Théo Auffret on Parisian Independence

Interviews • 20 Nov 2020

Théo Auffret on Parisian Independence

by David Morris

Born in 1995, Théo Auffret began his training as a restorative watchmaker while completing his baccalaureate studies at Dupont’s in Pontoise. In 2012 Théo joined the professional programme as a restorative watchmaker apprentice in the workshops of Denis Corpechot, in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris, where he was exposed to an array of fine vintage watches and clocks. As an apprentice under the eccentric Jean-Baptiste Viot, Théo developed a desire for independence which never subsided, and culminated in his decision to pursue a career as an independent artisanal watchmaker.

Shortly after unveiling the Tourbillon à Paris – Théo’s Souscription Series Watch – we caught up with the young watchmaker to talk about his horological journey and watchmaking philosophy.

When did you decide to become a watchmaker?

Unlike some of my peers who are coming from multi-generational watchmaking families, my parents weren’t involved in horology at all. While I was studying engineering for my baccalaureate, my father decided to go into a watch boutique to look at watches. I accompanied him the second time he went and met a watchmaker. He was, you know the old watchmaker with a beard, working in a workshop that smelt of oil – he was the classic image of what we think watchmakers look like. I found the atmosphere very interesting.

Mr Théo Auffret

And as for your apprenticeship under Jean-Baptiste, how did that eventuate?

I already had an interest in the work of independent watchmakers. I first discovered George Daniels of course because he’s kind of a legend. And then I also looked to French guys like Vianney Halter and François-Paul Journe.  I discovered in a catalogue there was an independent watchmaker in Paris who was still working on watches by hand and was named Jean-Baptiste Viot. I thought I have to meet this guy!

The first time I met Jean-Baptiste was when I had some questions about a part I had to restore on a striking mechanism. When the time came to find another workshop to do the second part of my apprenticeship, I decided to ask Jean-Baptiste. I went in the summer for something like eight or nine days, after which I think he thought my work was not too bad and accepted me as an apprentice. I spent two years with Jean-Baptiste. During that time, I was spending something like three weeks of the month in Jean-Baptiste’s workshop, with the remainder of my time at the Lycée Polyvalent Edgar Faure in Morteau doing tests for school. The majority of my time was spent making watches by hand with Jean-Baptiste. I have a few funny stories about how I’d have to come up with excuses not to attend school, because I was working on an important project in the workshop.

Tourbillon à Paris

You remind me of F.P. Journe and his school experience.

Yes, I have his book here, and it’s funny how he didn’t have the best relationship with his teachers, but now he’s one of the best isn’t he. It’s very different though, at school they first introduce you to the big brands and then you discover the independent side of watchmaking. But for me, I essentially started with the latter. Because it really is quite hard to find anyone more artisanal than Jean-Baptiste. It is very artisanal. He only makes one or two watches a year. So, it was incredible for me to discover this world of independent watchmaking and to learn about where the finished watches were going, be that Singapore, Thailand or wherever. That was very interesting. Jean-Baptiste also owns a huge library. So, I spent my free time reading all those books – it’s very inspiring.

One day I decided to start on the Tourbillon project, I presented this and ran for the F.P Journe Young Talent Contest [which Théo won] and that is how I started as an independent watchmaker.

Winner of the F.P. Journe Young Talent Competition (2018), alongside fellow Frenchmen, Rémy Cools and Charles Routhier.

How was school though? Morteau is quite well regarded.

Well, it’s very interesting to talk about watchmaking schools. French schools are pretty renowned all around the world, sometimes more so than Swiss schools. Morteau isn’t the most interesting city, there’s not much to do – so the students who come from all over France to attend the Morteau watchmaking school are very motivated.

Nothing to do but make watches?

Yes exactly! I was coming from Paris where there’s bars and parties all over the city. The guys going to Morteau are really invested in what they are doing – there’s nothing to do there but make watches. And this is why it is an incredible school. I think for four or five consecutive years someone from Morteau won the A. Lange & Söhne contest. There are other schools in France, like in Paris, Bordeaux and Marseilles. But the one is Morteau is perhaps the most famous.

I realised how lucky I was because you know other apprenticeships at large manufactures tend to involve encasing movements, meanwhile I was making parts by hand and working on watches that were destined for Asia. So, it was a different world. Jean-Baptiste knows Vianney Halter and other guys like Greubel Forsey – it was an excellent introduction to the independents. I was very fortunate to work with Jean-Baptiste, it was more akin to you know how the masters would guide their apprentices during the 18th century.

