Interviews • 17 Dec 2020
Rémy Cools on His Watchmaking Journey
Born in 1997, Rémy Cools discovered watchmaking at the age of 11 during a Manufacture visit in La Vallée de Joux, Switzerland. For Rémy, it was a revelation.
In 2012, Rémy joined one of the best watchmaking school located next to the Swiss border in Morteau, France. Two years later, in 2014, Rémy was recognised as one of the best watchmaking apprentices in France, winning the national golden medal. The awards continued; winning the prestigious F.P. Journe Young Talent Competition in 2018 with his hand made tourbillon table clock. The same year, Rémy made his tourbillon school watch to graduate his 6 years of studies; 8 months in the making and more than 1,000 hours of work.
After leaving school Rémy joined Greubel Forsey’s “tradition workshop” before deciding to become an independent watchmaker, setting up his workshop on the shores of Lake Annecy in the Haute-Savoie region of France.
Shortly after unveiling the Tourbillon Souscription we caught up with Rémy to talk about his watchmaking journey.
When did you decide to become a watchmaker?
No one in my family worked in the watchmaking industry, but I have always loved the mechanical aspect of cars.
When I was 11, I went to the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland with my uncle and discovered the world of watchmaking; I discovered the process to machine and finish a watch. One of the watchmakers at Frédéric Piguet (now owned by Blancpain) allowed me to sit at his workbench and gave me the opportunity to try to assemble a watch. For me this was an amazing experience. I decided that this is what I want to do. It was a revelation.
4 years later you enrolled in Le Lycée Edgar Faure?
Yes, I was 15 years old. My studies under the Diplôme des Métiers d’art (DMA) took six years. The first part of this covers the fundamentals of watchmaking; you learn about the mechanical watch, how to repair watches, how to lubricate it, assemble it and disassemble it – this part takes two years. After two years you can finish with a diploma. But if you’re one of the top performing students you can go on and do the Brevet des Métiers d’art (BMA) where for two years you learn about complicated watchmaking; including chronographs, simple complications (such as monophases). I made my tourbillon clock in the last year of the BMA diploma.
This was the Mechanical Tempus Pendulum Tourbillon Clock, right?
Yes, so I first made my tourbillon clock, followed by the tourbillon watch. I wanted to keep my DNA of my tourbillon clock and my school watch consistent – it’s an evolution. And then recently I concentrated this DNA down into the Tourbillon Souscription.
It seems, like François-Paul Journe, you thought through the DNA of your ‘brand’ early on.
Yes, I thought about it a lot because I didn’t want to create something that looks similar to another watch. Francois-Paul Journe told me that when you look at the watch or clock projects from young watchmakers, generally they start with an hommage watch, which is another word for “copy”. For me, when I create a watch, I don’t want it to look like it was copied from other creations. I don’t want to create a homage; I want to create something with my own personality, my DNA.
You were awarded the Meilleurs Apprentis de France during you studies?
Yes, I was really happy when I won that, it was a big accomplishment for me. I worked very hard leading up to the contest. For example, I spent about 500 hours machining and finishing the parts – it’s a lot of work, stress and pressure. But for a young watchmaker, it’s an amazing opportunity to be recognised like that.
So, you won the Meilleurs Apprentis de France in 2014, made your Mechanical Tempus Pendulum Tourbillon Clock in 2016 and won the Francois-Paul Journe Award in 2018?
Yes, I finished school in 2018 – the same year I won the F.P. Journe Young Talent Award. So, leading up to that, in 2016 I commenced the last two years of my six-year programme; the first year focuses on restoration for pocket watches, clocks and wristwatches and in the second year you make your own watch.
You also worked with Greubel Forsey?
When Greubel Forsey came to me to talk about a handmade project I was very enthusiastic to work with the team. I was very lucky because it’s an incredible manufacture and I learnt a lot working in their traditional workshop with the team. For a watchmaker to learn and to create alongside the team at Greubel Forsey, it really helps you develop as a watchmaker.
Was it difficult translating the DNA of your clock onto the watch?
I really wanted to have a similar design and DNA in my school watch. I had a professor at school say “you can’t have the same design in your school watch as your tourbillon clock” and I said “no its my creation, I want to have a similar design”
For the sapphire crystal on my school watch, I called many companies to machine the sapphire crystal. The lowest price I could find was around 4,000 CHF for one crystal – a student doesn’t have this type of money [laughs]. I was thinking about other possibilities for the box glass and I went to a 3D printing manufacture in Switzerland and showed my project and ideas about the glass and the boss said “yes we can do that”. After I received the 3D printed plastic glass, it wasn’t totally transparent, so I had to polish it until it was perfectly transparent.
And the reason you retained the box-shaped crystal for your Tourbillon Souscription is that it’s functional right? The dial is quite three-dimensional.
Yes, I really wanted to keep the 3D design, because I really love the emotion when you can look at all of the parts. When the tourbillon is rotating it is mesmerising, you can see everything on the dial side. For all of my Tourbillon Souscription watches, I really want to keep the sobriety and symmetry of the design. This is very important for me.
Did you take inspiration from F.P Journe – as did Rexhep – in terms of movement symmetry?
I really love the work of F.P. Journe. Journe was inspired by old watches; when you look at vintage pocket watches and marine chronometers, generally, many of these had a strong sense of legibility and symmetry.
The hands draw inspiration from Breguet?
Yes it’s an inspiration from Breguet hands, but with the steel polished chatons to bring a touch of modernity. I also drew some inspiration, and really love the work of Jacques-Frédéric Houriet – an old watchmaker from the 19th century. He was a great friend of Breguet; in Jean Claude Sabrier’s book he mentions Houriet was working on tourbillons at the age of 80 for Urban Jürgensen. Crazy!
