The Story of U-Boat Watches From Matt Baily to Baselworld 2010 ¶
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The luxury watch industry is quite hard to break into. Very few young companies are able to achieve success in their first decade of operation. Since its opening in 2004, Matt Baily Marchand de Montres et Bijoux has been keen on finding these forward-thinking, innovative, companies as they emerge. U-Boat, based near Florence in the Italian town of Lucca, is a good example of a young company that sparked Matt's attention. Matt Baily discovered the U-Boat watches while perusing the aisles of Baselworld 2005. Thanks to Italo Fontana's design skills, the U-Boat watch brand has risen drastically in popularity over the years while maintaining the rarity and cachet of a small manufacturer.
Once Matt discovered the Italian U-Boat brand, he was so excited about bringing their watches into the store that the negotiations did not last long. We received our first shipment shortly after his return from Basel. The first watches that U-Boat was manufacturing were mostly equipped with Japanese, Myota quartz movements. While still high-grade items, the original Lefthooks and Lefthook Cronos were devised as luxury fashion accessories rather than watches for connoisseurs. Many visitors to the boutique then, and still now, were stunned by the size of the 53mm LeftHooks. The crown system on the left of every watch was another oddity. This feature is what puts the "left" in "Lefthook." We later discovered that all U-Boat watches have a left hand configuration, because of what inspired Italo Fontana to start producing watches. His grandfather drew up an idea for a watch in 1942. This timepiece, which has been replicated in 2009 with a very special edition called the U-1942, featured a large, robust crown system that was placed on the left side of the case to enhance comfort. This left handed configuration was a major key in the success of U-Boat watches. It made the 45, 48, and 53mm timepieces surprisingly comfortable. Each model was a limited edition, showing that these were not massed produced, but exclusive, luxury items.
The U-1942 is based on plans drawn up by Italo Fontana's grandfather in 1942
During the first year at Matt Baily, U-Boat watches were a definitive success. The timepieces were priced well, manufactured in Italy, and the LeftHook style was unique and interesting. As each model was a limited edition, many of the styles started to disappear, and less and less new styles were released. For a while it got very difficult to obtain the watches our clients wanted. The reason for this scarcity turned out to be that the company had stepped up their watchmaking skills and replaced their entire collection of quartz watches with new models running on high-end, Swiss, mechanical movements. The Classico collection is what resulted from the company's shift to high end horology. Visually it was almost the same as the LeftHooks, except for numerous key differences including a see-through back, slightly thicker case, and engraved metal plate on the strap. I have come up with two possible reasons that the company may have had to change their watches. Confronted with the popularity of their first series and a desire to expand, Italo Fontana and company had a choice between increasing production of their current models, or to create a higher-end product and keep production numbers low. Keeping with the original non-mass-production approach, the company chose the latter option. There is also the possibility that turning upscale was always in the plan and that the quartz models were a form of market research. One thing is for sure. The original quartz models have consequently become somewhat collectible.
The Classico Chronograph Automatic Steel (CAS) is part of the current collection of U-Boat watches
The original mechanical models, many of which are still in production, made the use of Swiss mechanical movements and featured The improved cases. The finish became finer and a wide see-through window was fitted to the back of each watch to show-off the high grade, Swiss mechanics. Other aspects such as the strap and crown were improved as well. The price jumped accordingly, roughly doubling the starting price of a U-Boat watch, but any doubts of whether watch enthusiasts would embrace the higher end, new models soon vanished. Not only did U-Boat gain in popularity they began attracting the attention of celebrities. Sylvester Stallone is a notable VIP U-Boat fan. His representatives originally contact the Matt Baily Boutique thinking that we were the manufacturers. Mr. Stallone had encountered the watches in Italy and his people found our website which displayed the watches. Eventually, Sly became U-Boat's most famous customer. A good indication of this is that the most popular entry of all times on the Baily Blog is Dino's Stallone Jumps on the U-Boat Bandwagon.
With the advent of the new U-Boat watches, two new collections where introduced. The 50mm square Thousands of Feet and the very popular Flighdeck Chronographs and three-hand watches. Every aspect of U-Boat watches is regularly improved. Over time sapphire crystals have become standard on all models, the crown cap has become sturdier, and the leather straps are now fitted with folding deployante clasps and more comfortable leather. Horologically speaking, the company is proving itself with the release of the U-51 Rattrapante Chronograph, their first complicated watch, and fantastically innovative designs like the U-42 and Flightdeck Ceramic bezels.
The success of the first ten years of the company were represented at Baselworld 2010. When Matt Baily found the U-Boat watches, Italo Fontana's booth was small and located in a secondary hall of the watch fair. In 2010, a luxurious, multilevel structure was erected in Hall 1 amongst the watch world's greats, including Rolex, Patek Philippe, the Swatch Group. In regards to this achievement Italo commented that "it is incredible, but true," and expressed great pride for the work him and his associates have done in the past. It was a long ascent to achieve in such a short period, and only the beginning of the U-Boat story.
Matt Baily and Italo Fontana at the U-Boat Booth at Baselworld 2010