An Interview with Independent Watchmaker Stefan Kudoke
We caught up with 2019 GPHG-winning Stefan Kudoke in an exclusive interview with World of Watches
When you first hear the name Kudoke, you might be flummoxed. Well you might be a little behind the times if you have never heard of the German independent brand or the watchmaker behind it all. One should not feel too bad about this because the name is still relatively new in watchmaking circles – also it is not Swiss or Japanese. German watchmaker Stefan Kudoke came to international attention when his Kudoke 2 watch won the Petite Aiguille prize in the GPHG 2019. Honestly, we feel worse than you do (if you had not heard of the brand) because Mr Kudoke worked for a time at Glashütte Original and we may have missed our chance at making his acquaintance then. If you know anything about the editors of this magazine, you can detect a strong preference for a very distinctive style of watchmaking – the German style.
“What hasn’t changed (after the GPHG win) is the way we manufacture our watches. We stay true to our philosophy: to oﬀer a reliable watch with a high degree of hand-ﬁnishing”
Prior to that GPHG win, Kudoke was mostly under the radar – a cherished secret for collectors in the know even. As is frequently the case, WOW Thailand editor Ruckdee swept in with some references, and eventually an interview with Mr Kudoke himself. Before we get into that, a few details about the brand and the man that might surprise you. Kudoke came to our attention a few years ago, as part of research on watchmaking in the Glashütte region. He has actually made watchmaking news for the better part of a decade now, most famously as a dedicated solo watchmaker who specialises in skeletonised watches, such as the HR1. Nothing unusual there you might think, but his base of operations is somewhere on the outskirts of Dresden and he really did run his operations by himself, right down to the photography. It is the sort of story that watch collectors love.
Before there was such a thing as a Kudoke watch, there seemed to be an idea of it in the watchmaker’s mind. Born in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1978, Kudoke trained as a watchmaker in Glashütte, later taking up positions at Glashütte Original (complications and prototyping) and then in the servicing departments of Breguet, Blancpain and Omega in New York. As for the art of skeletonising watches, he picked that up from a watchmaker in his hometown, according to a report in the German press. Kudoke is one of only a handful of watchmakers from the lesser-known Frankfurt (Oder), and it was surprising that part of his watchmaking education happened here.
“For me it is not important to grow fast, but to stay independent ﬁnancially as well as in my mind.”
In some ways, especially with the GPHG win, Kudoke – the man and the brand – does specialise in the art of surprise too. This was certainly the case with the KudOktopus and the KudOKtourbi, which might have made their debuts as early as 2012. If you have ever seen these watches – even the photographs – you will never forget them. But it is not all ornate stuff at this brand, as the more recent watches demonstrate. After turning heads with skeletonised timepieces, Kudoke became known for its partnership with Austrian watchmaking house Habring2, the firm of Richard and Maria-Kristina Habring. One the results of that relationship was the Kudoke Kaliber 1, introduced in 2018 and then appearing in production in 2019 of course. This was the calibre that powered the GPHG-wining Kudoke 2 watch.
This brings us to our interview with Stefan Kudoke, who graciously answered Ruckdee’s questions, despite being busier than ever.
What was the niche you tried to ﬁll when you ﬁrst started the Kudoke brand?
When I was starting to make the ﬁrst pieces under the brand Kudoke, hand-skeletonised watches were quite popular. Each big brand had a special skeleton series in their portfolio, most of them made by artisans in the background. At that time there was no brand specialised in this niche of hand-skeletonised watches. Our idea was to ﬁll exactly this gap. Beyond that, I simply liked skeleton watches.
Tell us about life after GPHG 2019. What has changed and what has not?
Well, GPHG was a big step forward for us. Through the win in the Petite Aiguille category, we became known to watch enthusiasts and collectors who haven’t heard of us before. That means for us we have a lot of work now and our clients have to be more patient as waiting times are a bit longer. What hasn’t changed is the way we manufacture our watches. Instead of switching to machine production as demand is increasing, we stay true to our philosophy: to offer a reliable watch with a high degree of hand-ﬁnishing.
Would it be correct to presume that you get more orders now for Kudoke 1 and Kudoke 2 under the Handwerk line than the Kunstwerk watches?
Yes, this is correct. The proportion of pieces sold between the two lines has inversed. But at the same time the Kunstwerk line is beneﬁtting from this additional attention as well. The connecting element between both lines is hand-craftsmanship, interpreted very differently. And this is what our clients appreciate most.
Do you aspire to develop a chronograph watch, whether with a sourced or an in-house movement? Why or why not?
No. I usually manufacture watches that I like myself and which are special in one way or another. Why should I do another chronograph when there are so many out there already? Even though I like the mechanical execution of some chronographs, I do not particularly like the philosophy behind this complication, which for me is “time pressure”. Instead I’d rather go for some “decelerating” indications like the day/night display of the Kudoke 2 model.
Will we see the use of stone dials either in Handwerk or Kunstwerk watches?
Nothing is impossible [smile]. But there are no concrete plans for it yet.
What is your annual production capacity at the moment?
We manufacture around 70 pieces per year at the moment.
What would be better for your business now, between having more time to work on watches by yourself or having more people to help you with some processes?
This is a difficult question. For me, it is very important to work at the workbench. I know from many of my fellow independent watchmakers that it can become very difficult to actually work on the watch, if you have too many employees, because at some point you are too busy managing processes. But of course I know that, with growth, it is not possible to do everything on my own.
Fortunately, my wife and partner Ev joined our family business some time ago and took over most of the administration as well as communication tasks. That allows me to focus on the watchmaking side of our business. Since a couple of months ago, we have an additional watchmaker working with us as well, who helps me with some of the manufacturing processes. My goal in the long-term is to have more time for new product development and prototyping.
What have you learned from the other independent watchmaking businesses before you?
Well, you can learn from positive but also from negative examples. For me it is not important to grow fast, but to stay independent ﬁnancially as well as in my mind. I have seen too many good watchmakers failing after investors have taken over the product development strategy. I think as an independent watchmaker, you are often the heart and soul of the brand and that is what watch enthusiasts appreciate.
What is your aspiration for the next five or 10 years?
We prefer to grow at our own pace. This may be not too fast, but it ensures that the quality of our watches stays consistently high and that they still carry the design hallmarks we are committed to.