Back To The Future: The Urwerk UR-102, Then And Now

Back To The Future: The Urwerk UR-102, Then And Now

Urwerk's most traditional wristwatch was also the brand's first. Ignored for many years, the round UR-102 is back in the spotlight this year thanks to a highly anticipated limited-edition revival.

Urwerk's most traditional wristwatch was also the brand's first. Ignored for many years, the round UR-102 is back in the spotlight this year thanks to a highly anticipated limited-edition revival.

Our first live auction of the fall 2023 season, the PHILLIPS Geneva Watch Auction: XVIII, takes place on November 3 and 4, at La Réserve Genève. The auction includes more than 180 of the world's finest watches – and though we are loath to boast, we truly think it's one of the best catalogs we've ever put together. We'll be highlighting a number of the most interesting lots and stories featured in the sale over the next month, including one of the original 1990s Urwerk UR-102s featured in this story.

– Logan Baker

Urwerk is known for breaking long-standing horological convention. Founders Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei create timepieces that look nothing like a traditional Swiss wristwatch. They’ve instead developed their own perspective on watchmaking that’s influenced by science fiction, astronomy, and the relationship between space and time.

The resulting wristwatches have typically come in the shape of large chunks of industrial-looking metal that have been shaped and finished to look like some sort of wrist-born Star Trek gadget. There are no hands serving as timekeepers, instead the passage of time has been indicated by rotating cubes and pyramids, or linear read-outs.

Urwerk’s space-age aesthetic codes have proven themselves over the years. The brand is now more than 25 years old, years before other experimental independent watchmakers (MB&F, Greubel Forsey, etc.) would make names for themselves. Urwerk successfully pioneered a unique form of horological creativity that it continues to successfully iterate on every year.

But the company’s bulky, larger-than-life wristwatches weren’t always the norm at Urwerk. The brand’s very first creations, the UR-101 and UR-102, introduced at Baselworld 1997, managed to combine Urwerk’s developing avant-garde perspective in a more traditional format. These two inaugural references are the only watches Urwerk has ever created that utilize a more traditional round case shape with easy-to-wear 38mm × 12mm dimensions.

An original 1997 Urwerk UR-102 in polished stainless steel that sold for CHF 100,800 during the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: XIV, in November 2021.

The difference was simply that the UR-101 had an asymmetrical 38mm yellow gold case with hidden top lugs, while the UR-102 had a circular 38 mm stainless steel case with four visible lug horns positioned on the top and bottom of the watch. Inspiration came from the Millennium Falcon, Sputnik, and an antique clock with wandering hours that was made for Pope Alexander VII in the mid-1600s.

The market for independent watchmaking wasn’t quite as mature in the late 1990s as it is today, and it took some time for the collecting community to really warm up to Urwerk’s unique creations. Urwerk would eventually go on to introduce the UR-103, in 2003, which would go on to become a cult hit among collectors, firmly establishing more experimental case designs and timekeeping displays as de rigueur at Urwerk.

And that was pretty much it for the UR-101 and UR-102. Urwerk moved on to successive generations that developed on the success of the UR-103, leaving the 101 and 102 in the dust. Examples of these early references would occasionally show up at auction or on high-end secondary market platforms as a curiosity of another time in the watchmaking world. Countless collectors would go on to be introduced to Urwerk in the 2000s and 2010s with zero knowledge of the original two models.


The Urwerk UR-102.02 “TimeForArt” Unique Piece that sold for a record USD $403,200 during the New York Watch Auction: SEVEN, in December 2022, with all proceeds going toward The Swiss Institute.

That officially changed in the past two years. After introducing a unique piece at the 2021 edition of the Only Watch charity auction (it sold for CHF 280,000), Urwerk honored its 25th birthday in 2022 with the creation of a unique UR-102 in partnership with artist Cooper Jacoby that incorporated thermodynamic pigments onto the wandering hour display that would change color depending on the surrounding temperature. Other updates included a larger diameter of 41mm and the use of more conventional lugs.

