Modern Artisans of Time Part 2: Responding to the Quartz Crisis
In this second part of the trilogy, we explore the response of artisans to the Quartz Crisis, the remarkable bonds and links between individual artisans, and the shifting aspirations of that generation of independent watchmakers. Part 1 of the trilogy found here.
When one considers the generation of artisanal watchmakers who emerged from the Quartz Crisis, their names are quite familiar to most watch enthusiasts today. The current growth and increased recognition of independent artisanal watchmakers can be traced back to three distinct groups of the 1980s: tutelage under Charles Meyelen in Michel Parmgiani’s workshop, the establishment of the Academic Horlogere des Createurs Independants (AHCI), and the formation of the Techniques Horlogeres Appliques (THA). Their common experiences and frustrations, inspirations and motivations, training and ventures reflect their special relationships with one another, and perhaps, the realisation that traditional watchmakers must stick together to ensure their continued survival.
The year was 1976; in Couvet, a young Michel Parmigiani opened his traditional watch workshop, restoring marvels of watchmaking past during the day and working on his personal creations at night. Despite setting up shop in the midst of the Quartz Crisis, Parmigiani’s continuing endeavours won him the respect of his peers and collectors alike, who did not miss his talents, technical knowledge and expertise. Entrusted with the restoration of the Sandoz family collection in 1980, he led a team of watch and clock makers with Charles Meyelen, a highly respected retired watch restorer, mentoring them whilst undertaking the significant project. Stepan Sarpaneva, Raul Pages, Denis Flageollet (of De Bethune) and Kari Voutilainen are just some of the watchmakers who worked under their tutelage and have since made a name for themselves.
Fastforward to 1984: frustrated with finding artisanal pieces such as the Golden Bridge (later adopted by Corum), the Italian Vincent Calabrese reached out to Dane Svend Andersen (best known for his work at Patek Philippe and watch-in-a-bottle) to seek a way forward for independent watchmakers. Together, they published a series of advertisements in horological publications, seeking likeminded individuals to discuss their collective future. A year later, the Academy Horlogere des Createurs Independents (or AHCI, as it is now more commonly known) was established, and in 1985, eight watchmakers would display their creations at their first Baselworld exhibit. AHCI continues to serve as an umbrella under which various watchmakers are able to display their pieces at trade shows such as Baselworld; as well as providing a platform for independent watchmakers to meet and discuss horological ideas with likeminded peers.
AHCI has provided (and continues to provide) excellent opportunities for emerging independent watchmakers to show off their unique creations. One brand that was spawned by AHCI is Franck Muller. Often referred to as the master of complications, Franck Muller spent his early career working with Svend Andersen on the restoration of 180 important watches for the Patek Philippe Museum. The three year project gave Muller a strong familiarity with complicated watches, and became the inspiration for his eventual production of wristwatches featuring miniaturised complications. A series of piece uniques, known as the ‘World Premiere’, would be released from 1986 to 2011, each featuring high complications that had never been made before in the history of watchmaking.
Two AHCI members also share a special collaborative experience: in 1989, Francois-Paul Journe and Vianney Halter, with their friend Denis Flageollet, formed the Techniques Horlogeres Appliques (THA), initially intended as a place where they could create watches of their own original design. Over its short lifespan, THA primarily designed and manufactured movements for many of the large Swiss makes, including the likes of Cartier, Breguet, and Girard Perregaux. FP Journe went on to form his own manufacture, Denis Flageollet would later partner with a THA client, David Zanetta, to form De Bethune in 2002, and Vianney Halter started his own label in 1998.
Halter’s launch of the Jules Vergne inspired Antiqua in 1998 at Baselworld as part of the AHCI display marked the launch of a new era of watch styling. Prior to the Antiqua, watch cases and designs had largely consisted of regular geometric designs. Featuring heavy elements of steampunk, the Antiqua embodies Halter’s guiding design principle of Futur Anterieur (roughly, “the future as seen from the past”. It, perhaps, can be considered as the link between traditional and contemporary watchmaking; perhaps even so much as launching the modern design movement in watches. Even today, Halter’s designs take a lot of inspiration from popular culture, with the Deep Space Tourbillon reflecting ideas from Star Trek (Halter is, in fact, a Star Trek fan). Halter’s unconventional watch designs are further heightened by his unusually high levels of case finishing; the exceptional care and detailing serve to accentuate the uniqueness of his designs.
When George Daniels was making his first watch, Francois-Paul Journe dropped out of watchmaking school due to a lack of interest in a formal education. With nowhere to go, Journe took up an offer to work in his uncle’s Parisian workshop, and like Daniels at a similar age, Journe undertook restorations and repairs of various clocks and watches. It was not long before Journe realised the need for formal theory to consolidate his technical skills, resuming his studies at L’Ecole d’horlogerie de Paris and graduating in 1976. He spent much of his spare time reviewing the works of the great makers of yesteryear, from the French greats of Breguet, Le Roy, and Berthoud, to the English makers such as Harrison and Arnold. Following his graduation, Journe dreamed of owning a watch featuring Breguet and Arnold’s Tourbillon; but with not much available on the market, and pieces fetching astronomical prices, Francois-Paul decided to make his own. With little more than “‘Watchmaking’ in one hand and a file in the other”, Francois Paul spent the next 5 years making his tourbillon watch from start to finish. It featured a movement reminiscent of many of Daniels’ own pocket watches: a twin barrel with a tourbillon at the bottom of the movement and Breguet hands.