This level of patrimony is quite special and important to keep the art and craft of watchmaking alive.

Yes, it is the tradition to learn from the masters. Although it is not always easy – for example Philippe Dufour couldn’t find anyone to work with him. In France we have this thing called the Compagnons du Devoir – it is a brotherhood of artisans. These young guys enter and do a tour de France in five years. It’s well-regarded and has included guys like Pierre Corthay. This is a very old tradition of learning and developing expertise, going back for nine centuries. But unfortunately, we no longer have this for watchmaking in France, as watchmaking nowadays is very Swiss.

What was working with Jean-Baptiste like?

Jean-Baptiste is the son of a painter, so he grew up in a family of artists. The first time you meet him he comes across as quite a unique personality, he’s an absolutely incredible guy. Every Christmas he would buy me watchmaking gifts, such as books on horology or specialised tools. He’s like an old school watchmaker, he doesn’t have any electronic equipment to make plans or prototypes. Everything is sketched with pencil and paper and then designed and made by hand. Like George Daniels, Jean-Baptiste knows how to draw. This is very important. So naturally when I began on my tourbillon watch, I did it as my master did and sketched the plans by hand.

When I was making the main plates for my tourbillon, I was making it the same way Jean-Baptiste did – drilling holes by hand with a cartesian machine, you know have to move the machine across by x millimetres and up/down by y millimetres. So, I have coordinates for all the holes. I only did this for the first prototype and have since moved to the computer. Because it’s very nice to know how to do it the traditional way, but then when you want to grow the production a little you need to embrace technology.

I’ve been his one and only apprentice, so I have a very close relationship with Jean-Baptiste and am still working with him one day a week because he owns a few machines that I don’t have. He also works alone, so we like to work together one or a couple a days a week and go to a restaurant. The watchmaker routine can be a little lonely at times, so it’s nice to talk about what you’ve been working on.

How’s the watch scene in France now?

Clearly, it’s something less known. When you’re talking about the watch industry, everybody thinks about Switzerland. When I learnt about the history of horology, I discovered the golden age of chronometry took place in two cities: Paris and London. Yes, Breguet was Swiss, but he made a name for himself in France, not Switzerland. He undertook an apprenticeship in Versailles and then setup his workshop in Paris. Same as Ferdinand Berthoud, he was Swiss but setup his workshop not far from Breguet in the same street.

And in London, they had incredible guys like Thomas Mudge and John Arnold. Chronometry was important for navigation; Switzerland isn’t near the sea so there wasn’t the same urgency. Watchmaking was like the NASA of today, it was incredible. Nowadays we’re sending astronauts to the International Space Station, back then they needed very precise timekeepers to reliably navigate the seas. Jean-Baptiste says it was the pinnacle of innovation, the watchmaking industry was at the cutting edge of innovation at the time and was like this for over 100 years. I studied the history of horology during my apprenticeship and continue to refer to it today for inspiration – both in terms of chronometry and also in terms of design and finishing.

Can you tell us more about your Souscription Series?

I used a few parts from the famous Peseux 260 calibre, it’s a chronometer calibre from the early 20th century. Kari Voutilainen made a series of chronometers based on this. Jean-Baptiste based his gear train on the same movement. Jean-Baptiste also owns spare parts from this movement, so I used the barrel and the centre wheel and then I decided to complement this with a tourbillon. So yes, initially it was all designed and made by hand – on evenings, weekends and on holidays. Doing so for a few hours per day for 2.5 years. And then I went to Switzerland, and while I was there, I presented the prototype to F.P Journe – but I was working, so I didn’t have a lot of time back then to further develop it.

After coming back to Paris, I couldn’t find a prototyping studio – it’s quite rare in Switzerland, let alone in Paris. So, after a few months I decided to setup my own workshop. My prototype was nice for a student, but I had to elevate it and take it further, in terms of quality of construction, finishing and also in terms of my vision. When making things by hand you can make adjustments. But when making a series you have to think differently, you have to have a global mindset. I had a huge pile of drawings and plans, from which I rendered it in 3D on computer and then transformed the prototype into the first watch in the production. I took 4 months to make these initial changes – I changed the frequency from 18,000 to 21,000 VpH for chronometry.