Urwerk donated this extra-special UR-102 as part of the “Time For Art” sub-section of the Phillips New York Watch Auction: SEVEN, in December 2022, with all proceeds from the sale going to benefit the Swiss Institute. The watch ended up selling for a remarkable USD $403,200, a record result for an Urwerk wristwatch at auction.

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the UR-102 was back in the spotlight. Urwerk fans and the larger collector community, hungry for a more moderate-sized Urwerk wristwatch, began speculating if there might be a larger run of UR-102 models in store for the future. They didn’t have to wait long for an answer.


The new-for-2023 Urwerk UR-102 "Reloaded" in black titanium (left) and natural titanium (right).

Urwerk officially launched the Urwerk UR-102 “Reloaded” series in March of this year, consisting of two different variants in either natural or black PVD-coated titanium and steel cases. The new-for-2023 UR-102 models continue to build off the platform of last year’s unique piece, utilizing the same 41mm × 11.3mm dimensions, larger angular lugs, new crown position (at four o’clock), and wider semi-circle for the time indication.

The timekeeping display on the new UR-102 incorporates a minute track in conjunction with the wandering hours as well as a bit of text highlighting the distance the Earth has traveled around the Sun between the April 1997 introduction of the UR-102 and this year’s new version (23,500,000 km, if you’re curious). One thing that didn’t make the cut from last year’s unique piece? The color-changing, thermodynamic pigments.


The new-for-2023 Urwerk UR-102 "Reloaded" in black titanium. MSRP: USD $31,000

Urwerk created a total of 100 examples of each model. Twenty-five pieces of each series were included in a batch of two-piece box sets containing both watches, for CHF 56,000, while 75 examples of each were sold individually, for USD $31,000. All 200 watches sold out in short order, to longtime Urwerk collectors as well as first-time Urwerk buyers.

When I met with Urwerk in Geneva a few months ago, they seemed to suggest that these would be the last UR-102s we’d see for a long while. So the question now for collectors now is whether interest in the original neo-vintage UR-102 models will turn a corner. The exact number of original UR-102 examples (or UR-101, for that matter) are not known, but it’s likely that no more than a few hundred were created of each reference.

The first version of the UR-102 was made of polished stainless steel, but Urwerk went on to experiment with other materials and finishes, including the blacked-out “Night Watch” model with luminous numerals and a small number of matte grey UR-102s made of a combination of aluminum and platinum.

A circa 1998 Urwerk UR-102 in polished stainless steel that's included in the Geneva Watch Auction: XVIII. Estimate: CHF 20,000 - 40,000

Early UR-102 examples are so rare that less than 15 examples have ever appeared on the international public auction scene, and only one previous example has sold at Phillips (a polished steel UR-102 marked case number 11 from 1997 that sold for CHF 100,800 at Phillips Geneva, in November 2021). That was an impressively high result, one of the first UR-102 examples to break the six-figure mark at auction. A few more have joined it since, but it wasn’t long ago that the reference was forgotten. You can find multiple examples that sold for less than USD $20,000 as recently as 2017.

One of the first original UR-102s to come to auction since the UR-102 Reloaded series was released is a circa 1998 example in polished stainless steel marked case number 50 that’s included in next month’s Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: XVIII. It’s lot 50 in the catalog, is in strong condition, and carries an estimate of CHF 20,000 – 40,000.

You can learn more, place a bid, and view the entire Geneva Watch Auction: XVIII catalog here.

About Phillips In Association With Bacs & Russo

The team of specialists at PHILLIPS Watches is dedicated to an uncompromised approach to quality, transparency, and client service. Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo holds the world record for the most successful watch auction, with its Geneva Watch Auction: XIV having realized $74.5 million in 2021. Over the course of 2021 and 2022, the company sold 100% of the watches offered, a first in the industry, resulting in the highest annual total in history across all the auction houses at $227 million.

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About Logan Baker

Logan has spent the past decade reporting on every aspect of the watch business. He joined Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo at the start of 2023 as the department's Senior Editorial Manager. He splits his time between New York and Geneva.

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