[Rémy suddenly excuses himself and is seen running around his workshop shooing a bee that has just flown in from the shores of Lake Annecy]
Nicely done! What we’re we talking about? Oh yes, the winding on the centre of the back, it’s definitely unconventional! Was that inspired by anything in particular?
Yes, it’s a personal choice. One of watches I was working on at school needed two keys to wind and set the time on the back. For a wristwatch this is impractical, so I decided to design a contemporary twin-crown equivalent. I kept the same system for my school watch and Tourbillon Souscription, so the link between the two is not broken. But for future watches I don’t plan to keep it the same – this is just for the Tourbillon Souscription [of 9 watches].
When you set or wind the watch with a conventional crown, you just use the crown and that’s it. But when we have the two crowns on the back you savour the moment – there is a stronger link between the watch and the owner of the watch because you always have to return to the case back and recreate that link. This design allows you to take the time to appreciate the watch and watch the movement come to life.
This reminds us of how George Daniels said that if you’re too impatient to spend the time to wind and set the watch, you don’t deserve a Daniels watch.
I wouldn’t say that, for me it’s just a habit to take, a daily ritual.
For the finishing, it is a mix between traditional and contemporary; consisting of quite a lot of anglage and black polishing. Now black polishing is mostly used for aesthetic reasons, but back then black polishing was also used to protect the parts. Old watches weren’t waterproof; the polishing of the parts protects the steel components from rust.
As for the engraving?
He’s one of the best engravers in the world. He’s an engraver in Switzerland and he works on unique pieces for Patek Philippe and Breguet and only works for specific project or complicated projects. It is not a thin engraving – it is very deep and is all hand engraved, with no machines involved. The engraving on the dial is especially difficult as the surface is not flat, it’s on an angle.
You used the Calibre 6497 on your school watch. Did you use the same on the Tourbillon Souscription?
No, the movement is totally different – every component is different, there is no overlap. I just kept the DNA of the design the same and the layout of the dial. I use my own geartrain, and wheels – I work like the old watchmakers from 150 years ago. I cut the teeth on the wheels one by one on my watchmaker lathe. You can’t compare the two watches as I was younger and didn’t have the same level of experience. The design is the same but everything inside is totally new.
I think it’s good to have a critical eye on your work. In watchmaking, or in every job, you always have to grow and develop. To stay the same is not good. You always have to keep improving the finishing and when you look back you can see the progress you have made from your first creation to where you are now.
It’s also important for collectors to be able to look at the progress that’s been made. When I look through Daniels work, the difference between his first pocket watch and his last is huge. Its totally different. You can’t compare his earlier work to his later work. It’s important for me to mention this, because collectors in 2020 are unlike those from 20 or 30 years ago – they are passionate and educated in identifying the quality and the finishing of a movement.
Was it always the goal to start with a tourbillon?
Yes, I think for many watchmakers it’s a goal to start with a tourbillon watch because it’s an iconic complication in watchmaking and when you look at my school project, from the table clock to the Tourbillon Souscription I can tell now that I was only working on tourbillons in my studies. I feel really lucky to have the chance to work on tourbillon watches for my school projects.
And why did you decide to setup your workshop at Lake Annecy?
Firstly, I really love the Haute Savorie region – it’s a very beautiful region with the lake and the mountains. The region also has a rich watchmaking heritage; for example, in Cluses they used to produce tools and raw movements for the Swiss watchmaking industry in the 17th and 18th century. The National Watchmaking School was also in Cluses, it was the best French based watchmaking school of all time where many legendary watchmakers came from.
In the beginning watchmaking was based in France, England and Germany. It’s very complicated to explain sometimes but it is important for people to know that watchmaking isn’t just the purview of the Swiss.
Do you repair your own equipment?
Yes, when I commenced my studies I really loved and wanted to have tools and machines because I always repaired and restored old clocks and pocket watches; you can’t work correctly if you don’t have the proper tools. It’s very important for me to furnish my workshop and buy the required tools and machines in order to be independent. Because it is not always possible and productive to keep relying on friends and travel to other workshops just to use a particular machine.
I really appreciate the luxury to have the tools now. The skill to make the machines is insane, nowadays we can’t make all the old machines like they used to be made so we need to repair them. For example, my jig borer is from the late 40s – the machine looks very old, but the precision is a micron. As both Daniels and Journe mention, the industrialisation of watchmaking resulted in a lot of skills to disappear, including both skills in watchmaking and machine making. When you automate tasks, you lose skills. It’s important for me to work with these machines because when you use these it is your hand doing the movement, the parts then have a soul. The machine has a soul, and you add your own soul to it. It’s not like a CNC machine that makes thousands of parts. This adds up to the soul of the entire watch.
You’re past of the next generation but do you have any advice for fellow aspiring watchmakers?
You need to be passionate. Because if you’re not passionate you can’t really do a good job. And even more so if you are an independent watchmaker – you just can’t do it. I live for watchmaking and even dream about it when I’m asleep.
It’s also important to feel inspired by historical watches and clocks. When you look at all of the old watchmaking legends, it is really humbling what they could achieve with their limited equipment and lack of machinery is incredible.The precision is insane. For example, I recently bought the Derek Pratt book and was reading about his efforts to recreate the H4 – imagine Harrison working on it all those years ago. I cannot even imagine his talent. It’s incredible what they could achieve. At the Philipps independent fair last year, I had the chance to hold Pratt’s Oval pocket watch and some of Daniels’ masterpieces in my hand, I couldn’t speak – I was speechless. It’s hard to explain but when you hold these pieces in your hand you feel a very special sensation, it is history of watchmaking in your hand.