no surprise that Mintiens later chose to attend Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts; after graduating as an industrial designer, he joined the design firm Enthoven Associates where he is a senior consultant.
Nowadays he no longer builds model ships in his spare time, but watches. It all started in the mid-noughties when a friend asked him to design a diamond watch for men. Mintiens set out to use the diamonds for their functional qualities, having them display time by channeling light emitted by LEDs. The project ended with the discovery that Tag Heuer was working on a similar project. But Mintiens was captivated and started investing his free time and savings in designing a new kind of watch using groundbreaking technology, with the intention of reinventing the face of a watch and how we read time.
Designing the watch was one thing, getting it to work quite another. Not wanting the Swiss watchmaking industry to get wind of the project before he could secure a patent, it took Mintiens two years of hard labour, turning to Belgian and Dutch aerospace and nuclear high-tech when pieces he needed were unavailable. In 2009, he launched the brand Ressence – the name stands for renaissance de l’essentiel (re-birth of the basics) – to produce his ZeroSeries, its logo reminiscent of the emblem of Antwerp, his home town.
What is so special about Ressence apart from the fact that it was conceived and developed by an industry outsider who, true to his trade, believes form must follow function, is the display and underlying technology. Mintiens wanted to do away with traditional overlapping watch hands and evolved a way to work on one single plane. The watch face is a revolving disc with a fixed hand indicating minutes and three smaller discs – with hands indicating hours, seconds and am/ pm – that revolve independently around a virtual axis “like the moons of Saturn”. The face becomes a functional mechanical element in its own right.
When Mintiens triumphantly presented his three prototypes to the watch and jewellery industry’s annual world show in Basel two years ago, he generated a lot of buzz but turned down offers from well-established brands wanting to buy his idea, explaining he was having too much fun. Having established the necessary contacts to produce components, fifty watches were soon in the making. Last autumn, Mintiens launched the SeriesOne, another 150 watches that now carry the Swiss Made label and assembled in Geneva.* Asked about the key to his success, Mintiens comments: “Five percent inspiration and 95 percent hard work – and thinking outside the box.”