To detail all the different aspects of Journe’s watches and how each of them aim to tackle a specific challenge or idea would entail a long and fascinating journey down a rabbit hole. In the scope of independent watchmaking, it is Journe’s methods of working and operation that is most noteworthy. While Daniels liked to work alone and focus on a single watch at a time, Journe prefers to consult the history books, and has adopted many of the ideas of Abraham Louis Breguet in his approach. To start his brand in 1999, Journe created a set of 20 Souscription Tourbillon Sourverains (something from Breguet’s playbook) where each of his clients placed a 50% deposit upfront. This deposit was used to fund the establishment of the atelier; something akin to a small scale crowdfunding. True to his motto ‘Invenit et Fecit’ (something Journe’s heroes used to put on their watches too), each model is first designed and tweaked by the master, and then the methods are explained to his watchmakers. The F.P. Journe brand currently produces around 900 pieces per year, with one watchmaker being responsible for the construction of a single piece.
If there was a way to sum up the approach of Francois-Paul Journe it would be his adherence to these words by his mentor Daniels: “a watch has historic, intellectual, technical, aesthetic, amusing, and useful qualities”. Journe takes ideas and concepts from the pages of history such as Janvier’s clocks when designing the Chronometre Resonance or Breguet’s Eschappement Naturel when designing the EBHP escapement of his Chronometre Optimum, refines and develops them into modern practical wristwatches. Of his mentor, George Daniels, Francois-Paul Journe paid this homage: “You were the pioneer; the first watchmaker who showed us the path of horology of Art, a non-utilitarian horology”. Even today, 18 years on from the inception of his brand, Journe continues to sit on the workbench with his watchmakers, constantly experimenting and refining his methods and approach.
While many independent watchmakers continue to own or run their operations, some have sold off the brands they helped create and, sadly, their achievements somewhat forgotten. Daniel Roth’s early watchmaking career saw him at Jaeger-LeCoultre, then primarily a supplier of movements, and Audemars Piguet, when it was a smallish company dedicated to making quality artisanal timepieces. Recruited by Francois Bodet, who was placed in charge of restoring the Breguet name by the then new owners Jaques and Pierre Chaumet, Roth helped lay the foundations for the hallmarks of the modern Breguet brand as we know it today. To improve the brand’s standing amongst its other Swiss rivals, Roth helped develop complications such as tourbillons and perpetual calendars into Breguet wristwatches. Roth also standardised the many hallmarks, such as Breguet hands, engine turned dials, and coin-edged cases, features now closely associated with the Breguet brand. After Chaumet’s spectacular failure in 1989, Roth established his eponymous brand, and became known as one of the best practicing independent watchmakers. Upon leaving the Daniel Roth brand in 2001, Roth returned to the workbench and started Jean Daniel Nicolas, a combination of his family members’ names. Jean Daniel Nicolas pieces feature techniques from yesteryear, of which many require a great degree of hand detailing and care. The resulting products bear unusual features such as unique wave patterns and cases that are joined together with clips; and are so labour intensive that yearly production may only be one or two pieces in total.
It is impossible to mention this generation of independent watchmaking without discussing the contributions of Philippe Dufour. Dufour started his career at JLC under Gabriel Locatelli (who would assemble the prototype Simplicity in 1978) before moving to Audemars Piguet in 1974 to help produce the incredibly complicated Sonnerie pocket watches. With such experience under his belt and the backing of investors, Dufour created the world’s first Grande et Petit Sonnerie wristwatch in 1990, a groundbreaking complication for something of its size. Dufour would then further this series of firsts by creating the first dual balance wrist watch in 1996. However, it is the Simplicity that made Dufour a household name within and outside watch enthusiast circles. At the time of its release, the Simplicity was unique in being a highly finished and excellently presented, and justifiably placed at a high price point – a notion that was groundbreaking at the time for a time-only three-handed watch. In fact, it can be said that the Simplicity has helped popularise fine finishing as a requirement for high end wristwatches, as well as promoting independent watchmaking in mainstream media.
From the aftermath of the Quartz Crisis, independent watchmaking has found a way forward, albeit after a difficult and challenging process. Their different methods of collaboration and organisation have seen varying degrees of success. The shift from direct collaboration to valuing individual contribution has seen independent artisans of that generation bond as artisans. Out of this experience, there is a shared recognition that independent watchmakers need to band together, to ensure survival of the collective, continuing the crafts, sharing ideas, and nurturing the next generation of watchmakers. And despite the different approaches these watchmakers have taken, each, in their own way, are striving to live up to that belief.
In the final part of this series, we look at the watchmakers who have come onto the scene since the turn of the millenium, how the Internet age has impacted the independent watchmaking industry, and what the future holds for independent and artisanal watchmaking. Part 3 found here.