The woman who brought skull watches back to life

By Magnus Bennett
BBC Scotland News

Media caption,
Death watches draw inspiration from history

When design student Fiona Krüger first knocked on the door of Swiss watchmakers six years ago, few were willing to give her the time of day.

After all, the Scot didn't tick the right boxes in the conservative world of haute horlogerie.

For a start, she was 20-something, not Swiss and had no experience in watchmaking.

Image source, Fiona Krüger
Image caption,
Fiona's designs raised a few eyebrows six years ago

And she had a design concept which raised more than a few eyebrows at the time - skull-shaped timepieces.

Wind the clock forward, and things are very different.

The 32-year-old, from Airdrie in Lanarkshire, is selling high-end memento mori "skull" timepieces to the rich and famous for as much as £20,000 a time.

She says: "If you'd asked me at that stage to name more than two watch brands, I couldn't have done it.

"I didn't know anything about watches - they weren't on my radar at all."

Image source, Fiona Krüger
Image caption,
Fiona Krüger's watches sell for as much as £20,000

She was studying a master's degree in design for the luxury industry in Switzerland when a course visit to the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva changed everything.

"For me it was like walking into Willie Wonka's chocolate factory," she recalls.

"The museum had a historical collection which had a myriad of pieces in all sorts of different designs.

"Some were shaped like angels and others shaped like a guitar and it made me realise that a watch didn't have to be round and flat - it could literally be whatever you could imagine."

Image source, Fiona Krüger
Image caption,
Fiona's skull designs are assembled by artisans in Switzerland

Her imagination was fired further during her course when she came across a skull timepiece linked to Mary Queen of Scots.

"I felt the piece was beautiful," she says. "And the fact that she was Scottish, there was obviously an appeal there.

"That led me to discover that in the 16th Century, skull-shaped timepieces were a big thing for women."

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
Fiona was captivated by images of a memento mori watch linked to Mary Queen of Scots

Fiona also drew on her experience of living in Mexico for three years when she was a child.

"I remember watching the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.

"For them, somebody passing away is just another point on a longer story and it is more of an occasion to celebrate a person's life.

"If you are going to buy a really beautiful high-end timepiece, you are probably doing all right.

"So to have something on your wrist that reminds you that you should enjoy your life was an interesting topic around which to design something."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico had a lasting impression on Fiona

Fiona put her fine art background to use by sketching out different skull designs.

"When I was starting out, I thought: there are billions of watches on the market and you don't actually really need another one," she says.

"Particularly today, with technology, a mechanical timepiece isn't a necessity any more - it's something people buy because they fall in love with it or they have an emotional reaction to it.

"So for me, the whole idea of time and mortality - the memento mori idea - was relevant today for a mechanical timepiece."

Image source, Fiona Krüger
Image caption,
Fiona has kept her original sketches for the skull watch collections

Fiona maintains that her lack of experience in making watches has been anything but a hindrance.

"I don't think like a watchmaker would," she explains.

"I don't think, okay, there's the mechanism and then the case, the glass, the hands and the dial.

"I think more of a painting, or of building up a pattern, and I think of the whole piece.

"When I look at all the mechanism, it looks more like a pattern than a mechanical object.

"But at the same time there are all the technical constraints.

"I come up with the creative bit and then there's pushback on what's possible technically - and that tension is what makes pieces interesting."

Image source, Fiona Krüger
Image caption,
A watchmaker is pictured assembling one of Fiona's timepieces

But finding Swiss watchmakers prepared to take on her designs at first proved difficult.

She explains: "I am sure that all of the suppliers I went to see initially thought I was completely nuts because I didn't fit the typical mould of somebody from the watchmaking sector.

"It is a very male-dominated industry. A lot of the company founders and CEOs are all older men.

"I think there was also the fact that I was a young woman who was doing something that was completely different.

"But after pushing through that and having several meetings, they could see that I had done my homework, and that I understood what I wanted and what was possible technically."

Image source, Fiona Krüger/ L'Epee 1839
Image caption,
The skull wall clock yawns when it starts to run out of power

Now based in Alsace, France, Fiona works collaboratively with a number of leading suppliers.

One of her most recent projects was a joint venture with Swiss firm L'Epee 1839 - a skull wall clock that yawns when it needs to be rewound.

The macabre aspect of Fiona's timepieces hasn't put some people off.

Her first two series of limited editions sold out.

Clients have included fellow Scot Judy Murray, mother of tennis stars Andy and Jamie.

Image caption,
Fiona Krüger (left) counts Judy Murray among her clients

Fiona acknowledges that her watches are not to everybody's taste but says her clients are a mix of men and women and of different age groups.

"My first piece was sold to a middle-aged Mexican gentleman, so obviously there was a strong cultural link," she says.

"My second timepiece was sold to a young woman in her mid-20s in China, while another customer was a gentleman in Japan who must have been in his 80s."

New collection

Fiona is preparing to launch a brand new collection of watches, but is keeping the details under wraps.

She says: "It will have its own concept, its own theme, and a completely new design - it has got nothing to do with skulls or mortality or anything like that."

Whatever the future holds, Fiona says her love of watches will never dim.

"It just so happens that designing watches fits with the way my brain works," she says.

"For me, a watch is like a blank canvas with the added bonus that you have bits which move and come to life when you wind the piece up.

"To me they are quite magical things."

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