I started to plan to be a semi-industrial independent watchmaker, I try to find the right balance to work and make at scale – as when you look at Jean-Baptiste it is very much artisanal in terms of production. I have to make parts by hand, but for things like screws I am looking to find suppliers – as it is not so feasible to make everything yourself. But with each client, I am able to invest in machinery and plan further ahead. Like Rémy, I am trying to find the right balance. For each watch I allocate, I reserve part of the funds towards research and development – because I’m already thinking about the next project and the one after that.

What is a Théo Auffret watch?

I don’t want to make a one watch project; I don’t find that interesting. For the collectors who support me, they clearly want me to succeed so that I can work on the next project. For collectors buying watches from guys like myself, Rémy and Petermann-Bédat, they aren’t buying for status. They’re supporting us because they believe in our vision. But there is a sort of intellectual value in them saying years down the line, “oh yes I was one of the first to support this watchmaker”. They’re saying “I don’t have the most expensive watch you can find; I have a watch you cannot find. You just don’t know the guy [the watchmaker] yet”. But it’s mostly guys from Asia – Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia and also in the Middle East. Both regions have a strong collecting culture and a sophisticated taste. It is incredible. I’m just a young guy from Paris and am talking to high profile guys in Asia over the internet.

I offer a degree of customisation, so I like to work with collectors to realise this. I like the exchange I can have with these guys. I compare it to a bespoke shoemaker; I’m not making the watch for myself – I’m making it for the collectors who have faith in me.

Clearly the brand DNA isn’t going to disappear with a few adjustments. I had a customer who wanted a seconds indication. In the first prototype I had no seconds indication because the tourbillon carriage was turning in 60 seconds, so I said “ok I will find a solution”. So, I designed something that I like and presented 3 or 4 proposals, and then he selected his preferred version. It is an exchange of ideas; I offer a degree of customisation but keep the DNA consistent and have my personal touch.

My tourbillon was also inspired by a watch from John Arnold, a regulator from the 18th century. It takes on a triptych construction, you have the barrel high up delivery of power, on the right you have the dial displaying the time and on the left is the tourbillon – the regulating organ. It is in a way a skeletonised watch without any skeletonised parts. I wanted the client to see all the mechanical components in the watch. Also, and again this is where Jean-Baptiste has influenced me, you never see him have a dial completely covering the movement – you can see everything. The balance is visible from the front of the watch and from the back. I don’t think I’ll make a full dial watch for now, it’s something I don’t plan to change.

Even for an independent watchmaker, you’re refreshingly transparent. Both literally – in terms of the movement visible on the dial of your Tourbillon à Paris, but also figuratively in terms of you being an open book in terms of who you work with, who you are inspired by and what your plans are.

This is a very interesting subject to talk about. 20 years ago, all the companies wanted to be a manufacture. Everything has to appear to be made by the one manufacture, with the one name on the dial.

When I learned about Breguet and how he had a tiny workshop in the centre of Paris, I asked Jean-Baptiste “how is it that Breguet made so many watches?”. He said “there was only a small workshop of 10 or so workers”; I asked, “who are making the blanks?” and he said, “at the time there were specialists making blanks” and then I said, “what about the wheels?” and he said “at the time there were specialists making that” etc. So Breguet was making designs and distributing papers with his plans to his suppliers. All the parts were then brought to the workshop where they were assembled and finished. Everything was made outside the workshop, and this was considered normal. And they were making the most wonderful watches in the world!

I find the most talented ones are those who find the best people to work with you, I think this is the best way to succeed. It’s like asking, would you like it if Ferrari or Porsche made car tires as well? No, they refer to Pirelli or Michelin, as that’s their expertise. It should be the same in horology. So, I try to work with the best. I already came up with the idea, made the design, made the prototype, hand built the first watch, did the finishing and regulation. So, it’s already a huge amount of work. If there are talented people, I want to work with them.

It is the same with F.P. Journe, he doesn’t make all the watches. He has a team. It’s the same with me, I consider all of the people working with me to be a team. For example, I’m working with Luc Monnet, he’s probably one of the most talented horological mechanics out there, and he’s making parts for Greubal Forsey. I’m working with him and it’s a huge honour for me. We work like in the ancient time, like Breguet.

For more information on Théo:

Tags: independent watchmaking théo auffret

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